Spirit Island – In Focus
In Focus articles concentrate on the single element I think brings a game together. They are not intended as full reviews.
Back in the dim and distant past of 2020 I reviewed the co-operative game Spirit Island. Designed by R Eric Reuss, published by Greater Than Games, this game sees players becoming the guardian spirits of an Island where colonizers are invading. Your job is to push them back, destroy their settlements and cities, and claim the island in the name of the people that lived there before the invaders turned up. It’s a game that still resides in my collection. I may not have played it recently but every now and then my thoughts turn to it. I want to teach it to more people and show them this generous box of wonders.
I’ve been thinking about it more recently, after a recent teaching game that the players loved. I wondered what truly made Spirit Island tick? Is it the evocatively named spirits with their asymmetric powers? The varied cards full of powerful and interesting powers? The way the invaders spread across the map, uncaring and capricious? The production that makes the invaders feel unnatural and the local populace in tune with the Island? All these are definitely important but they are all brought together by one thing. Fear.
The complexity of the Spirits can sometimes give Spirit Island a solitaire feeling on your turn. In the early rounds of the game you are separated, starting out on your own section of the Island. Barring the occasional power that specifically bolsters another spirit, opportunities to combine powers to achieve big pushes against the invaders are few and far between. You are alone fighting the fires the invaders keep setting on your Island.
As the game progresses that is no longer true. Powers combine, new ones are added and Spirits become entangled in terms of territory, working together to bring an end to the colonial invaders. Spirit Island in this way has a flow where you feel initially isolated and come together in a glorious crescendo of vengeance. Throughout it all you create fear, a resource pool that ties all the spirits together, no matter how far apart they are.
As you take actions some of them will cause fear. The cards you have can cause big swings in fear, causing the invaders to run and hide. There is also a steady drip of fear from destroying settlements, 1 fear, and cities, 2 fear. In this way every Spirit can contribute to the slowly building level of horror that the invaders will be subject to for invading your sacred places.
The fear pool is set at the start of the game as 4 times the number of players. As you create fear you empty that pool until it has dwindled to nothing. Now the real fun starts as you get a fear card off the deck to reveal at the start of the Invaders next turn. As you accelerate your campaign of Terror, maybe you’ll have more than one to reveal at a time, emptying the fear pool time and time again. Each of these cards is a boost to your efforts to repel the invaders, destroying cities, moving settlements, pushing back the explorers.
That’s not all the fear deck does though. As it dwindles the game gets easier. When the game begins you have to wipe every single invader token from the board. 3 fear card down and you hit terror level 2 and now all you need to do is remove cities and settlements. Another 3 down and it’s just the cities at Terror level 3. Finally if you get through the entire deck then you’ll find yourself triumphant. The invaders have fled the Island after your campaign of fear and terror.
Each fear card escalates in line with the terror level, each one getting more potent and efficient as the terror level increases. There is an element of guesswork with anticipating what the fear cards will do. They are dealt facedown when gained an only revealed at the start of the invader phase. They are always useful, and often give you multiple doses of a single effect, giving you another point of discussion amongst the players as to how best utilise the fear you have created.
The genius of the fear mechanism is that everyone contributes. If all you do on your turn is manage to destroy a single town, that’s a whole point towards winning the game, and another fear card. When you can’t directly co-operate by combining the outcomes of powers, the fear pool allows you to contribute. You can feel part of the team.
Without the fear I think Spirit Island would feel a lot more like multi-player solitaire. The cohesion that comes later would still be there, but the early game would feel distinctly lonelier. The fear pool gives all the spirits a shared mechanism they can use to achieve their goal, something that makes their asymmetry have focus beyond the goal of repelling the invaders.
The fear pool also helps with tempering the spectre of quarterbacking. Since everyone can contribute to fear with relative ease, there is less of a need for someone to direct your turn if they feel you aren’t pulling your weight. It doesn’t matter if your turn wasn’t 100% optimal if you manage to create some fear.
Spirit Island is a game I will not hesitate to recommend to anyone. It’s a generous box for the price, a compelling puzzle to solve, and has a bunch of replayability out of the box. It encourages you to be devastating in your vengeance. To scare the invaders until they leave. It wants you to be the cruel and unknowable spirits of a forgotten world, ready to show these colonizers just how terrifying you can be.
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