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Leacock 'ups the (cooperative) ante' with Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert's components
Forbidden Desert's components
Publisher (Gamewright Games)

Forbidden Desert


Forbidden Desert (2013) is the third in a series of cooperative games, designed by Matt Leacock, which commenced with Pandemic in 2008, and proceeded with Forbidden Island in 2010. Pandemic has spawned three expansions - On the Brink (2009), In the Lab (2013) and The Cure (2014), and is far and away, the most complex of the three; a full-out, large board, serious gamer experience. Forbidden Island is the simplest of the three; compact in size and capable of being enjoyed, casually, by families and groups that include newcomers to the board game experience.

The step-by-step process of Forbidden Desert will be very familiar to those who've played Forbidden Island. There's a set of board-defining tiles, pawns moving around the board trying to collect 'treasure' and get off the island (out of the desert), before the island sinks into the sea (the sand storm buries you). In Forbidden Desert, you're looking to collect four parts of a flying machine that looks like a pirate ship. You need to find a propeller, an engine, a solar crystal and a navigation deck, and then get yourself onto the tile with the pirate ship before the deck of sand marker tiles (48) runs out. They come fast and furious (up to six at a time as the game progresses) and the level of cooperation necessary to win this game is extraordinary.

This could actually be said of all three iterations of this cooperative idea. Pandemic stands alone. Forbidden Desert is identified in the BoardGameGeek database as a re-implementation of Forbidden Island, so the question becomes, if you own Forbidden Island, is there any need to spend money adding Forbidden Desert to your collection?


Gamewright, which publishes both (Pandemic is published by Z-Man Games), was kind enough to provide me with a copy of Forbidden Island when it was released, but I did not receive a copy of Forbidden Desert for the purposes of this review (a 'failure to communicate' issue on my part). A member of my family brought Forbidden Desert to the table, and familiar with the mechanics (all of us), we got right into it.

It's easier than Pandemic, but harder than Forbidden Island, though not by a lot. According to a note from the Publisher, featured in the rules, designer Leacock was challenged "to create a game that would contain familiar elements, while offering up a completely different in-game experience.

"In addition," this note goes on to say, "we wanted it to be simultaneously approachable to new players, while upping the ante for those who felt they had mastered Forbidden Island."

Marketing wisdom dictated that the publisher go on and describe the result as a "fresh new game with an innovative set of mechanics." Some agree, others do not. Desert's got an average 7.9 rating on BoardGameGeek (compared to Forbidden Island's 6.96, with, at this point, about 5,800 more ratings). There is the usual range of ratings from 2 to 10 for Desert, with proponents echoing the "fresh new game with an innovative set of mechanics" line and the detractors indicating a variety of issues - "less suspense," "fiddly compared to Forbidden Island" and "tedious and mechanical" (to recount just a few).

I fall into the proponent category, giving Forbidden Desert an 8 out of 10 rating. Forbidden Island, which I reviewed here in Sept. 2010, seemed a little simple to me (one BGG commentator called Island "a baby's game"). Although, as my review indicated, my normally reluctant, non-game significant other, Cathy, really enjoyed it.

Forbidden Desert does fulfill the publisher's challenge to Leacock and there are a couple of mechanics that support this contention. One is the unique means of discovering your treasure. With Island, they just sort of show up, on the back side of four tiles on the board. With Desert, each treasure's location is dependent on a set of two tiles, to be found in the 5 x 5 grid of tiles that are the game's board. When you land on one of these tiles and excavate (turn the tile over), you will find a tile with a set of arrows, pointing either horizontally or vertically. You then need to discover the other tile with arrows in the opposite direction. You will find Desert's treasure(s) at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical axis, indicated by the two 'arrow' tiles you've uncovered. The treasure is not actually there, but once you have determined the individual tile indicating the intersection, when you move there, you will be able to claim the 'treasure' from its resting place, wherever you put it (them) at the start of the game (you could, when you discover the appropriate tile, physically place its associated treasure on the tile itself).

And then, there's the sand storm. The game begins with 24 tiles laid out in the 5 x 5 grid, with the center space left empty. At the end of your individual set of actions in the game, a certain number of storm cards are drawn, each with an indication as to how many tiles are affected by the storm, and in which direction the storm is moving (left, right, up, down). You will follow the tile's instructions, moving tiles toward the empty space on the board. In its set-up configuration, a two-tile move up, would require you to move the two tiles below the empty center space upwards, one space each, and place a sand tile on each of them (these accumulate). The board's empty space is now in the center of the bottom horizontal row. The sand, in other words, shifts. You can't cross the empty space, wherever it is.

Sometimes, though, in a 'mulligan' sort of way, you cannot fulfill the requirements of a storm card. With the empty space at the center of the bottom row of tiles, for example, you could not move two (or three) tiles up, because there are no tiles below the empty space. This is a great source of mutual relief to the players when it happens. The three Storm Picks Up cards in the deck of 31 storm cards forces you to increase the number of storm cards that are drawn at the end of your turn, which is a source of mutual aggravation. So, too, are the Sun Beats Down cards, which reduce your individual supply of water, the total loss of which is another indicator that you've lost the game (along with running out of sand tiles and having the indicator dictating the number of storm cards drawn each turn reach a skull and crossbones level above 6).

There are some tricks to the game which reduce the impact of the gathering forces against you. There are tunnel tiles, for example, and if your pawn is on one of these tiles when the Sun Beats Down, you are immune from that card's water depletion effect. As with Forbidden Island, each player is assigned a character with special abilities to thwart the actions of the game. The Water Carrier, for example, can take two water from excavated wells (three wells on the board, although one of them is dry), throughout the game, and can give water to other players, at any time, for free (no action required, although the recipient's pawn has to be on the same tile as the Water Carrier).

The Climber can move to blocked tiles (any tile with two or more sand tiles on it) and can take another player with him when he moves. The Explorer can move to and remove sand from tiles that are diagonally adjacent (all other characters move and remove sand, only horizontally or vertically). The Meteorologist can spend actions to reduce the number of storm cards drawn on his/her turn, etc., etc.

There are tools to be found in the board's desert, things like a Jet Pack, which allows a player to move to any unblocked tile, and take a pawn that's on the starting tile with him. There's a Dune Blaster, that allows you to remove all sand tiles from a grid tile, and a Solar Shield that allows you and all other players on the tile you occupy to ignore the effects of the Sun Beats Down, etc., etc.

You will need to be familiar with these 'tricks of the trade,' if you're to have any chance of winning this game, because the forces moving against you are relentless, and, to my mind, much more thematically intriguing than those of Forbidden Island.

As mentioned earlier, Forbidden Desert is referred to in its BoardGameGeek file as a re-implementation of Forbidden Island, which, while true, does a bit of a disservice to Desert. To many, "re-implementation" means a publisher has applied a new theme to an old game in the hopes of cashing in on a predecessor's popularity, and by inference, that purchasing the "re-implementation" is a waste of money.

This is not what happened here. Although some may find that Desert is not sufficiently different from Island, most, I suspect, would have to concede that Desert has fulfilled the publisher's challenge to Leacock that he "up the ante" a bit. Forbidden Desert is more difficult than Forbidden Island, which many, though not all, apparently, consider to be a positive thing. I'd pick Desert over Island, every time, which is a little odd, because in life, I'd pick an island over a desert, any day.

It might make sense to own both games, if you're a fan of cooperative games in the first place. If you were inviting the generally non-gaming neighbors over, you could bring out Forbidden Island. When your game gang drops by, bring out Forbidden Desert.

It's fanciful, but I remember getting really thirsty playing Desert, and I don't ever remember feeling even wet on the Island.

Forbidden Desert, designed by Matt Leacock, with artists C.B. Canga and Tyler Edlin, is a cooperative game for up to five players (Forbidden Island accommodates up to four). Published by Gamewright, the suggested age range begins at 10. Users have indicated that it can go down to 8 years old. It is a Mensa Select Winner (2013), as well as winner of the UK Games Expo's "Best Family/Children's Game" award. It retails between $17 at and $22.49 at Funagain Games, both with indications that it's been marked down from $25

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