Forbidden Island

Matt Leacock

Publisher: Gamewright

That island sure reminds of MYST, no? (Photo credit: Keebie@BGG)

Forbidden Island is technically the first game in the “Forbidden” trilogy which includes other far-flung locales such as the Desert and in the Sky. However, all the games in the trilogy share a similar lineage which can be traced back to Matt Leacock’s blockbuster hit Pandemic. Pandemic is not the first cooperative game published, but it was truly the first that gained worldwide acclaim. It also greatly popularized the cooperative genre (with sincere apologies to Knizia’s Lord of the Rings which published earlier and which I find brilliant). Like Pandemic, Forbidden Island is a cooperative games which requires players to work together to complete an objective. Victory is achieved only when the objective is completed and everyone survives. In short, there are many ways to fail and only one way to win. So is Forbidden Island any good? Perhaps better than Pandemic? Read on!

To start, the board for Forbidden Island is modular and the island tiles can be arranged in different configurations, allowing the game to scale in difficulty. Indeed, some island shapes can be quite challenging and there are many fan-made configurations (some of which may not be very well play-tested). Once the island is set up, players choose different adventurers with different unique skill sets and place them on specific start tiles on the island. Then it’s off to the races… Each round, players take turns to move around the island tiles to prevent the island from flooding and sinking all the while collecting treasure cards. Island tiles start to flood and then vanish at the end of each player turn when specific location cards are flipped over. Each island tile can take two hit before vanishing permanently. The first card flip floods the tile while the second card sinks the tile. Fortunately, players are allowed has a shore up action to reverse the flooding. However, if the tile is already flooded when the card location is again revealed, the island location is lost permanently. Pretty cool and highly thematic! To ratchet up the tension, the island sinks faster as the game progresses because periodically, a catastrophe occurs when a “water rises” card is flipped over and more card are drawn each round. As the island is sinking, players run around the board to exchange cards and once a set of 4 cards are collected by one person, they can cash in the treasure at a specific location on the island. Each adventurer have special rule-breaking skills to help the team. Some of these skills are absolutely critical for victory depending on how the game unfolds, but almost all of the skills are pretty valuable. For example, the diver can swim between island tiles even though they are now physically separated by water because a previous island tile sank beneath the waves. Depending on how the sequence of tiles disappear, the diver may be crucial for reaching an isolated island tile. Once all 4 treasures are discovered, all players will have to race over to the helipad and the entire team takes off to safety before helipad sinks beneath the waves. Do all that and the team is victorious.

As mentioned, Forbidden Island shares many similarities to Pandemic. The set collection, player unique abilities, the player actions as well as the threat mechanisms all feel like derivations of Pandemic. However, Forbidden Island is way more streamlined and plays quicker than Pandemic. This is partly due to fewer cards and fewer tiles in Forbidden Island. Matt Leacock’s greatest innovation in Pandemic was the treat deck where previously infected city cards are recycled onto the top of the threat deck whenever a contagion card is exposed. This mechanism is responsible for providing all the tension in the game. In Forbidden Island, this mechanism is replicated to great success every time the “water rises” card is drawn to accelerate the sinking of the island. However, because the game is simplified and the spatial map is reduced, there is a possibility that drawing a bad combination of cards or tiles early on can greatly impact the outcome of the game. If a location such as the helipad or treasure sites are flooded or sunk early due to card draw, the game might be over quickly without much recourse. Thus far, I have also played and own Forbidden Desert. The game feels entirely similar mechanisms-wise with some differences in how the threat is dealt with. In Forbidden Desert, every player also has to contend with dehydration while digging through the desert tiles in search of engine parts to rebuild your airship for escape. At first blush, Forbidden Desert does look and feel much more challenging.

I think because Forbidden Island captures the tension and cooperative feel of Pandemic very well within a shorter play time, I prefer it over Pandemic. While Pandemic may feel more satisfying because the game has a more global feel and because the struggle is more profound, I think the rapid play of Forbidden Island has won me over. This is less clear for the other Forbidden games in the series but as I recall, Forbidden desert also plays rather quickly. This is not a knock against Pandemic as we have also played Pandemic Legacy in its entirety. Now that we are accustomed to the Pandemic system, I just think that Forbidden Island allows me to feel the same sort of co-op rush after a tight victory but with a much smaller time investment.

Initial impresssion: Good

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