Musings and Retrospectives

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Spirit Island Design Diary - Events

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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Event Cards are part of the Branch & Claw expansion, which was only split out from the core game late in development (for reasons of cost and learning-complexity). While you're learning the core game, Events are an unnecessary distraction, but once you're familiar with Spirit Island they do several very good things for the game, both mechanically and thematically!

You can see a sample Event Card at right. You draw one each Invader Phase, and most make three things happen: one of two Main Events at top; a Token Event underneath it that deals with Beasts, Disease, or (rarely) Strife; and a Dahan Event at bottom - the existing human inhabitants of Spirit Island taking some action.

Events didn't exist in the early prototype versions. So:

Why Events?

There were (initially) two driving factors:

Mechanically: The core game of Spirit Island has very little random chance. The only major sources of uncertainty about how the board will unfold on a given turn are "Where will the Invaders start their Explore-Build-Ravage cycle next?" and "How will the Invaders panic if we've earned Fear Cards?"

So as you play more, you start to be able to predict victory further and further ahead of time. Eventually - and the number of plays I'm talking about here varies a *lot*, for some players it's 5-10 games and others it's 40-50 - you can sometimes foresee wins with near-certainty 2+ turns ahead of time, which drains the tension out of the endgame. It can still be fun to stomp on Invaders, but it becomes a lot less engaging when you know you've got it in the bag.

The Event deck introduces a bit of uncertainty, a jitter in that mental needle tracking likelihood-of-win. The Event Cards average out to something near neutral-benefit, but they can alter many details of what transpires... and not knowing those details transforms "We're certainly going to win in 2-3 turns" into "We've got a good shot at winning in 2-3 turns", and that makes all the difference in terms of game interest.

(But with new players, that jitter is bad: they're still learning the basic dynamics of the game. Per-game variation just makes it tougher to learn.)

If you're about to lose, Events also hold out a glimmer of hope that perhaps you'll survive the coming Invader Phase - though in the core game, Fear Cards often serve that purpose, too.

Thematically: The Invaders are humans, not predictable robots. The Dahan are humans, not obedient minions. The wildest Beasts of the island may make the Invaders' lives difficult (or short), but not in an organized way. In short, there are many living systems on the island, and living systems tend towards the messy and unpredictable. An Event deck creates that unpredictability, that sense of life and wait-you-did-what?

As I implemented Events, I found some other benefits: The token events let Strife, Disease, and (especially) Beasts interact with the board in a variety of ways, expanding and refining their effects without adding any additional rules overhead. It's highly in keeping with the theme for the Invaders to pull unpleasant surprises from time to time: the Spirits are for the most part slow and reactive, the Invaders faster. And the game's a lot more tense when leaving 1 Explorer in a land about to Ravage is very likely to be safe, but not 100% guaranteed.

I also found - the hard way, over and over - that some sorts of Events were just un-fun: for instance, anything which subverted the usual Invader Action progression too heavily undercut the core strategy of the game. Learning to distinguish "this Event is painful and makes the game harder" from "this Event is painful and makes the game un-fun" took some time, especially as some were only ferociously un-fun one time in four.

Choice Events

Not all the Events look like the one above. Some offer a situation with a choice to be made, like at right. A choice may have costs associated with it, or not, but the two options always have rather different consequences.

When first making Events, I'd considered including ones based off of mini-stories, but never even tried prototyping it - I felt like there just wasn't enough space on the cards to make it work. Playtesters kept bringing it up as something they'd enjoy seeing, though, and one (Brian - thanks, Brian!) tossed out a few seed ideas that got me thinking along the lines of crux choice rather than paragraph of narrative. Story was still present, but via the framing of a situation and the choices made in response, not as a long blurb of narrative text.

Some early Choice Events offered three distinct choices, but testing found that was too much for players to keep in their heads - particularly when hearing them read out loud. So they all became A-or-B choices - which may have been for the best anyhow, as card space is limited.

Risks and Randomizers

I knew I didn't want Events to be too predictable, so I made a modest number of the early Event Cards involve a random terrain or a random land#. The cards all had a terrain printed in one bottom corner and a land# in the other bottom corner, for use as randomizers - an Event might say, eg, "Draw a random land#. On each board, add a Town to that land."

I got pushback on this from several sources, most heavily from Christopher of Greater Than Games, who felt both that the extra icons on each card were confusing and distracting, and that the Events which used them were generally terrible. (And indeed, there was a strong overlap between them and the "un-fun" Events mentioned above.) I dropped over half of those Events, and found ways to make the remaining ones work without the terrain/land# randomizers. (Which also made them less swingy.)

Then Choice Events came along. Sometimes, it seemed they would be both more thematic and more interesting when one of the options involved taking a risk.

What proved easiest and best was using the Power decks as a randomizer: you'd flip a Minor Power, say, and check some quality of the revealed card. This can even let the randomization be thematic - eg, in Years of Little Rain (at right), flipped Power Cards that grant a Water element are good, ones without are bad.

There's some chance in how these risks play out - but the tension and theme they add is entirely worth it, and players will usually have the option of taking a risk-free path... with its own costs and consequences.
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Mon Jul 31, 2017 6:40 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - the Dahan

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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The Dahan are the first human inhabitants of Spirit Island, who have resided there long enough to develop their own language and culture - particularly since travel to other islands was made more difficult by a particularly hungry Ocean spirit a few centuries ago.

At the game’s start, the Dahan are just recovering from the foreign diseases which swept across the Island in the wake of the first major Invader settlements. They will work with the Spirits if requested, and fight back against the Invaders if attacked, but otherwise tend to their own affairs.

Creating Dahan Culture: Research and Art

Most of the lore of Spirit Island has been put together in piecemeal bits here and there, but the Dahan are a notable exception. I wanted to make the Dahan culture a plausible one, reflecting the realities of living on an island with early tech and limited trade. But I also wanted to ensure that it wasn’t a caricature of “island primitives” or “noble savages”. And on the third hand, I wanted them to be their own people, avoiding appropriation of elements specific to other individual cultures.

I hit the library, the internet, and some JSTOR articles a historian friend was kind enough to pull up for me. No single book had the sort of overview-of-island-culture-similarities I was seeking, so I ended up drilling down on individual topics - eg, a survey of tattooing practices across Oceania - and on particular cultures, or types-of-cultures.

The end result of this research was a 25-30 page overview of Dahan culture (and a bit of history). I’m simultaneously proud of it and keenly aware of how limited it is: entire books are insufficient to describe real-world cultures. But while it's incomplete (some sections are blank, or placeholders), it's still enough, I think, to make the Dahan their own people, not a copy-paste-tweak of another culture.

Of course, the largest area of visibility most players have into the Dahan comes through the artwork. I distilled my page-long art guidelines for the Dahan to a list of more essential bullet-points with some image-links for reference... but I was two degrees removed from the art creation (I never was in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly 200 arts not everything came through consistently. However, the #1-most-important request was honored in nearly every case: the Dahan are people. They’re lanky, chunky, graceful, clumsy, angry, laughing women and men, not fetished super-athletes or freaky cannibals out of a dime-store novel.

(Some Power cards depict them as affected by the Spirits - veiled in darkness, or with wings - but hopefully, it’s obvious that any supernatural elements are the effects of what the Spirit is doing. The Dahan have no magic themselves, though they do occasionally assist Spirits' rituals via dance, song, offerings, the making of patterns, etc.)

Where did the name “Dahan” come from?

For most of development, they were simply “the Islanders”, though I knew I wanted to name them eventually: the words “Islander” and “Invader” look too similar on a quick glance, and besides, to feel like a real people they needed a name!

After finishing my research on their culture, I set about brainstorming a name. How hard could it be? My only constraints were:

E 1. It shouldn’t be too long or imposing to pronounce. (Or else people won’t use it, and it’ll take up too much space when referenced on cards.) (This was before I knew that card effects would use iconography for physical pieces.)
E 2. It should use the sounds of their language. (A linguist friend had been kind enough to help me develop a plausible list of phonemes that wouldn’t localize to any single part of the world that I could use when specifying names used by the Islanders.)
E 3. It shouldn’t be confusing when read out loud as part of game effects. (For instance, the name “Atu” looks fine until you say “Push one Atu to a Jungle”, whereupon the sound-similarity to “two” / “to” makes it confusing.)
E 4. It shouldn’t sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
E 5. It shouldn’t be the name of an existing or recently-existing peoples / ethnic group. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the name of a long-ago one either.
E 6. It shouldn’t be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the name of a prominent regional location.
E 7. It shouldn’t be a curse / dirty word in some other language. Ideally, it wouldn’t be a word with a strong negative connotation, either.

It turned out that #1 and #2 (concise; world-common phonemes) made the last three criteria *much* more difficult, because short names made from phonemes used worldwide tend to have been used already! It took a lot of brainstorming, Googling, and use of websites which answer “what does [X] mean in other languages?” At one point I had a shortlist of about 8 candidates… all of which turned out to not work!

Eventually I found a few names that worked, and "Dahan" met the criteria best. It does mean "slow" in Tagalog, but a friend's family from the Philippines said it wasn't in a negative-connotation way - more one of "deliberate / not-hasty". So Dahan it was!

Since Spirit Island came out, a few people have pointed out that "Dahan" rhymes with "Catan" (depending how you pronounce the latter), and asked if it was intentional. I'm afraid it's entirely coincidence - or possibly a result of both Klaus Teuber and I following a similar set of constraints. (I don't know how he came up with the name "Catan".)

Since we're talking about it, how do you pronounce "Dahan", anyhow?

Both "a" sounds are an "ah" like in "father". (Or very close to that. Apparently English does this sound slightly differently than much of the world?) Light emphasis on the second syllable.

Why both Spirits and Dahan?

On occasion, someone asks why there are both Spirits and Dahan. Wouldn’t it suffice to have just one of them resisting the Invaders?

It’s true that just one or the other would have been simpler, but either such game had problems that I felt outweighed the simplicity.

“Just Spirits, no Dahan”:
E Thematically, it loses the human-vs-human aspect of colonization, shifting the theme of the game away from “anti-colonial” towards “environmental”. While I’m all for respecting the environment, it was the colonial nature of so many Eurogames I was looking to reverse.
E Socially, to the extent the game remains anti-colonial, the Spirits then end up standing in for the (absent) indigenous peoples. This portrays the indigenous peoples as inhuman, magical, Other - which is not something I want to be doing.
E Mechanically, the Dahan are a strong part of the positional challenge of the game. Some Spirit Powers require assistance from from the Dahan; the Dahan fight (for good or ill) in Ravaging terrains; Fear effects may cause the Invaders to flee from lands with Dahan; and more. Dropping them would result in a blander experience.
E ...and finally, the players of the game are human, and so empathize with the Dahan in a way they don’t with the Spirits. On an abstract mechanical level, a Dahan village being destroyed merely costs a resource useful in throwing back the Invaders - but many players viscerally want to save the Dahan, independent of any mechanical value or utility. That's important.

“Just Dahan, no Spirits”:
E Thematically, this would be a completely different game - not “Spirit Island”!
E Socially, a game with just the Dahan shouldn’t involve magic. They’re a different culture, sure, but human just like us, and that’s part of the point - shifting Spirit-like powers onto them (as “tribal magics” or the like) makes them just as much of a magical-other as having the Spirits stand in for them.
E Many of the mechanics Spirits use don’t work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: Presence, Energy, Elements, Powers, Growth, and more.
E Mechanics for Invader interaction with the Dahan would also need to change. E.g.: historically, colonizers often played local tribes off against each other. In Spirit Island, there are shades of this - attacking one group of Dahan doesn’t incite Dahan elsewhere to counterattack - but the existence of the Spirits means these techniques doesn’t work as well as they did historically. (Partly because “the will of the Spirits is against the Invaders” is clearer, partly because many centuries of “us vs. the Spirits” gave rise to a measure of common cultural identity among the Dahan, despite clan differences.) Likewise for cultural assimilation, which would likely have needed to take on a more prominent role.
E The above mechanical-thematic changes would have removed many of the things testers had said they particularly enjoyed about the game: the fantasy of the setting, the evocative nature of the Spirits, the slow build-up from limited minor abilities to earth-shattering levels of power.

In short, “Dahan Island” would have been an entirely different game on nearly every level.

Despite all that, I did - twice - take a hard look at reworking the game as Dahan-only, because in a co-op, only player-run positions have true agency, and I don’t like that the Dahan lack that. I'm hoping that Spirit Island will prove successful enough to support expansions, as I have some notions for making the Dahan a playable position, which I think would be awesome - playing them alongside the Spirits gets around many of the difficulties above, and could result in an interestingly different type of play.

Ancestry vs. Culture

When two peoples meet and mingle, there will be some level of cultural transmission - and perhaps assimilation. Spirit Island has this in both directions: the Kingdom of Sweden can convert Dahan to their cause (via policies that favor and protect locals who voluntarily join their rule), and the Power Card "Call of the Dahan Ways" can call Invaders to a way of life like the Dahan's.

I knew from the start that I needed to include some amount of assimilation (Spirit Island slightly downplays it vs. historically, as mentioned above), and the simple, straightforward way to represent it was simply to replace a Dahan piece with a Town or vice versa. But for a while, I felt weird about that solution, and I continued with it only because I couldn't come up with a good replacement. I eventually realized I was subconsciously assuming that pieces represented both race and culture - and replacing one type of piece with another means rather different things in those two different contexts!

At that point, I formalized that whether a set of humans is represented by a Dahan or Invader piece represents culture - or, a little more precisely, how that set of humans interacts with the land, the Spirits, and each other.

This later helped me to figure out ways to handle more complex situations - eg, plantation slaves who have successfully rebelled when playing vs. the French Plantation Colony. Assuming they avoid the Invaders' mistakes and try to go live off the land, should that factor into the gameplay? How? (My eventual answer: when Dahan assistance proves critical to a local uprising, it creates enough of a bridge of trust for the two to work together: the former slaves are helped by the Dahan to survive in the wilds - becoming more culturally Dahan in the process - and lend aid to the Dahan. Without that trust, the former slaves strike off on their own, and the hostile environment keeps them too small in number and preoccupied with survival to play a further part in the conflict.)

How have the Dahan evolved mechanically?

The Dahan are mechanically very similar to their initial incarnation. There were originally more of them per board (8), but they only did 1 Damage each when counterattacking. Making their Health and Damage symmetrical (2/2) was easier to remember, clearly placed them as analogues of the Invaders’ Towns, and - once I’d fleshed out their culture - was more thematically appropriate.

Not precisely a Dahan mechanic but strongly related is how the Invaders apply Ravage Damage, which shifted around many times. At first they damaged three things in sequence: one of (Presence or Dahan), then the other of those, then the land. When Presence stopped taking Damage (instead being destroyed by Blight) the Dahan would either take damage before or after the land, depending on iteration (or player choice, in some iterations). For a little while, there was a notion of Dahan Morale, where they were either Bold (took Damage before the land) or Cautious (took Damage afterwards), but that complexity brought little benefit and was quickly dropped.

It became clear that making Ravage damage mostly deterministic (ie, not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go: it kept Ravage streamlined, and was a bit more thematic. But “land first” made Dahan counterattacks too easy, and “Dahan first” turned the Dahan into a Blight buffer, which both made the board position seem more under control than was true and introduced a “constantly sacrificing the Dahan” dynamic that I really didn’t like.

Eventually, I tried having the Invaders Damage both the Dahan and the land simultaneously and equally, and it worked much better than anything prior - it’s a slightly more complex rule, but is deterministic (keeping Ravage streamlined), and makes the Invaders an equal-and-simultaneous threat to both Spirits and Dahan, which fits the mood of the game best and is more thematically true: expansion of farmed territory went hand-in-hand with increased conflicts vs. the local populace.

The only other change to the Dahan I can think of comes from Event Cards, in the Branch & Claw expansion. Each of those has a Dahan Event - perhaps they ready defenses against the Invaders, perhaps they seek better lands to live in, perhaps enough time has passed for a new generation to come of age. It’s not full agency, but it gives them a sense of life and autonomy, and helps them feel a little less like obedient minions and more like allies with lives of their own.

Edit: Forgot to put this into the "Design Diaries" category; apologies if the update re-triggers subscriptions.
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Sun Jul 23, 2017 6:57 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Fear and Victory

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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In Spirit Island, Fear is a good thing - it's you striking terror into the hearts of the Invaders. Exactly how they'll react isn't predictable, but it often involves some of them fleeing the island, and as you earn more Fear Cards the game's victory condition becomes easier + easier.

1. Fear

Fear is one of the few major systems in Spirit Island that wasn't present in the initial design. After a month or two of testing, I realized that the Invaders felt not merely implacable (good) but inhuman (bad) - here they are facing down all these inexplicable disasters, and it doesn't affect what they do? At all?

I briefly tried working Fear just like Damage - affecting only the Invader pieces in a given land. But littering the board with fear tokens made things super-cluttered, involved way too many rules, and didn't really represent the "Invader morale as a whole" I was looking for.

So I swapped to a Fear track. Powers could do Fear alongside their other effects. If they targeted a land with Invaders, the Fear track would advance; destroying Cities also did Fear. If the Fear track hit its end, the players would earn a Fear level with some static benefit and reset the track. The first versions of this required earning 4 Fear/player to gain a benefit, but that didn't happen often enough, so I swapped to 2 Fear/player:

I demoed Spirit Island many times at Origins that year, and one playtest resulted in a huge amount of insightful, useful feedback, including about Fear. (Thanks, Jared + Luke!) They wanted Fear to be more relevant: they'd won while only reaching one or two Fear spaces. That didn't feel right or fun for them... and they wanted the rewards to be game-to-game variable, for replayability. I also realized the effects should probably be hidden (mostly for thematic reasons), so the next Fear Track featured spaces for 7 face-down tiles:

This worked better, but the big challenge became remembering. Players forgot to take their bonus Fear when destroying Cities, or to move Fear back when new ones arrived. Players forgot whether they'd done Fear. Players would jostle the track, and not be able to remember where the marker should go. And still, Fear only really felt relevant when Spirits went heavily into Fear-inflicting powers.

The two parts of this problem proved fixable with a single change: make destroying a Town (then called a Settlement) cause Fear. Towns get destroyed much more often than Cities, and that repetition helped players internalize the rule. It also added much more "baseline" Fear (ie, Fear earned without explicit Fear-dealing Powers), making Fear feel more relevant in every game. With a few other tweaks (dropping the "-1 Fear per City built" as too hard to remember), we had:

By this point, I was testing ways to boost difficulty, and ran into a problem: making the game harder didn't make a Fear victory much harder. So as the game got more difficult, "just do Fear" became a more + more dominant strategy. I started increasing the # of tiles you had to work through as game difficulty rose, which for clarity's sake resulted in consolidating each level of Fear (by then called "Fright Level") into a single stack of tiles.

Eventually, I got tired of making and stacking tiles, and shifted Fear effects to cards. This also let them be a little more complex - the tiles were extremely space-limited!



The "track" mechanism was still problematic; new players always had fencepost errors with whether the "reset" space was an actual space that needed to be traversed, and bumping the track was a constant issue. I tried substituting a pool of tokens that got moved, and found it worked much better: it was bump-proof, the slightly greater physicality involved in shifting a few tokens (rather than just advancing a cube) let players recollect better whether they'd tallied the Fear for a given act, and there were no more fencepost errors.

I was also trying to simplify game setup - partly for player experience, partly out of simple self-preservation, as I was running so many solo tests - and Fear Deck construction was one of the bigger hassles. You had to shuffle 3 separate small piles of cards, which was irritating. But Fear effects were generally pretty short (due to having been on tiles once upon a time), so I consolidated them 3 to a card (thematically related, but increasing in effectiveness), so any card could give an effect for any Terror Level. Now there was just one deck of cards to shuffle - and dividers between Terror Levels avoided needing 3 separate stacks:

...which is the system in the final game, though there was still a lot more iteration in getting the individual Fear effects right. (There are a lot of very interesting / thematic effects which either aren't the right power level or are too swingy in how much they hit/miss. It's OK if Level 1 effects aren't too reliable, but Level 2 and 3 effects should be useful most of the time.)

Oh, and the front of a final Fear card looks like this:

2. Victory

Main victory: Early versions of Spirit Island simply had "Destroy all Cities" as the victory condition - the theory being that once the Invaders' main power was broken, you could mop up at your leisure. (And mechanically, playing whack-a-mole with a few Explorers in endgame wasn't super-fun.) Once Fear came on the scene, "Frighten the Invaders away" become a second means to victory.

Somewhere along the line, I started having trouble with certain Spirits being able to achieve blitz victories: if a Spirit was fast enough out of the gate, it could take down the starting City on its board before another could conceivably be built. For a while I just accepted it as a Spirit constraint, but it kept cropping up. After some brainstorming, I tied the victory condition to the Terror Level - after all, accidents do happen, and just because one City sinks into the swamp is no reason to abandon this lovely island.

This worked great (and integrated the Fear victory nicely). The only changes made from then on were details of what exactly you needed to destroy.

The Reckoning: For a long time, the Invader Deck had four stages: after the double-terrain Stage 3 cards were The Reckoning. Each one caused the Invaders to do something terrible - add a Blight to every land with a City, or destroy a Dahan in every land with a City or Town - and then test a loss condition of some sort. If you survived all the Reckoning cards in the deck, you won.

The trouble was, games hit that showdown vanishingly rarely: players would usually win or lose long before that time. I was concerned about stalemates with strongly defensive strategies (which I wanted to be viable) - but eventually concluded that "lose when the deck runs out" was simpler. Defensive spirits need to manage some sort of pivot to offense (be that damage or Fear) in order to win.

Bonus Victory Conditions: For a while, some Fear cards gave you bonus victory conditions - things like "Dahan outnumber (Towns + Cities) in all lands" or "Disease in every land with a City or Town" or "Earn 5 Fear Cards in a single turn".

The trouble was that how hard these were to achieve depended *extremely* heavily on the board state, the Spirits being played, and - most importantly - when you happened to draw them. Balancing them so they were interesting alongside the regular victory condition was nearly impossible. However, the core concept migrated over to Scenarios, where you know the alternate victory condition from the start.

As I post this, some Kickstarter backers have started getting their copies. Hooray! It's exciting reading reactions, and that many people are having a good time with the game.!
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Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:00 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Presence and Sacred Sites

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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At Origins last week, I finally got the chance to see (and play with) a production copy of Spirit Island! It was great, and I can't wait to have one in my home. People were super-enthusiastic about it, too, which made for a great convention.

I haven't had much time since getting back to write, but this bit was already mostly complete, so here's a brief history of how Presence has changed.

- - -

The Spirits in Spirit Island have always had "Presence" - pieces indicating where they exist within the land, the places from which they can exert their strength (in the form of Powers). But the details of how Presence worked have changed substantially. Here are the differences between "how it used to be" and the final game, in the rough order that they were changed/dropped:

Things that are No Longer True about Presence

Spirits started with 5 Presence on the board - several in your Spirit Land, and a few more elsewhere. This was because Energy gain was a flat multiple of # of Presence on the board. I simplified this one quickly; with the Hansa-Teutonica style Presence track, you were always looking at your spirit panel rather than counting board presence anyhow.

Presence was limited by terrain. At first, each Spirit had a different Presence limit in each terrain-type - eg, a Spirit might only be able to have 2 Presence/land in Hills or Wetland, 1 Presence per Sands, and none in Jungle. This took a lot of mental overhead, so was rapidly simplified to "there's one terrain each spirit flatly can't place Presence into". That persisted for a little while, but proved to be one of the rules that new players (a) forgot most often, and (b) found most frustrating when they remembered it, so it got cut. (Though once Growth was created, some spirits got "soft" terrain limitations due to Growth choices.)

Presence was returned to the Spirit panel when it was destroyed. On the bright side, this meant you couldn't really run out of Presence. On the MUCH larger down-side, you could easily end up in a game-state where victory was hopeless because you'd lost so much Presence that you were back near starting-game power levels, but it would take an hour to play through to the point where you actually lost the game. Dropping this made for a much more satisfying arc, as well as thematically decoupling "size/strength of spirit" from "how hurt is this spirit?", which turns out to be appropriate for the setting.

Only one Spirit could have Presence in a given land. There was only "room" for one Spirit (of the players' potence/size) to draw power from a given land. Between this rule and the terrain restrictions, there was a huge additional positional-puzzle aspect to the game of figuring out ways to spread unobstructed and getting everyone's Presence into good positions. While this was a fun challenge for experienced players, it proved a terrible dynamic for starting players - in one semi-catastrophic five-player test, the Invaders got wiped off of four boards, but the spirit on that fifth board had put Presence in so many lands that nobody else could get in to help, leaving four players with virtually nothing to do while that last spirit flailed at the Invaders for several turns. (This was also the playtest which led to the "Invaders Explore from Oceans" rule, so that truly locking down a board forever is extremely difficult.)

There was an interim state where only two Spirits could have Presence in a land, which semi-fixed the problem and allowed for an interesting dynamic with Spirit-targeting powers, which used the rule "Can only target Spirits with whom you share a land" - you got this neat desire for everyone to set up camp with each other spirit, which in turn encouraged localized cooperation - but the limit still proved overly restrictive / unpleasant to learn with, so it got dropped.

Presence had Health. Invader damage could harm Spirit Presence, Dahan, or the land; the spirits chose in which order the damage was done. (This was instead of Blight destroying Spirit Presence.) This did lead to some interesting game (and possibly moral) decisions where Spirits would sacrifice themselves so that the Dahan could survive to fight back, or throw the Dahan under the bus to avoid being harmed themselves, but there was this problematic dynamic where the land tended to stay unblighted for a really long time because Spirits would take the hit first. Eventually this led to Presence not having health and instead being destroyed when Blight is added, which is much more thematic anyhow.

Presence was added the same way by all Spirits. I touched on this in the Powers entry - there were 3 standard power cards that all spirits got, which let them add Presence and Sacred Sites. Dropping those cards was intertwined with two other changes:

Sacred Sites were a distinct type of piece, rather than "a land with 2+ of your Presence". They had to be added where you had Presence, by using one of the standard starting powers and spending a modest chunk of Energy. (The prototype component for them was those little acrylic gemstones.) If you ever lost all your Presence in a land, the Sacred Site vanished. Your # of Sacred Sites controlled how many Card Plays per turn you got, while your Presence controlled how much Energy you got.

I dropped Sacred Sites sometime in 2013. I'd gotten feedback from one player to the effect of, "I feel like Sacred Sites should either be more deeply integrated - like each Spirit should get some special power/effect where they have one - or like they should just not be there." I nodded, practicing graceful acceptance of feedback I privately disagreed with - Sacred Sites were so integrated into the game there was no way to drop them, right? They acted as an origin constraint for Powers, controlled Plays/turn, and were deeply woven into the interesting decisions of "develop infrastructure vs. immediate counter-Invader action". And it wasn't like I was hearing this from lots of people; it was just one player. But later on, while considering how I could cut complexity, the comment came back to me. Pleasantly (and startlingly), the "2+ Presence = Sacred Site" for targeting Powers worked more or less flawlessly from the instant it was tried, and dropping the separate piece simplified or eliminated a whole bunch of rules. There were some follow-on challenges surrounding Card Plays, though:

There was a single Presence track. It gave you Energy, and perhaps Elements. After dropping Sacred Sites as a separate piece, the question arose: how do you get more Card Plays? I experimented: continuing to base it off the # of Sacred Sites (lands with 2+ Presence) you had in play; dual Presence tracks; a single Presence track having progressive improvements to each; etc. The dual-track version was most intuitive to players and offered the exciting prospect of choice in path of development for each Spirit, rather than just pace of development.

But Presence was still being added via a standard set of starting powers, and this in concert with dual Presence tracks created a bad dynamic: before, rushing infrastructure over short-term Invader repulsion would rocket you halfway up your Presence track in a few turns. That was fine; the lack of fighting vs. the Invaders meant they were also somewhat stronger. But with two shorter Presence tracks, you could rocket all the way up one or the other much faster, and the Invaders didn't gain that much ground via your inattention - each Presence placement was effectively twice as good. This problem could be avoided by nerfing both Presence tracks, but that made the arc of the game unsatisfying and more or less mandated rushing infrastructure. And the notional fix of "make Presence placement harder/more expensive" brought its own set of problems.

The fix for this came after PAX East 2014, when I realized I should drop the standard starting powers in favor of having 4 Unique Powers, for more spirit differentiation + fewer starting card choices. How to get Presence onto the board? "Just add one Presence/turn" was simple and functional, but wasn't fun; it felt very metronomic. Eventually I settled on the Growth system, which worked so well that it's pretty much overwritten my memories of other experiments.

That's about it! My next post will take a look at Fear and Victory.
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Thu Jun 22, 2017 5:00 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - the Island Boards

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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I'm incredibly excited: the latest Kickstarter update says that Spirit Island has been printed and is on its way towards our shores! I'd been holding off on more designer diaries until the production issues were hammered out - now that that the games are in transit I feel like it's not too much of a tease to start these up again.


From the very beginning, the island has been divided into lands, where each land is "a distinct place". Invaders in one land aren't in another one; a Power used on a land affects only things which are there; range is measured in "# of lands distant"; etc.

But the earliest boards didn't look at all like the current ones.

The very first version was a hand-scrawled, non-modular island. While I had the notion that every land would eventually be a particular type of wilderness, the Invaders ignored terrain, expanding along arrows from one land to another.

This didn't work very well in solo experimentation - the arrows seemed super-busy and hard to parse. (I've since seen it done better, I think in Legends of Andor?) But that experimentation also led to the Explore-Build-Ravage system the Invaders use (more on that in another post), which in turn made it clear that terrain was important for more than just Spirit abilities.

The second board looked like this:


It's still a single island, but with a hex layout rather than organic hand-drawn lands. Messing around with this validated the basic Invader AI concepts, but the game scaling was a bit problematic.

At this point, I back-burnered the project for a while - I was daunted by its sheer scale, the prospect of how much stuff I'd need to create and playtest to do it justice as a strongly thematic game - none of my prior designs had involved so many asymmetric positions, loads of special powers, or much in the way of worldbuilding.

I pulled it back into focus in early 2012 after a conversation with Ted Vessenes, who was really enthusiastic about this Spirit Island idea. Enthusiasm from other people has always been a strong motivator for me, so I dusted off my notes, did a huge pile of brainstorming on "things that spirits might do", and came up with new maps:


(B) is the initial hex-based board draft from early 2012. I decided the best way to scale the game for more/fewer players was to scale the size of the island; plus, modular boards would allow for game-to-game variability. I went for a weird shape so the island wouldn't look like a square or a simple hexagon (few islands do), though with regular hex borders between boards so they could (in theory) interlock in lots of interesting ways.

(C) is the first board any playtesters ever used, at Intercon in March of 2012. I made the lands organic (though the boards themselves remain hex-based); it seemed more thematic and made it clearer that each area of contiguous terrain was one discrete location (rather than "3 hexes of forest"). There's very little coastline (which at this point had no mechanical function), 10 lands (of 5 different terrain types), and a "Spirit homeland" - that funny circle-flare land near the top. (The initial working title was Genius Loci, and each spirit was the Spirit Of A Place - the volcano, the river-source, the ancient copse - and that special land was The Place. Each Spirit would have its own board.)

Those tests proved incredibly valuable, both for lessons learned and for enthusiasm. One map-related lesson was that playtesters could not keep different types of rainforest conceptually distinct in their head - at least, not well enough to use them as different terrain types, so terrains would have to be a little more iconically distinctive and a little less realistic. On the enthusiasm front, people were not merely wanting to play again but dragging friends over and saying "come try this out!". That's unusual for a game in such a rough state, even with friends, and was a strong signal to keep working on this game.


(D) post-dates (C) by about a week, updating the board shape - the combinations with hexes just weren't working out as interestingly as I'd hoped; there were too many "not quite right" fits with insufficient contact between parts of the board. I fell back on my knowledge of tessellations and experimented with a bunch of triangle/square/hexagon variations, eventually settling on a rhombus with organically distorted edges that (since they tessellated) would interlock neatly. The (much expanded) ocean edge is deliberately different so you can't place it as an interior edge by accident. The tessellation also let me define a set of fixed boundary-points for lands, so that land borders on one board would never be touching/too close to land borders on an adjacent board, eliminating the "...are those lands touching by 1mm?" problem.

This revision also introduced setup iconography: #1 and #2 in white boxes for starting Invader territories, brown discs for Dahan, red discs for Presence, stars for Sacred Sites (which were a separate type of piece back then). I used #1 and #2 rather than any iconography because I was still experimenting heavily with what an appropriate starting complement of Invaders was.

I waffled back and forth over whether to craft the board tessellations so that you could flip the boards over and use Side B (offset by half a board-width) with Side A for more variety - I eventually decided against it because it made the edges look too regular / non-natural. As things turned out, I'm doubly glad I did this, because the thematic maps (on the reverse side) really shouldn't be mixed play-wise or graphically with the balanced maps on the front.


(E) is from a month or two later. It drops from 5 terrains to 4, and with that from 10 lands to 8. I came to this decision reluctantly, as 10 lands allowed for more nuance in the positional maneuverings - carving out defended areas that the Invaders couldn't Explore into. But 5 terrains was just too high-variance, and it took too long on average before a given terrain got revisited (if it did at all). But the core dynamic was still there... and as it turned out, the thematic side let me play around with 9-10 lands per board again, so all's well that ends well.

This is the last revision with the Spirit Land - the next iteration dropped it, and with it a host of special-case rules and possibilities for stalled games:


(F) is from later that month. Between dropping the Spirit Land and going from 10 lands to 8, piece overflow happened a lot less often.

(At this point, I had my first child, and my design pace slowed waaaaay down.)

(G) is from 2013, several iterations later, which were mostly about updating iconography. All lands now have numbers, both so they can be referenced by setup instructions / Adversary effects / events, and also so that lands can be unambiguously referenced. Invader pieces are shown explicitly rather than implied. It's also tilted, as that allowed for fitting a slightly larger map on an 8.5"x11" piece of paper. Note the exterior tic-lines around the 3 land-based edges; those are the possible points where lands can have boundaries.

There were many iterations after that, but little change in their general appearance - the further exploration was more about board topology, and what sorts of boards work well or poorly for interesting and balanced gameplay. For instance, the board shown in (G) got cut because land #4 is adjacent to every other land on the board (and at least one off of it). This was a small problem because you could block off the Invaders from lands 6 and 7 by keeping just that one land clear, and a bigger problem because Spirits could set up a Sacred Site in it and have range-1-from-Sacred-Site access to more than an entire board. Other trials found that having variance in the number of coastal lands made a noticeable difference to gameplay, particularly after the "Invaders Explore from Ocean" rule was introduced.

Finally, we have the (almost) production versions. For the balanced sides of the boards, the graphic designer decided to stick with a textured look (albeit with professionally commissioned textures rather than my off-the-shelf slapdashery) and a stitched-border motif to make it feel like a map the Dahan might use:

(The black lines on the Wetlands are a texture artifact of that particular proofing file; they aren't in the later proofs I looked at.)

The rulebook gives standard ways to combine the balanced boards for 2p/3p/4p play, but if you want to (and you don't mind a bit of change in game difficulty) you can mix it up and fit them together however you like. (Rules of thumb: the more edges connecting between boards, the harder the game. The more coastal cul-de-sacs with few land connections, the harder the game. The more inland cul-de-sacs, the easier the game.)

For the thematic side of the boards, Greater than Games commissioned a large artwork map of the entire island, with a more graphical / satellite's-eye-view style:

The terrain types are still distinct, but not so blazingly different, and there's some shading into each other (though not so much that you can't tell which terrain type each land is). There's a bit of variation in what a given terrain looks like - see the Sands at top left vs. the one at bottom right - and some ornamentation that doesn't affect gameplay, like the river through land #1 and the picture of A Spread of Rampant Green in land #5.

...and that brings us up to now! The boards are one of the things I'm most looking forward to about playing with a final-printed version of the game - paper boards curl, and slide over each other so easily; having boards that actually bump up against one another will be lovely. :-)
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Tue May 30, 2017 2:38 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Questions of Setting

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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The Kickstarter has wrapped up, quite successfully! Spirit-centric updates got so much enthusiasm that they ate up most of my writing time during the campaign, but enough folks have said they'd enjoy reading further Designer Diaries that I'll continue posting them from time to time.

I was going to look at boards, Presence/Sacred Sites, and an interesting thematic question: where is Spirit Island, anyway? But it turns out that each of those is an entire post in itself, so for now I'll just answer the last.

It's still about design, just thematic design rather than mechanical. (There'll be more in this vein when I post about the Dahan.)

So where is Spirit Island, anyway?

My intent has always been for there to be a wide range of plausible locations and time periods for Spirit Island, so that players could fight against a wide variety of historical Adversaries. Many colonizers were limited in where they expanded, or founded colonies only before/after a certain century. Basically, I wanted Spirit Island to be able to take on aspects of a wide variety of historical conflicts - partly for the aforementioned gameplay reasons, partly so that if someone really wants to feel like they're driving the Invaders out of a (real) land they have some cultural attachment to, they can.

This level of generalization / archetypicality is, of course, ludicrous. Peoples, flora, fauna, climate, and geology vary extensively from place to place in the world. Many plants we tend to think of as generically "tropical" started out in one corner of the world (and were often spread by colonizing Europeans!). A single person's clothing, a single plant, a single animal may be enough to localize to a specific place... but probably only for an expert. The average boardgamer isn't going to know.

And there were some things that could be done to make it a bit trickier: the plants and animals of Spirit Island are distinctive to it; even those the Dahan brought with them when they came to the island long ago have been transmuted by the Spirits to better fit in with the local ecosystem. (There's a Choice Event which presents the same option for the Invaders' imported species.) The Dahan language uses phoenemes that are commonly found across the globe. Where possible, I avoided obvious markers-of-place in the Dahan culture. And so forth.

But there are areas I couldn't help but make traces. The canonical island map has rain shadows mostly on the northwest side of high lands, implying frequent southeast winds. There are details of geology which might come out if I get to do an expansion with the Volcano spirit. Etc.

How big is Spirit Island?

It's not just the location that's deliberately ambiguous - the size of the island is, too! A single Dahan piece might represent one village, a few associated villages, or an entire clan. A Town piece might reprsent a literal single town, or a certain density of Towns scattered through that area. (Larger physical scales also imply a longer timescale to the game, and that the Spirits are that much more impressively powerful.)

Spirit Island is absolutely no smaller than Montserrat (40 square miles) and no bigger than Madagascar (225,000 square miles), and is more likely to be in the range of 400 - 40,000 square miles. (Within one order of magnitude of Viti Levu, the largest island in Fiji.) The presence of large apex predators implies that it's on the larger side of that range - but it could instead be close to a mainland or chain-of-islands terminating at a mainland, with the arrival of Ocean's Hungry Grasp a few hundred years ago keeping it more isolated than it would otherwise be.

This ambiguity is for similar reasons to the ambiguity of place: some Adversaries or Scenarios might make sense only if the scale of the island is vast, or small.

...and other such questions.

The commenter who asked about location also asked a few other questions:

What should we call it? Spirit Island? Dahan Island? The Island?

Spirits and Dahan alike mostly just call it 'the island', as they infrequently have cause to visit or refer to other ones these days. Shortly after the Dahan first arrived, they started calling it something that roughly translates to "the island of great spirits" or thereabouts (and before making that discovery they undoubtedly had chosen some other name for it entirely), but I expect that the more-formal name doesn't see much use now.

(We should probably just call it Spirit Island.)

Are there other islands with natives (Dahan or otherwise) and spirits?

There are other islands within travel distance of Spirit Island. Not easy travel distance, but the Dahan used to trade with them semi-frequently before Ocean's Hungry Grasp moved into the area, and even after that still managed an expedition every decade or so. (At least, before the Invaders showed up.) The Dahan have been semi-isolated for long enough to have their own distinct culture, though.

The inhabitants of various other islands believe in spirits, or gods, or both. When the Dahan's ancestors showed up, they were taken aback at the number and power of the Spirits in this place. And for now, that's all I'm saying on the matter. :-)

Are there any spirits back in Europe? What about the Americas? Asia?

The Invaders are roughly analagous to nations from our own history. They might believe in spirits, but probably in the context of God / angels / demons / witchcraft (unless they're an Adversary where Christianity hasn't taken hold), and they have about as much experience with the supernatural as people from our own history.

Some of the Fear / Event cards represent various reactions the Invaders have to realizing "Oh crud, these things the Dahan talk about actually exist!", and there's one Major Power (Manifest Incarnation) which is effectively a Spirit showing up in immense, undeniable power and burning into the Invaders' minds, "KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE: WE ARE REAL." (It does a lot of Fear.)

Basically, what else can you tell us about the world of Spirit Island?

Enough to (hopefully) be intriguing, not enough to dispel all mysteries.

(Sometimes I want to delay a reveal; sometimes I simply don't know an answer yet and don't want to pin one down before it's necessary.)
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Sat Oct 17, 2015 4:31 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Adversaries

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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On another forum, someone asked me about adversary design - the process of translating a nation’s real-world/alternate-world tactics into the mechanics of Spirit Island. It's an interesting question.

(For the unfamiliar: an Adversary is a specific Invader nation to fight against. Each one changes the game in different ways, and offers multiple levels of difficulty, starting at "a step up from the teaching game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have around a 1-in-3 chance of winning".)

Making an Adversary tends to involve the following:

1. Research on the country’s historical colonization efforts and society-at-large, with a particular eye towards “How were they distinct from other colonizers / countries of that time period?” If it’s a country that didn’t have much colonial activity in real history, “why not?” and “how is the alternate-history different?” are important to know, too. I may do this research myself (which is fun, but time-consuming) or get a precis / have a discussion with someone who has a deeper body of knowledge than my own.

2. Brainstorm possibilities for representing the distinctive items from #1 in game terms.

3. Find a core gameplay element (or pair of elements) to modify/subvert, changing up the game in interesting ways. Ideally, this is based off of the possibilities in #2, so that the core element reflects historical/alt-historical reality.

4. Experiment with different progressions to see which make for a good difficulty ramp. Make sure the core element from #3 appears early on in the progression. (Level 1 or Level 2.)

Example: England

Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (US, Australia) tended to have much greater immigration and population than most other nations’ colonies, and some of the reasons behind / consequences of that fact. Also, that Britain gave its colonies greater (though still limited) autonomy in self-governance: decisions could be made locally which in other countries' colonies might have required taking 6 months to consult the homeland.

Brainstorm: How to represent “more population”? How to represent the land grants given to indentured laborers? How to represent local self-governance? There were multiple possibilities for each; I listed a number out.

Core element: One idea looked particularly promising for shaking up play with a historically-inspired feel. Normally, Invaders only Build in lands which already have other Invaders in them (at least an Explorer). But “indentured laborers gaining land” could be represented by ignoring that restriction: lands bordering multiple Towns/Cities could Build even if unexplored, representing local laborers earning their plots (without much choice about where those plots are). Repelling Explorers to prevent Building is a core tactic of the game; this rule foils that tactic in areas of Invader strength.

I then chose several of England’s other effects to help support this core element: representing “more immigration” with an extra Build action means the indentured-laborers rule crops up more. Starting each board with two extra buildings makes the coastal regions vulnerable to it from the get-go. And so forth. Multiple Adversary designs might subvert the rule “Invaders only Build in lands where they already are”, but they’ll do so in different ways, and part of that difference is what other effects support the core modification.

...and from there, it’s been experimentation to figure out good orderings and testing to figure out if it all works.

But it doesn’t always happen in that order.

Example: Brandenburg-Prussia

This Adversary arose from a playtester request for an Adversary that made the game harder, but changed the basic dynamics of play as little as possible. I was initially a bit resistant - the whole point of Adversaries was to present a unique opponent requiring different strategies! After some conversation, though, it became clear that testers usually reached “desire for increased difficulty” before reaching “desire for increased variety in strategy-space”, so they won me over.

In this case, I started with step #3 - find a core gameplay element - because I had a particular mechanical purpose in mind. The boost that least changes the core strategies of the game is speed - the Invaders would simply come faster, more accelerated. ("Start the board with more Invaders" changes dynamics even less, but doesn't work well as a core element; I'll talk more about this below.) As the design evolved, simplicity also became a core consideration: Brandenburg has no additional rules to remember; all of its changes are performed during setup. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play - there’s a big flag icon on some Invader cards that tells you, "go do that thing".)

From the core gameplay element, I went back to #1, and looked for a nation of the era which had a reputation (either past or contemporary) for speed / ruthless efficiency / a certain driven focus. Prussia seemed to fit the bill, so I read up on it a bit, and found that one King of Brandenburg (a partial predecessor) had had colonial ambitions, but had been blocked from pursuing them by a number of fundamental factors: lack of navy/coast access, low population due to war, etc. In some cases I came up with plausible alternate-history changes to mitigate these factors, in others I handwaved. (This was before Paul created a unified alternate history of Europe.)

Ranges of Threat

One requirement of an Adversary is that it make the game harder. On the face of it, this looks trivial; the game has many levers to pull. Just make some Invader action/stat/behavior nastier, and you're done.

But it's not quite that simple. For starters, it's pretty easy to flat-out make the game too hard. As well, there are several important ranges to consider:

Range of player skill - some things that add difficulty for beginning players won't make the game appreciably harder for more experienced players, because the experienced players are already avoiding the circumstances you've made nastier. For instance, the single effect of "Cities have +3 Health and do +3 Damage" might be problematic for newer players, but more experienced players will simply never allow a new City to be built, and will gain overall board control swiftly enough to dig for Major Powers and handle the starting Cities before that rule has overmuch impact. You can get around this with synergies between Adversary abilities: if some other effect were "whenever there are two Explorers in a land, they turn into a City", Cities will threaten much more often! It's fine if an Adversary's Level 1 effect doesn't impact really good players much, so long as later effects make it relevant when they're playing at an appropriate difficulty level.

Range of time over the game. Both Invaders and Spirits increase in effectiveness over the course of the game - the Spirits a bit every turn, the Invaders in larger steps as they hit new Stages in the invader deck. You can envision it as a pair of upwards-sloping curves, each competing to rise higher than each other. Different changes alter the Invaders' power-curve at different points. For a simple example, consider "add more Invader buildings during setup". This makes the opening-game much harder, but doesn't provide much ongoing bonus to threats: the Invaders aren't adding any greater quantity of units over time, nor are their units more problematic to the Spirits. By turn 5-8, those extra buildings will either have caused an early Spirit loss, or will have mostly faded to the status of "juicy targets". On the other end of the spectrum, consider "When Exploring, Stage III Invader cards add a Town in addition to the normal Explorer." This is brutal in late-game, but has no impact whatsoever until the middle of Turn 7.

(Digression: Adversary tempo interacts interestingly with Spirit development speed. Some spirits by nature are very fast out of the gate, others crest in midgame, still others are weak early yet phenomenal in endgame. But Growth choices affect development speed: players choose whether (and how) to push long-term growth vs. short-term board control. It's obvious that different Adversary abilities make certain Powers more/less desirable, but subtler is that different Adversary abilities make certain *tempo* choices more/less desirable.)

Range of Spirits facing the Adversary. Some Spirits will be stronger and some weaker against a given Adversary; there's no getting around that. But it's still important to keep in mind that a variety of different play-styles and power combinations will be going up against an Adversary, and try to keep any of them from being flatly useless. For instance, England's indentured-laborers rule would have been simpler if it said "Invaders Build even in lands without Invaders" - none of this checking-adjacent-buildings stuff. But in addition to being less thematic, this would have been bad design: Explorer-control powers would become irrelevant to the game. Instead, they're relegated from "central strategy" to "niche effect" - very useful if you manage to mostly-clear an area... but you have to work for it.

Types of colonization (or, Why you probably won’t see Spain anytime soon)

Very roughly speaking, there were three broad categories of European colonies:

1. Colonization-and-immigration. Lots of people sent over to live in a new land - perhaps for its resources, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps as a societal pressure-valve. One iconic example is Britain colonizing North America.

2. Conquest-and-subjugation. Some immigration, but not nearly as much as #1. Instead, the colonials subjugated the local inhabitants to demand tribute / enslave them / require work from them. One iconic example is Spain's conquistadors, and the encomienda/repartimiento systems in Latin America.

3. Factory-and-trade. Relatively low immigration, usually to a single coastal city intended to act as point-of-presence for the nation’s trade in the region. This required good relations with the local leader - perhaps through gifts or diplomacy, perhaps by backing one leader/tribe/faction (to the detriment of others) or by simply outright installing a local ruler. One iconic example is the Portuguese trade colonies chaining out to the East Indies.

The core mechanics of Spirit Island represent #1: colonization-and-immigration-type colonies. But not all exploring countries performed that type of colonization! So there are some historical powers that you won't see, at least for now. (I'm confident the game could be extended to Conquest Adversaries. Trade Adversaries are trickier, but I have some ideas.)

This limitation is actually one of the motivations for the alternate-history of Europe: to have more potential colonizing powers (especially type #1) than we actually saw historically. I'd originally planned on not going into too much detail, for fear of having just enough knowledge to metaphorically hang myself with, but Paul at Greater Than Games loves history, and has come up with a great split off our own past that serves the game really well and makes for an interesting contemplation of how just a few things shaking out differently might have changed the course of Europe!

(And he even made it compatible with the alternate Brandenburg-Prussia! :-)
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Thu Oct 1, 2015 3:46 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Powers

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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A prototype Minor Power card

A prototype Major Power card

A prototype Spirit panel,
with innate Power at lower right

(You can see something closer to
actual Power Cards / Spirit panels
in this forum thread.)

If you haven't played Spirit Island: Powers are what the Spirits use to act within the game. There are Power Cards (cards in your hand) and Innate Powers (printed on your Spirit’s play panel). Power Cards cost Energy to play, and you’re limited in how many you can use each turn. Innate Powers don’t have either of those restrictions - but are only triggered on turns that you’ve played certain combinations of Elements on your Power Cards (those things along the left-hand side).

Each Spirit starts with four unique Power Cards. More can be gained as the game goes on, from the Minor Power and Major Power decks. Major Powers are very potent, but have high Energy costs, and to gain one you have to Forget (lose forever) a Power you already know.

~ ~ ~

The core concept of Power Cards has existed from the beginning. Innate Powers - and Elements themselves - were conceived of alongside them, but absent from initial prototypes to make sure the underlying systems of the game worked before layering other pieces atop them.

The major areas of mechanical evolution have been:

Power Speed

The very first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like 8 phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to 6, which went something like:
1. Buffs to other Spirits
2. Defense Powers
3. First Invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty things to Invaders
5. Do other sort of nasty things to Invaders
6. Second Invader action

By the time I got it in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was only relevant in the second half of the game. (The Invader deck had 2 cards of each terrain. The first time through, the Invaders acted once per turn at #3. After you reshuffled, they acted at #3 *and* #6.)

It didn’t take many playtests to find the split between #1 and #2 terribly awkward, so I condensed Powers down to “Fast” (before Invaders) and “Slow” (after Invaders). Phase #6 was eliminated, replaced by the 2-terrain Stage III Invader cards.

A year or so ago, I looked into dropping the Fast/Slow distinction entirely, making everything Fast. On a mechanical level, this would have worked; it would even have streamlined the game some, and satisfied those testers who disliked having their plans messed with by Events. But it was a huge hit on theme: the Spirits are supposed to by-and-large be slower than the Invaders, scrambling to anticipate and react in time. Making everything Fast removed that. It also lowered Power diversity, gutted one very popular Spirit concept, and removed a particular type of planning that I (and many of the game’s fans) especially liked about it.

(Making everything Slow would have eliminated entire categories of defense cards, or required awkward carry-over-to-the-next-turn effects. It was a non-starter.)

So I decided that the Slow/Fast split ought to stay, but worked on developing Blitz: a simple scenario that lets players play with entirely-fast Spirits, either to explore the difference in feel, or if they just prefer that mode of play.

(This possibility was another reason to go the way I did: making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)


Power Cards used to be able to have more than one of an Element: two Fire and one Plant, for instance.

This turned out to be a bad idea.

First of all, counting seems to be much easier on the brain than adding, even when the addition is “one plus one plus two plus one”. Playtesters had a substantially harder time adding up their elements than counting them up.

And with no more than one of an Element on each card, “number of card plays per turn” is a general ceiling on how many elements of any type a Spirit can have. This allows for much easier calibration of innate powers: if an innate triggers off of 4 water, I know it can’t be hit without playing 4 cards. (Modulo any Elements on the spirit’s Presence track and a few co-op effects.)

The full evolution of Elements and how spirits use them is a post unto itself.

What sorts of Powers are there?

Early versions of the game included many effects that are no longer present. There were a whole mess of different types of effect-tokens that could be put onto the board. There were divination effects, which let you peek at what the Invaders were going to do next. There were multi-turn Powers that ramped up for each turn you kept them in play.

All of these ended up being dropped or deferred for one reason or another - usually complexity, though a few just never ended up working well, and learning what the Invaders will do ahead of time turns out to be too much information: it makes things un-fun.

Energy scaling

Energy values used to be about 3x what they currently are, with costs running up into the high 20s. There was a long Energy track on the Spirit mats to accomodate this, with “+50” and “+100” spots.

Someone at a local testing meetup suggested lowering the granularity on all Energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant - the fine granularity meant I could base a Power’s effects entirely off of its theme, then cost it very precisely - but the advantages were so huge that I eventually took the advice, and oi, I’m glad I did. Slashing costs by a factor of 3 (and then lowering them all by 1 Energy, to make each play more intrinsically powerful and permit very-low-Energy lots-of-small-Power strategies) dropped the range to 0-9, which is great for card layout, easy for addition (especially since most numbers are 0 or 1), and permits using “coins” for Energy instead of a space-eating, too-easy-to-bump track.

Major Powers

The first versions of Major Powers didn’t grant Elements, and flatly required certain Elements to play at all. Both of these were un-fun and got winnowed out by testing; the idea of "if you have certain elements, the Power does more" was a replacement for requiring the Elements in the first place that worked about a hundred times better.

The cost for gaining a Major Power fluctuated a number of times. At one point or another, you had to:
* Pay Energy;
* Destroy one of your Sacred Sites (back when Sacred Sites were a separate piece);
* Destroy your Presence;
* (and other things I can no longer remember)

The solution of Forgetting cards actually came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something which permanently removed Power Cards from circulation. Partly because every once in a while, someone got a Minor Power draw where all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances); partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of Powers in late-game, esecially if they didn’t have many card-plays. Forgetting another Power to get a Major Power addressed both issues, and also worked well thematically: gaining a Major Power is a big step up for most Spirits, and it made sense they’d have to lose a little bit of who they were in order to become a being incorporating this new, massive thing.

(One of the side themes of the game is “How will you change in the face of adversity?”)

Starting Powers

For a very long time, Presence was not added via Growth. (There was no Growth, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Spirits had 3 unique powers, and 3 Standard Starting Powers. Two of the Standard Powers added Presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a Sacred Site) in different ways; one let you send dreams to the Dahan telling them to move.

At PAX East 2014, I played a number of nicely thematic-feeling games, and somewhere in there I looked at Spirit Island and said: “these Powers are diluting the unique feel of each Spirit”. I’d previously considered giving each Spirit unique Presence-adding Powers, but felt that was asking for trouble: not every Spirit wants really distinctive ways of getting Presence on the board, and designing the game such that I had to come up with two interesting and thematic Presence-adding Power Cards for every Spirit seemed like asking for trouble.

But after wracking my brain for a while, I came up with a different plan: give each Spirit a unique power for their relationship with the Dahan, and don’t add Presence with Powers at all. Instead, roll that and the things covered by “Seeking” (an old mechanic for reclaiming used Power Cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called “Growth" - the organic processes which didn't involve a Spirit using special powers, just... growing, living, changing. Each spirit could have different Growth choices, and while the atomic pieces of those options could be very simple (“Add a Presence at Range 1”), the way they were grouped could, I thought, let different Spirits feel appropriately different, and offer strategic choice in how they progress. (And indeed, it does.)

It took roughly 6 months for the major side-effects of this change to ahake out, and over a year for me to get as good a handle on Growth as I’d had on the previous system - but the benefits have been fantastic: Spirits’ starting powers are entirely unique. Spirits need fewer card-plays (since they used to need an average of 1/turn for Presence placement), which makes early game decisions more manageable for new players - as does having fewer Powers overall (which also benefits later-game hand size). It's removed certain Presence-spamming openings, which makes it easier to predict/design around a spirit’s rough power-level at any point in the game. It allows Growth design to influence how a Spirit spreads, and feels while spreading. And...

How Power Cards are gained

…in the old Seeking model, Spirits only gained a new Power Card when they Reclaimed all of their spent Power Cards. (Which cost some amount of Energy at end-of-turn.) The shift to Growth decoupled “Reclaim Powers” from “Gain a Power Card”, which permitted a much greater diversity of tempo-feeling among Spirits. Many still kept one Growth option with the two of them together - it’s a good dynamic, especially for beginning players (since if you dig yourself into the hole of “I’m playing so many Power Cards that I have to Reclaim every turn”, it automatically self-corrects by giving you more Power Cards) - but even those could include other options for gaining Power Cards, and some spirits separated the two things entirely.

As Always

Comments and questions are welcome, as are suggestions for any aspects of the design, concept, or game world that you'd like to hear about.

(Also let me know if you'd rather see narrower scope and more drilldown, fewer or more details, etc. - there have been so many changes and lessons that it's difficult to put it all into narrative form.)
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Fri Sep 25, 2015 4:24 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Beginnings

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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In Spirit Island you play nature Spirits driving off Invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan - the first humans to arrive here, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well - but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental power in order to prevail. It's a medium-heavy, "gamer's-game" co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play, with simultaneous turns for minimal player downtime.

This Design Diary discusses the initial idea and my design goals, and was first published just before the Kickstarter. Now that Spirit Island is being released - it will be available at GenCon 2017 - I've updated this post to reflect the time that's passed, and added links at the end to later Design Diaries focusing on particular areas of the game.

Creating Spirit Island has been a long road: I started serious work on it in winter of 2012... and my first son was born 5 months later, which caused development to stretch out over a much longer timeframe than it otherwise would have taken. I think the game ended up better for it, as it gave me time to mull on certain things that I might otherwise have handled more hastily. Something to remember for the future, perhaps.

But now, finally, it's here!

The Idea

One question that crops up a fair bit is, "how did you think of the theme?".

There was a moment during a colonization action (of what game, I can no longer recall - Goa? Navegador? Endeavor?) where my focus on the game elements cracked and fell away, replaced by the thought, "I wonder how ticked off the locals are about this new colony of foreigners. Well, we'll never know, because this game has *entirely abstracted away* the people who already lived there. Damn, that's rude." Maybe I shared the thought, maybe people laughed, and we got back to the game.

It stuck with me, though, because so many Euros have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game which portrayed the opposite point of view - that of being the subject of colonialism, trying to fight it off - could be interesting, and perhaps... highlight? lampoon?... the prevalence of eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.

In retrospect, I could have gone an entirely different route: find a specific colonial-vs-anticolonial struggle to try and model, going down a path that has led to, eg, King of Siam or Volko Ruhnke's COIN series. Instead, my brain flew off down the path of a conflict that never was, but which could stand in for struggles against different colonial powers throughout history.

Like many of my early ideas, this proved trickier than I first anticipated, but worthwhile in the long run.

Initial Design Goals

...and did I hit them?

Once I'd fleshed out the initial idea and started in on design, I had four primary goals branching off from the core-goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that...
1 ...was as thematically evocative as strong 'experience' games like Arkham Horror.
2 ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay.
3 ...and a playtime of roughly 2 hours.
4 ...which wasn't susceptible to the alpha-player problem.

Let's look at each of those: thematically evocative as strong 'experience' games like Arkham Horror.

Making a game involves constant tradeoffs. Any time you add, change, or drop something, you ask yourself: "does this serve elegance?", "does this serve balance?", "does this serve excitement?", "does this serve theme?", etc. When the answers differ, you prioritize, and what you're willing to trade for what-else influences the feel of the game you end up designing.

Historically, my natural tendency has been towards a Euro-ish aesthetic. But this theme cried out to be strongly served, and I wanted to stretch myself as a designer, so I made it an explicit goal to give thematic considerations a more prominent voice in my decision-making - and (once I got to the point of pitching) to make sure I felt that whomever published it was going to do justice to the game's theme in art and components.

How strongly theme comes through in any game is at least somewhat subjective, so whether I succeeded at this goal is something each player will have to judge for themselves. Personally, I'm very happy with where the game ended up.

...with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay.

Because of the tensions discussed above, high priority on "thematic" can sometimes lead to games that aren't especially high on meaningful choice. Play may offer an awesome ride, or result in a very intricate series of thematic things happening, but I like thought in my games: I want my tactics to matter, my strategy to be useful (or, perhaps, flawed), and to have the control to enact meaningful tactical and strategic choices.

Also: there are a *lot* of lighter cooperative games out there. Many are great on meaningful choice, but are fundamentally scoped to be smaller, shorter, more casual games, and I found myself wanting a more of a "gamer's-game" co-op.

On this count, I'm confident I succeeded. There are core tactics and strategies to master, as well as variations and divergences for individual Spirits or against particular Adversaries. There's a great deal of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.

...a playtime of roughly 2 hours.

My target was "long enough to feel really significant, but short enough to fit into a game evening / not need a whole afternoon blocked off".

The play-time of a game is something that's notoriously difficult to specify accurately: length varies with player experience, and often with player count, and some playgroups are just way faster/slower than others. The industry standard seems to be "assume the players know the game" - ie, first plays will tend to run longer than listed. During playtesting, I polled a bunch of groups, and found a (very!) rough clustering near an average:
* 1p: 45 minutes
* 2p: 75 minutes
* 3p: 105 minutes
* 4p: 135 minutes

I was pretty surprised that game-length scaled up roughly linearly with player count, since all players act simultaneously! But once I started paying attention, I realized the difference wasn't in the mechanical play - it was in the discussion. With more players, the "discuss plans" portion of the game became both more engaging (more people to talk with) and longer (more options). Any player is allowed to call a halt to the planning and start resolution, so discussion didn't tend to go uselessly long; even longer games had the feel of "it took a while, but we were engaged the whole time".

(A few convention games did end up with a split between very fast-paced and very slow-paced players, and the fast-paced players didn't feel OK invoking the "done deciding now" rule with strangers at the table - but those were, happily, the rare exception rather than the rule.)

Given those numbers, what to put on the box? "45-135 minutes" isn't actually an especially useful time-range for someone browsing games in a store; it implies a lot of chaos that isn't there. But 105 minutes - the average of 2/3/4-player - is the mean of "90-120 minutes", and "90-120 minutes" also accurately signals the rough weight / complexity-level of the game, so that's what we went with.

I judge this one a reasonable success. On average, it comes in a little faster than I'd originally aimed at, but the game still has a great arc and feels awesome, so I'm satisfied.

...wasn't susceptible to the alpha-player problem.

A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the Alpha Player - where one player (more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a problem with the player (or playgroup), a game's rules can absolutely make the tendency more or less prevalent, and more or less of a problem when it crops up.

The very first iterations of Spirit Island had a rule which limited communication. The players were Spirits of wildly diverse elements, after all, so they weren't allowed to discuss plans in any language shared at the start of play. They could use evocative noises and gestures/pantomime, and language was fine for things like rules questions, mechanics resolution, and "hey, could you grab me a drink?" - just not what you were going to do on your turn.

This destroyed the alpha problem. Players could readily communicate simple concepts like "I'm going to hurt this land bad" or "I'm scared by this cluster of Invaders over here", but the type of specific directive involved in alpha-ing just couldn't be gotten across. And perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule, how it felt thematic and encouraged roleplaying. But... the other playtesters all hated it. For many people playing co-ops, much of the fun is puzzling through a problem together with friends, and excising the alpha-player problem had taken that out along with it.

I took a fallback position: players could discuss however they liked, but couldn't actually show each other the Power Cards they were going to play, and played them face-down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage emergence of alphas, because you wouldn't have the information to be able to plan someone else's turn for them. This worked well, but playing Power Cards face-down meant people had to constantly look at what they'd played, trying to remember details of their Powers to ensure they hadn't made a mistake. It became clear that it was just a bad idea, so I warily changed it to "play face-up" and "you can show people your cards"...

...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way towards discouraging alpha behavior, both because each player has enough to do with their own position that they don't meddle out of boredom, and because - especially in larger games - there's simply enough going on that keeping track of every detail of what every player is doing is too much for one human brain to easily hold. E.g.: by mid-game, each Spirit might be playing 3 Power Cards (from a selection of 5-7) and perhaps triggering an innate power or two. Holding the choices in your head for your 3-4 powers isn't hard. But holding the choices in your head for the 8-16 powers being used by everyone at the table is really hard, and in practice discourages strong alpha behavior. (It also makes solo testing something of a bear. I can run two-spirit games by myself pretty comfortably, but I slow *way* down as soon as I start simulating three players.)

I've seen weak alpha-ing crop up from time to time, but only in the form of specific requests, rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn": an experienced player asks a less experienced player to please use a particular Power this turn, or an experienced player suggests a different target for a Power the less experienced player has chosen. It's barely over the border from "good, healthy cooperation".

So I didn't manage the complete immunity I was shooting for, but did manage strong resistance - albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!

Additional Posts

Here are some later Design Diaries I've done, drilling down into specific areas of the game. I'll keep this list updated with links as I write more:

1. Powers - how Spirits affect the world
2. Adversaries - specific Invaders, and how I make them
3. Setting - where is Spirit Island, anyway?
4. The Island Boards - many iterations of gameplay-affecting geometry
5. Presence and Sacred Sites - changes over the years
6. Fear and Victory - in this game, Fear is a good thing
7. The Dahan (native islanders) - your human neighbors

Potential Future Posts

Here are a few other areas where I might talk about design progression / challenges / history. If I do one, I'll move it to the list above:

* The Invaders, and how they act
* Events
* Blight
* Spirits

I'm also happy to answer general questions about the game - though if you think the answers might be of wider interest, it might be best to post them in the Spirit Island forums.

(If you have a rules question, check out the searchable online FAQ!)
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Tue Sep 22, 2015 3:03 pm
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