There's no doubt that there's been a recent high level of hype around this game. To be frank, it went completely under my radar, and I didn't know it even existed until very recently. Nonetheless, I was sold almost immediately. Here is my review after three plays.
The Elephant in the Room
Before I dive into the game, let's address something I've seen stated countless times in the past few weeks: this game is a Pandemic killer. My loose interpretation of this statement would be that people who agree with this would likely pick this game over Pandemic in most given cases, or possibly even sell it from their collection as it has been trumped.
The mileage on who agrees with this is going to vary, but I will admit that I do agree with the statement for the most part. There's a couple of contributing reasons here:
My wife and I never truly ranked Pandemic very high - indeed, the #1 BGG rating bothers me a lot. So, naturally, it's not going to be the hardest game to beat for us. However, that being said, Pandemic was still our number one cooperative game with Robison Crusoe trailing shortly behind it.
Spirit Island feels like Pandemic. Instead of diseases, it's colonists. Instead of outbreaks, it's blight expanding out. Instead of roles, it's spirits. They are both cooperative, have similar victory conditions, and often employ some of the same strategies.
Spirit Island is Pandemic stepped up. I don't believe anyone could actually argue that Pandemic is easier, especially compared against the highest difficulty level in Spirit Island. Not only that, consider the following:
- Roles have been drastically upgraded to Spirits, each incredibly more unique to each other, carrying a litany of powers for different situations, and able to get stronger as the game progresses.
- Variable win conditions that reward you for critical thinking
- A more varied and complicated AI
- More than one generic way to stop the spread of colonists (disease)
I'm fairly certain I could go on, but the core point here is that the game feels like the next evolution of Pandemic. I'm sure some die-hards would crucify me for the above comments, but keep in mind they come from multiple individual session of Pandemic along with the entire Season One campaign.
With the elephant addressed, let's break down the game itself. The theme in Spirit Island is beautifully wound into the mechanics of the game itself.
When you think of colonization, what general steps would you think would be followed in terms of claiming land? First they have to explore and find the land, then they have to build on it to sustain themselves, and then ultimately they will exploit the natural resources to prop themselves up even further. This feels natural, and it's exactly the steps employed in the game for representing colonization.
How about fear? When you're afraid of something, do you naturally come up with the most rational responses? Not at all, and fear in this game is represented by tragic things happening to the colonists (fear cards). It's not explicitly clear how or why these things happen, but I am of the firm belief it's the psychologically representation of the colonists being fearful and making critical mistakes.
The theme is found almost everywhere in the game. The beautiful island tiles, the spirit descriptions and unique powers, the interactions with presence and blight, the list goes on.
There's no doubt that there's a bit of complexity involved in the gameplay. Not so much in bending your mind around the rules, but more with managing the happenings during each phase of the game.
Overall, the game is wonderfully challenging, and I truly believe that each turn has several valid moves, some more optimized than others. Indeed, in our plays, we came out of many turns with huge smiles on our faces as we recognized combinations that inflicted massive damage on the board.
In this regard, I want to call out something I specifically enjoyed: the moving of natives and explorers. In our first play, the benefit of this was not immediately clear, but after our third play it became an invaluable asset in our powers. Take this example play: Two explorers sat in two nearby jungles, ready to build during the current turn. One more explorer sat in a mountain territory with a native and was about to ravage that land. We recognized that we could target the mountain territory, pull in both jungle explorers, and one additional native. Since the mountain area was a temple for myself (an earth spirit) it automatically negated all of the explorer damage - however, since two natives were in the land they attacked back after the ravaging and killed all three explorers. That's three explorers down and two brand new towns avoided, all from simply moving pieces around the board.
The additional fear mechanics, along with it's variable win condition, give the game something else to focus on besides just eradicating colonists. Indeed, our second game was won in one massive turn where we were able to destroy the remaining towns and cities, generating enough fear to move onto Terror Level 2, and changing the victory conditions to give us the win.
The spirits themselves feel incredibly unique, and most certainly were designed to compliment each other. We haven't gotten the opportunity to play with them all yet, but none of the ones we have played have really felt the same. The array of powers available give strategic depth and allow for pulling off some nice turns.
So why dock two points? One, as already stated, the upkeep during phases can be difficult to keep up with. It's less hard and more just work. Our first couple of games were fraught with missing a step here and there, which of course can go away after more experience, but a perfect game simply wouldn't have the issue. The second point is lost to the randomness in the power cards. When you add power cards to your hand, you're drawing from a deck, and so you can end up with an absolutely useless card, which feels almost breaking on some turns. Sure, this adds strategic depth when determining when to pick up a card, but I feel like some of the minor powers are simply objectively better than others, and that bothers me.
I won't spend much time here simply because the Rulebook meets the golden standard for a perfect rulebook. Here are the points that contribute to the perfect score:
- A wonderful introduction complete with a specific hand-holding variant to slowly introduce you to the game
- Breaks out overall gameplay with specific instructions for each subject called out in the overview
- Plenty of examples for understanding some of the difficult concepts
- A strategy section used to introduce you to what your overall strategy should look like throughout the game (something every rulebook should have in my opinion)
- A glossary complete with page references for quick-lookups during a game.
Any game that comes with an insert generally always scores high for me as it's likely less money I have to spend down the road, especially if the game sees a lot of play. The insert for Spirit Island is functional, and for the most part gives room for each individual piece. I've never had issues getting the box shut.
The two missing points come off due to the fact that there's not really a place for every bag (resulting in some just sitting on top) and that one of the slots is intended to hold fear, minor, and major powers but it doesn't actually fit all of the cards once you removed them from their shrink wrap.
In conclusion, this is a solid cooperative game that has a bright future on our table. To us, it's the next evolution of Pandemic with more theme, stronger gameplay, and an overall more refined taste. The few negatives hardly take away from the game, and some are certainly ripe for being enhanced in an expansion.
If I had one recommendation, don't pass up on this game because you already have cooperatives. Give it a chance to rise to the top for you, I don't think you will regret it!