Updated: Jun 14
The blades of the chopper still circled overhead as you scrambled down from the helipad on to the Forbidden Island. Your guide had warned you of dangers to come but you had dismissed his rambling as nothing more than rumour and superstition. However as your boots touched the ground a mighty quake shook the island and a terrible noise could be heard, a great groaning, like huge rusted metal gears turning. The earth shook again and one of your fellow adventurers called out, waving her arms wildly and pointing to a mountain in the distance. You watched, open-mouthed, as the ancient rock formation began to sink beneath the waves. The legends were true, the curse of the island had awoken and only a fool would continue on in search of the fabled treasures…
Forbidden Island is a cooperative game designed by Matt Leacock that plays in around 30 minutes with 2 - 4 players. In it players are looking to find 4 treasures and escape the island before it sinks to the depths. They will do this by collecting cards and preventing the island from sinking by shoring up the location tiles.
28 Treasure Cards
24 Flood Cards
6 Adventurer and Reference Cards
24 Island tiles
1 Water meter
Forbidden Island has incredible component quality for its price. It retails in the UK for around £15-20. The game comes in a tin, which I’m not a fan of just because they don’t stack well on shelves. The art in the game however is beautiful on both the tiles and the cards. The cards are a little thinner than I’d like but my copy has held up well to more than two dozen plays.
The treasure tokens are particularly impressive, being large plastic sculpted pieces each with a different feel and with one of them even being semi translucent. Which does make the basic wooden player pawns feel all the more uninspired.
Overall though Forbidden Island is a really nice package and feels far more premium than its price implies.
A Quick Overview
In Forbidden Island players are cooperating together to rescue four priceless artifacts and escape before the forbidden island sinks below the waves.
To do this players must collect sets of matching treasure cards and turn them in at one of the two locations on the island matching the pictured treasure. Once they have collected all four treasures they must all reach Fool’s Landing and play a Helicopter Lift card in order to escape and win the game.
However, all players immediately lose if Fools Landing or both Location tiles for a treasure they have not yet collected are sunk or if any player’s character is on a tile that sinks and they are unable to move to an adjacent location. They can also lose if the Water Meter reaches the skull icon at the top.
On their turn players can take one of four actions:
Move to an orthogonally adjacent tile
Shore Up an orthogonally adjacent flooded tile by flipping it right side up
Give a card to another player in their location
Claim a treasure by handing a set of four matching treasure cards at the corresponding location
After their turn ends players then draw two cards. These could be treasure cards or special action cards or Waters Rise. Each Waters Rise card increases the water meter by one, as the water meter rises you draw more flood cards from the flood deck. Waters Rise also causes the Flood Deck discard to be shuffled and placed back on top of the flood deck.
Finally a player now draws the number of flood cards shown on the Water Meter. If the location drawn is not yet flooded, flip it over to its flooded side. If it is already flooded remove the tile and the flood card from the game.
Play will continue in this fashion until all players collectively win by escaping from Fool’s Landing with all four treasures or if the any of the lose conditions are met and all the adventurers end up in a watery grave!
There is no denying that Forbidden Island shares a significant amount of DNA with Matt Leacock’s first cooperative game design Pandemic. The action point system, the victory conditions and the ramping tension of the flood deck and water meter are all imported near wholesale from that number one best seller.
And why not, Gamewright Games clearly wanted a game that is like Pandemic but with a simpler rules set and a more family friendly theme and they certainly got that. And that is the market audience for this game, families. That is not to say that gamers can’t play it, I’ve used it as an evening closer for many a game night with plenty of success but everything about this game is about connecting with that family audience.
The art, which depicts a Treasure Island-esque world full of action and adventure, is beautifully done, each card flip from the flood deck has that full bleed art that pulls you into the theme, while also making it easy to find and flip the tile on the board. The treasure items, which could have easily been tiles or cards are instead great chunky pieces, each with a different and distinctive look.
The gameplay is simple to follow, take three actions, draw two cards and then flip some cards from the flood deck, but it is also summarized on the back of all the character cards. On your turn you can move, flip tiles, trade cards or claim a treasure, each of these actions is straight forward, with no ambiguity or conditional modifiers that might cause confusion.
Alongside each of the actions in the game comes the player powers, each player controls a character that can directly break the restrictions of one of the core actions. The Explorer can move diagonally, the Messenger can give cards from anywhere on the island and the Engineer can shore up multiple tiles for a single action.
Despite the simplicity of the player powers, they excel in making you feel powerful, special, able to do something that no other player can. When the island breaks apart and the last treasure you need is stranded on the opposite side of a torrent of water, there is a great sense of satisfaction, as the diver or the pilot in being able to say, “Fear not!” to your fellow players as you step up and save the day.
As well as player powers you can also use alternate setups for the Island (found here) to add to the replayability. Maps like the Bridge of Horrors will offer a very different experience compared to the base game.
Do you need both Pandemic and Forbidden Island in your collection? No, they will both offer a similar play experience. Forbidden Island plays quicker and looks nicer, it works well for younger gamers, without being dumbed down, but it doesn’t have the same tactical depth as its older brother. Forbidden Island is also limited by its player count, topping out at 4 which might be limiting for some families and game groups. However if you are looking for a higher level of challenge, more distinct game play and a higher player count then Forbidden Desert may be the game for you instead.
Forbidden Island is a great entry point to the world of co-operative games, with a wonderful theme, great components and simple rules that anyone can pick up and play. With different player powers, alternative setups and difficulty levels this is one you can come back to time and again.