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Spirit Island (Core Game) Second Opinion


Three years ago my partner and I shared our first proper Christmas together. As every adult does, I made a list of all the board games I was hoping for and by November I was preplaying half of them in my head. Due to their increased popularity during lockdown, my friends were all beginning to understand how amazing modern board games could be and I couldn’t wait to have a host of new games to play with them.

Christmas morning came and, poised in my reindeer slippers and Deadpool Christmas jumper, I sat with an iced mince pie in one hand and a wrapped square box in the other.

What could it be? I wondered. Maybe Champions of Midgard, Five Tribes or maybe even the adorable but surprisingly devious Echidna Shuffle. As I peeked inside I discovered to my horror that my partner had in fact gone…off list. In my hands I held Spirit Island, a game I had NEVER heard of before and I would be lying if I said my heart hadn’t sunk. But what I didn't realise was that I was holding one of my soon to be all time favourite games, a game I would clock over a hundred hours of gameplay in and the first box in a collection I would soon proudly grow.

Spirit Island is a strategic cooperative game during which you play as one of the island's 8 spirits, a protector of the land who’s been awoken by invading colonists. Your objective is to rid the island of these invaders and protect the local inhabitants, the Dahan. You must halt the spread of blight and tear down the cities which rise up seemingly unstoppably.

Game Play

In Spirit Island, each round is split into 5 main phases:

- Spirit Phase

- Fast Power Phase

- Invader Phase

- Slow Power Phase

- Time Passes

1. Spirit Phase - During this ‘planning’ phase, you and your fellow spirits coordinate your growth and power cards to stop invaders from exploring, building and *shudder* ravaging. What I love about this game is it's complexity. In my house, we even have a dedicated notebook for Spirit Island which we use to record the moves we plan to take during the fast and slow power stages. Some ‘spirit phases’ can take up to 30 minutes of discussion before you are ready to commit to a strategy. It’s certainly the longest part of the round but it is definitely worth it (strategy satisfaction!).

2. Fast Power Phase - During phase two, you play down the ‘fast power cards’ you paid for earlier. Play happens simultaneously and so it transforms play into a team event as power cards not only clear the board but have the ability to boost other players too. You often come out of this stage feeling surprisingly confident, certainly in the first two rounds meaning you might even end the fast power phase by saying ‘you know what, I think we’ve got this’....but ohhhhh just you wait.

3. Invader Phase - Once you have played your fast powers, invaders will then ‘build’ and ‘explore’ new lands. From round two, invaders also ‘ravage’ meaning they fight each populated section of land which matches the revealed invader deck card. The invaders fight together, combining their respective strengths of 3/2/1 (depending on the piece) into a fearsome force. As they attack first, they can easily clear out the native Dahan whose 2 health leaves them little to no hope of being around long enough to follow up with any damage of their own. What’s worse is that every time 2 or more damage is done to an area, blight is added.

4. Slow Power Phase - As you finally lift your head from your hands, it is time to play your slow power cards which seem so ineffective now. During your planning phase, you focus mainly on stopping the lands which are set to ‘ravage’ that turn as these have the potential to fill with game-ending blight, it is only after the invader phase that you are forced to come to terms with the next land type set to ‘ravage’ in a turns time.

5. Time Passes - During the last phase, the board resets and you discard any played cards ready for the next ‘spirit phase’.


As with most games, there are many ways to lose but only one way to win. In Spirit Island, you lose if you empty your blight supply, if any player’s spirit loses all its board presence or if the invader deck runs out.

To win, you need to fill the invader’s hearts with terror. One of my favourite mechanics in this game is the fear generation and fear deck. As you defeat cities/towns you generate 2/1 fear. Once you have generated enough fear (4 fear per player) you earn a fear card, a random event which, when resolved at the start of the ‘invader phase’, will provide you with further help in clearing the spreading invasion. These cards are slow to earn and so when you have one sitting, waiting to be turned over, it fills your whole team with hope! As you won’t know what the effect will be until after you have made your plans, you can’t rely on the card to solve all your problems, but it feels good to know that something positive is about to happen.

As you turn over more and more fear cards the win condition changes, evolving from having to clear all evidence of invaders from the board to then only needing to clear the cities - if I have survived long enough, it is at this stage that I am usually able to secure a victory.

Spirit Island: Pros So why is Spirit Island one of my favourite games of all time?

- Well, there is good replayability, with 8 spirits and almost 60 power cards you can gain, future playthroughs give you the chance to explore different abilities and try new strategies for keeping the invaders under control. Each spirit excels in different areas (offense, defense, utility, fear, control) meaning that as your players change spirits, the makeup and strengths of your team will change. There are also plenty of fear cards (15) and as each fear card has a different effect depending on the ‘Terror Level’ (1/2/3) you would need to invest a LOT of hours into the game before the deck starts to feel stale.

- There is also a nice random element to the game. During the setup of the ‘invader deck’, you remove 3 cards from the pack, this makes card counting impossible and ensures you can never be certain which lands will be affected next.

- This game comes with SERIOUS strategy satisfaction. When (if) you manage to beat the invaders, you are left feeling very elated for the rest of the day.

- The developer has thought carefully about providing ways to adapt the difficulty of the game. There are two sides to the board with different terrains which change initial set up, there are also adversary panels, scenarios and blight cards that can be used to make game play more difficult and also to introduce new interesting mechanics. My favourite scenario card is ‘Guard The Isle’s Heart’ which adds an additional lose condition in that if any buildings end up in the ‘Isle’s Heart’ you lose, this forces you to focus your attention on the central section of the board and play the game in a whole new way.

Spirit Island: Cons So what isn’t so great?

- The most obvious con to this game is its complexity. I think it is important to get across that the rule book is very difficult to digest. I have learnt and taught dozens of games over the years and yet for Spirit Island I had to turn to a YouTube tutorial... The way a turn would progress, the way the invaders would ravage, the way powers could gather and push, these were concepts I just could not wrap my head around and so for my first playthrough I played with a video running in the background. I would always recommend learning this game at a table with someone who has been to the island before if you can. You know it's bad when a game has a ‘How to read this rulebook’ section…

- Things can also very quickly get out of control, having recently played Forbidden Jungle by Matt Leacock, I was reminded of the sudden panic one feels when a board (which you thought was under control) explodes with bugs, or in this case: cities. In the base game the ways to subdue the explorers is quite limited and although this is definitely improved by the ‘Branch and Claw Expansion’ (with the introduction of Disease and Strife tokens), when playing the base game you can quickly feel quite powerless.

- This is also NOT a quick game, I personally see this as a pro as I have happily spent a whole day working through this game, but when you have guests round or when you’ve decided to start playing at 7pm, you might regret the game time.

- Spirit Island is also very expensive. We all understand that board gaming is not the cheapest of hobbies, but when its price tag is combined with its complicated and frankly daunting nature, I can see it being a game many people buy and then regret as it gathers dust on their games shelf.


Overall, this is a game that will forever be part of my collection, it is perfect to play with friends, as a couple and even solo and I get genuinely excited each time there is an expansion. It isn't a game I would recommend for beginner board gamers but if you enjoy a cooperative game that often feels like a puzzle you are working together to solve, then this is a fantastic game to sink your teeth into. It is also a game that will keep you coming back for more as the random card draw of the ‘invader phase’ means no two games are the same.

The artwork on the boards is very beautiful and you can tell how much time and imagination has been put into creating decks of completely unique cards, scenarios and adversaries. No two cards are the same and I cannot imagine how long this game took to design. Although some components' physical quality could be improved, the written content of the various cards is outstanding.

I find it hard to compare Spirit Island to other games I know, it is quite unlike anything I have played before, however having recently played Forbidden Jungle I do feel that the planning, cooperative nature and the sheer upheaval that can happen during the opponent's turn do make these games somewhat similar.

This game is certainly improved with the addition of expansions, Branch and Claw in particular is an expansion I will not play without as I think the additional tokens allow you so much more in terms of strategy and control, whilst Jagged Earth introduces my favourite spirit: ‘Grinning Trickster Stirs Up Trouble’.

To conclude, if you are confident when it comes to playing games and are looking for a new series to add to your collection which comes with fantastic expansions, lovely artwork and some serious strategy satisfaction then look no further. Spirit Island is the game for you.

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