Ilos: A four-sided game review

Ilôs* is a card playing and tile-laying game pitched around the family/gateway level. You can play with two to five players, with games lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the number of players. The age suggestion of 10+ is about right, but gaming regulars of 8+ should easily cope with the mechanisms on display here.

While set in the imaginary land of Ilôs, it has a ‘trading in the Mediterranean’ feel – but before you run screaming, look at that smiling man on the cover! This nice cartoon art style runs throughout the fantastic components and, while largely themeless, the game has plenty of character.

In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find 90 cards, 75 wooden player pieces, 20 cardboard tiles, more than 160 cardboard chits and 5 player screens and boards. All these components are of a very high quality, with just the exchange rate chart and its tokens being a little flimsy; but these are hardly touched during the game. The game doesn’t seem to be currently available direct into the UK, but a US release is planned for 2018 (which will see it arrive here, hopefully in the £30-40 price bracket).

Teaching

The rules for Ilos are just six pages long and include plenty of examples. What the game does brilliantly is take several common euro game ideas, distil them to a pure form, then put them together to create a unique experience.

The game is driven by a card system which is akin to San Juan or Race for the Galaxy (where playing one card means you generally have to discard other cards to do so), but with the card pile limited to just six different cards.

These cards allow you to move (place or move ships); establish settlements (plantations, gold mines or buildings – which all generally earn you goods each turn), search ruins or affect the value of goods on the market.

Until the tile stack runs out (there are four tiles in play per player), a move action allows you to also place a tile (Carcassonne style). All tiles have islands and sea on them, and you place one of your five ships on the new tile. Alternatively you can move an existing ship you have (or place a new one) onto any existing tile. You will either place on a shore (allowing you to then establish settlements on that island) or on a pirating space (meaning all other players establishing settlements on islands on that tile have to pay more cards to do so).

You will need to have one or two ships on a shore to start a settlement, with the type of card played and number of extra cards needed (including those pesky pirates) often limiting your options. Most tiles have a number of spots for your pioneers, but each space can only hold one – so it’s first come, first served. Each pioneer placed will then give you one income of the commodity you settle on (ebony, spice, pigment, or gold). Alternatively you can sometimes build a fort (which protects you from pirates) or trading post (which copies a production spot already occupied on that island). Raiding ruins just gives a one-time three gold bonus, but this can be powerful as gold has the potential to be twice as valuable as every other commodity.

Finally, the market card action is what really drives the game. Instead of costing extra cards to play, this action costs you one good of the type you want to inflate the price of.

The trick, of course, is that once you up the price of a good everyone else will want to hoover up any available spaces that make it. But conversely there are only eight price rise markers in the game, and once they’re gone the market is set – so you can’t leave it too long to make your move.

On a turn a player can make any number of actions, as long as they have the cards to do so. There is no hand limit, so you could potentially save up for a massive turn – the only caveat being that if the draw deck runs out the current player draws any extra cards they need from the player with the most cards. The number of cards drawn each turn is three, plus one per ship you have on the board and one per fort built – so thee is extra incentive to get those ships out early.

The game ends when one player has placed all 10 of their pioneers onto spaces on the islands. Players then simply multiply the amount of each good they have by its market value to determine the winner.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Designer Frédéric Guérard has done a great job of combining simple mechanisms into a new game that comes together beautifully, while using a fictional location has avoided potential thematic banana skins around the topic of colonisation. While the game is best at 3-4 players it is still fun at both two and five, making it one of the very best family/gateway games of those arriving at Essen 2017. It’s a shame that, right now, it is almost impossible to find in the UK.
  • The thinker: While Ilos isn’t the deepest game out there, and you can occasionally be let down by the luck of the draw, if played with a ‘super filler’ attitude it works very well indeed. The very limited opportunities to increase values in the market is a key dilemma throughout, changing each play; while the game sets up and plays quickly (you can get it played in 30 minutes with an experienced group). And due to its familiarity it is a very easy teach to experienced gamers. But no, this is not a very strategic game – much more a short tactical one.
  • The trasher: While this isn’t a strong game in terms of player interaction, the piracy spaces actually make a significant impact. Especially early on you’ll find yourself scrabbling to do two or three actions in a round – so having to pay a few extra cards is painful. This makes it a pretty good attacking move (especially with less players), but also defensively – it’s much less likely for ships to land on the same island as you if you’re pirating its seas! The market is also fun to watch: it costs you to up a value, which in turn makes it hard to stay ahead of the curve. All in all, I like this one more than I thought I would.
  • The dabbler: As well as looking gorgeous and appealing to families in the process, Ilos is deceptively simply despite having quite the component list. It actually shares quite a few touch points with games such as Ticket to ride: it plays two to five players in around an hour, while you can wait until your go to make your decisions as the landscape can change quite a lot once around the table – so you can socialise a bit while you wait! Even later, when you’re drawing 8-10 cards, the decision space doesn’t grow: in fact it shrinks once the market closes and some of the spaces on the tiles run out, leading to a quick final land grab.

Key observations

Ilos feels very different with two players, especially compared to four or five. The real difference is that you only use eight of the 20 tiles, which can give big disparities in what commodities become available. This may annoy those who like to plan a more predictable strategy.

While I enjoy the fact the game blends familiar mechanisms to make something new, some players will simply look at it as ‘nothing new’ – which is a fair argument. Nothing here will surprise the regular gamer and descriptions such as ‘middle of the road’ can’t really be argued with – I have seen it described as ‘flat’ and ‘unexciting’. But my argument would be that, seen as a super filler, I see it as a lot better than those descriptions. But no – this is not a game that will be the mainstay of many gamer group evenings.

Conclusion

Going into Essen I had high hopes for Ilos and it has largely met those expectations. The game is light, fast, simple to set up and explain; but the market and randomness of the tiles and cards add just enough to keep it interesting.

I’ve had no complaints from anyone I’ve played it with, across all levels of experience, and in fact several people have been very much taken by it. Personally I’d rather reach for this than, say, Carcassonne (I’m not saying it’s a better game) – and because of that it will definitely be staying in my collection.

* I would like to thank La Boite de Jeu (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.

Hanamikoji: A four-sided game review

Hanamikoji is a small box two-player card game from EmperorS4, designed by Kota Nakayama and with art by Maisherly. A game lasts around 15-30 minutes and while saying 10+ age on the box, I think younger gamers should be just fine as it has a very simple rule set.

While the game is very much an abstract, the theme is or winning favour with a selection of geishas. I’ll talk more on this later, but the more prudish of you shouldn’t run away screaming with your hands over your eyes: the theme is very much graceful, artistic women and the art throughout is both beautiful and tasteful.

The component quality is also top notch: the game has 28 high quality linen finish cards and 15 cardboard tokens. A price tag of close to £20 may seem a little steep for a game with so few components, but the quality is unquestionable and you don’t need a box full of bits to get a whole lot of game.

Teaching

At its heart, Hanamikoji is a very simple area majority card game. The seven geisha cards are laid out in the centre of the table with the 21 item cards shuffled and used during the game (one item card is always dealt out of the round, face down, so you don’t have perfect information – but all the rest will be in play).

Each player will play the same four actions in a round, hoping to win the favour of four of the seven geishas or a total of 11 points (the latter outstrips the former if both players meet one of the victory conditions).

The favour value of each geisha equals the number on their geisha card – which equates to the number of item cards they have in the deck. So you could win the game with just three geishas in your favour, as long as they were the higher scoring ones (the 4 and 5, plus a 2, for example).

On a turn you simply draw one card into your hand and then carry out one of the four actions – but no matter what order you’ll have to do all four, which will see you using all of your dealt cards. The four actions are: discard 2 (they will not be scored); save 1 (it will be added to your side at the end of the round before scoring); make 2 piles of 2 and let your opponent add one to their side – you add the other 2 items to your side; and put 3 single cards from your hand on the table – your opponent puts 1 on their side, you put the remaining 2 on yours.

Once all actions have been taken, and the saved card of each player added to their side, you score. Each geisha has a scoring marker on their card and it is moved to the side who has the most item cards on their side- or if it is a draw, the marker stays on the geisha. A game can be over in a single round, or can last for several (you can put a cap of three rounds on a game, but most games will end within three rounds anyway).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: It sounds like a negative but trust me, it’s a positive: you hardly ever want to play any of your actions in Hanamikoji. A little like classic two-player game Lost Cities it always feels like the other player must be in a better situation than you, but in truth the likelihood is the game is screwing with you both. Games are good when every decision is interesting: here, every decision – even the first one – is agonising. While the microgame bubble has well and truly burst, EmperorS4 has done a great job of finding a good one and packaging it as a small box game.
  • The thinker: There is no doubting this is an extremely clever game design. It is a tight and intelligent abstract game that plays and sets up fast – but ultimately it is an extremely tactical game, where forward planning is a luxury you rarely if ever get to utilise. You will be forced to play 10 cards during a round but only start with knowledge of five of them – not enough to make many informed decisions. You are then drip-fed a little more information each round, but by then may have already made mistakes you can’t come back from. I can see the thrill of this for many players, but as a strategist I found it very frustrating.
  • The trasher: Wow, Hanamikoji is a wild ride! While there are only four actions the order you play them in makes a huge difference: forcing your opponent into making decisions about your cards early can be an advantage, but will leave you forced to discard cards you may need later – but make your move too early and you may need to offer your opponent a bunch of cards you want to keep. Sometimes you get a sweet deal – maybe all three cards of a three-card geisha, meaning you can play the ‘you keep one, I keep two’ action knowing you’ve won her favour. But mostly its backs against the wall panic! It’s just a shame it has such a wussy theme – this is a combat game!
  • The dabbler: This is a beautiful game and very simple to teach, but has some hidden depth too. Forcing both players to make all four actions is clever, as it never feels like you’re being mean – you’re just doing what you have to. And the lovely art makes it look a lot more passive than it is. But despite looking beautiful the theme didn’t come through at all – and while the game is clever, it lacked personality and didn’t create the right vibe for me. We bemoaned our luck, and sat tensely: I’d rather have the fun and laughter of Love Letter.

Key observations

So the geisha theme is clearly the elephant in the room for some players, who can’t simply see Hanamikoji as a beautiful abstract game. Personally I find the bland primary colours and children’s fonts of Qwixx more offensive, but each to their own. Also, if you think a traditional geisha was a prostitute, do some research…

Onto more serious critiques, the small decision space and heavy restrictions are not going to work for everyone. Comparisons to Battle Line seem common, and understandable (two players fighting for majorities in a card game); but I expect most games of battle line will be twice as long and, well, it’s just different. I really like both games but see them as very different challenges. That said, I do wonder how much of Hanamikoji is luck versus skill – where the better player will tend to win Battle Line.

Others also note Hanamikoji is too quick for them, while others question its replayability. Here I think it depends why you want a particular game in your collection: for me, this is a game I will be able to pop on the table to fill a short gap and it will amaze and surprise many gamers with its clever design made with so few components. Will I play it every day? No. But I expect it will get more plays than a lot of games on my shelves, and will elicit more of a reaction than many of its heavier counterparts.

Conclusion

Hanamikoji is a genius piece of game design that everyone should try at least once – even if it does make you pull your hair out. The artist and publisher have made it everything it could be too, and I will certainly look out for other games from Kota Nakayama in future – as well as art from young female talent Maisherly.

I don’t think its cleverness can really be called into question – but whether you’ll like the game is a very different question. Short two-player abstract games with very tight decision spaces certainly aren’t for everyone and this feels as if it is at quite a gaming extreme – but it will be staying on my shelves and I feel thoroughly deserves its current place in the Board Game Geek top 50 family board games.

* I’d like to thank EmperorS4 for providing a discounted copy of the game for review.

Essen 2017 new releases: First impressions, part 1

I’ve had the chance to play half the games I brought back from Essen at least once now, so I thought I’d give you a brief first impression of each of them (I’ll do a follow-up on the others once I’ve played all the rest).

Please remember these are just early thoughts: full reviews of all of the games will be heading your way over the next few months. Also, they especially need to be taken in the context of the player counts used (several were solo plays, for example, which often gives a very different impression to a competitive game).

Santa Maria (two player)
When I lined up this medium weight euro I was hoping for a game akin to Cuba, but more fun; on one play, I’ve got exactly what I’d hoped for.

Your points will come from fulfilling contracts for goods and progressing along a few tracks – and you’ll do it via a dice drafting/action selection mechanism. So far so whatever.

But as you activate rows and columns during a round you’ll limit later options in the round, which makes for some tough decisions – and rewards for clever play. There can also be some fierce competition for actions, dice and position; making it highly interactive, but no in a mindless ‘take that’ way. One play verdict: probable keeper.

Space Race (two plays, solo and four-player)
After a solo run through of this fast engine-building card game I thought, ‘I think I’ve just about got the hang of this’. But after a four-player game in which everyone involved was baffled throughout, I’m still not really any the wiser as of what to do.

It’s the kind of game where everything feels as if it’s familiar, but nothing is actually what you expect. You can never play cars from your hand; you can play them into a place where you don’t think you want them, because you can’t use them – but at the end they’ll score you points. And you’re trying to build your engine despite not usually knowing whether you’ll get the cards you want. It’s just totally unintuitive.

Half of me thinks it will reward repeated plays. The other half can’t quite see it ever being fun enough to warrant the time it will take a group of players to become proficient at it, rather than frustrated and baffled. Two-play verdict: unlikely to make the cut.

Ilos (one play, four players)
This was on my radar as a game to play with my girlfriend, who likes tile-laying and other games with a bit of depth but no massive rules overhead.

On first play, I’m hopefully onto a winner. There’s nothing new or clever here, but the combination of simple mechanisms with some meaty decisions – and a bit of luck – seems to be just about right.

You draw cards, place people/ships, and gather resources – all the while deciding whether to spend some of your hard earned stock to increase its end game vale in a light stock market mechanism.

It all comes together beautifully, is really well produced, and plays in the appropriate amount of time for this sort of thing (about an hour with four). One play verdict: probably keeper, but with slightly suspect replay value.

Noria (one play, solo)
I haven’t mentioned rulebooks yet, but frankly I shouldn’t have to. With thousands of games with of practice behind them, surely game publishers can make half decent instructions? Well, so you’d think.

It took me three runs at the Noria rulebook to actually get it played – so no one was more surprised than me to find a relatively straightforward game hiding in the box. Like Ilos its largely a market manipulation game, but with a clever/original rondel/action selection mechanism which sees you both choosing which extra actions you want, but also how often (and powerfully) they’ll crop up and be available.

The solo mode was OK, but I very much doubt I’ll revisit it. For most the fun here is going to come from the competition with other players, rather than the cleverness of the action wheels/rondels – which begs the question: will all the fiddliness be worth it? And will the AP outweigh the fun? One play verdict: the jury’s out.

Little Big Fish (one play, two player)
I’d kept my eye out for a few smaller footprint two-player games and this one drew my eye at the show.

Our first play didn’t disappoint: fast setup/pack down, super cute pieces, typically simple abstract game rules – but plenty of interesting decisions and a short play time.

It feels like a spatial game in a similar way to Hey, That’s My Fish; in that you have to be thinking at least a few moves ahead. But there’s a bit of randomness (which is optional) and variability that should hopefully keep us coming back for more. Verdict: probable keeper.

Pot de Vin (one play, five players)
I really like a good trick-taking game and was very happy with my pick of last year’s Essen crop, Eternity. I love the art on this one too, and the presentation/rules etc overall are great, but what about the gameplay?

I understand you have to do something a little different to stand out in the very busy trick-taking market, and one of the ideas here appeals and works well: cards you win in tricks give you ‘goods’, essentially, and a few (or loads) of a type will score you points – but if you get stuck in the middle ground, you’ll lose points instead.

Now to pull this off, you’re going to need control: which is unfortunately made impossible by the trump changing after every trick – and you have no idea in advance what to. And yes, after every single hand. This made hand control practically impossible, which we all found very frustrating. Maybe more plays will reveal a way to cope with this, but right now I’m sceptical. One-play verdict: trade pile.

Konja (one play, two players)
The third dice-chucker from Pleasant Company Games feels very familiar if you’ve played Ancient Terrible Things: perhaps too close.

Here it’s distilled into a two-player battle, with similarly great art to its predecessor – but also very similar mechanisms. There’s a small amount of ‘take that’ on offer, which is well implemented, while gameplay feels smooth and polished.

But the question remains: do I need this, when I could just play Ancient Terrible Things two-player? The answer is probably going to come from seeing how much the take that element wins us over – and on whether you can quickly enough differentiate yourself from your opponent (which didn’t happen enough here). One-play verdict: the jury’s out.

Hanamikoji (one play, two players)
This isn’t a new game (it was re-released in its current form at Essen 2016), but is one I’ve only just picked up for review. I’d heard a lot of good things about it, and the artwork and presentation are amazing, so I was keen to give it a try.

First impressions are incredibly strong. The game is very short and simple, but every decision is absolutely agonising. You may only take four actions in the whole game and even the very first one feels absolutely critical to your success: the tension starts to build the minute you look at your initial hand.

But having said all that, these positives for me seemed to be negatives for my better half. She looked equal parts confused and perturbed throughout, and at the end was far from won over. I’m hoping it will win her over after a few more plays, but it’s not looking good! One play verdict: good, but Marmite!

Mini review: Pummeleinhorn – The Cookie Marathon

I won’t be giving a full review of this children’s game from Pegasus Spiele, as it has already been handed on to a more suitable audience – but not before I played it twice.

Apparently quite the children’s personality in Germany, here you’re charged with helping our chubby unicorn hero eat as many cookies as possible – while exercising, of course.

The art is cute, components perfectly adequate, and set up is simple. But while the game comes from design heavyweight Reina Knizia, it’s fair to say he phoned this one in.

On your turn you roll a dice and do what it tells you – so far, so standard for a six-plus years children’s game. However, three sides of the dice mean you have no decision to make at all, while another gives you a reroll – so again, no decision. It’s a shame, as the other two sides see you choosing how far to move (which can be an interesting decision for a young child) or playing a light memory game: more of this on the other dice sides and it could’ve been a much better game.

But it has another fun side too. Wherever you move Chubby you remove a cookie card – so of course you have to say “nom nom!” as you do so. This was funny with both the girlfriend and four adult male friends in a hotel after several adult beverages, so I’m presuming this alone will be enough to keep younger kids engaged for a while. But ultimately, despite being a giggle, it feels terribly half-baked.

Codenames Duet: (kind of) expansion review

Codenames Duet* is a co-operative version of the award winning word game Codenames, released in 2015 (and reviewed by me here – see also Codenames Pictures from 2016).

The original Codenames saw two teams (4-8 players total, realistically) trying to guess words from a grid taking clues from their team leader. The clues could only be one word, but could cover several words on the grid (so, for example, abode 2 could mean ‘house’ and ‘cave’).

The trick was that both clue givers are using the same grid but trying to get their team to guess different words – while certain other words on the grid weren’t for either team (guessing them would end their round). One word was even an assassin – so if your team guessed that by accident, it was game over. This helped make clue giving tricky, raising the game above a lot of other word games.

What does Duet bring to the party?

What the original lacked was a two-player variant that anything other than lacklustre, which is exactly what Codenames Duet introduces. It also says you could play it in two teams of two, which would certainly work if you had a small group who prefer a co-operative game to a more competitive one.

And yes, it’s a co-op. Even if you split into teams the idea is to beat the game in a certain amount of turns, rather than defeat your opponent. So far I’ve found we’ve won about 50% of the time, which is high for a co-op, but it does have a solid mechanism in place for raising the difficulty level once you’re regularly beating the basic game.

Also, the competitive edge was never really the draw: like most party games, winning wasn’t as important as the fun you were having while playing. That is skilfully retained here, as I found myself wanting to guess the clues correctly in exactly the same way as I did with the original.

How much does it change the game?

The core game rules of Codenames still apply (a grid of words, a code card only the clue giver can see, the same clue/guess structure etc): basically, it still very much feels like playing Codenames. To make it co-operative, you use both sides of a double-sided code card during the same game – with one person/pair looking at each side.

Each side of the 25-word grid marks nine spies (words) to find, 13 innocent bystanders and three (ouch) assassins. The twist is that all but three of the spies you want to get are in different places on each side of the grid card, meaning you have to find/guess a total of 15 – and you only have nine turns to do so in the basic version of the game.

The three assassins certainly ramp up the tension and make clue finding more treacherous; while needing almost two correct guesses per clue keeps the pressure on to go for the tenuous word combos that make the game sing. That said, if you found yourself crippled by analysis paralysis by the original, you’ll be in exactly the same boat here.

The way the difficulty ramps up via the map is clever, works fine, but is a pretty thinly veiled way to say: “Winning? Give yourself less clues and see how that goes.” Don’t come in having seen the map expecting any kind of story line or plot: this is purely a standard mathematical solution to solving the standard co-op game difficulty level problem.

Which is probably a good time to make it clear that, unless the co-operative nature of the game really makes a difference to you, this is not going to convert anyone who really didn’t like the original version.

Is Codenames Duet value for money?

On the surface I’d say yes: for well under £20 you’re getting a great 2-4 player word game that you can play with anyone – families, non-gamers and gamers alike. The components are of solidly average standard and there’s nothing to criticise. Unless, of course, you already own a version of Codenames.

It would be easy to use the majority of components from the original to play this version: the world map and rules are already available to download, so you just need some markers to show used clues and the new grid cards. For this, I’d like to have seen a cheap upgrade kit for owners of the original – but it’s a minor gripe: I have no objection to a company trying to make money.

Is it essential?

Absolutely not. Players who regularly play in couples, or as a couple, are definitely advised to pick it up if they like the sound of it or the original – as are those who really love co-operative games. But if you only really like this kind of game in a larger group, you’ll be fine with the original (which is still good with four).

… and does it fit in the original Codenames box?

Well, that depends what’s already in there! I’ve found you can comfortably fit two versions of Codenames in the same box – so I have Codenames and Codenames Pictures in one box. But that fills it, so sadly there’s no room to also squeeze Duet in. But if you only have one of those two, you could get this in the same box with it.

That said, I’m more than happy to add this version to my collection in its own box – because there’s bound to be another version along soon that I’ll want to squeeze in with it. After all, The Marvel and Disney Family versions have already been announced…

* Thank you to Czech Games Edition for providing Codenames Duet for review.

Forbidden Desert: A four-sided game review

Forbidden Desert* is a cooperative family board game for one to five players. It is the spiritual successor to designer Matt Leacock’s earlier design, Forbidden Island, and is also suitable for youngsters as young as eight (despite the box saying 10).

Despite the box being a little bigger than its predecessor’s, you can pick this up for around £20: great value for what you get inside, which includes 50 cards, 72 cardboard tiles and a cool plastic flying machine.

An average game should take less than an hour. You take the roles of adventurers that have crashed in the desert; who head to some ancient ruins in search of a legendary flying machine to escape in before you run out of water. While the artwork on the tiles adds a little theme. Each player has a character with its own special ability, but the game’s mechanisms are largely abstract (there’s nothing stopping you hamming things up with a bit of role-play, but it definitely isn’t necessary).

Teaching

As with most cooperative games, teaching is made easier by the fact you’re working together: each player takes it in turns to have a go, but you are encouraged to discuss between you what that player should do on their turn.

Before the game starts, the board is created randomly as a 5×5 grid of face-down tiles (you use the same 25 tiles each game). The other 48 tiles represent the sand being blown around the ruins you’re searching – eight of which start on the board. If you ever need to add a sand tile but they’re all already on the tiles, the game is over and the players lose. The same happens if any player runs out of water, or if the storm intensifies too far (see below). You need to win as a team.

A player turns consists of taking four actions. Mostly you’ll move (your character to an orthogonal tile), remove sand (from your current or orthogonal location) or excavate (flip over your current tile if it is free of sand). Later you’ll recover machine parts, while some characters have a special ability that uses an action.

Flipping tiles is hugely important, as it reveals location clues, equipment, water wells, tunnels and the launch pad (where you’ll need to gather once the machine is complete).

You’ll need the locations of all four machine parts to first reveal and then recover them, while tunnels and equipment help you do everything from move swiftly around the board, clear large stacks of sand, peak under tiles, or protect you from the heat.

Once a player has taken their four actions, it’s time for the game to take over – and almost certainly be mean to you all. A certain number (3-6, depending on difficulty level and ominously increasing as the game goes on) of the 31 storm cards are flipped over, often shifting the tiles on the board while adding sand to those that move. But three cards reduce the water level of anyone outside (not in a tunnel), while four increase the intensity of the storm (upping the storm cards drawn, and eventually ending the game).

Character abilities give each player a unique way to affect the game. The Climber, for example, can move without restriction (usually, if a tile has two sand or more, it is impassable) and take another player with them; the Navigator can move other players as well as themselves; while the Water Carrier can collect and distribute water (usually a well is only useful immediately as it is revealed).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While each game of Forbidden Desert feels different, they always have a delicious mix of feeling rushed while trying to stay safe from losing water. There are different levels set for each player number and difficulty level, showing the care that has been taken to ensure an exciting finish each time if you play well – a feeling of care that is strong throughout the game’s elements.
  • The thinker: This is undoubtedly a very clever design, but there is just a little too much luck here for me to really enjoy myself. It may just be me, but I feel there are times when, no matter what you do, you will end up losing. I realise this has to be the case in a cooperative game, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it – and i’m sure others will feel the same. And it seems worse in Desert than it did with Island, because t feels as if you know earlier if you’re simply not going to be able to get it together (for example, if all the tunnels are very close together on the harder levels).
  • The trasher: The forced cooperation and lack of any room for deception or traitors means Forbidden Desert was never really going to be for me; but it is a great tactical challenge. While the box says 2-5 players I very much enjoy this as a solo experience – me against the game. It feels particularly challenging with two players if you end up with a couple of the less fashionable characters, and for me the game loses nothing by enjoying it alone.
  • The dabbler: I enjoy a great co-op and this is certainly one of those – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be better. While the components are fantastic for the price of the game, I would rather they’d added a bit more, well, character, to the characters: male and female images on both sides, standees or miniatures, and a bit of back story for each would’ve been great. The game itself offers enough variety that decisions are never obvious, so there’s always debate to be had – and the constant blowing of the wind keeps ratcheting up the tension throughout. It’s amazing how often the game seems to go to the wire.

Key observations

As with many games of its type, the ‘alpha player’ problem can rear its head here: when one dominant player takes over, drowning out more quiet participants. As many say to this, simply find better players – but it does needs to be identified.

Quite a lot of people find the game boring, which surprises me a little. Lack of theme, combined with a small amount of action choices but quite a bit of between-turn fiddliness (in terms of placing the sand), seem to be the big issues; but I would put this more down to your group’s dynamic than the game itself. If you play this heads down, I can see how it may come across as feeling mechanical and dry.

What I do understand is a negative reaction to the how much bad luck can screw you. There are only 31 cards in the storm deck, so it is very possible to get two or even three ‘Sun Beats Down’ cards (that reduce every character’s water level if not in a tunnel) in a single turn. As some players start with just three water, this can be devastating. However, the game lasts well under an hour and is simple to set up, so if you have a terrible start it is very easy just to shrug and go again.

Conclusion

Forbidden Desert ranks significantly higher on Board Game Geek than Forbidden Island, and I’d have to agree – if I had to keep just one, it would be this one. While the deck manipulation of Island is the cleverer mechanism, I love how the tension builds here and how the games often feel as if they can go either way right up to the end. But I do think it is group dependent: you need to bring a little personality to the table as without it the game can feel a little mechanical – but as a gateway game for families and newer gamers, I think most people will make it work.

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