It’s no secret that I’m always on the lookout for two-player games that offer an engaging experience, but avoid needless/excessive complication. Thankfully, it’s a market that’s been increasing in size over the past few years. Games like Lost Cities, Patchwork, Jaipur, Fox in the Forest, and Raptor all fit into this category. These are all games you can pull out when you don’t have a lot of time, yet still feel like you played a “real” game. So when I saw Spirits of the Wild, a two-player set collection game with lovely components that plays in under thirty minutes, I knew I had to try it.
How It Plays
Spirits of the Wild is a set collection game at its heart, although instead of collecting cards you’re collecting sets of stones. In order to do this, you’ll be playing action cards to gain stones from the bowl, bring out new ones, or use the coyote to bother your opponent. The goal is to satisfy the “wants” of the animals on your player boards by giving them the stones they desire. The closer you get to matching those desires, the more points you earn.
At the beginning of the game, each player is given a scoring board depicting the various animals. Each board has open holes in which you’ll place the stones. Four stones are drawn blindly from the bag and placed in the bowl. If any of the translucent spirit stones are drawn, they go back into the bag for now. The spirit cards are divided into two equal face-up piles.
Each player is also given an identical hand of six action cards. On your turn, you will choose one action card to play, take the action, and then turn the card face down. You cannot use that action again until you use the card with the “recover cards” action on it. (And you can only use that one when you have at least three other action cards face down.)
So what are the actions?
Take one stone: There are two of these in your hand and each allows you to take one stone from the bowl and place it on your board.
Take two stones: Take two stones from the bowl and place them on your player board.
Add two stones and take one: Draw two stones from the bag and add them to the bowl. Then take one stone from the bowl and add it to your board.
Add three stones and move the coyote. Draw three stones from the bag and add them to the bowl. Then move the coyote to any of the animal spots on your opponent’s board. You don’t have to move the coyote if you don’t want to.
Use a spirit power and recover cards. This action allows you to choose one of the two face up spirit power cards and use its action. These actions are similar to the main actions except they have more oomph behind them. After you’ve taken the action, you also get to turn all of your used action cards face up, making them available for use again. Move the used spirit card to the bottom of its original pile, revealing the next card for use.
Okay, great. You’re taking all of these actions. But what do the animals want? What are you trying to gain?
Each animal on your player board prefers a certain kind of stone, in certain amounts. You get points when you make them happy, but they can be demanding little critters!
The owl wants same colored pairs and you get 3 points for each same colored pair you have on owl’s space.
The rabbit wants three different colors and you get 6 points if you complete the set.
The beaver wants both three of a kind and a same colored pair. You get 5 points for three of a kind, and 2 points for a pair. But if you manage to give him both, you get 7 bonus points (for a total of 14 points)!
The salmon wants one of each color. The more stones you give the salmon the more points you earn on an increasing scale. One stone is worth one point, but if you get all six, you get 13 points, with an increasing point value in between.
The turtle wants all one color. Like the salmon, the more you give, the more you get. One stone is one point, but if you get all five, you earn 14 points.
Each animal also has a bonus space, which is where you can place a translucent spirit stone. This will double your points for this area at the end of the game, but beware… Once you place that spirit stone, the animal is “locked” and you can’t add any more stones to it.
But there’s a coyote…
While he’s not part of your player board, there is a coyote figurine running around. When he’s on an animal on your player board, that area is locked and you can’t add any stones to it until he moves. You can get rid of him in two ways: You can use the action card that allows you to move the coyote, noted above. Or, if you’ve played your two “take one stone action cards,” you’ll notice that the backs form a whole coyote. When both are face down, you can move the coyote to your opponent’s board.
The game ends when five spirit stones (the translucent stones) are out of the bag at the end of either player’s turn. (The stones can be in the bowl or on player boards.) The game ends immediately and points are tallied.
Points are scored as noted for each animal on the player boards. If there is a spirit stone in the bonus space for an animal, the points for that animal are doubled. The player with the most points wins. If there’s a tie, the player with the coyote wins.
Spirited Romp or Sinking Stone?
I was of two minds when I saw Spirits of the Wild on the shelf. The first part of me was screaming, “Yay! A gorgeous two player game that plays quickly and has minimal components and rules!” The other part said, “But it’s from Mattel. And it’s sitting on a shelf in Target. This is going to be bad.”
Thankfully, the second part of my brain was wrong. I’m so conditioned to seeing mass market games as a disaster waiting to happen that I, like many gamers, have a defensive block where they’re concerned. I need to get over that, though, because some mass market companies are beginning to offer better games. This is one of those cases.
In many ways, Spirits of the Wild was a pleasant surprise, even if you remove the “mass market” label. The components are better than many games, mass market or not, and the art is lovely. The gameplay is fun, brisk, and intuitive, and offers some decent decisions and remarkable little luck for such an introductory title. And the price is right: At only $15, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
So let’s start with the surface stuff. The artwork is gorgeous, and the stones are colorful and fun to play with. Everything meshes well together. I especially appreciated how the stones are flat-bottomed and sized to fit in the holes on the player boards. They don’t roll all over the place. The coyote figurine is a nice touch. They could have gone with a cardboard standee, but the plastic figure is a nice extra. The game also comes in a small box with a useful insert, which makes storage easy.
I’ve seen complaints that the cards are too thin, but I don’t feel that way. No, they’re not the thickest things ever, but since you won’t be shuffling them and only handling them minimally, they should hold up fine. You really do get a lot of value here for your money component-wise, much more than some games that cost far more.
But what about the gameplay? First, you have to understand that this isn’t a deep, strategic two player game like Raptor or 7 Wonders Duel. The decisions here don’t require that much thought and planning. You’ve got six actions and with the exception of the spirit cards, those actions never change and are the same for both players.
What you do have to decide is the best order in which to deploy those decisions. Do you take the easy ones first, like take one stone, so you can start to load up your board and maybe give you the option to move the coyote? Or, do you take some of the actions that put more stones in the bowl hoping to set yourself up for a future turn, but risk giving your opponent a stone she wants? What spirit actions are currently available? Is one of them something you need right now, or do you want to wait and hold out for something better? When do you place a spirit stone on your board? Those double points are nice, but if you place it you lock yourself out of further placement in that area. What’s your opponent doing? Is she close to racking up big points (or ending the game), and should you drop the coyote onto her board to slow that down?
Everything is a choice between what to do now and what to hold off on hoping that you’ll get to do it later. The end of the game can come quickly, though. When five spirit stones are out of the bag at the end of a turn that’s it, game over. If you’re paying attention, you can see it coming, but you still might not know exactly when it’ll strike. You’re always fighting a push-pull between trying to get points now just in case it ends, and holding out for more points just in case it doesn’t.
Remarkably, for such a light, approachable game, there’s very little luck. Yes, there’s luck in which stones come out of the bag, but that’s pretty much it. You know which spirit powers are available, and your actions never change. You can see what your opponent is doing on their board, and which actions they have remaining. Everything is open for you to use to make decisions. That’s a refreshing change from many mass market games that usually have a heavy luck factor to level the playing field.
All in all, it’s a satisfying, quick experience that has me wanting to play again several times in a row. There’s definitely a little brain tickle here, and the short playtime and easy setup make me very happy.
Are there negatives? Sure. Most of them are matters of taste and don’t really bother me. There’s only one thing that I feel is a negative across the board. The rest will depend on your gaming style.
First, for all that I love the overall production, there is one glaring oversight, and that is that the spirit animal cards could use some clarification. The text is very bare bones, due to space limitations, I assume. Also, there are no detailed explanations in the rule book as there are of the action cards. The way some of them are worded leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding or incorrect interpretation. Thankfully, the designer has provided a more detailed explanation on BGG. It’s just unfortunate that people who pick this up in Target or other stores and don’t know about BGG won’t benefit from the explanation. It really should have been provided in the rules.
Second, some people may not enjoy the movement of the coyote. It can feel a bit mean to have him dropped on your board, locking you out of an area until you can shoo him off. However, since it’s an “equal opportunity” meanness, it doesn’t bother me. You’re both going to move him around, and it should be part of your strategy. You want to keep an eye on your opponent and use the coyote wisely to stop her from finishing a high point area, or ending the game if you’re not ready.
I also don’t think it’s terribly mean since the coyote can only block off one area at a time, and there’s almost always another area you can be working on. He can be annoying, but he’s not something that will halt your play in its tracks until he moves.
Third, and last, some people may not care for the abrupt ending of the game. If you’re paying attention, you’ll have a feeling when it’s near, but it can still catch you by surprise. And since the other player doesn’t get another turn, it can feel a little frustrating not to have one more turn to catch up. I’m not overly bothered by it, especially in such a short, light game, but people who like to have that end turn, or a very clearly defined number of rounds, may find Spirits of the Wild irksome.
Is Spirits of the Wild the best game ever? No, but it is very good at what is does which is to provide a quick, fun game that will entertain non-gamers and gamers seeking lighter fare. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to please the hardcore crowd, or at least not as anything more than a filler. But it is a nice diversion that offers a little meat for your brain to chew on, and something that I really enjoyed. You can certainly do far worse when seeking a two-player game that’s both approachable and a little thinky.