4 Lessons from Spirit Island for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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In 2016, Spirit Island raised $84,176 on Kickstarter. That is by no means a small amount to raise, but what’s interesting is that Spirit Island has remained on the Board Game Geek Hotness list off and on for almost three years. Its expansion went onto raise almost $800,000.

Clearly, there is much more to this game than what immediately meets the eye. There’s a lot we can learn from it!

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Hold that thought for just a moment, though. First, let’s explain to the uninitiated what Spirit Island is about. For that, we’ll reference the game’s Board Game Geek page.

Spirit Island is a complex and thematic cooperative game about defending your island home from colonizing Invaders. Players are different spirits of the land, each with its own unique elemental powers. Every turn, players simultaneously choose which of their power cards to play, paying energy to do so. Using combinations of power cards that match a spirit’s elemental affinities can grant free bonus effects. Faster powers take effect immediately, before the Invaders spread and ravage, but other magics are slower, requiring forethought and planning to use effectively. In the Spirit phase, spirits gain energy, and choose how / whether to Grow: to reclaim used power cards, to seek for new power, or to spread presence into new areas of the island.

1. Spirit Island flips the standard colonization theme on its head.

You can’t have a meaningful discussion about Spirit Island without discussing the theme. You and all the other players in the game play as Spirits who fight off the Invaders – basically, people who want to colonize your island.

Let’s be real: this is a politically hot subject right now. In the last couple of decades, in particular, many people have become much more familiar with the misdeeds of our distant (and not-so-distant) ancestors. Though this realization is about as comfortable as having a bucket of ice water dumped on your head, it’s a necessary one and ultimately a good one.

Done incorrectly, this theme could turn a lot of people off. But it doesn’t do that, because it’s well-executed and all-around fun! The fact that it happens to be covering a politically hot subject has actually likely contributed to its success.

Why does this work? In my opinion, it’s because it’s not preachy but rather clever and original! Spirit Island offers a really interesting twist on standard board game themes that have been done and overdone. We need more games like this that subvert standard board game narratives. (You’re next, agriculture games!)

2. Cooperative play is underused.

The default mode for most board games competitive. I have no problem with that and I certainly enjoy the feeling of good, well-matched competitive play.

Sure, cooperative play is not exactly some exotic unseen mechanic too. You have Pandemic, the Forbidden games, Mysterium, Elder Sign, and many other great games.

Yet if you take all the cooperative games on Board Game Geek and divide it by all the board games on Board Game Geek, you wind up with a figure like 6%. Just 6%! With such a small percentage of board games being cooperative, choosing to make a cooperative game – like Spirit Island – remains a deliberate stylistic choice. Spirit Island kicks it up a notch by having you play a cooperative game against Invaders, which as I mentioned previously, is the role you would play in most other games.

3. Playing defense creates gameplay experiences you don’t see in other types of games.

Even among cooperative games, you often wind up solving a mystery together or working toward some common goal. A smaller subset still have you focus on defending yourself from a dangerous outside force. In Spirit Island, you do exactly that.

While there is certainly the opportunity to plan ahead, the game forces its own agenda on you in a way I haven’t seen since Pandemic. This is a nice change of pace from normal cooperative games because it adds a necessary element of stress that makes Spirit Island feel satisfying.

I think Arah’s review on Board Game Geek says it best. “Vibe: brain burny whack-a-mole.” 

4. Balanced asymmetry leads to greater variety.

Last but not least, we’ve talked on this blog about how variable player powers can add variety to a game. We’ve even discussed at length how you can implement them in your own game. (Spoiler: the answer is TONS of play-testing).

The trick, of course, is to make sure all varying powers are definitely distinct while remaining balanced. With Spirit Island, you can tell they play-tested the game within an inch of its life.

To further explain my point, I’ll borrow from the Spirit Island wiki for the following sections. I’ll list out the play style of just four of the eight base game spirits. Check out how different the play styles are!

A Spread of Rampant Green

Fairly good at dealing with Towns, but terrible at handling Explorers (who are unfazed by prolific foliage). Can get Presence onto the board faster than most other Spirits. Extra Presence is good for targeting and especially for ‘Choke the Land with Green”, which can be extremely effective at slowing down invaders. Just be careful not to destroy Sacred Sites needed for Power use.

Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares

With most Spirits, Terror Victories are a backup plan if the main push against the Invaders stalls out for too long, but Bringer turns Fear into a more viable primary strategy. Its transformation of damage & destruction into Fear can turn Major Powers into tremendous sources of terror and panic. However, the only real offense Bringer has is the Dahan fighting back. While it does have some defensive ability, it is fundamentally poor at clearing areas of Invaders.

Lightning’s Swift Strike

Virtually all offense to start with: without a more defensive teammate, Blight may become a problem. Excellent at destroying buildings, less good at containing Explorers. Using Thundering Destruction tends to be a burst affair: a turn or two of position and build up Energy, followed by a really big turn.

Ocean’s Hungry Grasp

Extremely good at assaulting the coasts where the Invaders start out strong, but quite weak island – the ocean is not accustomed to affecting events so far ashore. Its Presence shifts in and out like the tide, which can be tricky to manage, but permits re-positioning and tactical retreats or offensives in the hands of a skillful player. Has fairly inexpensive Unique Powers, but the energy gained from drowning Invaders can be necessary in stepping up to more potent Powers.

Final Thoughts

Spirit Island excels for a few reasons. The first is because of its well-crafted, interesting, original theme. Another reason is that it uses underrated mechanics – namely cooperative gameplay and you vs. the world – to excellent effect. Lastly, the variable player powers are balanced in such a way that the game stays fresh for a long time!





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