Colonial forces have landed on the shores of an island, eager to exploit the natural resources for their selfish gains. However, they’ll face an unexpected enemy in the Spirits of nature, fighting back to keep the lands intact. Join up to three other players in one of the best cooperative strategy games and defend your island against a massive invasion!
Read the full Spirit Island board game review below.
Brief Overview of Spirit Island
Spirit Island is a very complex strategy board game for up to four players, best experienced in a duo. It involves a lot of planning and cooperation to push back the invading forces.
Players take control of spirits with unique powers tied to their element. Cards represent different abilities and by matching them to your spirit’s element, you can gain different bonus effects. Fast-acting abilities need to be mixed in with the slower, more powerful abilities that require methodical planning.
The game is won once you’ve overpowered the last of the invader’s settlements, but if any of the spirits die or if the island is overrun, the players lose. With a playtime of roughly two hours and a lot of replayability, Spirit Island will appeal the most to the experienced fans of the strategy genre.
Versions & Expansions
Branch & Claw
Released in 2017, Branch & Claw is the first expansion for Spirit Island. The Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves and the Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds are the two new spirits added, French colonial forces as additional invaders and new events mix up the invader phase.
Jagged Earth is a massive expansion released in 2020. Adding 10 new spirits, 2 invaders, 2 new island boards, and plenty of events, powers and tokens expand the game in every way. The complexity soars even higher, so consider waiting on playing it until you’re finished with the base game.
Spirit Island: Premium Token Pack
Unboxing Spirit Island
Within the box you’ll find the following pieces:
- 1 Invader Board
- 4 Modular Island Boards
- 8 Spirit Panels
- 36 Dahan Tokens
- 20 Cities Tokens
- 32 Towns Tokens
- 40 Explorers Tokens
- 38 Blight Tokens
- 116 Markers
- 136 Cards
- 3 Adversary Panels
- 3 Adversary Reminder Tiles
- 4 Scenario Panels
Once you lift the lid, you’re greeted with a full-sized color rulebook. The 32 pages are well illustrated and will adequately prepare you for the first game. If you ever need to look up a specific rule, you’ll appreciate the detailed glossary section that is going to considerably simplify the search process.
Despite being made out of cardboard, the modular island boards have a wood-like quality to them and are brilliantly designed. The unique shape of the boards is a refreshing sight among the sea of squares.
For every player, an additional board is connected in a jigsaw manner to create a balanced map. The front side is color-matched for every biome and makes it easy to read the situation properly. Experienced players can flip the panels over, revealing an alternative map design. Favoring theme over the balance with the life-like spread of biomes will make it more challenging to defend the island.
The plastic pieces are detailed, especially the explorers. However, their size and design make them very flimsy, so you’ll have to handle them carefully. Dahans, the mushroom-like pieces are made out of wood, as are the spirit tokens, which is always a plus.
The cards have a nice feel to them and the layout is well organized leaving room for a nice illustration and the various information. Overall, the quality of the components impressed me and has shown no sign of wear after several sessions.
How to Play Spirit Island
In Spirit Island, you’ll team up with other players to drive off the invading forces. Over time, spirits can grow stronger, and gain the potential to cast more powerful spells. The theme and board player combine well to create an immersive experience and you’ll soon find yourself really caring about the state of the island.
Spirit Island is a very complex game, so instead of making a lengthy guide, I’ll focus on the core mechanics and the game loop to give you a sense of what to expect. The first session is going to take a lot of time as you figure out what to do, so my advice is to take it on alone or with another player, but not as a group of 3 or 4.
To start off, each player selects one of the 8 available spirits, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Take a look at the back of the spirit boards to find lore, setup instructions, how the spirits are played, and their complexity.
Take as many board pieces as there are players, and merge them together. Each player claims ownership of a region and places invader’s towns, native Dahans, and blight tokens on specified fields.
The invader board will keep track of your progress and display the win/lose conditions. Shuffle the fear and invader decks, and place them on the board as instructed by the rulebook. Place 5 blight tokens for every player in the game, and reveal the first invader card to establish what biome is currently invaded.
Since Spirit Island is a cooperative game, you don’t have to wait for the other players to complete their turns, and instead, you can all act simultaneously. During this phase, your spirit will grow in power and spread its presence across the lands by placing presence tokens.
Power cards come in minor and major variants. Draw four power cards of only one type and keep one, discarding the rest. Major powers are considerably stronger, but as a drawback, you’ll have to discard one of the other powers in your possession, or the drawn card itself. Now you can cast powers that will affect the invaders before or after their turn, depending on the type.
The sequence of play for the invaders is listed on their board, with detailed explanations provided in the rulebook. The greed and selfishness of the colonizers lead to the emergence of blight that hurts the lands, peaceful inhabitants, and spirits.
Ravage is the first invader action aimed at causing harm to the land and the Dahan. Their power is increased with every explorer, town, and city in the area. If two or more damage is dealt to the land, place a blight token in the area. Next, invaders attack the Dahan, killing one for every two points of damage. Surviving Dahan will fight back by killing explorers and destroying buildings.
At first, the colonial forces have no fear of the spirits, disregarding them as myths of the pagan inhabitants. As your power grows, you’ll be able to strike fear and terror in them, making it easier to achieve victory.
For the spirits to win, they’ll have to drive all of the settlers and their structures from the island. By terrorizing them, the condition is made easier, as you can ignore invader parties, their towns, and even outright win through fear.
It is possible to both win and lose in the same action, which results in a sacrificial victory. Your spirits lose their lives to drive off the attackers, but in doing so they save the land and remaining spirits.
Your First Game of Spirit Island
The first time you play Spirit Island, you’re almost guaranteed to lose, and that’s not a bad thing! Learning from mistakes is more effective than winning, so the initial loss will propel you into a more competent player.
Spirits have different degrees of complexity. It doesn’t make them inherently weaker or stronger, but it will definitely make a difference in your first few games.
Narratively, the game unravels over years and decades, and you should incorporate that into your playstyle. Just like an apple tree will bear fruit years after being planted, so will your powers. Mix the fast-acting powers to contest the hot zones while preparing to push the invaders back with the slow powers.
The first half of the game is more about maximizing the containment of blight and invaders, rather than fighting for victory. Only when your spirit has grown stronger, and you’ve gained a great set of powers can you properly strike back.
If you’re not playing alone, the way you communicate with other players will greatly impact your chances of success. Try to convey goals and assignments in a brief and precise manner to avoid an information overload. Take on the tasks where others need you, and try to steer attention towards an overlooked threat.
Dahan might be a peaceful race, but if they’re attacked, they can fight back hard. Do whatever is in your power to help them survive the Ravage, and they’ll prove to be a very useful ally. Pushing the enemy back might seem like an inferior solution to attacking them outright, but it can delay their next action or even make them waste a turn.
Pros & Cons
- Masterfully Executed Theme
- Highly Replayable
- Gradual Difficulty Progression
There are many board games that have a great theme to them, but after a few sessions, it gets neglected in favor of pure strategy and gameplay. Spirit Island manages to retain the essence of the theme through every session.
The colonials will eventually turn into a faceless enemy, but the way you utilize your spirit is always tied to the lore. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll get attached to the Dahan tribes and really try to save them from destruction. This sensation of caring for the world is very difficult to preserve in strategy-oriented board games, but Spirit Island has been able to execute it perfectly.
By the time you’ve really experienced every Spirit in the game, you’ll have more than 30 sessions under your belt, which is quite impressive for a game of this type. Combined with the very gradual difficulty progression, you can truly put your skills to the test. A solo mode that actually works adds even more value and lets you enjoy the game even when other players are unavailable.
- Very Challenging to Learn
- Randomness can Affect the Game
- Questionable Thematic Board
To enjoy everything Spirit Island has to offer, you’ll first have to learn how it works. With a difficulty rating of 4.01 out of 5 on BoardGameGeek, you’re looking at a very big commitment even if you have experience in the genre.
The randomness of the initial colonist deck flips can affect how the whole game plays out. A very unlucky draw leads to a far more challenging game than expected at that level. If you get lucky, the game can easily snowball in your favor.
Despite the great design, the thematic side of the board falls short during gameplay. The unbalanced nature of the board can result in games that are either too easy or too hard, especially when combined with the randomness of the colonial deck.
Spirit Island Review (TL;DR)
Spirit Island is a strategy game that will require a lot of attention and patience to learn, but once the initial hurdle is crossed, you’ll be left with one of the best games in the genre. Masterfully mixing themes with deep mechanics, Spirit Island will put your skills to the test while keeping you interested from start to finish.
Spirit Island was one of those games that I’ve been wanting to play for a long time but never dared to actually get into and try out. The business of everyday life made it hard to commit enough time and energy to sit down and properly learn how to play. Once I finally bit the bullet and got to it, I discovered that it’s right up my alley.
The two-hour play sessions are just the right amount for a game of this type. I’ve yet to try it with four players, but in any of the other configurations, it has worked well. The solo mode is something I’ll occasionally pick up over a video game and have some fun trying out different spirits.
The complexity might be something you’re prepared to deal with, but from my experience, casual players are not. If you’re the person that’s typically the one organizing board game nights, consider skipping this game unless your friends are really eager to learn.
Some of the people I’ve tried to teach have given up before we even finished the first session, but those that stuck with it have all really enjoyed it. Overall, Spirit Island easily gets my recommendation as one of the games you simply have to try.
We hope you enjoyed our Spirit Island review! Have you tried this game yet? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below?
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