Saturday, 16 June 2018

Spirit Island

Plays: 3Px1 (with expansion).

The Game

Spirit Island is a high complexity cooperative game. Most cooperative games I have played are mid-weight games. I rarely come across complex ones, so this is unusual for me. You are ancient spirits who have lived for centuries on an idyllic island, occupied by simple-minded and peaceful natives. All is well and beautiful, until a greedy colonist nation discovers your island, and decides it's theirs for the taking. They send explorers to colonise the island, building towns and cities, and eventually ravaging the land and creating blights. To save the island from eventual destruction, you rise to fight the invaders. You need to stem their progress, destroy their towns and cities, and tell them to go back to where they came from. Only by successfully doing these can you restore the island to its former peace.

There are four different terrain types on the island. Light blue is wetlands, brown is sands, green is jungles and grey is mountains. Along the edges there are dark blue areas. Those are ocean spaces, and lands next to them are considered coastal areas. Invading explorers come ashore at coastal areas. The white piece on the left is a city of the invaders. The mushroom-like pieces are a native villages. The grey disc is a blight marker.

With 3 players, the game is set up like this. The island on the right is made of three large pieces and has three coastal stretches. The board on the left serves multiple purposes, mostly related to tracking statuses. It tracks the fear level, the invader's plan, and the victory condition. The upper half of the board is part of the expansion. The markers there are all part of the expansion and are not available in the base game.

This is a section of the main board. The upper part states that the current winning condition is having no more invader colonists, towns or cities. The winning condition can change. If you increase the fear level high enough, the winning condition will be lowered. E.g. you may only need to get rid of cities, but not towns or colonists. The lower part contains a face-down blight card and a number of blight markers. A blight card is randomly drawn at the start of the game, and a set number of blight markers are placed here depending on the number of players. During gameplay, when invaders create blights on the island, blight markers are taken from this pool and placed on the island. Once the blight markers run out, you flip over the blight card and do what it says, then place another batch of blight markers on this board. If the second batch runs out too, you lose.

This section of the main board is the fear tracker. The grey markers are fear markers. The stack at the top right is the supply, or the pool. The stack in the centre is the fear the spirits have generated. Whenever the supply is exhausted, you get to draw a fear card, which is beneficial to you. The fear markers are then reset, and you start accumulating again. After every few fear cards drawn, the fear level increases, and the winning condition lowers. If the fear level hits the max, you win instantly.

This section is the invaders' plan. Every round they explore, they build, and they ravage. They do so according to the terrain types shown at the three vertical spaces, including the draw deck space. When it is time to explore, the top card of the deck is flipped over. Invaders do ravaging first. Based on this photo, they will ravage all wetland (light blue) spaces where they have presence (be it colonists, towns or cities). They kill the natives, and they cause blights whenever they deal at least two points of damage. They will do building in all mountain (grey) spaces where they have presence, adding a new town or a new city. When they do exploring, they add a colonist in the targeted terrain spaces as long as there is a town, city, or ocean within reach. Once all these are done, the cards are shifted one space left. The wetland card will be moved to the horizontal discard pile. The mountain card will be moved from the build position to the ravage position, and so on. This means whatever terrain type they have done building this round, they will ravage next round. Whatever terrain type they have done exploring this round, they will build on next round. The terrain being explored next round is unknown. It will normally be a different terrain, but not always.

This is a player board. There are many spirits from which you can choose to play. The player board shows the abilities of the specific spirit. The top row are the various growth actions you get to pick from at the start of a round. Some spirits get to pick only one. This particular spirit gets to pick two. Growth actions include gaining energy, which is needed to play action cards. You can also move a disc from the player board to the island, which expands your area of influence. When a disc is moved, a new space with a number or icon is revealed, and this improves your abilities. In the first row of discs, only the leftmost space is revealed and it shows the number 2. This means you gain 2 energy every round. In the second row of discs, a card icon with a 2 is revealed, and this means you get to play up to 2 action cards per round.

Another type of growth action is gaining an action card. You start the game with some action cards. Most things you do in the game rely on playing action cards. When you take a growth action to draw an action card to add to your repertoire, there are two decks to pick from, a weaker (but cheaper to play) deck and a stronger (but more expensive) deck. You draw four cards to pick one, so hopefully you will find at least one that jives well with your spirit abilities.

The last type of growth action which is important is taking played action cards back into your hand. When you play an action card, it remains on the table and is temporarily unavailable. You need to claim it back before you can use it again.

The bottom section are your innate powers. When you play action cards, they give you some natural elements for the current round. Collect the right combinations of such elements, and you will enable your innate powers. They are basically more things you get to do in the current round.

These are action cards. The number at the top left is the energy cost to play a card. The column along the left edge shows elements you gain for the current round if you play the card. The bottom right section shows the detailed abilities of the card. The red bird icon and the blue tortoise icon mean fast actions and slow actions respectively. Every round you get to execute the fast actions before the invaders perform their actions, but the slow actions are executed afterwards. Let's look at the card on the left. It lets you relocate two native villages. If there are wilderness markers in the targeted area, you get to deal two damage per marker. Alternatively, you may add a wilderness marker. Adding a marker means the next time you use this card, you can deal more damage. The card on the right lets you clean up blights, i.e. move a blight marker from the island back to the main board.

This is an event card. Such cards are drawn at the start of every round. They contain a mix of good and bad things that will happen on the island. Events inject uncertainty and surprise to the game. This particular event is both an opportunity and a threat. If you pay an energy cost, you prevent a disaster and also get to expand your influence. However if you decide not to or if you can't afford to, disaster strikes. Blight markers will be added, and both invader and native settlements become weaker - easier to destroy.

The two white boys in front are the explorers. Behind them on the left are the towns, and on the right the cities. We called these the "orang puteh" (Malay for "white men"), which they literally are.

These lovely mushrooms are the native villages. This photo looks like it's from a cooking game.

To conclude winning and losing conditions, you win by killing off enough invaders, or by striking fear into their hearts so that they decide to leave. There are three ways to lose. You lose if the island becomes irreversibly polluted by blights. You lose if the invader deck runs out. This is a countdown mechanism. You also lose if any spirit completely loses presence on the island, i.e. having no disc left on the island. Not many things force you to lose discs, but in the beginning you do start with only one disc on the island. You need to be careful not to lose that only disc and have the game end unexpectedly early.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Abraham. Abraham and I were new to the game. Ivan had played before. The moment the game started, we were under tremendous pressure. The invaders had already landed, and the march of progress waited for no man (or spirit). Every round they explored, they built, and very early in the game they started ravaging. They usually did these on three different terrain types, and it felt like 75% of the island was constantly under threat. There were only four terrain types, and three types out of four being targeted meant 75%. The invaders never let up. We were weak and needed time to build our strength. The game was downright unforgiving. Also, in the early game, our spheres of influence were small. There were many places we could not even reach, let alone having enough resources to take action.

One thing good in Spirit Island is you can plan and execute your actions simultaneously. The game is quite complex, and not needing to take turns means saving much time. You just need to make sure you do all your growth actions and decide on your card plays before doing the invader actions. You should discuss and work out synergies among yourselves, e.g. who to cover which hotspots, whether you need to collaborate to contain a particular threat, and what help you need from one another. You need to understand one another's abilities, so that you can better plan how to help and how to ask for help. Often you are unable to fight all fires and need to decide where to concede.

This was roughly mid game. I was yellow, Abraham was red and Ivan purple. I was a tree spirit, and moved slowly, and even at this point only had presence in two places. Abraham and Ivan each had four by now. There weren't many blight (grey) markers yet - only three on the island. There were already plenty of invaders though - explorers, towns and cities.

The cardboard markers are from the expansion. The spiral marker with a yellow background is a disease marker. It delays the invaders' build action. When the invaders are about to build, you remove a disease token to cancel the build action at that specific location. The paw marker with a red background is a beast marker. By placing them you are making wild beasts roam an area. Some events and actions make these wild beasts attack invaders, so you want to spread these beast markers where you hope to fight the invaders.

When the invaders ravage, they attack the natives. Let's take the #8 wetland space in the foreground as an example. When the invaders ravage, the town deals 2 points of damage, and the explorer deals 1 point of damage. Every two points of damage kills a native village, so one of the villages will be destroyed, and the other damaged. The surviving native village counter attacks, dealing 2 points of damage, thus killing the town. When the ravaging happens, this wetland will become blighted, because the invaders will deal at least 2 points of damage.

The yellow marker on the right is a generic reminder marker.

As our game progressed, our strength grew. Spirit Island reminds me of Antiquity, despite being a very different game. In both games you start in a depressing situation, with everything going to hell and you being able to do little. Bad news come relentlessly, and you are only taking small steps to stem the tide. It feels hopeless. You need to persevere for a long time before you can build up enough strength to fight the invaders effectively. 80% of the game is trying to get off the slippery slope. By the time you manage to reach the tipping point, you know things will only get better from there. You will only get stronger, and you will eventually overpower the invaders. The invaders keep a steady pace. They advance doggedly, but they don't get much stronger during the game. If you reach the tipping point, the rest of the game is probably just cleaning up. Sometimes it can still be a race against time to clean up before the invader deck runs out, and before the blight markers are exhausted. Spirit Island is an uphill battle most of the way, and there's also a clock ticking away as you struggle to save your island.

This was the end game. There were only explorers remaining on the island. No more towns or cities. Our fear level was at level 2, so we only needed to eliminate towns and cities to win. We did have many blight markers on the island by this time. We had exhausted the first batch of blight markers, so the island went into the blighted state. If we exhausted the second batch as well, we would lose. Thankfully the blight card we drew was a helpful one. Ivan said in his past games he always drew bad ones. He had thought they were all bad.

These were my action cards. The one on the left was drawn from the draw deck. The one on the right was one of my starting cards. The Sea Monsters card was expensive to play - 5 energy, but it was very powerful. I used it to destroy many towns and cities in coastal areas.

The Thoughts

I enjoy the challenge and the bitter struggle in Spirit Island, and the final elation when you manage to turn things around. Compared to other cooperative games I have played, it is quite complex. Now complex and difficult are two different things. There are cooperative games which are simple, but are difficult to beat. The difficulty in Spirit Island is adjustable. We played at Level 2 (of 10). I am not sure how big the difference is between the difficulty levels. If it is big, then Level 10 would be a nightmare to play. Despite all the suffering and hopelessness I experienced in our game, I think our Level 2 game was not too difficult. We never actually got close to defeat, despite the many bad things that happened to us.

Due to the complexity, I would not suggest this to players new to the hobby. There is a lot to think about and digest - your spirit abilities, your card abilities, other spirits' abilities, and how the spirits should work together. I think this will be overwhelming to casual players and non-gamers.

The game comes with many spirits, and there is plenty of variety in the fear cards, the blight cards, the action cards and the event cards. I expect there is much replayability.

1 comment:

penguin said...

totally agree...
my first play with friend 2 player still beat consider easily...
but this few day i first try solo with 3 spirit .. my brain hurt ...just stop in the middle of game.
so i jump to solo with 1 spirit is actually quite tough without the synergy of 2 spirit, although at last still manage to win by pull out all the fear card.