Just another day in the life of an adventurer: exploring the island hideaway of the ancient mysterious Archean civilization in your attempt to secure the four sacred artifacts which control the Earth’s core elements. Of course, the Archeans couldn’t let these precious treasures wind up in the wrong hands, so they rigged the island to sink if anyone ever discovered it. (What happened to these guys, anyway? You’d think a civilization that could rule over Earth, Fire, Wind and Water might have an edge on surviving, but apparently not.) Your job is to get in, get the treasures, and helicopter off the island before the waters rise.
Forbidden Island is a new game designed by Matt Leacock, who is best known for Pandemic, a brilliant board game about combating the spread of disease. (I’m planning to write about that one eventually as well.) What both games have in common, unlike many that you may have played, is that they rely on cooperation. Everyone is on the same team, and you all win or lose together. There are pros and cons to this, which I’ll address a little later.
Forbidden Island is for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes roughly 30 minutes to play. The game comes with 24 island tiles, 58 cards, 6 pawns, 4 treasure figurines and a water meter, all in a nice metal tin roughly the size of a large hardcover book (say, the last Harry Potter volume). It’s published by Gamewright and retails for $15.99.
The components are all excellent: the island tiles are nice, sturdy cardboard with rounded corners. The illustrations on the tiles and cards are gorgeous and really help set the mood for the game. The four sacred treasures are the best, though: the Crystal of Fire, Statue of the Wind, Ocean’s Chalice and Earth Stone are wonderfully detailed. They’re made of some sort of rubbery plastic (or plasticized rubber?) except for the Crystal of Fire, which is a sparkly transparent plastic (and thus everyone’s favorite).
The island is formed by shuffling the tiles and placing them in a roughly circular shape, which changes the board each time. Then, each player gets one of the six available roles: Explorer, Diver, Pilot, Navigator, Engineer or Messenger—each role has a particular starting tile. Two treasure cards are dealt to each player, and the treasures are placed on the board. (Each treasure can be claimed from two different locations.) Finally, the water level is set on the marker, depending on the desired difficulty level—the higher, the harder.
On your turn, you can take up to three actions from the following choices: move, shore up a submerged tile, give a treasure card to a fellow player, or capture a treasure. You must be in the same location as another player to give them treasure cards, and you must collect four of the appropriate card to capture a treasure. After your actions, you draw two more treasure cards, and then draw flood cards equal to the water level shown on the marker.
The flood cards correspond to the island tiles. When a location is revealed on a flood card, that tile first becomes submerged (by flipping it over to the blue-and-white colored side). If a submerged tile is revealed on a flood card, then it sinks and is removed from the game entirely. Shoring up allows you to flip an adjacent tile back over—but only if it hasn’t already sunk.
Within the treasure cards deck, there are three cringe-inducing Waters Rise cards. If you draw one of these, you increase the water level on the meter, and then the flood cards discard pile gets reshuffled and put on top of the deck. That means that anything that has previously been submerged becomes more likely to sink. And as the water level rises, you’re forced to draw more and more flood cards at the end of each turn, which makes the island sink faster and faster as the game progresses.
There are also two other types of special cards in the treasure deck: Sandbags, which allow you to instantly shore up any tile on the board; Helicopter Lifts, which can pick up any number of players on a single tile and transport them anywhere on the board. (You also need a Helicopter Lift card to leave Fool’s Landing at the end of the game.)
Each player also has a particular ability depending on the role:
The goal of the game is to get all four treasures, meet back up at Fool’s Landing, and catch the helicopter off the island. There are four ways to lose: if both locations for a particular treasure sink before you claim it, if Fool’s Landing sinks, if any player is on a sinking tile and there aren’t any adjacent tiles to swim to, or if the water level reaches the top of the meter. It takes cooperation to find the right balance between collecting the treasures and shoring up enough tiles so that no treasures (or people) are lost. It’s also important to find the best way to use each person’s abilities.
Cooperation vs. Competition
While I enjoy some healthy competition, I do like playing well-designed cooperative games as well. The problem is, not all cooperative games really work well. There are some which pit one person against many, which is only sort of cooperative; others might be true cooperation but have little replay value. Leacock has come up with a combination of fairly simple game mechanics that work in concert to make an engaging adventure. As you play Forbidden Island, the tension mounts gradually—toward the beginning, it doesn’t feel so urgent, but after a few rounds you realize that the island is sinking faster than you can keep it shored up.
What’s great about cooperative games is learning to work with your teammates and figuring out how to use your strengths together. Even though the game is for ages 10 and up, I played a couple times with my three-year-old and six-year-old, who really wanted to try this fun-looking game. Obviously the three-year-old didn’t get any of the strategy at all and the six-year-old needed help, but what was great was that since we were all on a team, I could give them as much help as they needed, and then let them move things around and collect the treasures.
What’s not so great about cooperative games is that, depending on the players, it’s easy for some people to feel left out of the discussion. If one player tends to talk a lot and is good at coming up with a strategy, it can feel a bit like watching somebody play solitaire as they shuffle everyone else around like pawns. I have a couple of kids in my gaming group that simply won’t play cooperative games for this very reason, and I try to avoid becoming the leader myself when I play.
Whether you’ll like Forbidden Island (or any other cooperative game) may depend on who you play it with. But I do think that Forbidden Island is a particularly good example of the cooperative games genre. It will work for a broad range of ages, is fairly easy to teach and plays in a short amount of time. The theme matches the gameplay pretty well, and the adjustable difficulty level scales the game for different ages. You’ll probably be able to beat it most of the time on Novice. I’ve also tried Normal, Elite, and Legendary. We did manage to win on Normal and Elite, but Legendary has proven to be beyond our abilities so far.
One other reason I like Forbidden Island is that the mechanics share some similarities with Pandemic, which is another one of my favorites. So teaching somebody Forbidden Island will make it easier for them to tackle the more-challenging Pandemic later. Also, as Jenny Williams reported earlier, Forbidden Island was one of the winners of the 2010 Mind Games competition, making it one of the five games this year to earn the Mensa Select Seal.
Still not sure? Michael Fox of the Little Metal Dog Show just did an interview with Matt Leacock earlier this week, and they talk about both Pandemic and Forbidden Island, some of the game mechanics and Leacock’s design process. (Bonus: he also interviewed Lorien Green, board game geekumentarian. Definitely worth a listen.)
Look for Forbidden Island at your local games store or on Amazon.
Wired: Adjustable difficulty level, excellent theme and high-quality components, teaches cooperation and problem-solving.
Tired: Some people cooperate better than others.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of Forbidden Island for review.