The game of the weekend was Spirit Island, which I liked. Spirit Island is a cooperative game with some similarities to Pandemic, only the plague you are fighting is European colonization. You play as spirits of the land, protecting your natives and driving away the invaders who are spreading quickly and ravaging the land. Each spirit has its own powers and progression, and you can customize the difficulty with a variety of modifiers.
The theme is fun. It is basically the opposite of most things you play. Someone was recruiting players by describing it as Catan, where you play the island and hate the Settlers. The invader minis are white plastic, so you are trying to wipe out the white people. They spread faster than you can imagine, but then you are an ancient spirit of the land, slow to rouse to anger. The spirits are distinct both in fluff and crunch: Vital Strength of the Earth is your simple earth elemental, slow and defensive, while Lightning’s Swift Strike is pure offense and River Surges in Sunlight is a control-based water spirit with flooding that grows over time.
The game is both very complex and less complex than it seems. It comes with a 32-page rulebook, so this is clearly not a casual game. On BoardGameGeek, its complexity is rated 3.8/5. There are many rules and many things happening at once. We had one player continually confused as to what was happening each turn when the invaders acted. That said, each piece is relatively simple. There are just many of them that interact. Long time readers might see that as more or less my definition of “elegant” design. Not all the pieces are elegant, but a lot comes of applying simple rules repeatedly.
We should probably have given better help to our especially confused player, but he had the simplest spirit and we all had our own spirits and interactions to manage. Play is simultaneous, so you are not sitting and waiting for others to make their decisions, unless you have someone who gets Analysis Paralysis and is trying to plot the whole game at once. At some level, you accept that suboptimal decisions are a cost of actually making decisions. Because of the range and number of abilities each spirit can take, there is less risk of having one player “take over” and try to direct everyone as can happen in cooperative games. Someone may lead the spirits, but each spirit is picking multiple actions from multiple options with multiple options of how to play them out, and unless experience improves speed a lot, no one has time and bandwidth to work that out for four spirits at once. Instead, you bounce between focusing on your spirit’s abilities and sphere of influence, seeking hotspots on the board where things are going badly, and collaborating with neighboring spirits.
For example, I was the river spirit next to the lightning spirit. I gradually washed explorers towards her territory, and she zapped them with lightning storms. I had a power that let her recover the energy she used, and she had a power that let me act more quickly. Meanwhile, I was planning damage with the shadow spirit to my left, so we could destroy buildings, and extending my river presence towards our beleaguered earth spirit who was in a holding maneuver against the invaders.
The game comes with a good “first game” difficulty, which streamlines some complex decisions while providing a little more room for error. There are several interacting and scaling invaders and scenarios to increase difficulty. The rules continue to work as a single-player game, although there without the interesting interactions between spirits. After a full multiplayer game and a couple of single-player games on Tabletop Simulator, I feel like I have a good grip and can beat the base difficulty without much trouble. On to exploring some scenarios.
It is somewhat disappointing that some interesting content was released as a Kickstarter exclusive, but that is not really a barrier in this game, because you can print them out on paper and call it good. The exclusive components are not cards that you shuffle with the others, so even a cheap printing will suffice. Serpent Slumbering Beneath the Island looks like great fun.
The hardest part is probably the game length. The game is labeled at 90-120 minutes. Somewhere in that range is fair, something like 30 minutes plus 30 minutes per player, maybe an extra 30-60 with new players. That can add up quickly to a three-hour game, and it can be hard to get people to sign up for that. It can be a much quicker solo game, and if you want to take your time there and engage in extra analysis, hey it’s your time.
Recommended, on my wishlist, but I do not know how often I would be able to get it on the table because of the time and complexity. Had I a dedicated local board game group, we could learn and then play relatively quickly. I am not sure I am up for teaching a player or two every time we play, although that might not be so bad with some of the simpler spirits available. And I can always play the solo game on Tabletop Simulator until I have a physical copy.