I had been resisting Spirit Island for quite some time, due to mistrust and prejudice. I thought I wouldn't like it because the gameplay seemed too Pandemic-y. The non-thematic map looked awful in the pictures. The names of the spirits needlessly verbose (for me, verbosity is always needless unless it is used jokingly). And everyone liked it! This alone was reason enough to go against the grain.
And yet... ever since it dethroned Mage Knight from the 1 Player Guild's People's Choice Top 200 last year, the urge to try it was eating me inside. Now it is laying on my table for the second week in a row. I've been playing almost every day and haven't tired of it yet. It really is good. The guild was right.
One more thing that had been keeping me from buying it was the suspicion that the theme would feel annoyingly didactic. The game made an impression when it was first released partly thanks to its anti-colonialist theme, so I was afraid it would express this in a preachy tone. For better or worse, I have so far found this not to be the case. It is not the Dahan (the local tribe) who fight the invaders but rather some supernatural entities called spirits.
Spirits of the earth, the sea, the river, the trees, the thunder. It feels less about colonialism and more about protecting the environment: the spirits don't even like the Dahan that much. It is the land itself that is reacting to human presence: tolerating mild tribal colonization and destroying the explorers who have come to ravage and build. Sure, the white plastic European invaders are the bad guys, but the Dahan only retaliate when attacked. If the locals were imbued with super-powers and acted like warriors instead of just relying on animistic intervention, then yes, the game would pass the message more strongly. As it is, it seems to me more about protecting nature rather than indigenous culture.
I am not very good at the game, I must admit. I have managed to win the basic version with all the spirits in pairs (Earth and River gave me a hard time, though). Now I graduated to using the thematic map and a blight card. Suffered three losses so far, but the gameplay is very engaging. The variety of combinations makes it very replayable, it really is an ingenious design.
I'm glad I didn't cling on to my preconceptions, no matter how much I enjoy being proved right. Spirit Island is excellent, and may be better suited for solo play than multiplayer due to its thinkiness. I don't know if it will become my personal favourite of this year but it is already a strong contender.