There’s a new game from Fabled Nexus that has been turning heads and stirring up lots of interest in the gaming community lately. Spirit Island takes place in an alternate history where players assume the roles of vengeful spirits and native Dahan people who are trying to beat back a ravaging wave of colonizers.
Not only that, it is one of our favorite strategy board games from 2017.
Players choose from a host of spirits who vary in complexity and skills. Each comes with a unique power deck that grows as the players progress along the energy track on their player sheet. The tokens used to represent presence, the source of actions and powers that players can enact on the board, are also used to mark your progress along the energy and card trackers.
Invaders perform three actions: Ravage, Build, and Explore. Depending on the number of invaders currently occupying a space, they do corresponding amounts of damage to the land and any huts therein. If they do 2 or more damage, the land receives a blight. Once all the blight tokens provided at the start of the game are played, the spirits lose.
Players also manipulate a variety of tokens and figurines: the little wooden mushrooms are Dahan huts, and serve as your allies; and the soldiers, towns, and cities are the forces of the invaders. Certain cards allow you to move these tokens around the board to prepare attacks, push invaders away from areas they’ll be ravaging, and prevent blight.
Players win by achieving a victory condition. Depending on the amount of fear they have stirred up in the invading populace, that condition can be: destroy all invaders, cities, and towns; destroy all cities and towns; or destroy all cities. Generating fear can be done a variety of different ways, from destroying towns and cities to specific character action cards.
This is a deliciously intricate game. Every single element of the game is reused and serves more than one function, and every rule in place is incredibly thematic. It’s definitely not a simple game though; it will take even an experienced boardgamer at least one or two games to really get the hang of it. Even with the low complexity characters, there are a dozen elements to consider at any one moment. The only area of complaint I have comes from the rulebook. It’s not written or organized in a style that jives well with the actual experience of gameplay: for instance, they’ll explain that you can push invaders on one page, but won’t explain anything about how pushing and gathering mechanic works or what it could be used for. There’s a lot of flipping back and forth to find anything you need, and so the first playthrough with brand new players is incredibly choppy and confusing.
You’ll need to set aside a good extra 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after to clean this game up, just as a heads up. But honestly once you’ve got everything where it needs to be, you won’t be disappointed. This is an insanely fun game.
There are some amazing co-op dynamics between players, especially when characters synergize. The first time I played, we played River Surges in Sunshine and Shadows Flicker like Flame. They didn’t jive particularly well. We won, but it was overall a separate game experience.
The second round we used Lightning Strikes Swiftly with River Surges in Sunshine, and we kicked some serious ass. River Surges in Sunshine has a defensive style, and tends to go slowly, but many of Lightning Strikes Swiftly’s abilities buffed and speed up the other player, so we were playing almost as a single being working together with a very organic flow to our actions. It was an amazing experience with great teamwork and communication.
This game is very daunting to start, but if you let yourself be overwhelmed for a little bit and stick with it long enough to get your feet under you, you’ll learn and grow into your character in an unusually satisfying way.
This was an amazing 2 player game; I’ll have to play again with 3-4 players and as a solo game to see how the dynamics change. I imagine that a lot will be lost with 1 or 4 as that intimate cooperation is lost.
Spirit Island is a truly beautiful game.
Even the materials used in the production of the pieces plays into the theme—the invader figurines are a 3D printed plastic, and the tokens of the spirits and Dahan huts are simple wood pieces. The player sheets are super sturdy and have a helpful double-sided format so no space goes to waste and everything is easy to find once you understand what you’re looking for.
The developers go above and beyond to take care of their players and even include tiny plastic bags to store all the loose components in! How thoughtful is that? Every element of the organization is engineered to make putting this game away and taking it out again as smooth as possible.
This cooperative settler destruction game is delightfully original and delicately designed to be pretty damn near perfect.
If someone went through and smoothed out the rulebook into a more intuitive order, I’d have nothing to complain about with this beautiful and unique game.
Year Published: 2016
Recommended Ages: 13+
Time to Play: 90-120 minutes