The Forces of Nature: Spirit Island Review

If you follow board games even a little bit, you’ve heard of Spirit Island.  If you haven’t, then at least stick with this blog and we’ll take care of you.  It’s my unscientific opinion that this is one of the most popular games out there.  It seems like I hear about it from all corners, and people don’t just like it, they love it and want to play it again and again.  Despite playing the game with all of those sky high expectations, I found that Spirit Island delivered.  It’s one of the best cooperative board game experiences out there and it makes me want to write a post on co-op games, coming soon.

I’m posting this initially after just one playthrough but as it may be a while before my second, I wanted to at least get some thoughts out there.  I’ll update the post as I play it more.

Spirit Island is a cooperative game for 1-4 players, published in 2017 by Greater Than Games, designed by R Eric Ruess with art by Jason Behnke, Loic Berger, Loic Billiau, Kat G Bimelin + 11 more.

Overall Feeling

It’s such a clever twist on the standard resource exploitation game.  Normally it’s man vs. nature, and it is here too, only you’re nature.  The colonists and builders that you control in most games are the very forces you’re trying to stop in this one.

There’s something they really get at in this game.  First, the humans show up.  Next, they start building.  Then, they just keep building and expanding and using everything up and destroying everything that was there before the humans got there.  And, they just keep coming and multiplying and coming and multiplying.  Fortunately, nature is armed with, well, the forces of nature and you get to team up to take on those meddling humans.  Uh oh, Team Nature, another explorer just showed up, we’ve got problems!

Do you do something in this game?

Oh gosh yes, and it’s so much fun.  Get off my lawn you colonists, or we will throw tidal waves and earthquakes and volcanos at you!  On some turns, you mostly make them feel fear.  On other turns, you’ll literally wipe out swaths of colonists and buildings from your island.  But, they just keep coming, so you do it again.  Your powers grow and stack over time, and the really fun parts are how they interact with your teammates.  After unleashing some fury on the colonists, you will stand victorious, with your island still under control by the forces of nature rather than the forces of man, though I figure it’s just a matter of time…

What does this game do that others don’t?

Beyond the thematic standpoint, which turns things on their head, there are some interesting dynamics and mechanics.  It’s a different kind of cooperation, than, say, Fearsome Wilderness, where each of you control a character who moves about in the game.  Here, you’re these spirit entities without a physical form, but you play cards and do things that stack on top of each other.  Since you all have very different abilities, you have to cooperate to maximize the amount of terror you can unleash on the colonists.  There’s a deck building element to the game, but a particularly interesting element of using and stacking card symbols which I’ll discuss in a bit.

Not every game has difficulty levels so I appreciate that this game has 3 of them.  We were able to start on the easiest one, have success, and enjoy the game, but I’d also be interested in taking on greater challenges.

Was there anything I didn’t like about this game?

Just some nits to pick.  My spirit did a lot of building Fear, which is important for the group, but it is kind of a passive ability compared to wiping out sections of the island with tidal waves or blowing them up with lightning.  It was still a really fun experience but I wouldn’t hurry to play that spirit again, I will next time look for one that has more of a direct effect.  But all of that is pretty small.

The big thing is that there is a lot to keep track of.  There’s a lot going on after every turn, and a very specific AI behavior you need to follow for the colonists.  It’s very well done in that it’s kind of intuitive once you get the hang of it, but it’s still something you have to get the hang of, and even when you do, it’s a lot of work.

How were the theme and components?

Simple and good.  I’m especially impressed with the way they pull off these tiny little colonials, and it’s a good example that the components are very good.  The art is a lot of fun, everything from the character cards of the spirits, to the cards, to the map itself.

Anything interesting about the mechanics and game play?

Yes, and what I’ve learned more and more about game design is that the theme isn’t enough.  You’ve got to bring some interesting mechanics to the table, some new and interesting ways of getting things done.  Better yet is when those mechanics match the theme.  You can’t really have a perfect, Tzolk’in-like match of theme and mechanics in every game, but you at least want a good fit.  Here, there are some new twists on cooperation and deck building, and it all fits the theme well.

The most interesting thing, in my opinion, is the way you’re trying to stack certain symbols from your cards.  If you look above, once you’ve collected an orange and purple symbol — either from your own cards, or your teammates’ cards — then a passive ability triggers — by “passive” I mean you don’t have to do anything, but these effects can be quite powerful, especially as you move down to the bottom one.  All of this is in addition to the inverted, nature vs. man aspect of the game.

Another interesting element is the AI for the colonist side, and how they expand and grow.  It’s a lot to keep track of but like I said it’s also intuitive, and I’d give it high marks for being clever in this way.  It feels organic, the way humans show up and start expanding and developing and blighting everything around them.

How is the Replay Ability?

Top notch.  I’d play this any time, but at a higher difficulty level, and with different combinations of spirits.  I’d like to take a good browse through these spirits and figure out what is the best 3-player combination of spirits and how to optimize it with different card options.

Publication Notes

I would expect many expansions to come from this game because it’s so popular, and I already see 8 of them.  Remove the 2 foreign language ones and there are still 6 expansions, including Branch & Claw (2017) and Jagged Earth (2020), both of which add content, and Promo Packs 1 & 2 might as well.

Do you need to add this game to your collection?

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Do it right away.  If you like cooperatives, you need to add it.  If you don’t have a cooperative, add this one, as it’s not like any of the other co-ops that you have.  This game is fun.  I would play this anytime, and if our usual crew was going to Gen Con, it’s probably the game I’d want to most play this year going in, before the deluge of new games hits me anyways.  I could also see my wife, sister and brother-in-law getting into it so even though one of my friends has it, I might have to add it myself.

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