Forbidden Island is another cooperative board game by Matt Leacock, designer of the fantastic cooperative game Pandemic (reviewed earlier this month), with similar mechanics and a similar goal. It’s more visually appealing than Pandemic, coming in a tin box rather than cardboard with nicer artwork on the island tiles, but is a little simpler to play and definitely simpler to win, making it a better family game than Pandemic but perhaps a little less challenging for a group of 3 or 4 adults.
In Forbidden Island, two to four players take on adventurer roles to capture four relics on the titular island and attempt to escape as a group before the island sinks. As the game goes on, the water level rises, making certain tiles flood and, if they flood again while already flooded, sink permanently, after which they’re removed from the game; players must therefore choose between capturing relics and running around the island restoring flooded tiles.
The island itself varies in each game, similarly to Settlers of Catan – the set of tiles is drawn randomly to build a 3-4-5-5-4-3 island, and no fixed position for any of the nine critical tiles, the tile required for departure and the eight tiles for the four relics. To capture a relic, one player must possess four cards showing that relic (within the hand limit of five cards) and then move to either of the two tiles with that relic on their corners, using one action to take the relic. When the team has captured all four relics, the players must all go to the departure tile and play a special Helicopter Lift card to lift all four players off the board and into victory.
On each turn, a player has four actions to use, including moving to an adjacent tile, restoring (“shoring up”) a flooded tile adjacent (horizontally or vertically) to where he’s standing, giving a card to another player on the same tile, or playing four cards to capture a relic. Diagonal moves are prohibited, so most of your actions will go to moving around the island, with a fair amount of thought going to positioning yourself for future moves. But because the board is fairly simple to navigate, it doesn’t have the same critical-path modeling feel as Pandemic, which may be good or bad depending on your point of view. I prefer Pandemic’s operational complexity; your mileage may vary.
Each player plays one of six roles giving him special abillities. The Engineer can shore up two tiles for a single action. The Pilot can use one action each turn flying to any tile anywhere on the island, regardless of its distance from his starting point. The Explorer can move or shore up a tile diagonally. The Messenger can give a card to another player even if they’re not on the same tile. The Diver can move through multiple flooded tiles or even the empty spaces where removed tiles sat for a single action. And the Navigator can move another player up to two adjacent tiles for a single action to set him up for his next turn. The key to winning is, of course, figuring out how best to use the special abilities of all players, using them as often as possible; most roles are helpful although the Diver isn’t as useful as the others in a two-player game.
A few island tiles are flooded at the start of the game, and each player completes his turn by drawing two to five cards from the Flood deck. Each Flood card shows an island tile; when a player draws an island’s card, he flips the tile over to show that it’s flooded or, if it’s already flooded, removes it from the game permanently. As in Pandemic, several times during the game, the stack of used (played) Flood cards is shuffled and placed back on top of the Flood deck, so an island that has already been flooded is going to be flooded repeatedly as long as the game goes on. The timing of those shuffles depends on when the Waters Rise! cards are drawn from the master Treasure deck that includes relic cards and five special ability cards: three Helicopter Lifts (move one player anywhere on the island, with no action required) and two Sandbags (shore up one tile immediately, also for no action). A player draws two Treasure cards at the end of her turn, discarding if she’s over five cards in her hand.
There are several ways to lose Forbidden Island, although we only lost via one method. You lose if both island tiles that show a particular relic sink before you capture it, thus leaving you unable to do so. You lose if the departure tile sinks. You lose if an island tile sinks with a player on it and he’s unable to swim to an adjacent tile because those have already sunk. And you lose if the water level rises a certain number of times – nine times if you play the Novice level or just six times if you play at Legendary level. We lost when the departure tile sank too quickly for us to shore it up because we drew Waters Rise! cards on consecutive turns; other than that, we played up to the Elite level (one below Legendary) and finished the game with plenty of time left on the theoretical clock.
The relative ease of winning with two players didn’t make the game less fun to play, but it wasn’t as challenging or frustrating as Pandemic. I prefer the higher level of difficulty, even though I can still say “Bogota” to my sister and her husband they’ll remember exactly which session of Pandemic I mean and how aggravating that loss was. If you’ve played neither game and want to try the cooperative concept, Forbidden Island is under $13 on amazon, or about half the cost of Pandemic, making it a great introduction to this style of game and this designer’s mechanics.
Thanks to a reader recommendation, I’ve set up an amazon.com aStore that includes all board games I’ve recommended and that will eventually include the entire Klaw 100 (I think I’ve added 30-35 titles so far). It’s also linked permanently on the Amazon link above.