A Review of The Spill: A Cooperative Board Game

The Spill is a cooperative game for 1-4 Players from Smirk and Dagger. This game was on Kickstarter in September 2021. It promised delivery in April 2022 and just delivered to me a few days ago (Aug 7th, 2022 or so). You know, 4 months late for a Kickstarter is pretty good! No grumpiness here!

This is a game about cleaning up an oil spill and saving animals in the ocean/gulf. The main feature of the game is the giant orange dice tower: this is the toy inside that will sell the game! See below.

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Let’s take a look and see if it’s any good!

Unboxing and Gameplay

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The Spill is all about throwing black dice (“the oil”) into the big orange dice tower (“the Oil Rig”): thematically, the oil is spewing out of the oil rig into water.  See above.

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You can see the tons of black dice on the right (above) and the Oil Rig in its deconstructed state. Spoiler Alert! You will have to assemble the Oil Rig at the start of every game and disassemble it to put it back in the box. I worry a little about this because the little plastic posts that hold up the tower seem “slightly” fragile.

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The Spill is a cooperative game with asymmetric player powers: each player takes the role of a Specialist with different powers. There are 8 total roles to choose from (see above). Each role has a different ability to help make the game a little easier.

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Before the start of the game, players choose (randomly) one of the WIN Condition cards (see above). The more little gold dots at the top left, the harder the game. But, you just choose one of these WIN Condition cards, and that sets the three things you need to do to win. Usually, you have to save so many sea creatures, clean up so much oil, and clean up contaminated wildlife. Each card is a little different, so the game can change between plays!

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The Situation Board (above) shows a bunch of information (animals saved, Oil removed, icon reminders, borrowed actions), but most important: the oil drop at the top shows you how many dice you will drop in the oil rig next turn!! Every time there is a spill, that little oil drop advances, and later in the game you will be getting more and more dice per turn!

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The dice drop into one of 4 quadrants: each quadrant has spaces for the dice 1-6: see above.  You can see as the dice come out, they start to fill up a sector!  In a kind of pandemic like way, if there are ever three dice on one sector, you have a SPILL OUT!

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In our game above, we have 4 SPILL OUTS! (See the orange banners marking the sectors were there are three dice in one sector). If there are ever 6 SPILL OUTS on the board at the end of a turn, players lose!

You clean dice as you go and remove SPILL OUTS, but a SPILL OUT can always come back!

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The other ways to lose are: (1) if you get 3 or more of the same contaminated creatures in the Sick Bay (see above where any dolphin, octopus, or manta ray will cause us to lose!). Or (2) if one creature of each type comes to the sick bay. Creatures come to the Sick Bay if they are still contaminated at the end of the turn.

To summarize: you lose if there are too many SPILL OUTS, or if there are too many contaminated creatures in the Sickbay!!

You win (typically) if you if you clean up enough oil and save enough creatures. See a winning board below (with 10 oil removed, 3 sets of marine life saved, and 4 contaminated marine life saved).

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How do you save creatures and remove oil? With Action Points of course! Each player gets 4 Action Points (abbreviated AP throughout the game). Each Specialist card has a summary at the bottom:

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It’s pretty expensive to remove Oil (3AP), but pushing a plain oil cube is only 1 AP: movement is 1 AP, and rescuing a healthy marine animal is 1 AP, but rescuing a contaminated one is 2 AP.

Every player must drop oil into the oil rig, then use their 4AP to do what they need to. There is a cool mechanism for borrowing AP which we’ll discuss below.

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Overall, the game looks really nice and has nice quality components.

Rulebook

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The rulebook is quite good.  It was easy to read,  it gave great directions and pictures for set-up, and it was easy to reference for questions.  I think there’s only one question we had (“What if the spill out marker goes past the end?”) that we couldn’t answer.  

Seriously, this was a very good rulebook.  The components were well-labelled and marked in the first pages, and it had easy directions for assembling the dice tower.

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Set-up was easy:

The rulebook had a nice big set-up section with pictures and easy-to-read fonts.

The rest of the rulebook was easy to read. The rulebook ends with a bang with a nice summary on the back.

Seriously, this was a really good rulebook.

Solo Play

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Congratulations to the Spill for following Saunders’ Law: this cooperative game has a solo mode! It’s easy and well-specified. It’s easy to follow because basically all games (no matter how many players) always must have 4 specialists! The solo player simply plays all 4 Specialists like a 4-Player game. See my solo game with 4 Specialists above. At first, I was concerned that this would be too much (we’ve complained at Legends of Sleepy Hollow for this sin) because 4 Specialists will have a lot of context switching between characters! See How To Play A Cooperative Game Solo here for more discussion of this.

It turns out, it’s not that big a deal to play 4 characters in the Spill because they each have very simple powers. This is both boon and bane because the powers are simple enough to context switch between, but it also means the Specialists aren’t “that different” from each other. (One thing you can say about the characters in Legends of Sleepy Hollow: the characters are all very different and interesting but context switching between them is difficult). For The Spill, I think this simplicity was okay: this game feels like entry game (more discussion below).

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I was able to win my first game of The Spill, but it was challenging. I got a few rules wrong (which we discovered after we played it cooperatively), but that’s my own fault. I’d say the only “slightly confusing” thing in this game were the weather dice.

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Occasionally, you will draw one of 4 blue weather dice from the bag, and it will cause something in in the game to be harder: see above as saving marine life now costs one AP more. The weather die affects everyone, but you can reset the effect ON JUST YOUR SPECIALIST at the end of your turn.

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Playing solo was straightforward and I had fun. I was “concerned” that the game might have too much randomness. We’ll revisit that below.

Cooperative Play

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Our first cooperative play was 4-Players, which was the perfect size (because you must always play 4 Specialists anyways).

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I taught my friends the game very quickly and they picked it up quickly. We made choices on out turn and.

One interesting thing that happened (which I didn’t reflect upon until later) was that this game tends to prevent Alpha Players! (See our discussion of Alpha Player Syndrome here). I think the reason was that each player “typically” only can operate in their own quadrant of the board because movement is expensive. Players have to be spread out over the quadrants to “cover” each quadrant, or they will lose! So, even if there’s a cube you want to get on your turn, it’s too expensive to move across the board. And the Oil Rig dice tower kind of “blocks” other sides of board: you can only see your quadrant and your neighbors. So, you can’t ALpha Play because (a) you can’t see everyone’s state without serious looking around (b) movement is too expensive to be traipsing around the board. This means that each player tends to concentrate on their own quadrant and shut-out/down the Alpha Player.

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That doesn’t mean we didn’t communicate: we’d discuss ways to use the Resource Cards, what we needed to get, things to concentrate on. We had the high-level discussions and each player would tend to concentrate on the low-level activities of their own sector.

This game went over like gang-busters! Everyone seemed to really like it!

The Oil Rig

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It feels stupid to say this, but dropping dice into the Oil Rig was really fun! It’s silly, but the kinesthetic experience of dropping the dice and watching them disperse was quite enjoyable. Even if you don’t like co-ops, this dexterity element was fun. And everyone got to drop dice on their turn, so it was a shared experience: everyone got a turn!

Seriously, the Oil Rig made the game more fun.

EDIT: We just finished watching the Dice Tower do a playthrough of The Spill, and they had trouble with dice spilling out (no pun intended) outside the little container. It looked very frustrating! We didn’t have this problem when we played. We tended to throw the dice in all at once, and it didn’t seem to be a problem for us. Not sure what the difference is between our set-up and the Dice Tower set-up, but it was definitely an issue for them. It wasn’t for us. Caveat Emptor.

Resource Cards 

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This would be a pretty “by-the-numbers” co-op if the game were just what we described. But two things really elevated the experience: first was the Resource Cards. See above.

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At the start of the game, each Specialist chooses 1 of 2 Resource Cards to go out (4 will be out at the start of the game). Whenever you get 3 oil removed or gain a set of three animals, you get an orange marker to put on one of the Resource cards! These resource cards are GOOD THINGS to can choose to do (they reminded me of the resource cards in Pandemic that you can play at any time) during your turn, if you have enough orange markers on it.

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If you look at the Situation board, you can see the little orange cubes on the board, clearly demarking when you get on! It was great to have these Resource Cards, as you could choose to do some out-of-the-box turns to get something done! Resource Cards promoted some more strategic thinking, as we had some “helpful” mechanism near the endgame.

You could argue these are just like the Pandemic “anytime” cards, and you’d be right. But it was cool that you got to select them at the start of the game and that anyone could activate them: they took the Pandemic idea and gave it an upgraded twist!

Extra Actions

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I think what really made the game special was the “Extra Actions”: see the “Extra Action Pool” on the right side of the board.

Basically, it allows you (if you want) to add 1 or 2 more Action Points to your turn, at the cost of adding an extra oil dice for the next turn!! I can’t tell you how many co-ops I have played where I said “OH!! I wish I had just one more action to get something done!” With this mechanism, you can!

Basically, you can choose when you need a few more APs, but you know the cost. This mechanism feels like you have more agency on your turn.

I loved this mechanism and the it really elevated the gameplay for me!

Discussion 

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My major worries with this game was that “it was too random” and “it was too much like Pandemic“. Let’s look at both of these in turn.

After playing a few times, I think the randomness can still be an issue, but there are several reasons why this wasn’t an ongoing concern. Firstly, The Spill is a fast game! It’s about 45 minutes, so it’s easy to get back and play again. I can think of games of Pandemic where the randomness wrecked us: it’s just the nature of the beast for some co-ops. Sometime you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. Secondly, there are enough mechanisms (between Resource Cards and Extra Action Points and Special Powers) to mitigate a lot of this randomness. Randomness is debilitating when players feel they don’t have any agency to counteract it, but I think The Spill contains enough mechanisms to give players that agency. Said another way, the randomness didn’t seem to get to us.

As for the “it was too much like Pandemic” argument, my friends really thought this felt different from Pandemic. Granted, there are a lot of similarities, but there’s enough differences for this to be its own game. Between the dice throwing and Extra Actions and Resource Cards, gameplay was different enough to enjoy this outside of Pandemic.

In the end, my friends and I think this is entry cooperative game. It’s slightly more complicated than Forbidden Island (the prototypical entry co-op), but less complicated than Pandemic. But we still liked it and would love to play it again. It’s just not a super heavy game, but that’s not a ding! I could see this on the shelf at Target!

Theme

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Some people might have a problem with the theme, but after playing the game, the theme wasn’t a concern.

Most of my game group did NOT like Endangered (see our review here) because the creatures you were trying to save actually got killed!! I was worried my friends would have the same problems here! Nope, the creature aren’t killed … they go to “SickBay“:

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Our joke was “Is SickBay like the farm my dog Rover went to when he was sick?” The Spill got around the issue by just calling it SickBay (good job guys!).

In general, the theme wasn’t too gross or debilitating. Honestly, the Oil Rig dice tower is so fun it kind of “suppresses” the kinda dismal theme. (I mean, the theme is a broken oil rig polluting the oceans and killing animals!) But, we are working to fix it! So, we are doing a positive thing and the theme didn’t seem to get to anyone. It might for you: Caveat Emptor.

Conclusion

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I liked The Spill a lot more than I expected to! It’s an entry level cooperative game, but it was fun! It was fun to throw dice in the Oil Rig, it was fun to discuss concerns at a high-level, it was fun to try to solve the puzzle here. Although this game has some randomness in it, the mechanisms to mitigate said randomness worked really well: I think the Extra Action Points mechanism was just brilliant and really elevated the game from a “by the numbers co-op” to something more interesting.

I’d recommend this game as a good entry game (assuming the theme doesn’t get to you: it didn’t cause us any consternation) or for players who want a light but fun co-op.

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