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March 21, 2014 / Jett

Forbidden Island Review

In Forbidden Island, you and your team of adventures set forth on this island in search of mystical treasure. The problem is, the island decides to sink whenever punks like you try and make off with the goods. The game starts with you and your group scattered across this place that is already flooded in spots. Your goal is to collect all four treasures and return to the helicopter pad before one many calamities permanently halts your progress.

Just in case you were wondering, yes, this is the precursor of Forbidden Desert, which I’ve previously reviewed. That game was one that made a lukewarm first impression but when it clicked, it really wowed us with how exciting of an adventure it turned out to be. Due to my enjoyment of that game, I decided to take a stab at the game that spawned the franchise.

The island is made up of tiles that represent each location of the island. Some double as character-specific starting points while others are special locations where you can collect specific treasures once you have the corresponding set of cards. Arguably most important of those places is Fool’s Landing, which is where your helicopter is waiting. There are other tiles that don’t have any special traits about them, but they can prove critical to your success or downfall depending on where they’re placed.

At the start of the game, some of these locations will already be flooded. This is determined beforehand by flipping six flood cards over and then flipping over each corresponding location tile to its flooded state. From that point onward, it’s up to you and your team to keep as much of the world afloat as you can before it’s too late. Almost from the get-go, keeping tiles from sinking is a upward hill to climb, as there are mechanisms are in place for the world to sink at a rate that you’ll never be comfortable with. In an absolute worst case scenario, the game can even end on the very first turn, though you’ll usually have a bit more room to work with.

As each turn ends, you’ll collect two treasure cards. If you’re able to collect four of a kind, you can go to the corresponding tile on the map to collect that treasure. You’ll need all four treasures to escape, but getting them all in time will prove problematic. If two locations of a matching treasure type sink before you have a chance at cashing in the appropriate cards, you’re toast. You’re also at the mercy of the draw, as you may get stuck in a rut where the cards you need just don’t show up when you need them to. The game does let you hand off cards to others in order to complete sets faster, though you can also get burned by a bad series of treasure cards.

Not everything in the treasure deck is good, either. If you draw a Water Rises card, you’re in trouble. The water level rises, which may force you to draw even more cards during the flood phase of the game. It also forces you to shuffle the discarded flood deck and place all of those cards back on top. This means that everything that’s already been played will be played again in the near future, which could spell doom for at-risk locations.

Forbidden IslandIf this all sounds like Pandemic, that’s because it kind of is. Matt Leacock designed both games and heavily leveraged some of that game’s mechanics here. It makes perfect sense within the context of his viral outbreak game and it’s fun to play with here, though I struggle to see how it makes thematic sense within Forbidden Island. Is the conceit that we’re collecting bits of the treasure and putting them back together at the specified location? Are we getting four smaller treasures to cash in for one big treasure? Also, at what point in our shoring up process am we scavenging for these treasure or treasure components? For a game that’s technically about exploring an island for treasure, it doesn’t really convey the aspects of exploration or treasure hunting very well.

Thematic foibles aside, Forbidden Island is a fun game that works particularly well as a gateway for newcomers to the designer-style of board gaming. It’s also reasonably priced at around $15, making it easier to justify. Having played Forbidden Desert first, I think that’s the better game, though it’s also more expensive. If you must play both, I highly recommend with starting with Forbidden Island before moving into its sequel. If you can only get one, jump straight to the sequel.

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