Forbidden Island Review


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Posted by Byron on Nov 12, 2015

Fresh off the success of his genre-defining cooperative game Pandemic, Matt Leacock conceived of Forbidden Island as a way to bring that same tension and cameraderie into a smaller, simpler, and quicker game suitable for children, families and social gamers. It streamlines and condenses all of Pandemic's big innovations, such as its tempo-setting approach to resetting the deck during an Epidemic/Waters Rise! event. You shouldn't mistake this simplicity for a dip in quality (or difficulty), even for seasoned co-op veterans, but the similarity to Pandemic means owners of that game might want to skip straight to Forbidden Desert, the more differentiated (and slightly more complex) follow-up design.

By necessity, I'll make a lot of references to Pandemic throughout this review, but ultimately, it's Forbidden Island's unique elements as much as its borrowed mechanics that make it worthy of its Mensa and Spiel des Jahres recognitions.

Rather than copy Pandemic's dour real-world theme, Forbidden Island draws on pulp fantasy-adventure inspirations. A team of treasure hunters has tracked down the mysterious island that holds the relics of a lost civilization. However, a curse protects these artifacts, rigged to sink the entire island should the treasures be threatened. Desperately shoring up the crumbling landmass, you'll need to collect all 4 treasures and escape by helipad before any critical locations get lost in the deep.

Gamewright exclusively publishes games for kids, many of them much younger than Forbidden Island's "10 & up" demographic; they know exactly what it takes to capture players' imaginations. Even disregarding the price, Forbidden Island's artwork and component quality are impressive. They've even included 4 unique, detailed plastic treasures that are almost totally irrelevant to the gameplay but just the thing to hold the attention of younger players. The evocative artwork on the 24 double-sided island tiles gives each location its own identity and captures a Peter Pan-ish sense of magic and exploration.

As in Pandemic, Forbidden Island's players have access to an identical list of simple actions, such as moving to an adjacent tile, shoring up a nearby location (flipping it from its flooded to dry side), or trading cards with other players. Also as in Pandemic, each player gets a unique role that breaks the rules of the game in a specific way: the Pilot can fly directly to any tile once a turn, the Explorer can move and shore up diagonally, the Navigator can move other players, et cetera. This gives everybody a place on the team and prevents strategy from becoming routine.

A player's turn consists of any 3 actions from the above list, but some of the most crucial events occur between turns. First, the player whose turn just ended draws 2 cards from the treasure deck. These represent clues to the treasures' whereabouts: you must discard a set of 4 matching cards, while standing on 1 of the 2 locations that might house that treasure, to capture the relic. The treasure deck also holds some powerful special actions: Helicopter Lift, which moves any number of players from one tile to another, and Sandbags, which instantly shores up any location on the island.

After drawing treasure cards, all of the adventurers hold their breath as the next set of flood cards is revealed, showing which areas of the island are the next to sink. The flood deck contains exactly 1 card matching each location; when a tile's card is drawn, that location floods, flipping the tile over to its blue side if it was dry or sinking it (remove both the tile and the card from the game) if it was already flooded. Thus, the neat grid of locations making up the island at the game's start gradually disintegrates. Holes appear, cutting off walking paths and possibly splitting the entire island into pieces. While Forbidden Island has fewer overall locations than Pandemic, the random placement of tiles at the start of the game and the way the island's shape evolves as locations sink, plus the fact that each tile can only be hit twice before disappearing for good, makes the decision of where to move and shore up feel much more vital here.

Flooding starts slow, 2 tiles per turn at most difficulties, but over time, it accelerates into an unstoppable monsoon. One way this happens, familiar to Pandemic players, is Leacock's lightning-in-a-bottle concept. The treasure deck contains 3 Waters Rise! cards; when one is drawn, several awful things occur. First, the water level goes up—every few spaces on the water level track, the number of flood cards per turn increases, up to a maximum of 5 (if you survive that, reaching the end of the track triggers an instant loss). More importantly, each time the Waters Rise!, the discarded flood cards get reshuffled and stacked on top of the rest of the flood deck. This creates a real sense of urgency and strengthens the illusion that the island is actually sinking as the same locations flood again and again until you can no longer stem the rising tide.

When a tile actually sinks, its card gets culled from the flood deck—thematically, the lowlands have been reclaimed by the sea, and the tide is now creeping toward the higher elevations. This also accelerates the rate of flooding. Many games end with fewer cards in the flood deck than you're required to draw in a turn, leaving you no recourse but to cross your fingers, reshuffle, and hope Fools Landing didn't end up on top.

This leads to edge-of-your-seat games every time you play...which, frankly, gets a little boring after a while. The game is almost too finely tuned; the rising tension is so reliable that it starts to feel hollow after a while. The simplicity of the system prevents any real peaks or valleys from forming during play, and eventually you realize that the entire game is just literally sandbagging until you draw the right combination of cards. There's no way to be proactive about it, and even trading cards ceases to be useful at low player counts. You're just plugging holes until the deck says you can win.

Since the island is built out of tiles, there are a ton of official and unofficial variant setups for you to try when you've tired of the default, and some of them are diabolically difficult. All complaints aside, Forbidden Island remains a standby in my collection, the perfect cooperative game to introduce friends to the genre or pull out for a half-hour solo session.