My first play of Spirit Island was a bloodbath. We were all new to the game, trying to wrangle these temperamental spirits while invaders poured in like water in a bath. No matter what we did we felt like we were a step behind. Soon blight covered the island. Looking back, it’s a bit amusing to think about losing a game at the easiest difficulty. For a challenge, we now play at difficulty level 5 or so, and we could probably push ourselves even higher. Like the spirits in any individual game of Spirit Island, you get stronger the more you play. This palpable sense of personal progression is truly one of the highlights of the game, but overcoming the first bit of the strategic learning curve can be frustrating.
Talking with R. Eric Reuss, I learned that there’s someone out there who has beat the most difficult possible enemy, solo, with every spirit. I am not that person, and I’m still at a loss to comprehend how that accomplishment is even possible. If you’re here for the secret to such success, you’re going to be extremely disappointed. Go hunt down this ridiculous solo player–I’m sure they’re on BGG? I don’t know. If I beat level 9 anything I’d be posting it all over the forums.
This strategy guide is for those feeling overwhelmed by the easier difficulties. It’s for those seemingly weekly posters on r/boardgames who can’t beat the starter game and want someone to point them in a productive direction. I’m keeping the advice general–there’s so much that could be said about each individual spirit (and maybe I’ll do that at a later date), but newcomers should understand general principles before getting into the nitty-gritty. Here are seven tips to help you get better at Spirit Island.
1. Understand Timing and Priorities
If you’ve got a card to stop something the invaders are about to do, you’re probably too late. The fast/slow card types add complexity and richness to Spirit Island, but they also create a somewhat unintuitive rhythm. You choose which cards you’re going to play (and pay for them) before the invaders do anything, but everything with that turtle on it will happen after the invader step.
This means that you really need to think about the future in Spirit Island. Think about how the invaders grow on the island–they first explore, then they build in that same area, putting enough firepower down to blight that land the very next turn. Then they’re ravaging there right away, by which point it’s often too late to counter. The key is to use slow powers to interrupt that process. If you can kill a single person immediately after they explore a previously untarnished land, you’re preventing both the creation of a new building AND the ravage there.
Fast powers can be important, certainly, but in Spirit Island you have to help your future self while dealing with the immediate threat. Understanding how the timing works and using slow powers to disrupt the invader’s growth is absolutely critical.
2. Understand The Narrative Arc
Most games of Spirit Island follow a predictable narrative arc, at least in feeling. You start in a modest position and quickly the invaders start to spin out of control. You’re advancing in strength, but seemingly not as quick as they’re invading. In my experience, if I’m going to win, there’s a point at the halfway to ⅔ point in the game where that feeling of hopelessness recedes as our power level surpasses the invaders. Often unlocking more fear cards plays into this.
Understanding this arc helps you get into a proper frame of mind. The early game isn’t about winning, but about holding off disaster (often in the form of triggering the blight card early) as long as possible as you get better cards, gain access to elemental powers, and perhaps cordon off some areas of the board. Trust that you will start to gain the upper hand through smart play as a matter of time. Allowing some blight is okay, but you want to avoid any blight splash effects. Allowing some destruction now can be alright if you’re preventing future build up instead.
3. Communicate Effectively
I love the complexity of Spirit Island as a way to discourage alpha gaming. I mean, I’m generally a fan of complex games anyways, but it works so well here on multiple levels. But this does mean that it can be easy to overload someone with too much information if you’re trying to plan too much. I’ve found that establishing a thoughtful method of communication to be very helpful in my games.
First, I’ll make sure that everyone knows what the first priorities are for fast and slow powers. For instance, I might announce, “okay, we need fast on mountains and slow on wetlands”. This helps orient everyone and/or allow them to refocus on the immediate threats.
Second, my group has had a lot of success with very results-focused communication. Instead of saying something like “I’ve got a card that can defend 6”, they’ll say “This mountain is under control”. The former forces everyone to think about the implications of that statement, try to reconcile that with the person’s presence, and combine that information with their own cards. The latter allows a quick look at the board and the mental crossing-out of that mountain space. Or, maybe someone responds with, “I already have that space covered, is there another mountain you can clear instead?”. It’s so much easier and reduces the mental burden of everyone involved.
For more collaborative situations, the group can often pick up on what others can offer and communicate based on that. If Ben has Lightning’s Swift Strike, I might ask, “can you turn one of my slow powers fast?”. This is a yes/no question and if the answer is more complicated we’re on a solid communicative starting point to discuss priorities.
Honestly, this kind of results-focused communication was forged in the fires of Space Alert for my group, but we’ve used it to great success in Spirit Island. Give it a shot.
4. Combine Dahan and Defend Effects
The Dahan are relatively defenseless against the power of the invaders, but if they can survive a ravaging assault, they can hit back pretty hard. The key is to use your defend effects to protect the Dahan first, before they effectively give you a free attack by their strike. All of those powers that move Dahan aren’t just for spirits that utilize them through their abilities–the defend/Dahan combo is strong and can be used by anyone.
5. Don’t Forget About Elements
There are so many cool cards in Spirit Island that you can be forgiven for jumping on the most powerful-looking effect whenever you acquire a card. I know I made this mistake a lot in my first few games. I want those big attack cards, not some nuanced tactic! But you can’t forget about elements.
For most spirits, in most situations, you’re going to want to get their innate powers activated as soon as possible. The reason is simple: doing so essentially gives you another card per turn for free. Card plays are strictly limited by the rules, and any time a game lets you overcome that kind of boundary, you should take notice.
The innate powers can get quite powerful, but getting there requires almost a dedicated focus on acquiring cards with the right elements. Still, ask yourself, is the difference between the power I want and the power on the card with the right elements bigger than the innate power you’ll be able to play nearly every turn? I think you can do fine ignoring innate powers, but you should commit one way or the other–either go big or ignore them completely.
Never underestimate the power of movement abilities in Spirit Island. They may seem like half-hearted delay tactics, but that’s precisely the point. Any given land type is only going to go through the invader activation cycle a couple of times each game. If you can shuttle the invaders around to spaces where they’ll do nothing, they’ll…do nothing.
Remember that you don’t have to kill all of the invaders to win–smart play and the fear generated through that will push you towards a softer endgame that’s more manageable. Until then you’re in damage control, trying to reduce the amount of growth they have until your powers increase and your victory condition lessens.
The best way to stop a ravage this turn is to prevent the build last turn, and often the best way to do that is to remove all of the invaders from that space through a movement ability. Sure it’s a temporary solution, as you can’t predict what spaces will activate next, but because it’s a temporary solution the abilities that let you push invaders around typically affect more invaders than, for instance, an attack ability. Plus, if you’re playing with Ocean’s Hungry Grasp you can shove people into the swirling depths.
7. Plan For The End Game
Spirit Island’s changing win condition is a fantastic design decision in how it manipulates the narrative of the game. It might be one of my favorite aspects of this brilliant design. You shouldn’t forget about it when strategizing. Most of my games have ended with a fear 3 victory, but even after dozens of plays the final turn can sneak up on me. I’m sure a few times we could have clinched the victory a turn sooner if we had been paying closer attention to how much fear we’d been generating and planned to kill off cities instead of holding our ground.
Sometimes, however, you have an assembly of spirits that work better for a true fear victory (or maybe even fear 2). Some of this comes through studying the spirits and practice, but you should work with your compatriots to predict the turn in which you can try to go for the win and plan your available cards appropriately. This requires a shift in vision from generating value to accomplishing a singular goal, but that could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Do you have any tips that have helped you with Spirit Island? Share below!