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Spirit Island Design Diary - Beginnings

R. Eric Reuss
United States
Massachusetts
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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:

...as 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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