Keep meaning to update this with the games I've been playing recently, because there's a ton of good ones this year, and then it got to the point where the backlog was just too high and I feel that no one really wants to read my walls of text anyway, so why bother, but I figured I'd give getting back into it a try.
Been obsessively playing a lot of Spirit Island
This is a co-op reverse colonialism game. You are the nature spirits of an island being invaded by European colonists, and you're trying to drive them off before they blight the land and you into nonexistence. This is naturally a hilarious theme considering every other game has you as the colonists.
Let's get this out of the way first. Yes, it's a co-op. If you do not like co-ops, you will probably not like this, but it is one that is incredibly hard to quarterback/alpha player if that's a problem for you. I'm a big optimizer, and while I try to curb it, I'm constantly asking "Why did you do that. Wouldn't this have been better", and while I haven't squashed it entirely, it is a complicated game, and it is very, very, very difficult to keep a wide enough gaze on everything going on at once for your suggestions to actually be helpful to other players. You definitely need to fall into a pattern of talking about grand strategy or a bit of "I have a power that generates extra energy, would you benefit from that", and just trust other players to deal with the problems local to their area of the board.
This is also not a light game. The board game geek forums for it are littered with threads of people saying "I'm an experienced gamer and so I skipped the tutorial mode they suggested and that was a mistake". The basic flow is fairly simple, but it will probably take a game to click how the invaders behave, and until you can predict that, you're going to be doing a lot of flailing and acting reactively. With that said the game starts off relatively easy. I believe the designer has said that at cons new players can win the basic setup about 70-80% of the time, and that's where the game begins to shine, because one of the best things about it is the wealth of difficulty tuning you can do to it.
Once you're used to the default invader movement, you can play with adversaries. Each one of those represents a different colonial power and tries to mimic their style. The base game comes with three of these. The expansion with another. Each of them has seven different difficulty levels which scale up quite a bit. Playtesters who have played hundreds of times can apparently beat the most difficult modes less than fifty percent of the time. There's scenarios you can add that can radically change up the game, adding different objectives or making it a faster more tactical game, or offering a mini campaign where the results of one game feed into the next, and probably most importantly, the spirits play very differently, and I believe there's 8 in the basic box, with 4 more between kickstarter promos (which will apparently be available if this does well), and the expansion.
So, anyway, how does it play? At the beginning of a turn, you have a choice in how you want to grow. Thematically, the idea is that while the spirits are incredibly powerful, they operate on a much longer time scale, and they're really only just waking up to the fact that these invaders are going to be a problem. Each spirit has different growth options. These are largely things like "Get a new power card" or "Recycle your discard pile" or "Gain energy (the currency of the game)" or "Place more presence on the board", but they come in some wackier variations as well, especially for the more advanced spirits. Presence on the board is where you can target your powers from (every power is unique and has different requirements to be played). Each spirit starts with 4 minor powers unique to them which set a general theme of what they're good at and has some innate synergy and rewards if you continue playing to your strengths, but if your river spirit suddenly realizes that there's nothing quite like a good volcanic eruption, the options are always open.
Once all spirits have taken a growth option, you gain an energy income and then spend it on the powers you're going to use that turn (by the way, this entire game can be played simultaneously for the most part, which keeps things pretty snappy modulo your group's dynamic). Powers are fit into fast and slow. Fast powers will happen in the next phase, whereas slow need to wait until after the AI has done its thing. And now let's talk about how that works.
The AI is driven by a simple card deck. There's four types of terrain on the island. The invader deck has cards that map to a certain terrain (or once you get into the later stages of the game, terrains), and there's a simple track that these cards move along representing the phases of exploitation the invaders undergo. First they explore an area, then they build ever larger towns and cities there, and then they ravage it, killing the native people (who will passively fight back, but only after they're attacked first, which makes them pretty easy pickings unless you manipulate them with powers) and blighting the land. Blight in the short term destroys presence where it is and can cascade if a blighted area gets ravaged again. In the long term it's one of the game lose conditions. The game flow goes through this backwards though. If there is a card in the ravage spot, all invaders in that terrain type across the island, then comes build and whatever is in that site will build, then you flip a new card over to see where they explore (placing new explorer figures which will start the whole process again). Then you move all of the cards along the track. This leads to a flow where once you know the game, you know what to expect. Other than the flip of the card, the game is entirely deterministic (in the base set at least), so you know when that first explorer pops up in the jungle that it's going to be a town next turn, and start adding blight after that.
There's a wealth of different powers, and they all fit thematically with different spirits. The earth spirit is defensive and is good at reducing the effectiveness of ravaging. The lightning spirit blows entrenched settlements to pieces, but can only do that occasionally, needing to charge up in between. Forest spirits are good at wearing down cities with their branches, but they're almost useless at getting rid of explorers. The river spirit can control the board by pushing invaders around the map, but eventually someone else is probably going to be the one destroying them. There's two fear spirits (which is a whole other mechanic I haven't talked about). There's a spirit that's embodied as one of the natives and allows you greater control over their movement. There's an ocean spirit that flows in and out of coastal lands on the tide, but can never place presence on the interior of the island. There's a forest fire spirit that is incredibly strong offensively, but can't help spreading blight when it places presence as it burns down its surroundings. There's a world serpent equivalent who is incredibly weak and operates mostly by buffing its allies in the beginning of the game while slowly absorbing their presence until it wakes up and becomes ridiculously powerful (if your partners managed to keep the island from being overrun till then)
This, like Gloomhaven is one of those games that plays like a euro, but is dripping with Ameritrash theme. Cards all have some art (not really my favorite style, but it's not original Ascension), but it would be obvious from name and mechanics alone what your spirit was doing when it played that.
Anyway, great game. It's sitting at number two for the year to date right now (after Gloomhaven), and I mighhhht like it better, but I'll decide that once I have as many plays of it under my belt. If you like heavy co-ops it's hard to imagine someone not liking this.