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Spirit Island Design Diary - the Dahan

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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Board Game Designer
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
From gallery of darker

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:

From gallery of darker
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.
From gallery of darker
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
From gallery of darker

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.

From gallery of darker
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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