For the past few years, if you’ve been kind enough to attend a GeekDad panel at PAX or one of the other conventions we attend, you’ve probably heard us lovingly recommend Forbidden Island. As boardgames go, it’s one of our favorites. It’s cooperative, it’s challenging, and kids and adults can both get a lot of enjoyment out of the game.
Some call the game Pandemic-lite because both were created by Matt Leacock and share some aspects of play, but we disagree. Forbidden Island is its own unique game and worth including in your collection. The claims of similarity will also likely follow Leacock’s newest game, Forbidden Desert, out this week from Gamewright. But rest assured, despite being a cooperative game and sharing more than a few similarities and a common title adjective, Forbidden Desert is very much its own game. And it is very good.
In Forbidden Desert, your team has been sent to an ancient desert city to recover a legendary flying machine, rumored to be powered by the sun. A helicopter crash (these darn helicopters!) has stranded you and your only hope is to discover the parts of the flying machine and rebuild it before a nasty storm buries you and the city in sand or the relentless sun dehydrates your team.
There are 24 two-sided tiles that represent the desert. These are randomly set in a 5 x 5 grid with the middle square left open to represent the Storm. On one side of each tile is a nearly featureless desert scene, on the other are special tiles that give you benefits or guide you to the plane’s parts. Three of the desert tiles are water tiles, specified by a desert oasis on one side and a well on the other. These give players additional water to help them survive the harsh desert. However, one oasis is a mirage. Excavate this oasis and players come up dry.
Other tiles have locations in the city. These are designated with a gear icon that give players a benefit from the equipment deck. Benefits include blowing sand from adjacent locations, a shield to protect players from the sun, or a secret water stash. Equipment cards can be played at any time. Some locations are tunnels, which allow shortcut movement and also protect players from the sun. There are two location clues for each of the four parts of the plane. In order to find the part, you have to find each pair of clues, which provide the players with an X and Y coordinate for locating the part. Finally, there is a launch pad for leaving once the ship is assembled.
On the 5 x 5 grid, eight sand markers are added, per the rule book, to begin with the city partially buried. Like Forbidden Island, there is a meter to show how many Storm cards are drawn. The meter has four different gauges, depending on the number of players in the game.
Storm cards dictate how the Storm moves. Each card has a direction and a number of squares to show how strong the wind blows. For example, two squares pointing left mean the empty Storm square moves two spaces to the left on the grid. Each tile that was moved gets a sand tile on top of it. After the second sand tile has been added (and each subsequent sand tile), the tile is considered blocked and the sand must be excavated before players can move through it.
The Storm deck also includes several cards indicating that the storm has intensified, which means the Storm Level increases, possibly meaning the players must draw more Storm cards. There are also several cards called “Sun Beats Down” — these tax the players for water in their canteen. Each role card has a gauge showing how much water is in their canteens. Reach zero and a player dies. If a single player dies, the game is over.
Roles are randomly distributed to players. There’s similarity to Forbidden Island here. There’s the Archeologist, who can remove 2 sand for 1 action; the Climber, who can move (with another player if desired) to and through blocked tiles; the Explorer, who can remove sand diagonally; the Meteorologist, who can draw fewer Storm cards (1 fewer card per action) or spend an action to examine Storm deck cards equal to the Storm level and may place one at the bottom of the deck; the Navigator, who can move another player up to three tiles; and the Water Carrier, who can take 2 water from wells for an action and give to adjacent players for free.
Play starts on the desert tile with the wrecked helicopter. On each turn, players have four actions. Each can move to an adjacent (but not diagonal) tile, remove a sand marker from an adjacent (but not diagonal) tile, excavate a city tile, or pick up a part. Players may also spend an action to use one of their special abilities that their role affords. After the player has moved, she must play the part of the Storm, drawing cards from the Storm deck equal to the Storm meter. The desert is then shifted and sand is added as needed.
Play continues until the desert swallows the players, thirst extinguishes a player’s life, sand runs out, or players escape by collecting all the parts, assembling at the launch pad, and escaping.
Like all Gamewright games, the components are top-notch. The game, like its predecessor, is contained in a pressed metal box with a nice plastic inset for all of the pieces. The box is quite a bit bigger than the last game, but not overly big. The quality of the cards and cardboard is great and a nice surprise is that the engine for the plane is cast in metal, so it has some weight to it. Additionally, a lot of thought was given to the Storm meter. It’s two sided, with a gauge on both the left and right side of each face. This allows for detailed metering, depending on if you are playing with two, three, four, or five players.
The plane is pretty nice, but it’s bulky. If you wanted to travel with this game, it’s be a lot easier to leave it out and substitute with tokens. For that matter, sand markers, while very nice, take up quite a bit of the box. The game could easily be transported in a very small package–to a con or game night–by substituting pennies for the markers. But overall, the components are very nice and there are no complaints.
If you’ve played Forbidden Island, you will recognize familiar elements in Forbidden Desert. Roles are similar, as is the expectation to rescue four items from a disappearing location. But beyond these elements, Forbidden Desert is definitely its own game, in more than enough ways to justify it as another purchase. Plus it is improved in some ways. Special equipment helps when your back is against the wall, and the addition of a multitude of free actions makes the game feel more like it’s in the hands of the players. The game works best with more players (and their corresponding abilities), but is just as enjoyable (and maybe more challenging) with just two.
Even in novice difficulty level, Forbidden Desert is difficult. The first time we played, we lost due to a player dying from thirst in the third or fourth round, thanks to a crummy card draw. Subsequent plays allowed us to play deeper into the game, but they all ended in defeat. Not once have we come close to winning … yet. And I’m OK with that. If I’m honest with myself, I probably lose about as many board games as I win, which makes the wins more rewarding to me. What’s more, I have a very soft spot for these Forbidden games. In all of the years of playing board games, I have never received a more thrilling and exciting feeling at winning a game as when, along with a group of new friends, I beat Forbidden Island on Legendary difficulty last year.
When winning is not a given, it makes the victories that much more sweet. The difficulty of games like Forbidden Desert also create loads of tension, creating a more rewarding gaming experience. At my table, there is a dreaded anticipation when drawing from the Storm deck. Will the sun beat down, draining precious water from us? Will the Storm bury more tiles? Will the Storm intensify? To be honest, chances are good that things will end poorly. But that’s OK. That’s where lessons are learned, strategies are developed, and the family rolls up its sleeves for one more chance at escaping Forbidden Desert.
Forbidden Desert is for ages 10 and up, able to be enjoyed by 2-5 players at a time, and games usually last 45 minutes or less.
Disclosure: GeekDad was sent a copy of this game.