Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Dave Reviews: Lazy Spirit Gods Who Need To Pay A Little More Fucking Attention

Spirit Island

The great vengeful spirits of the Dahan people are so lazy I want to become a spirit god myself just to smite them.

Spirit Island is a co-op game heaped with praise since it first appeared as a twinkle in the gaming scene's eye. You play one of four nature-based spirits on an unnamed island in the Pacific (presumably) who take it upon themselves to wipe an invading nation off the island and protect it so the Dahan can live there in peace. You start with a small deck of cards, using both the abilities on those cards and your personal spirit powers based on the symbols on the cards you played that turn to push the invaders and their towns around and, eventually, off the island.

Each turn you choose one of three possible actions. These actions are balanced between bringing more cards into your hand, refreshing your hand by picking up previous discards, gaining extra energy to spend on cards, and adding more of your presence to the board. Adding presence takes presence tokens off your player mat, which also increases the amount of energy you automatically gain and number of cards you can play each turn. Thus, as the game goes on you will naturally increase in your capabilities, and can rush the ability to play more cards or gain more energy if you wish (though this can come at the cost of playing stronger early moves and letting the invaders get a better foothold on the island). Once you achieve the ability to use your most powerful ability, especially if you find a way to do it every turn or almost every turn, you can begin to rout the invaders--but you need to survive that long.

The invaders themselves cause two problems. One is that they'll destroy the native villages on the map. Each Dahan hut does two damage to the invaders, but unless a special ability changes things, the invaders attack first. Thus, unless there's only a single explorer in a territory (explorers do one damage and Dahan huts can take two), even if you have enough people in place to win a battle, you're going to suffer losses. Second, if invaders ravage a territory and do two or more damage to it (which only requires a single town or a pair of explorers), blight is added, which wipes out the presence of any spirit in that territory. Worse, if the area is already blighted, the blight is pushed into an adjacent territory, and further still if all adjacent territories are blighted.

As the spirits, you fight back through foreknowledge of the invaders' moves and planning ahead. You find out each turn where the invaders will next build, which means adding towns or cities where they already have tokens, and wherever invaders build, the turn after that they'll ravage. Thus your primary goal is to move or eliminate invaders from areas that will be ravaged, and then to limit how much can be built. Early on this is is difficult due to a relative dearth of abilities, but as mentioned, over time you gain access to abilities that can do substantial harm to the invading forces.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the game is the terror deck. Many co-op games, including old favorites like Pandemic, give you a certain suite of abilities and everything else is the game fucking with you. The terror deck in Spirit Island lets you fuck right back. As the terror level increases, your win condition becomes easier to meet (early you need to clear the entire board, but towards the end it's enough to simply eliminate the invaders' cities), and if you run through the whole deck, the invaders are so spooked that they all run away and you win regardless of how many pieces they have on the island. The terror effects are pretty fun as well, though I'd rather let you go play the game and enjoy seeing them all for the first time.

Aesthetically, there are going to be people who roll their eyes at the fact all the invaders--who are a colonizing force, not warbands from a neighboring island--are white. Those people can fuck off. It's taking a poke at world history without a single word being said about it, and that needs to happen more often. There's no 'kill all the white man' message, it's just a game that puts you on the other side of the situation and gives you tools to fight back that real-life colonized people didn't have. Adults can play a game that takes a semi-subtle shot at our predecessors without getting all butthurt about it. So can kids.

Spirit Island suffers from the lie of estimated game time on the front, at least at first. 90-120 minutes might happen if there are only two of you and you've played a few games, but four players can take four hours-plus learning the game and will probably take more than two until they know exactly what they want to do—at which point there are variants on the spirits to play and ways to make the game harder. But if you like the idea of a long, thinky co-op game, it's hard to go wrong here.

Score: Twenty-two vicious white devils driven into the sea out of twenty-four.