Gaming Unplugged: Forbidden Island

June 6, 2010

Game designer Matt Leacock impressed the worldwide gaming community a couple of years ago with the release of Pandemic, a cooperative game which pitted the players against four strains of ever-spreading diseases all over the globe. This year he has taken many of the great mechanics from Pandemic and produced a lighter, faster-playing cooperative game called Forbidden Island, published by Gamewright.  

In Forbidden Island, two to four players take on the roles of an adventuring team seeking to claim the treasures of a cursed isle (solo play is also possible, as it’s fairly easy to manage multiple “players” on your own). There are six possible roles, each with its own special ability that will be vital to success. On a player’s turn he can take up to three actions; the possible choices for each action are: 1) move to the next adjacent island tile (the Explorer can move diagonally, the Diver can move through flooded or sunken tiles, and the Pilot can hop to any tile he wishes once per turn), 2) shore up a sunken tile if you are on or adjacent to it (the Engineer can shore up two such tiles with one action), 3) pass a treasure card to a teammate if you are on the same space (the Messenger can do this no matter where he is), or 4) claim one of the treasures. The final role, the Navigator, can move any other player up to two adjacent tiles for one action. You claim the treasure by moving to one of the two tiles dedicated to that treasure and discarding four treasure cards (there are five of each in the deck) with that treasure on it. Additionally, there are two special treasure cards that can be played as any time and do not count as an action. After taking his actions, a player draws two treasure cards, discarding down to five if necessary, and then reveals flood cards equal to the current water level before passing the turn to the next player. If one of the three “Waters Rise!” cards is drawn, the water level increases one tick on the meter, then all of the revealed flood cards are shuffled and placed back on top of the flood deck, guaranteeing that those same cards will come up again soon.

Each of the twenty-four nicely illustrated island tiles are represented once in the flood deck. When a given card is revealed from that deck, the corresponding tile is flipped over to its “flooded” side. If a tile is already flooded when its card is revealed, that tile sinks beneath the waves and is removed from play along with its card; any players that happen to be on that tile must move to an adjacent tile (or the nearest tile in the case of the Diver) or the players lose the game. The players can also lose the game if Fools’ Landing sinks, if both of a given treasure’s tiles sink before that treasure is claimed, or if the waters rise to the “skull” level. The only way for the players to win is for all four treasures to be claimed, all players make it to Fools’ Landing, and then someone plays a “Helicopter Lift” treasure card. A lot has to go right for this to happen, obviously, but it’s far from impossible. Of course, it’s also possible for the players to be so unlucky to be dealt a “first turn kill”: six tiles are flooded at set up, and if one of them is Fools’ Landing an early “Waters Rise!” card drawn without being able to shore up the tile could result in their only escape route vanishing immediately!

Careful management of flooded tiles is key to surviving Forbidden Island. Priority should obviously be given to Fools’ Landing and the various treasure-related tiles, but you also have to remember to keep a path back to the escape point or you’ll lose everything. In addition to the three “Waters Rise!” cards lurking in the treasure deck, the flood deck will become reshuffled when it is exhausted, and since cards are eliminated as tiles disappear that turnover could be quite fast towards the end stages of the game. In a similar vein, don’t think that you’re in the clear once you’ve drawn all the “Waters Rise!” cards, as the treasure deck will have to be reshuffled eventually as well.

Forbidden Island rests somewhere on the border between filler and full game, with some sessions being playable in under 20 minutes. There isn’t much room for making that longer, although you can certainly make it shorter by increasing the difficulty level (starting water level) if you want to increase the challenge. While Forbidden Island may not have have the depth or weight as its older sibling Pandemic, you get a lot of game for your money. Contained in a neat little tin case are the 24 island tiles, 50ish cards (28 treasure, 24 flood, and 6 role), 6 player pawns, a water level meter (with plastic slide clip), and four really cool plastic treasure tokens. The best part is that all of this comes with the crazy bargain price of only $16; with that MSRP, there really isn’t a good reason to not have Forbidden Island in your game collection.