At first blush, Spirit Island looks achingly familiar. A tropical island lush with multiple colorful regions, ranging across jungles and mountains and wetlands and deserts. Why, that’s nearly as many as in The Settlers of Catan! What’s more, here are some lily-white explorers, a few towns, even the occasional city. Every so often a crude grass hut interrupts the landscape. The only things missing are some roads and sheep cards. Throw in an economic engine and some bleating about chivalry and, baby, you’ve got a Euro going.
That’s where Spirit Island turns a hard left. Turns out you aren’t the settlers at all. Rather, you’re the indigenous spirits trying to shake off their white-man burden before you can say “smallpox.” Whether that means scaring them silly or burning all those cities to the ground, whatever gets the job done.
But that’s the window dressing. Spirit Island is more than some mildly socially-aware theming. It’s also el banana grande.
There are plenty of things that make Spirit Island special.
For the most part, the pace feels perfectly familiar. Every turn you’ll take the conquistadors down a peg, only for them to strike back stronger than ever. Their turn is a multi-phase exercise in despair. Entire regions will be poisoned with “blights,” the local populations of Dahan will be annihilated, and new explorers, towns, and cities will sprout like mushrooms on an over-watered lawn. As in Pandemic, Space Alert, or any number of other well-tuned cooperative games, sometimes the struggle borders on futile, like outracing a treadmill or drinking a waterfall dry. It isn’t necessarily hard, at least not on the lower difficulties, so much as it is punishing. The difference, of course, is that it’s entirely winnable, but it doesn’t wink at even the slightest of mistakes.
Little by little, however, the tide turns. Sometimes literally, if you happen to be playing as the spirit of the ocean.
A lot of this comes down to a growing awareness of the round structure itself. Your spirits’ abilities are divided into two broad categories — fast and slow — which means they’ll either trigger prior to that turn’s invasion or after it. This is far cleverer than the usual “take your turn then let the baddies rip you a new one” structure of so many cooperative games. Here, when you see that whitey is going to first ravage in every forest, then build in wetlands — a deterministic march of cards that affords you just enough foreknowledge — you’re free to chart out your attacks, feints, repositionings, fear-strikes, and anything else that might let you gain an edge. With some clever timing, it’s even possible to rob the invaders of their turns altogether. They can’t build in a wetland if nobody is around to saw wood or hammer nails, after all. Even better, if you’re able to cleverly position the native Dahan and maybe offer some protection, it’s possible that an invasion will result in a bunch of dead conquistadors. Cue a horrifying Ewok celebration song.
None of this would work without such a wonderful roster of spirits. Far more than mere player avatars, these are the embodiment of the game’s thematic and mechanical underpinnings.
Consider Ocean’s Hungry Grasp. This is the only spirit that’s allowed to host its presence in the sea, wrecking ships and drowning explorers at an alarming rate. It can even drag entire cities into the depths, then use all that flotsam to churn out more energy. In action, it’s a terrifying, surging engine of crushing destruction.
It’s also tied to the coast, nearly unable to strike inland at all, and slave to the ebb and flow of the tides. When the tides are out, all the right cards won’t do diddly. Its strategy, then, must be one of heist-movie timing, striking only at the most opportune moments. At least until it manages to learn an extra trick or two with a bit more reach.
Each of the game’s other seven spirits are similarly beholden to their own logic, providing their own methods of expansion, upgrades, and conquistador-hassling. There’s the slow-growing Vital Strength of the Earth, which protects the locals and heals the land, but only if it’s able to gather enough presence in afflicted regions. Thunderspeaker is more about direct conflict, filling the Dahan’s hearts with battle-lust and mobilizing them for the fight — but sacrifice too many natives and her authority will wane. Lightning’s Swift Strike stores up energy for wildfire turns, A Spread of Rampant Green chokes the jungles with growth, River Surges in Sunlight pushes invaders out of crucial regions so they can’t attack or build at all, and spirits like Shadows Flicker Like Flame or the Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares basically scare the pantaloons off your enemies.
The point is, it’s an absolute joy learning the way different spirits not only operate, but interact with other spirits. When River Surges in Sunlight shoves a settlement onto the coast for Ocean’s Hungry Grasp to chow down on, you’ll know you’ve picked up on the basics.
There are two additional systems at play here that bear mentioning.
The first is the way cards are employed and eventually upgraded. To be brief about it, each spirit packs their own set of starting abilities, but uses them up relatively quickly. Retrieving them is as easy as selecting the right option from your spirit board, but every so often you’ll want to learn something new. There are two decks to choose from, one significantly more powerful than the other, but the decision about which to pull from isn’t as brainless as it might have been. Minor powers simply add to your collection, while major ones require you to “forget” an ability you already had. It’s a choice between a wide arsenal or a few big bombs. In Spirit Island, great power always comes with a trade-off.
Then there’s fear. While it might seem lame to merely spook the invaders, it’s often essential. You can still kill them in the meantime, of course, but generating fear means earning special one-shot cards that can alter the entire landscape. Maybe the invaders will learn to be frightened of the interior, letting you push a bunch of them out to the coast, or perhaps they’ll depart entirely for safer shores. Crucially, earning enough of these cards will alter your objectives. Early on, victory means killing every single thing that doesn’t belong on your island — which is right back up there in waterfall-drinking territory. But more fear means they’re more likely to abandon their colonies altogether, meaning you only have to splinter their towns and cities. And that’s doable.
In fact, there’s very little that I don’t adore about Spirit Island. Sure, it has the usual cooperative problems — piggybacking, alpha players, and such a dire threat of analysis paralysis that the rules even warn you to hurry it up or risk losing friends.
Those are nothing in the face of the cleverness that runs thick throughout Spirit Island. This is an extremely smart take on the flood-of-problems approach to cooperative gaming. By letting you alter your objectives, combine your powers in ever-crazier ways, and — most importantly — by featuring some of the coolest player avatars I’ve ever seen, Spirit Island stands out as one of the best ways to not compete against your friends.