A blog by Josh Humbert
“Look, if we can push those Invaders to that coastal land, then Jared can play ‘Into The Briny Deep’ and drown them all! It could work!!”
These are the words of my friends as we contemplated our next moves in a fantastic cooperative board game called Spirit Island. In a fully cooperative board game like Spirit Island, you all either win together or lose together. The tension was furiously rising as we neared the end of this particular game. Either we figured out a solution RIGHT NOW or the game would be over and we would lose.
Spirit Island, from a thematic standpoint, is the very opposite of so many “settler” games. In the vast majority of those settle-and-take-over-the-land games, such as the ever popular Catan series, you ARE the settlers. Your whole goal is expand your territories and cultivate new lands for resources and glory.
Not so with Spirit Island. What initially attracted me to the game was this complete reversal of theme. In Spirit Island, there are these native people called the Dahan. They’ve enjoyed life on this island for many years and it’s their home. However, now the Invaders (the settlers!) are moving in to take the natural resources of the land and conquer it for their own. You and your teammates play as powerful, elemental Spirits who work with (sort of, but not always) the Dahan to STOP the settling of the island. Thus, Spirit Island is called a “cooperative settler-destruction game.”
And it is magnificent.
Each Spirit is highly distinct and drenched in theme. There is A Rampant Spread Of Green, a Spirit that allows you unprecedented growth and rapid expansion across the island. There is Sharp Fangs Behind The Leaves, a Spirit that employs powerful beasts to attack the Invaders. There is Ocean’s Hungry Grasp that…well…hungrily waits till Invaders get close to that coastline. Half the fun is just selecting which Spirit you want and figuring out how the Spirit’s work together.
The Spirit you choose will have a unique deck of just a few cards. You’ll play a card or two each turn and these cards you play will be the actions your Spirit is taking. So in the beginning, your Spirit is a bit limited in what all it can do. However, as you play, your particular Spirit will increase in power as you boost it’s presence on the Island and as you help it “learn” new abilities by adding new cards to your Spirit deck. It is mandatory that you carefully add some very powerful actions (these cards are called “Major Powers”) because you’ll most likely be facing a formidable challenge as the Settlers keep pushing to take over the island.
Which brings us to the awesome card called “Cast Down Into The Briny Deep” that potentially could win the game for us. Or maybe….there’s one essential element that comes first.
In the vast majority of all games, you control your character (whatever form your character may take). You push the jump button and Mario will vertical up for that coin. You press the grenade button and the Master Chief will send the explosive flying towards that crowd of enemies. Same with board games; you move your figures, you marshal your armies, etc. This is simply how game systems work.
Here again though, Spirit Island introduces a fresh, subversive concept that stopped me in my tracks when I came upon it. Normally, you’re trying to “destroy” the Invaders and get them off the board by inflicting damage. However, if your Spirit has the right power card to play, you can actually move the Invaders around just a little bit. You can’t send them all over the island; it’s rather slight and limited. The possibility exists though: you can move your enemies.
For example, some spirits specialize in inspiring “Fear” in the Invaders. Fear, in essence, is a form of currency that you want. When you and your fellow spirits have generated enough fear, the Invaders will leave certain lands or move their towns elsewhere. There’s one spirit called “Bringer Of Dreams And Nightmares” (WHAT A NAME, RIGHT????) that ONLY generates fear. Other spirits can help to damage or destroy Invader figures, but the Bringer just terrifies them. I’m telling you, it’s one of the coolest game design elements you’ll find!
So you have these possibilities that exist within Spirit Island where YOU can move OPPONENT figures around. You can “push” or “pull” or “gather” figures other than the ones representing your spirit.
You could, for instance, even build an entire strategy around pushing, pulling, or gathering as many Invaders as possible into one specific land and then going for maximum destruction. Which is exactly what we now planned to do.
Move the Invaders to where we wanted them to go. Forgo the opportunities to try and destroy them one by one. Instead, focus all efforts on getting them to that coastal land and then play Cast Down Into The Briny Deep. Playing this card would generate 6 fear and then…. “destroy all invaders.”
This is how we would win.
It’s not often that board games or video games or any type of game can give you a tiny, imperfect glimpse into the work of God. That first game of Spirit Island did just that for me. Imperfect and flawed though the glimpse was…I felt a bit of a “wow” moment as we pursued our final strategy.
As we skipped out on opportunities to try and destroy each Invader piece one by one, I wondered what the Dahan might be “thinking” (yes, my mind works like this). Would they be crying out in anger to us Spirits as these Invaders are allowed to live and continue ravaging the island? “Why do the wicked prosper? Why don’t you just destroy them now?”
As we put as many Invaders as possible into one particular coastal land, I wondered about the Dahan “perspective.” Would they be incredulous and sorrowful seeing such an immense and seemingly unbeatable force all united together in once place? “I thought you were a powerful spirit. I thought you could be trusted.”
I KNEW what we were doing and why we were doing it. I KNEW we had a definite end-game that would result in victory. And yet, I knew that if the Dahan could speak from their limited perspective, they would’ve been strongly questioning us Spirits. All they could see was the continued presence and problems that the Invaders bring.
Here then was the connection to my own life and my own theology. If the Dahan would just trust me…if they would just trust that I was about to bring a resounding victory…what a difference it would make. “Look, I know from your perspective this looks destructive and hopeless, but watch what I’m about to do!”
I got to “play God” on a tiny, imperfect scale. And it helped me to see my own lack of faith and foolish questioning of a truly powerful and sovereign God. The chance to play as a mighty spirit actually helped expose the “Dahan”-parts of my own life when I am quick to think I know what God should be doing.
The Gospel gives me, once and for all, the true starting point for any questions about God and what He’s doing. When I wonder if God cares about human suffering – I can have questions for sure – but I begin by remembering the Son of God embracing a crown of thorns and endless mocking. When I wonder about the prosperity of the wicked – I can have doubts for sure – but I begin by recalling my Sinless Savior laying down His life for His enemies, me included.
Jesus Christ stepped out Heaven and did something about this world we have broken with our sin. For the sake of all who trust in Him, Jesus “moved the pieces”….all the pieces….of God’s wrath toward our sin to one particular place – an old rugged Cross where He alone would bear it. There, where it all seemed destructive and hopeless, He brought a resounding, eternal victory.
All my sin, shame, and guilt were forever Cast Down Into The Briny Deep. Never to be found again.
This was the plan God was working the whole time. So, I can know that He is always trustworthy, even when I don’t understand the plan. He is God, I am not. He is in control and He will always make the right play.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m ready to head back to Spirit Island for more theology lessons…..
For MORE on Spirit Island, check out our episode on the Cross-Cutting Culture podcast (link on the Listen page) where we do a full deep dive on it.
Thanks for reading. Your comments and insights are always welcomed. If you enjoyed this, please share it. Want more content? Check the archives or listen to me on the Cross-Cutting Culture Podcast on iTunes.