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!

Top 10 Board Games for Christmas 2019 (and Why They’re Popular)

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It’s that time of the year. The leaves have almost all left their trees, most of my family is still in a food coma from last Thursday, and – oh yes – the Black Friday shopping has begun! As you might expect, this is also the time of year when a lot of people to go to Google and type in “top 10 board games for Christmas 2019.”

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While I typically write articles strictly for board game creators, today is a little different. If you’re reading this, I’m betting that you’re asking one of two questions:

  1. What do I buy for the board gamer in my family?
  2. Why are certain games popular right now?

To answer both of these questions, I took a snapshot of Board Game Geek – Mecca of all things board games – on Saturday, November 30. I started with the trendiest games and worked my way down the list, scratching off anything that wasn’t on sale right now online. What remains is a top 10 list of games you can buy (or back-order) right now that are already drawing the attention of board gamers.

With all this in mind, let’s get right to it!

10. Brass Birmingham ($50.59 on Miniature Market)

The original board game Brass is one of the most highly regarded board games of the modern era. It came out in 2007 and people were still talking about it a decade later.

Enter Brass: Birmingham. It’s got all the elements of the original that gamers liked – the economic strategy and dynamic scoring – plus some new mechanics carefully chosen by the original creator to make the game even better. In particular, they’ve added a sixth action called “Scout” in which you discard cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. They’ve also added some new industry types, which helps add variety to the game.

If you or someone in your family is looking for a challenging board game in the $50 range, this is an excellent choice!

9. Everdell ($54.94 on Amazon)

I’ve written at length about Everdell before and why it’s a good game. Long story short, it’s got a cute fantasy theme with really well-executed worker placement mechanics. It’s a wonderful mix of gritty strategy and charm that’s reminiscent of Root.

8. Nemesis ($119.99 on Miniature Market)

In many ways Nemesis is the polar opposite of Everdell! It’s a sci-fi survival horror story heavily inspired by the Alien franchise. The Board Game Geek page does a great job of explaining why Nemesis is so interesting…

Nemesis is a semi-cooperative game where you and your crew-mates must survive on a ship infested with hostile organisms. To win the game, you will have to complete one of the two objectives dealt to you at the start of the game and get back to Earth in one piece. You will find many obstacles on your way: swarms of Intruders (the name given to the alien organisms by the ship AI), the poor physical condition of the ship, the other players that will have their own agendas and, sometimes, just cruel fate.

7. Godtear (Eternal Glade Starter Set, $49.99 + shipping on Amazon)

Godtear is a hex-based tabletop skirmish board game for two players. The whole purpose of the game is to collect the tears of fallen gods. The game is driven by different scenarios, each of which have their own rules.

What you have here is a classic, gorgeous fantasy game that never feels stale. That’s the magic of having a scenario-based game – tons of variety and tons of replayability.

6. Terraforming Mars ($45.00 on Amazon)

Terraforming Mars has been considered a new classic since the day it first came out. For all its flaws, I love Terraforming Mars – it gives players more opportunities for creative play than just about any other game I’ve seen.

The basic idea is that you and all your opponents represent different corporations trying to tame the red planet. It’s the only game I know where you can throw a meteor at a planet to purposefully cause global warming so you win.

5. Marvel Champions: The Card Game ($74.99 on Amazon)

There are few companies that have as much raw material for interesting stories as Marvel. You can see that play out in Marvel Champion: The Card Game. Again, I’ll borrow from the Board Game Geek page to describe the game.

Iron Man and Black Panther team up to stop Rhino from rampaging through the streets of New York. Captain Marvel and Spider-Man battle Ultron as he threatens global annihilation. Do you have what it takes to join the ranks of these legendary heroes and become a champion?

Marvel Champions: The Card Game invites players embody iconic heroes from the Marvel Universe as they battle to stop infamous villains from enacting their devious schemes. As a Living Card Game, Marvel Champions is supported with regular releases of new product, including new heroes and scenarios.

4. Cthulhu: Death May Die ($80.89 on Amazon)

I don’t know if you can tell, but this game has got a bit of an edge to it. Cthulhu: Death May Die feels like it crawled straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. It’s a cooperative game where you and your fellow players are investigators seeking the summon the Elder Gods. Also, you start the game completely insane.

This is an intense game, but with so many thematic miniatures and a total commitment to theme, this game has worked its way up The Hotness list and stayed there for a while.

3. Tapestry ($75.73 on Amazon)

Some of the most well-liked board games of all time are civilization games. One of the most well-liked board game designers is Jamey Stegmaier.

Jamey Stegmaier made a civilization game.

Enough said.

2. Gloomhaven ($86.50 on Amazon)

If you’ve ever stumbled across my greatest board games of all-time list, you know Gloomhaven is at the top. Seriously, it has been #1 on the Top 100 board games list on Board Game Geek for a long time now.

Gloomhaven is so massive that it’s hard to begin to describe why it’s good. It’s heavily story-driven, huge in size and scope like Through the Ages, and it has great components. The theme, backed up by lots of story, is incredibly in tune with gamers’ desires for rich, lived-in fantasy worlds. This game captures what gamers love about literally every other game above it in this article. Gloomhaven truly is the apotheosis of gamer desire.

1. Wingspan ($59.99 on Amazon)

As we said before, new Jamey Stegmaier games are a big deal. Wingspan, however, has been particularly popular. On the Stonemaier Games website, it’s described as a “competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game.” It also won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, which is a really big deal.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also got a ton of different components – cards, miniature eggs, wooden dice, a birdfeeder dice tower, action cubes, and more.

Long story short, it’s got mechanics that gamers like, gameplay that critics adore, and physical pieces to make gamers feel good about their purchase. It’s a win all around!

Final Thoughts for Buyers

There are so many great board games for Christmas 2019 out there! Any game on this list is an excellent choice – all you have to do is narrow down by price point and theme. The board gamer in your family is sure to be happy!

Final Thoughts for Gamer Designers

Gritty, complex games continue to dominate Board Game Geek! If you want to capture the hearts and minds of the most hardcore board gamers, make a smart, complex game with a big box and a lot of components. The BGG community does not shy away from the intellectual challenge! If they are the market you want to pursue, take some lessons from these games – you’ll be glad you did 🙂

Title photo credit: By PZS69, CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/4647501/wingspan

6 Reasons Escape Rooms Will Make You a Better Board Game Designer

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Handcuffed to my manager, I reached into the toilet to find a small key. We unlocked the jail cell and eventually broke out of prison with two minutes to spare.

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The unwitting reader may suspect this was a sordid affair unbecoming of a Fortune 500 company. In reality, it was my first experience with an Escape Room. I’ve since been in many more for work and family functions alike.

Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer. This is partly because Escape Rooms are everything that board games aspire to be – complex problem-solving games that appeal to a wide audience and provide a remarkable physical experience. You can’t capture the true experience of an Escape Room in a box (though some have tried), but you can learn from them, take elements from them that work, and apply them to your future designs.

With this in mind, here are six reasons I believe that Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer.

1. Escape Rooms are master classes in theme.

Board games often run the risk of having themes that feel pasted-on. For as much as we talk about theme-mechanic unity here, it’s an ideal to be pursued and which is seldom truly met. To have a truly immersive theme is the dream of many board game designers.

Fair enough, board games can still be great even if the theme feels watery. But then you have Escape Rooms. In them, everything is a part of the game – the dimensions of the room, every prop, and every symbol. Escape Rooms are an entirely different medium in which wholly original theme ideas can be played out. You can’t use many of them in board games, but they are, at the very least, idea factories for those who prefer to create games with cardboard and plastic.

2. The appeal of Escape Rooms is in the physical experience.

Part of the reason Escape Rooms appeal to people who don’t normally play games or solve puzzles is the physical experience. You are locked in a room and you have to use your wits to escape. Every prop, every errant number or symbol scrawled on the wall or the floor, and every strange gadget could have a purpose.

Board games often run the risk of feeling overly cerebral. You have to use your imagination to see the battles play out or feel the stresses of the theme. This is not the case with Escape Rooms, which force theme upon you by means of physical experience.

Granted, Escape Rooms and board games are totally different kinds of experiences. What can a board game designer do to capture even one-tenth of the Escape Room magic? I have two answers to that: use the props to get good ideas for components, and pay attention to unique tactile experiences and see how you can use simple components to take a game to the next level. (Exit games are a good example of what I’m referring to.)

3. Escape Rooms must allow for different viable winning strategies.

By their very nature, Escape Rooms tend to attract a wider audience than simply gamers. The people who wind up playing do so for anything ranging from corporate retreats to family getaways to an unusual date. For this reason, the game has to accommodate a variable player count that can range anywhere from 2 players to 8 or more.

What this results in is a decentralized gaming experience that allows different viable strategies. Yes, certain riddles must be solved in order to escape the room. This cannot be avoided because it is the nature of the game. However, different people can focus on different puzzles. They can freely float from puzzle to puzzle with no real penalty.

In short, gamers have a lot of true agency. They’re not forced to do something they don’t want to do. If they get stuck, they can try something else.

4. Escape Rooms have multiple built-in mechanics that ensure a variable difficulty level.

The ability to work on different puzzles or switch between them is one mechanic that allows players to change the difficulty level of the game. Another mechanic, present in every Escape Room I’ve ever been in, is the ability to ask for hints. In most cases, you are allowed three free hints that you and your team can ask for whenever things get stale. After that, you may receive additional hints with a time penalty.

The hint system is fantastic. There is nothing quite as frustrating as a game that forces you to solve a problem that you’ve lost interest in. This is especially true with people who don’t play a lot of games or solve a lot of puzzles in the first place. It’s an engagement killer. The hint system completely bypasses this.

By allowing players to change strategies on the fly and to request hints when they’re stuck again gives players real agency. This is often what is missing in board game designs, and seeing meaningful choices implemented well will make you a better board game designer.

5. Escape Rooms have built-in time constraints that keep them from becoming stale.

Your typical Escape Room is sixty minutes at a maximum. I think the time limit is a part of what keeps these games fresh. Without the time limit, you would not have the sense of urgency and you would run the risk of people just wanting to go home.

Built-in time constraints are not always sensible in board game design. In fact, they’re usually not. But if your game runs long and your audience doesn’t explicitly want that, then cut the play-time. A short but great board game is like a beloved EP by your favorite band. A long but uneven game is like a double album that you never want to listen to again.

6. Escape Rooms are still a novelty.

It’s no secret that large sections of the board game market run on novelty or fear of missing out. While there are plenty of deep criticisms which one can aim at monetizing FOMO, the truth is that human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty.

Escape Rooms started in 2007. Part of why they are interesting is because they’re new. When you’re making board games, you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the “second but better” approach is often more reliable.

However, you should generally stay on the “early adopter” side of the design curve. Your game is a lot more likely to please the most well-connected board gamers and stay fresh for a long time if you do something relatively novel. In other words, don’t just make another farming game with different colored cubes for resources!

Final Thoughts

Escape Rooms will broaden your board game design horizons. The medium in which Escape Rooms take place is so fresh and innovative, it’s hard to play one without walking away with at least one game design idea. Not to mention, they’re just plain fun!