Musings and Retrospectives

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Spirit Island Design Diary - Presence and Sacred Sites

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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Board Game Designer
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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