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Designer Diary: Spirit Island, or Inverting the Colonization Trope

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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Board Game Designer
Board Game: Spirit Island
[Editor's note: Designer R. Eric Reuss submitted this designer diary prior to Gen Con 50, but given the shortness of supply at the time, I decided to hold off on publishing it until the game would be available again. Greater Than Games' Mara Johannes-Graham tells me that "Spirit Island is slated to be back in stock late November/early December", so for those still interested in learning more about the game, here you go! —WEM]

Spirit Island is a fully cooperative game in which you play spirits of nature who are driving off the invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan — the first humans to arrive, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well — but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental powers in order to prevail. It's a complex, strategic co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play.

Turns are simultaneous: All spirits grow, extending their reach and abilities, then you play power cards that will (eventually) affect the island. Fast powers resolve, then the invaders act, then slow powers resolve. Players lose if the island is overrun with blight, if a spirit is completely destroyed, or after twelve turns. At first, winning requires obliterating every last invader — which is extremely hard — but the more you terrify them, the easier victory becomes.

Creating Spirit Island has been a long road — over five years! I'll tell the story of its conception first, with a quick sketch of the arc it went through, then drill down into some individual areas of design.

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 which 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. 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 Eurogames have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game that portrayed the opposite point of view — that of being the subject of colonialism and trying to fight it off — could be interesting, and perhaps...highlight? lampoon?...the prevalence of Eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.

In retrospect, I could have taken an entirely different route: Find a specific colonial vs. anti-colonial struggle to try to model, going down a path that has led to, e.g., King of Siam and 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.

By the time I'd fleshed out the initial idea, I had four primary goals branching off from the core goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that:

• ...was as thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror,
• ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay,
• ...and a playtime of roughly two hours,
• ...that wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking.

I'll revisit these goals later on.

From gallery of darker
Initial non-modular board concept
Initial Design, a.k.a. Before Parenthood

I knew I wanted the spirits to feel extremely different from each other, but without needing a huge set of customized rules for each one, so my core mechanical underpinnings had to support a wide variety of thematic elements, strategies, and styles-of-play. Daunting! But the enthusiasm of Ted Vessenes, a friend and fellow game designer, got me rolling. (Ted has been an incredible help with development throughout.) I brainstormed pages worth of "how could a spirit of nature, myth or legend act against humans it didn't want hanging around?", and where I saw frequently-repeated commonalities, I grouped them as areas under which to build pillars of mechanical support. The most-repeated concept was some variation of "hit them in the face", thus damage came to be.

I blasted through early versions which nobody else ever saw and put together a prototype to bring to a local con. Its reception was much, much better than I'd expected, given how rough the game was, and that it omitted several bits that I didn't want to introduce until the core-systems bedrock they'd be built upoon had settled down. There weren't even individual spirits yet; starting uniqueness was simulated by giving each player two random cards from the minor power deck.

I iterated rapidly through June and brought my prototype to Origins 2012. Christopher Badell of Greater Than Games happened to wander through the UnPub area where I'd set up and was super-enthusiastic about Spirit Island's potential; he said he hoped I found a good publisher for it, whether that proved to be >G or some other company. I took that as a good sign and came home feeling great!

But at that point, Spirit Island had to wait as my wife and I had our first child.

The Slow Years

Being a parent is awesome, but takes a lot of time and energy, particularly at first. We're fortunate enough to have family nearby, which got us back to having occasional free time + energy more quickly than some of our friends with kids, but even so, my pace of development slowed way down. While this was occasionally frustrating, in hindsight I think the metaphorical slow-cooker was good for the game: It made time for gradual revelations about core structures that might not have developed if I'd been blitzing along at speed.

I brought Spirit Island to pitch at Origins 2013 and did indeed end up signing with Greater Than Games. We began weekly development calls the following January, and in October 2014 unleashed a horde of >G's playtesters on it...because my wife and I were expecting our second child in January 2015! Those three months were intense and produced many worthwhile changes, and I handed off a set of notionally-final files to >G shortly after the New Year. (It was unclear when they'd Kickstart the game, and whether I'd be able to be involved.)

Then I took another hiatus to welcome another tiny human into the world.

From gallery of darker
Version 3 of the game board
Final Push

By July 2015, I again had a bit of time and energy, and I slowly started to address the feedback that had built up over the prior six months. Greater Than Games ran a Kickstarter in September, which went well. Most stretch goals were already developed and simply needed economies of scale to include, but one — a third adversary for the core game — was genuinely new. October through December 2015 again turned into rapid-iteration testing, both designing the new adversary and handling a bunch of updates to spirits and power cards based on a more thorough understanding of the game.

I handed off actual-final files at the end of 2015, and aside from an insane frenzy of proofing in Aug.-Nov. 2016 and some eProofing look-overs in March 2017, that was it for me.

Those Design Goals...

How did they pan out? 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 whoever 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 it 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 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 huge amount of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.

From gallery of darker
Mostly final game board
...a playtime of roughly two 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 playing 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", i.e., 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 okay 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? Having "45-135 minutes" isn't 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 games — 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, the game comes in slightly 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 an alpha-player/quarterbacking

A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the alpha player, that is, the one player (who is more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) who tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a difficulty 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 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, resolution of mechanisms, and "Hey, could you grab me a drink?" — just not what you were going to do on your turn.

This rule destroyed the alpha effect. 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. Perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule for 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 whatever they liked, but couldn't show each other the power cards they were going to play, and they played these cards face down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage the 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 this was a bad idea, so I warily changed the rule to "you can show people your cards" and "play them face up"...

...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way toward 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. By mid-game, for example, each spirit might be playing three 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. (This 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 rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn", it comes only in the form of specific requests, e.g., 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 some resistance, albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!


Now to cover some individual areas of design, with these sections being taken or condensed from individual entries in my "Musings and Retrospectives" blog on BGG. You'll find many more such areas covered there.

Powers (original post)

From gallery of darker
A prototype minor power card
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 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 they're triggered only on turns that you've played certain combinations of elements on your power cards (those things running down 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" ( that is, lose forever) a power you already know.

The core concept of power cards has existed from the beginning of the design. Innate powers — and the elements themselves — were conceived of alongside them, but absent from the 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 first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like eight phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to six, which went something like:

1. Buffs to other spirits
2. Defense powers
3. First invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty thing to invaders
5. Do another sort of nasty thing to invaders
6. Second invader action

By the time I got the design in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was relevant only in the second half of the game. (The invader deck had two 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 two-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 would have been 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 as making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)

From gallery of darker
A prototype major power card

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, 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 four water, I know it can't be hit without playing four cards. (Modulo any elements on the spirit's presence track and a few co-op effects.)

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 additional 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, making 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 accommodate this, with "+50" and "+100" spots.

Someone at a local testing meet-up suggested lowering the granularity on all energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant as 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 three (then lowering them all by one 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, eases the need 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 these things proved un-fun and were replaced by "if you have certain elements, the power does more", which worked about a hundred times better.

The cost for gaining a major power shifted many 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 you already had came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something that permanently removed power cards from circulation, partly because every once in a while, someone got a minor power draw in which all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances), and partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of powers in the late game, especially 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?")

From gallery of darker
A prototype spirit panel with innate power at lower right
Starting powers

For a long time, spirits had three unique powers and three standard starting powers. Two of the standard powers added presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a sacred site) in different ways, and 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 standard 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 mechanism for reclaiming used power cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called "growth", i.e., 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 six months for the major side-effects of this change to shake 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 one/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 the old seeking model, spirits gained a new power card only when they reclaimed all of their spent power cards (which cost some 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 among spirits. Many still kept one growth option with the two of them together, and 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 spirits could now have other options for gaining power cards, and some spirits separated doing so from reclaiming entirely.

Adversaries (original post)

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 learning game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have maybe a 50-50 shot 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.)

Board Game: Spirit Island
English everywhere (image: Erkki Lepre)
Example: England

Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (U.S., 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 six 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 build only 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 build only 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, so 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 set-up. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play since 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, while 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, so 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", then 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, and 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 set-up". 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 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 since 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 mechanisms 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...)

The Dahan (original post)

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.

From gallery of darker
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, while also wanting to ensure that it wasn't a caricature of "island primitives" or "noble savages". 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, e.g., 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 since 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 (and never in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly two hundred pieces of art, 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 fetishized 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
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.
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.
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.
4. It shouldn't sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
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.
6. It shouldn't be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a prominent regional location.
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 eight 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 whether this 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.

From gallery of darker
"Just spirits, no Dahan"

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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"

• Thematically, this would be a completely different game, not Spirit Island!

• 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.

• Many of the mechanisms spirits use don't work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: presence, energy, elements, powers, growth, and more.

• Mechanisms 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 don'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.

• 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.

From gallery of darker
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, e.g., 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 did only one 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 mechanism 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 the game's 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 (i.e., not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go as 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.
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