TLDR It is glorious, fascinating, fiddly masterpiece.
Just like every other human on the planet I have some biases, and I have some my specific set of conditions in which I played this game. I have played this game a total of 12 times. I have only played this game solo. I have played: 4 spirit games x3 3 spirit games x2, 2 spirit games x2, and the other 4 games have been with one Spirit. As far as my general taste in gaming I tend to prefer medium to heavy games with a healthy dose of challange. Some of my other favorites, for solo play, include Scythe, Star Trek: Frontiers, and Agricola.
Also, I want to make it very clear, this is not a exhaustive review. Do not look to this for a rules summary, or even, necessarily, for a recomendation. Mostly, I want to briefly explore my time with it, and I hope that one or two of you will be brave enough to try to read it. Also, don't expect cool pics.
I came to Spirit Island after several years of thinking it wasn't for me. However, upon becoming a solo gamer, and after seeing it claw it's way to the top of the BGG top 200 solo games I knew I had to check it out in more detail. I began to check it out, and bought it for myself for Christmas.
In Spirit Island you are playing the guardian Spirits of a land that could very well be called Catan. In fact, I like calling it Catan. In many ways it is a Catan played from another point of view. Whereas in Catan you are settlers trying to make a living and prosper in the land, In Spirit Island you are vengeful Spirits guarding the land against the encroaching tide of white plastic settlers. In Catan, when your harvests are continually failing because of bad die rolls, you can remember that in Spirit Island you are what has been abstracted into bad die rolls. As a spirit in Spirit Island, you will unleash tsunamis on large cities, completely wiping them off the face of the earth. You will send tendrils of noxious plants vining around, and choking, some poor explorer. You will fill the natives of the land with dreams of bloodshed, sending them against a unprotected town, burning it to the ground. Not only are you a powerful and vengeful Spirit, but you have a distinct name and personality. There are 8 very distinct and different spirits in the base box. They all interact with each other in different ways and each one feels very very different in action. Not only do they feel do their abilities and play styles feel unique, but each one feels very thematic. If you are playing as "Oceans Hungry Grasp" your power will wax and wane like a tide, you will have a very hard time affecting areas inland. If you are playing as "The Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares" you cannot destroy the colonists outright, all you can do is scare the bejabbers out of them.
I don't feel like I can talk further about the game without addressing components and presentation. The presentation is great. The art is uniformly great, and there is a lot of it. In addition to that there are some supremely helpful devices that help you remember key aspects. For instance, all the invader pieces are plastic, all the spirit and native pieces are wooden. Thusly it is easy to see at a glance the state of the board, plastic bad, wood good. Further, the symbology is, I thought, pretty light and very clear and easy to understand. In terms of what you get in the box the $60ish that it usually costs is well well worth it. However there is a small fly in the ointment. The boards are a little thin, or are maybe just made out of a inferior sort of cardboard. Whatever the issue is, I have had significant issues with warping on my cardboard components. I have not had issues that rendered the game unplayable, but it is something that I have noticed with disaproval. It is also only fair to note that I do live in a tropical climate, El Salvador, and your milage may vary depending on your climatic conditions.
So, what are the feelings engendered by this game? Do I enjoy it? Are there problems with gameplay?
This game is very very deterministic. There is a small amount of input randomness, but it is very small. This game is also extremely extremely interactive. You can play it just fine, and have a great game playing with only one spirit. But, when you bring multiple spirits to the table, the interactivity is off the charts. And, really, Spirit Island does something I have not seen in any other cooperative game. The spirits are so so different, but you don't need the magic combination to win, neither do you need to play multihanded to play solo. And, the single spirit game doesn't actually feel that far off from the multispirit game in terms of gameplay, though it is true, there aren't the same delicious combos in a single spirit game. But, there is a LOT to keep track of.... It is a game that is not that hard to learn, but there can be a nearly unbelievable amount of things that you need to keep track of. Most of all the game is very thematic. You feel like a powerful spirit who can wipe cities off of the map, or throw whole towns into the sea. You feel like the invaders are like a swarm of ants who might take you down through sheer force of numbers, but who, when considered individually, are contemptible. The thematic overtones really are amazing. But, no sooner do you rage and storm wreaking great havoc..... than you have to start doing fiddly work. The invaders are very deterministic. They explore, i.e. place explorers, then they build towns and/or cities, then they ravage i.e. killing natives and polluting the land. The lands in which they do this is determined by a river of cards that slides along at a fixed rate. So, you can see what is coming next, you can prepare for it, but, it is fundementally a system that takes a lot of fiddly work. You are the one in charge of putting out all the little plastice pieces, you have to make sure that the river slides along one slot a turn, you have to manage all the actions of the invaders. And, let be clear, this is not hard, but it is a step up from what most coops that you are probably used to. I guess this is the price we pay for a more deterministic coop. This is not even taking the fear mechanism into acount. This is a great and fun mechanism. Basically it works like this, various destructive acts that you do, i.e. destroying a town or city, generate fear. There are also specific card affects that generate fear. Fear is denoted by number of tokens, the exact number vary's according the number of spirits in play. The way you show fear, you pull one fear token per fear generated from the fear "bank" to the "fear area." When you have exhausted the fear bank you get a fear card and return all the fear chits to the fear bank thus starting the cycle over. The fear card gives a affect, but the main draw for this mechanism is that it changes the win condition. At the beginning of the game you have to eliminate every invader piece on the board, generate enough fear, and you only need to eliminate all the towns and cities, generate a little more and you need only eliminate the cities, just a little more and you can win based on fear alone.
I have not even begun exploring the differing variants in the game. In the "base" game you play against a generic tide of european invaders. But, you also have access to three specific colonizing powers to combat, each of these powers look like they will change the game in significant and meaningful ways. In addition, each of these invaders have ways to ramp the difficulty up or down, and each difficulty level changes the game. In addition there are a number of scenarios that can be played with the base game, or with the different specific invaders. In addition there are a number of difficulty levels to the base game. Even if all the spirits played exactly the same, there is a huge amount of variety in the box, but the spirits don't play the same, they are very very different and you feel that in gameplay. And, in case you ever get bored, you can get expansions with more spirits, more invaders, etc.... I truly believe that there are people out there for whom this game will be a lifestyle game. They will play this game weekly for years, and not plumb the depths.
So, do I how do I feel about the game?
Remember, I am speaking from the perspective of a person who has only played this solo. And, I can't in any way tell you whether or not you will like the game. I can only tell you how what I have seen. I can say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my plays with it. I found the rulebook to be quite clear, and the game fairly easy to learn. I have enjoyed all my plays at all Spirit counts, and I really appreciate how flexible it is. I can easily play a 1 spirit game in 45 minutes including setup and teardown, or I can play 4 spirits for 3 hours. And, as hard as it is for me to believe, the 3 hour time period doesn't feel way too long for this game. Of course, your milage may vary, but I have not encountered another game that go have such a wide variance in play time without me feeling cheated on one end or other of the spectrum. I do feel however that there are a few things that don't make it a perfect game for me. These are the issues with the player boards, the fiddliness of managing the invaders, and the fact that inter spirit interaction is one of the best parts of this game. The last point signifies that the 1 spirit game is missing a wonderful spark compared to the multi spirit games. For me the 1 Spirit game remains very satisfying, but I think that the sweet spot for me is three spirits. However, some will find, that the decisions with managing three or four spirits to be downright brainmelting. In fact, I myself find them deliciously brain melty. After much wrestling in my spirit I decided that I can't have it as my favorite solo game. That spot is currently reserved for Star Trek Frontiers. But, Spirit Island is a more playable game, for me, and one that scratches a itch I haven't had scratched anywhere else. This is a game that I expect I will be playing somewhat regularly for a long time. So, to sum this all up, if you are a individual who has exactly the same tastes as I, than I unreservedly recomend it. For the rest of you, I highly recomend checking it out.
I sorta feel like you should get a reward if you make it to the end of this rambling monologue. I apologize that I didn't put any cool pics in. I was too busy playing Spirit Island to remember to take pictures to it. And, I was too lazy to set it up again to take pics. After all I am neither a writer or a photographer.