I have already written about Spirit Island, designer R. Eric Reuss’s masterful cooperative game. It’s one of my favorites, a densely layered puzzle that rewards repetition. Since publication in 2017, the game has received one substantial expansion, Branch and Claw, and one absolutely gargantuan expansion, Jagged Earth.
Between those three boxes, you have enough gaming content to last you a lifetime. I own all of it, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Nonetheless, ours is not a species known for being content, and so I was filled with glee when publisher Greater Than Games announced last fall that they would be releasing Horizons of Spirit Island. More content good.
More intriguing still: it was announced as a Target exclusive. If ever you’ve needed a sign that board games have broken into the mainstream, this is it.
Smaller, Cheaper, Easier
I will keep this rules summary pretty pared down. If you are new to Spirit Island and you find yourself looking for a more detailed comprehensive summary, you should take a look at my previous review.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game in which players work together to dispel invading colonists by destroying their settlements and filling them with fear. You spread presence around the island while playing power cards from your hand to effect the board. Spirit Island can be punishing, a game with a plethora of fires and nowhere near enough water pressure. It can also be incredibly rewarding, though. There’s little else like it out there.
The guiding tenets of Horizons of Spirit Island were to make Spirit Island smaller, less expensive, and more approachable. Makes sense when you’re talking about a game made specifically for a big box store. Then again, they sell Gloomhaven at Barnes & Noble, so who knows what’s real anymore?
Slimming down the size and the cost of Spirit Island involved making some significant changes to production. Gone are the plastic minis, the wooden Dahan, the segmented player boards. In their place, you have cardboard tokens and a standard double-sided board. None of this is a complaint. I love the production choices of the original game, but Horizons of Spirit Island does not suffer for the change.
How do you go about making Spirit Island more approachable, though? That’s a more complicated question. The game features an elegant, effortless system once you learn it, but learning that system takes about 30-40 minutes if you have an experienced teacher. I expected rule changes, or maybe simpler power cards. Wrong on both counts. It’s the same game. Exactly the same game. No changes. No differences. The attenuation to difficulty comes instead with the spirits.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Horizons introduces five new spirits, with characteristically evocative names: Devouring Teeth Lurk Underfoot, Sun-Bright Whirlwind, Eyes Watch from the Trees, Rising Heat of Stone and Sand, and Fathomless Mud of the Swamp. They are fully compatible with the original game, though they aren’t printed on the same thick cardboard. While I loathe disorder and irregularity, it’s an MSRP of about $30. I’ll allow Greater Than this indiscretion.
Each spirit across the Spirit Island Ludographic Universe has a unique passive ability in addition to a series of abilities activated via card play. These abilities have much to do with where any given spirit falls on the complexity ladder. All five new spirits in Horizons are low-complexity, and more than that, their abilities make them deeply forgiving. They deal more damage, they slow down the invaders’ ability to build, they make it easier to move things around the board. It’s not quite bowling with bumpers, because you can still absolutely send your ball into the gutter. Maybe it’s dicing vegetables with a protective glove on. If you tried hard enough, you could still cut yourself.
I-I-I-I-I’m Not Your Stepping Stone
Horizons of Spirit Island isn’t the degree of stepping stone I had hoped it might be. It failed the Mother Test. On the other hand, if you were to simplify Spirit Island much, it really wouldn’t be Spirit Island anymore. There isn’t a whole lot of fat on the bones of that system. If you’ve previously tried Spirit Island and bounced off of it because you didn’t enjoy the game, the system, or found the rules overwhelming, it is not worth trying Horizons of Spirit Island. It wasn’t made for that, though.
Stepping stone or not, I’m not disappointed with what Horizons is. It’s Spirit Island. It’s great. As an affordable option for trying out what is a relatively expensive game, Horizons of Spirit Island is great. As a slightly softer, more overtly pleasant version of the same game experience, something that could be used to lure the hesitant and turn them into converts, Horizons of Spirit Island is great. As an ambassador for bigger games, tempting the good shoppers of Target, Horizons of Spirit Island is great.