Can you wield the power Spirits to fend off your island invaders?
# of Players
Greater Than Games
Spirit Island is a wildly popular cooperative hand management, area control game from Greater Than Games. The digital version is brought to us by Handelabra Games who know a few things about porting difficult co-ops into the digital world. Players take the role of spirits attempting to use their powers to slow, and eventually stop, the invasion of colonists on the small island they protect. Games can vary wildly in playtime, with quick defeats ending in under ten minutes and long struggles lasting over 30 minutes.
Spirit Island begins by selecting the spirit, or spirits, you want to control for the game. Each spirit has their own deck of powers to be played from each turn. Spirits range from mostly straightforward to highly complex. A bunch of other setup decisions are made which, to vastly oversimplify, work to scale the difficulty up once you have mastered the basics of the game. The viciousness of the enemy, extra events, and even the layout of the island itself are all in play during setup.
I will describe the no-frills “learning” game setup for the sake of word count. The game begins with some explorers along with a city and a town spread across your island. At the beginning of the turn, you chose a Growth action. This allows you to do some combination of add Presence, gain new Power Cards, or reclaim your previously played Power Cards. Next, you select the cards you want to play. These come in two varieties: fast and slow. Some cards have an element cost associated with them in order to play, others can always be played. Playing a card typically grants you some elements. After you have chosen your cards, you get to take the actions on any fast cards you played. Next, the invaders go through a series of expansions and attacks which are not very fun for you. Finally, you get to use the powers from slow cards you played this turn.
That, actually, is the entire game in its simplest form. Select some cards, watch the invaders take over your land while playing your card powers, and do it all over again a few times until you lose. End of review.
As with every complex game, the devil is in the details in Spirit Island and, phew, are there a lot of details. So many that I’m not even going to attempt to cover them. That’s right, I’m just throwing in the towel here. Trust me, it’s for the best.
Spirit Island is an incredibly tight, complex, push-and-pull of a game. Quite literally, as one of the most important actions you will take is to push and pull your natives (the “Dahan” in the game) and the explorers around the map. The real crux of the game lies in the sequencing of the invader actions. The invaders have three actions they carry out on each turn: Ravage, Build, and Explore. These are controlled by cards which tell you which island terrain type they will perform these actions on. When a card is first drawn from the deck, it goes into the Explore slot and explorers are added to that area. On the next turn, that card slides over to the build slot which has them building towns or cities. Finally, on the third turn, it is moved to the Ravage space which is where the invaders do the most damage by potentially spreading Blight and eliminating your natives and/or Presence.
The excruciatingly beautiful bit of Spirit Island is that you know exactly what bad things are coming down the pipe but are frequently powerless in your attempts to stop them. Perhaps that hits a bit too close to real-life, but that’s another story. This makes for one heck of a “putting out fires” game, but it would be selling Spirit Island short to call it another one of those. You don’t actually put out many fires in this game, rather you shove the burning pile of trash away from one house so it doesn’t collapse in the next five minutes, then bide your time until the house it is now next to is ready to fall. Repeat this for the first half or two-thirds of the game until you are powerful enough to start to reign in the threat a bit and get closer to winning, which is made significantly easier the further you get on the Fear track which lowers the bar for victory conditions.
Your hope of winning rests on those power cards in your hand. They typically can be played on regions within certain distances of your Presence tokens, which are placed during the Growth phase. Naturally, the invaders will eliminate your Presence, but it is vital that you keep spreading it so that you are able to target regions when they are in line to be attacked. The fast and slow play cards are another great mechanical twist the game offers. It is tempting to heavily favor fast play cards as they provide their effects before the invaders take their turns, but in reality if you are constantly relying on fast play cards to avoid bad things, you have probably already lost. Using the slow play abilities to push enemies out of a zone they will be ravaging next turn or summon your Dahan for a better defense next turn quickly becomes the focal point of the game.
There is a lot I haven’t even touched on, specifically the extras in the game which add difficulty and the various Spirits. I’ll leave that for others to discuss, but I think it’s sufficient for the scope of this review to say that Spirit Island has an incredible amount of depth and difficulty scaling on a few different levels which, should you fall for the game, give you a lot of content to play through.
Do I actually like the game? Well, sort of. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with co-ops, specifically those on the more complex side of the scale. A game of Spirit Island is a very specific type of puzzle solving. Like most complex co-ops, it is all about being brutally efficient with your actions. The game lays down its devious plans in front of you, the only surprise coming with the flip of the next card which acts as a warning before the really bad stuff happens on future turns. This results in a game that requires a steep learning curve to understand your Spirit in and out to best plan your defense so that you can keep the ship afloat long enough to gain the power required to start to push back against the invaders. Once you’ve done this with one Spirit, you have seven more to discover while also being able to combine those spirits and scale the difficulty in other phases of the game.
This extensive learning curve and trial-and-error is likely a perfect game for a lot of people (see that top 15 BGG ranking), but there’s a reason I mostly play games against people. People are silly and frequently don’t make the optimal choice. This means I have a chance to win when I make many ill-advised moves in a game. Of course, winning isn’t the most important thing in games, but being immediately beaten down after a poor turn and seeing how that will spiral out towards my demise in a few short turns is a form of punishment I don’t generally seek out. For a reference point, I enjoy Aeon’s End (another difficult co-op) more than this, Spirit Island must have passed an imaginary threshold of personally acceptable complexity.
On a more objective note, I can see the appeal of games like this. If I were more into taking the time to learn every detail of the Spirits and how best to use their abilities, the replay value here is off the charts. Between various Spirit combinations and scaling the difficulty of the invaders this game has legs. Essentially, I suspect this is probably going to be a game that you either love and spend an untold number of hours playing or it is one that will turn you off fairly early on. Given the popularity of the physical version, I suspect there will be a large number of people in the former category.
Barrier to Entry
This is a complex game, but I really like how the tutorial approaches teaching. It begins by walking you through what happens if the Invaders are left unchecked. It shows the slow spread, invasion, and ravaging. This sets the stage of what you are dealing with. Next, it goes through what you can do to combat the destruction by way of walking you through a game. The tutorial holds your hand for a few turns, explaining everything along the way. Once everything has been covered, the tutorial goes into hands-off mode and allows you to make decisions on your own and finish out the game. You are left in a strong game state with a good chance to win, of course. The best part of the tutorial is that it attempts to explain why you want to play certain cards, providing the strategic context goes a lot way towards helping new players learn how to play an effective game of Spirit Island. Overall, this is a really nicely made tutorial, I always like when the game holds your hand through the explanation but then offers the chance to act on your own.
Additionally, there is a rulebook as well. This is fairly dense and a lot to take in if you don’t know the game. It works well as a reference once you have played through the tutorial.
Look and Feel
The game offers a 2D mode and a couple of different 3D modes, one with textured models and one with “classic” models. The 3D stuff here is okay. I personally prefer the 2D look, but that’s likely personal preference. This review has screenshots of both for comparison. The look is fairly basic but effective. The theme is carried throughout the entire game and works well. The artwork from the game shines on the cards, and the game gives you the option to zoom in to them to get a near full screen look.
Controls are handled via drag-and-drop with a few clicks thrown in for certain actions. It is all very smooth and intuitive. You never want clunky controls to get in the way of playing a game, and Spirit Island certainly doesn’t have that problem. The game does offer an undo button which is always nice, especially in a game like there where each decision is so important.
Spirit Island doesn’t have its own online gameplay, but the Steam version does support Steam’s Remote Play feature. This is something Steam has been pushing lately and is essentially a screen share feature which is specifically made for local multiplayer games. The option is there, but be warned that this isn’t something built into the game itself, so don’t expect a truly seamless experience.
As with most co-ops, the game can be played by multiple people sitting at the same computer in a pass-and-play style. It would be tough to play with three or four people crowded around a PC, but two players is certainly reasonable if you are looking for a shared local experience.
The play modes in Spirit Island are Resume, New Game, or Quick Play. Resume saves your latest game if you need to return and complete playing. New Game allows you to customize every aspect of the game setup as if you were playing the physical game. Spirits, Blight cards, Adversaries, and Scenarios can be toggled/selected to provide the exact game you want to play.
Quick Play is a fantastic option. It works based off of a settings option which has you selecting beginner, intermediate, or expert. Each of these will allow Quick Play to choose from a different set of options for a game and it will randomly do so, launching you straight into a game with your desired complexity/difficulty level. Specifically, a beginner will only have 1 or 2 low complexity Spirits, no Blight card, no Adversary, and no Scenario. Intermediate adds to that a bit while Expert uses the entire pool of options when randomly starting a game. I really like this feature because it allows you a quick button press to get started with a game that is setup to be within your comfort level. If you are new, ensuring you don’t get anything too complicated is a valuable feature. If you are a seasoned Spirit Island pro then having the code randomly give you a challenge to tackle has a lot of appeal.
The game keeps a slew of statistics including, but not limited to, your win/loss record with each spirit. There are also achievements tied into the Steam achievement system.
Currently, Spirit Island Digital only lives on Steam. Along with the official Steam release, Handelabra announced they would be porting it to mobile in 2020, at least on iOS and Android tablets. This follows suit of their more recent titles.
The game also has a slew of expansions, none of which are available the digital version at this point. This is likely a case of “if it sells, the expansions will come.”
The Wrap Up
Spirit Island Digital provides a near flawless experience of sitting at your computer and playing one of the most lauded cooperative board games in existence. The nits I will shortly pick are only mentioned in the context of me trying to provide a complete and total picture of the digital implementation. That’s all well and good, but if you want to play Spirit Island digitally, go get this game. Sometimes it is that simple.
For those on the fence, on the implementation side I will nitpick that the 3D graphics aren’t particularly eye-catching, you can’t save more than one game at a time, and the expansions haven’t been ported yet. As for the game itself, there is the basic question of whether the game is for you or not. I covered this earlier, so I won’t belabor the point here, but this definitely is not a game for everybody, it has, however, proven to be an amazing game for those in its target audience.
Spirit Island Digital absolutely delivers on the dream pairing of highly praised cooperative game and Handelabra, the leading experts on digital implementations of co-ops. If you want to play Spirit Island on your computer, go get this game.