Forbidden Island: A four-sided game review

Forbidden Island* is a co-operative family board game for two to four players that you can finish a play of in well under an hour. The box says 10+ for age, but 8+ is more accurate – and as this is a game where you work towards a common goal with open information, younger is feasible too.

For a game that costs less than £20, the component quality is fantastic. Coming in a nice tin (if you like tins, of course) with fantastic artwork, you’ll find 24 chunky island tiles, 58 cards, 6 wooden pawns, the water level board/marker and four moulded plastic treasures.

While this is pretty much an abstract game, the great artwork does help tell the story – you’re treasure hunters trapped on a sinking island, trying to grab all of its hidden treasures and escape by helicopter before it sinks into the sea forever. And the game is paced very well, cleverly creating a rising level of tension as the game moves towards its conclusion.

Teaching

The rules are quite simple – while the co-operative nature of Forbidden Island, and completely visible cards for all players, makes it simple to reiterate rules as you go.

Setup is clearly explained and variable each time, making for a different feel to the game each time. It also has different difficulty levels that really make a difference, so you can scale each play to your group.

Once you’ve shuffled the cards, laid out the random grid of location tiles and given each player a role, you can begin. I tend to briefly explain the role each player has plus the four options available on a turn (you get to do any combination of two actions – including doing one of them twice), then take my first go. Then you can walk through the end of the turn (where the island gets to bite back), so players see things as they will continue throughout the game – and why doing certain things is tactically important.

The island is made up of 24 tiles, each of which has a normal and flooded side. Each tile also has a matching card in the Flood deck, six of which are drawn as the game begins – with those tiles then being flipped to their flooding side. Some of the tiles have a player colour on them, depicting where each player begins. Others (two for each) have possible locations for the four treasures you’re collecting, while one is the helipad (where you need to leave the island from). The rest have no specific importance, but you’ll want to stop as many of them flooding as possible all the same.

Turns go clockwise around the table and player actions are simple: you can either move one space orthogonally, ‘shore up’ a tile (flip it back from being flooded), collect a treasure (more on this later), or give a card to a fellow player. Al of the roles essentially break one of the basic rules in your favour: so, for example, the Explorer can move and shore up spaces diagonally.

After your two actions, you draw two Treasure cards. Some of these have special bonus actions, but the majority are clues to where the treasures are. This simple set collection mechanism is spiced up by a single player having to have four of the same treasure clue in hand to be able to collect it – made even trickier by there only being five of each card – an there being a five-card hand limit.

But three of the cards in this deck aren’t helpful at all – quite the opposite. Instead, they make the water rise. This has two effects. First, your raise the water meter by one – and you draw more Flood cards each turn the higher this goes. Worse still, every time a Water Rises cad is drawn, all the Flood cards drawn so far are shuffled and put back on the top of the deck – so you know they’ll soon be back to haunt you.

The last thing you do on a turn is turn over several of the Flood cards, depending on the state of the game (on easier levels this will start at two, but is likely to be up to four per turn near the end of the game). Cards drawn have their location flipped to the flooded side – or if they’re already flooded, both the tile and the card are removed from the game. So when the water rises and the locations you’ve already seen go back on top of the draw deck, you better hope you’ve shored-up all the important ones!

As in most co-op games, there’s only one way to win – but many ways to lose. If a tile a player is on disappears completely, they swim to an adjacent one as a free action – but if the tile was isolated, they are lost – and if any player is lost, the game is over. If any treasure is unrecoverable (because both possible locations are gone), or if the helipad is gone, again it’s game over. Finally, if you draw so many ‘Water Rises’ cards that the meter reaches its final space, you guessed it – game over.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: For me, what really stands out in Forbidden Island in the cleverness of card mechanism that sees you putting the cards already played back on top of the deck. It is reused from the same designer’s (Matt Leacock) earlier smash hit Pandemic, but I find its use here every bit as compelling. It is such a simple, elegant idea but the way it is used to increase tension in that all important Hollywood fashion works perfectly. Speaking of Pandemic, I find myself enjoy Forbidden Island more as it seems to have more regularly exciting conclusions. Pandemic can sometimes fall flat (be too easy, or too hard, or be anticlimactic), where every game of Forbidden Island seems to have moments of genuine tension and suspense.
  • The thinker: I enjoy this game as a solo experience, but cannot really enjoy it as a multiplayer game. I guess I can be described as an ‘alpha player’ – I look at the board state and know what to do, so why discuss this with other players? Surely the obvious thing to do is to make the best move? I guess co-operative games are not really for me, but the ones I prefer have at least an element of hidden information so that each individual is being tested in some way, while still working together – games such as Hanabi, or even Zombie Tower 3D. But don’t take this as a knock on the game itself: sophisticated, elegant and challenging – but for me, I’ll stick to the app!
  • The trasher: If I’m in the right mood, I can get into Forbidden Island purely because of the cinematic aspect. You can ham it up getting into character, getting all Indiana Jones, and if you play on a hard setting it feels tense from the get-go. Other days, however, the co-operative part annoys me. The game drags as people ‘discuss’ (read: argue) what to do, often over two suggestions that are so similar its laughable. But whatever you think about the co-operative aspects, I’ve found few games (even the so called ‘thematic’ ones) that create as much drama towards the end of a game.
  • The dabbler: I do really enjoy a co-operative game, but you need to play this one with the right people to avoid being drowned out – sometimes I just give up and let the big mouths take over! At least in a co-op game such as The Dwarves, even if you don’t make many decisions, you’re always in charge of rolling the dice on your turn. But with the right crowd its great: the player roles mean everyone can have their moment in the spotlight, and even winning on the easy levels gives a sense of achievement. The pieces look amazing and it looks great on the table, while the short play time and snappy turns – and cooperation – help keep every engaged.

Key observations

One criticism of Forbidden Island is choices are obvious and the game is too simple. Truth is, the game isn’t for everyone: this is a family/gateway level cooperative game which is especially good for younger/new gamers – backed by the kind of fantastic presentation and quality components this crowd expects.

The fact the game can be unbeatable is problematic, although I don’t agree with the assertion that the game is on rails. Sometimes card draws mean you simply cannot win no matter what you do, but these occasions are rare and in a game this short I think that’s an acceptable small risk for the amount of times it will happen. It’s a game with luck elements – suck it up and move on, as you would in a non-cooperative game.

In terms of it being on rails, I’d argue there are certainly decisions to be made and while, sure, experienced players should always make the right one – most ‘people’ aren’t experienced gamers. While I don’t think this is a game that will live in most collections for a lifetime, I think most players will get their money’s worth – especially at this price.

And I can’t ignore the two elephants in the room: Pandemic and Forbidden Desert, both also designed by Matt Leacock. Pandemic came out a few years before Forbidden Desert and uses many of the same mechanisms, but in a more complex game – and with a more serious theme (you’re trying to cure deadly diseases breaking out across the globe). It is hugely popular and if you’re in a gaming (not family or new gamer) group it is probably a better place to start (in fact, if you’re in a stable group, check out Pandemic Legacy).

Forbidden Desert, on the other hand, comes in a similar tin, has similar great components/art style, and a similar price point (and also from publisher Gamewright). Again you’re adventurers searching for treasures, with a similar mix of actions, roles, tiles and cards – but with slightly different mechanisms in play.

It is ever so slightly more complex, and ever so slightly better thought of, than this – but there’s very little in it. Personally I think they complement each other beautifully, but at a push I’d recommend Island over Desert for newer players – and Desert to those who have experienced either this or Pandemic already (I’ll review Forbidden Desert soon).

But if they’re the elephants, the mammoth in the room is the ‘alpha player’ problem alluded to above: where one player takes over and railroads everyone else into doing what they say, spoiling the game for others. Yes, this game is open to that issue but as has been said before – find better players (I know this is flippant, but it is an old, boring argument that has been fought to death elsewhere. Google it if you care). Avoid the game if you think that will be an issue, but I’d hope most players will be able to rise above it (especially parents and new gamers).

Conclusion

Forbidden Island is a fantastic introduction to co-operative games for less experienced players of any age. It looks brilliant, plays fast and is simple to understand and explain – while the majority of plays build to a  crescendo, or at least have some now-or-never moments of tension.

More experienced groups should probably skip straight to big brother Pandemic, and you may want to look elsewhere if one of your players has a very dominant personality; but otherwise this is a game I’d highly recommend.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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