Monday, August 6, 2018

Burn the townspeople!

At WBC this year I was introduced to the game Spirit Island.  It is a coop game for 1 to 4 players that is not for beginners or casuals - this is a hardcore gamer's coop game.

I like it a lot.

There are a couple different axes upon which a game can succeed or fail and Spirit Island wins on all of them.  Firstly I look at theme.  Spirit Island is a game where players represent a variety of powerful nature spirits defending an island from invaders.  There are natives on the island who are the allies of the spirits, and the spirits need to protect the natives and keep the land from being blighted by the colonizers.  It all feels great.  The colonizers start off pushing further and further, but the spirits have just awakened and over time they get more and more powerful.  The game becomes a rush to see if the colonizers can take over and blight the land before the spirits become so powerful they wipe the colonies out.

The spirits have wildly varying mechanics and powers.  Some of them come out of the gate great, and don't have much ramp up, while others are slow to develop but go nuts when they hit their stride.  I only played once but it is clear you could play the game over and over with different spirits combinations and have all kinds of different play experiences.  The feel of the game absolutely hits the theme they are going for and it works.

Mechanically the game is complicated enough that I didn't even completely understand it after our first playthrough, which we won.  I picked a simple spirit to start off and figured out that my job was to blow stuff up.  I was a lightning spirit and it was clear that what I needed to do was blow up the towns put up by the colonists to keep them in check and hope that the other players would set up a long term plan and do something busted.  This is exactly how it played out - I fried people and houses with lightning, barely keeping a lid on things, and then eventually another player did something totally absurd and we won.  I don't know what he did really, but I am sure I would figure it out on my next couple plays.

The choices are well executed.  Figuring out what an ability does is easy.  Figuring out which is the best ability to use is HARD.  I can't speak to balance because I have played so little, but since the game comes with a ton of different difficulty settings I don't think it matters that much.  If you want to play busted spirits, then ratchet up the difficulty. 

I also love the game from a political standpoint.  So many games are themed around the idea of colonizing new lands.  Sometimes you have to murder the natives to do so, and other times you are just moving into 'empty' territory.  Of course 'empty' territory is a fantasy created by either pretending other people don't count, or conveniently forgetting genocides.  A game that explicitly flips the narrative and puts the players in charge of pushing back against colonial invaders is a thing we need more of.

I like the politics of anti colonialism.  I like the theme of magical spirits and I enjoyed the obvious flavour differences reflected in mechanics.  The simplicity of effects which still led to complex choices was well done.  The game is hard, and not for casual gamers, but this isn't a criticism, just a note, because I like coop games that require serious thinking.

Spirit Island gets a huge thumbs up from me, and I will be playing it again.

(Also I really liked the way I was taught the game.  I was given a simple spirit, a bare overview of the rules, and then we started playing.  I figured out how the game works as I went.  Much better than an hour of rules slog that I can barely remember.)

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