The games produced by Greater Than Games and developed into digital editions by Handelabra Games are fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Sentinels of the Multiverse since Infernal Relics first came out, and I purchased the digital edition on day one. So when I heard that Handelabra would be producing Spirit Island Digital Edition, I was in on the Kickstarter and playing it in early access.
In Spirit Island, settlers are colonizing an island, and the island’s spirits and the native Dahan are resisting that colonization. You play as one of these spirits, and your job is to destroy the settlers.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game, but Spirit Island is not a lightweight game. It’s complex, difficult, and rewarding. I love it, but if you’re a casual gamer, it may not be for you.
You can play Spirit Island with 1-4 players controlling 1-4 spirits, or if you’re like me, you just play two spirits by yourself. More than that can get mentally taxing.
The first phase of each turn has your spirit first choosing a “growth option.” These options are different for each of the game’s eight spirits. Your growth option may have you add presence to the board, gain energy, choose new power cards, or some combination of these. Each spirit also has a growth option that will allow the spirit to reclaim cards that have been used and discarded.
As presence is removed from a spirit’s card and added to the board, new abilities are uncovered. Generally, this allows the spirit to play more cards per turn, and grants increased available energy to spend on card plays.
In the next phase, spirits play power cards. Each card in the game is qualified as either “fast” or “slow,” and this determines whether the card will take effect before or after the invaders act. At first, it seems as though fast powers are always better, but as you gain experience in gameplay, you realize that slow powers allow you to react to the post invader phase board state even before the following turn’s fast powers. Making good decisions requires a lot of analysis and foresight.
Fast powers take effect first, and then comes the invader phase. The invaders come in three types: the explorer, a one-man scout with but a single hit point, the two hit point town, and the city, which has three.
There are four terrain types: Wetlands, Sands, Jungle, and Mountain. The invader cards show which terrain type will be affected by each invader phase. The invaders first ravage, doing one damage per health present. They then build, adding towns or cities in the pertinent terrain type. Lastly, they explore, and explorers spread out into new areas.
After the invaders have done all this, the game board will look very different than it had previously. Now is when you use your slow powers. Then, it’s time for the following turn, and you pick a growth option again.
Spirit Island is a game about defending a virgin land from colonization by polluting industrialist outsiders. The Dahan are the indigenous people of the island, and they help the spirits. Many powers can only be used in lands with Dahan, and Dahan are capable of fighting back during a ravage phase and damaging invaders.
When the invaders do damage, they kill Dahan, and they add blight to the land. When blight is created, it destroys a spirit’s presence. If a spirit ever has zero presence, or if there are too many blight tokens on the island, players lose.
So how can players win? The game’s initial victory condition is to destroy every invader on the island, which is nearly impossible. But any time invader structures are demolished, fear is generated. Certain powers can also generate fear. As fear increases, the victory condition changes: destroy all enemy structures. When even more fear is created, you need only destroy all cities. And if you work all the way through the fear deck, you can get a fear victory, and the invaders all flee the island due to sheer terror.
Spirits of the Island
Each of the game’s eight spirits plays very differently. Vital Strength of the Earth is powerful, producing energy effortlessly, and well-suited to playing devastating major power cards, but has very low card play. Lightning’s Swift Strike is the other side of that coin, good at destruction, and having many fast powers and many card plays per turn, but barely enough energy to play them. Shadows Flicker Like Flames specializes in terrorizing invaders, and River Surges in Sunlight more often pushes explorers and towns around rather than destroying them outright. These are the game’s four basic spirits.
The advanced spirits get even crazier. Thunderspeaker can move her presence around alongside Dahan, and she uses the Dahan as her primary weapons. A Spread of Rampant Green uses his prolific growth to choke out settlements and prevent builds. Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares cannot do damage at all—where he would, he instead creates fear. And Ocean’s Hungry Grasp can’t actually place his presence anywhere on the board—only in the oceans off the edge of the map. From there, his presence moves onto the coast, and then back out to the ocean, emulating the tide, and sometimes dragging invaders out to sea and drowning them.
Not Complex Enough? Too Easy?
The first half-dozen times I played Spirit Island on the tabletop, we lost. The game isn’t easy. Practice with the digital edition brought my win rate over fifty percent, but I tend to play without the higher difficulty options.
You can add adversaries to up the difficulty. There are adversary cards for Sweden, England, and Brandenburg-Prussia. Each adds extra invaders, new loss conditions, and other difficulties. I nearly never use them because the game is hard enough without. Maybe I’m just not that good.
Spirit Island also offers a number of scenarios such as Blitz and Guard the Island’s Heart. I have yet to try these out—call me timid.
Spirit Island is a complex game, but I love it. I’ve gotten used to playing alone, but when you play with a friend or two, it becomes far easier to analyze the island and put out fires before they grow out of control because one player will notice something everyone else has missed. Spirit Island Digital includes a multiplayer option, and in the time of quarantine, it’s a great game to play with friends remotely.