Sunday, July 14, 2013

Forbidden Island Review

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game developed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright in 2010.  In Forbidden Island you are attempting to retrieve 4 treasures off a sinking island.  As with most cooperative games, there are many ways to lose, and only one way to win.

I had been aware of Forbidden Island since shortly after I got Pandemic.  But it seemed clear it was the lesser game.  It had few bits, no real board, and less mechanics.  Why would I bother with it?  Then I traded Pandemic for Defenders of the Realm, and was awoken to the fact that in board games, sometimes less is more.  Defenders of the Realm was a bloated, lumbering, boring game.

With my new "less is more" mentality, I gave Forbidden Island another try.  My FLGS had a copy in their demo library, and we immediately loved it.  We found it had all the tense decision making of Pandemic, in a more streamlined package.

Rule Summary

In Forbidden Island, there are 24 Island Tiles arrayed in a roughly circular grid.  A deck of 24 Flood Cards is shuffled, with one card for each island tile.  A deck of 28 Treasure Cards is also shuffled, which has 5 cards of each of the 4 types of treasures, 3 Waters Rise cards, 3 Helicopter Lift cards, and 2 Sandbag cards.  These decks are shuffled separately, and each player gets 2 Treasure Cards.  Players also receive a character card, telling them which color playing piece to use, and what their special ability is.  6 Flood Cards are revealed, and these Island Tiles are flipped to their blue, flooded side.

All the different player characters
On a player's turn, they will take 3 actions.  For one action they can move, shore up an Island Tile, give someone a Treasure Card, or they can claim a Treasure.

Normally movement allows a player to move to a single orthogonally adjacent tile.  However, many of the characters have special abilities which modify this.  The Pilot can fly anywhere once per turn.  The Explorer can move diagonally, and the Diver can swim through flooded or missing tiles.  The Navigator gets to move other people on his turn, moving them up to 2 tiles per action.  Also, Helicopter Lift cards can be played to move any player to any Island Tile without spending an action.

To shore up an Island Tile, players simply flip over an Island Tile that is flooded to it's normal side.  The Island Tile must be where that player's piece is located, or orthogonally adjacent to it.  Once again, there are numerous special abilities that affect this.  The engineer can shore up two Island Tiles for one action.  The explorer can shore up Island Tiles diagonal to him.  Lastly, Sandbag cards can be played to shore up any Island Tile, without using an action.

To give someone a Treasure Card, the player must be in the same space as the player they wish to give the card to.  Then for one action they can give that player one card from their hand.  Once again, there is an exception to this.  The Messenger may give any player anywhere a card for one action.

The last action, which is claiming a treasure, has no exceptions.  Players must go to one of the two Island Tiles showing that treasure, with 4 of that Treasure Card in their hand.  They then spend one action to claim the treasure.  Once players have collectively claimed all 4 treasure, they must all get to the Fool's Landing Island Tile, and someone must play a Helicopter Lift Treasure Card to evacuate everyone.  If players can do this, they win the game.

With that said, here is how Forbidden Island works against you.  After each player takes their 3 actions, they draw 2 Treasure Cards.  If one of these is a Waters Rise card, bad things happen.  There is a Water Level Meter which keeps track of how many Flood Cards you must reveal each turn.  This meter goes up each time you reveal a Waters Rise card.  Then you shuffle the Flood Card discard pile, and just the discard pile, and put it back on top of the deck.  Now you'll be seeing all those cards again soon.

Once players have gotten their 2 Treasure Cards, they reveal however many Flood Cards the Water Level Meter indicates.  It starts at 2 cards, but quickly escalates up to 5 cards!  For each Flood Card, the player will flip a dry Island Tile to it's flooded side, or remove a flooded tile from the game, along with it's matching Flood Card.  The players will lose if Fool's Landing sinks, both of the locations to claim a treasure sink before the treasure has been claimed, a player drowns on a sinking Island Tile, or if the Water Rises Meter hits the skull and crossbones.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

This is a fantastic cooperative game for new players.  For starters, players only need to master the use of 4 different actions.  Really just 3, since claiming a treasure will only happen 4 times the entire game.  So right off the bat, players don't need to tackle an enormous new skill set.

Second, the gamestate is incredibly easy to assess at a glance.  All the Island Tiles are either dry, flooded or sunk.  The graphic design of them makes this perfectly clear instantly.  All the players' hands are played face up in front of them, making it easy to tell how close you are as a group to claiming certain treasures.  Additionally the discard piles are public knowledge.  That combined with a relatively small deck of cards makes it easy to reason out what cards you have left to deal with.

Third, the consequences of your actions are immediately apparent.  You aren't investing in avenues of play that will play off several turns down the road.  There is an immediacy to Forbidden Island which makes it perfect for players who may not be apt to immediately skip to planning 3 or 4 turns ahead.

What could have been done better?

The one problem I have with Forbidden Island is that the Diver's special ability is poorly explained.  Everyone who reads it seems to have a different take on it.  I thought he swam in one direction, straight through any flooded or sunken tiles.  One person thought he could swim around the outside of the map.  One person thought he could zig zag through any number of flooded or sunken tiles.

Pop quiz, where can this diver move to?
It turns out, after consulting BoardGameGeek that the third person is correct.  The diver may move through any number of adjacent flooded or sunken tiles, zigzagging however he likes.  He may not however swim around the outside of the island where there never were any tiles.  I really would have liked to see some gameplay examples of his movement listed in the manual.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

Like most cooperative games, one alpha player can take control.  Bossy players are an inherent problem of most games of this type.  I'm a little sad to say that Forbidden Island doesn't even make token efforts to address it.

Forbidden Island is a collaborative puzzle, and it is very possible for the person with the most experience to dominate the decision making.  They may not even try.  They may just blurt out what they think is the best move before anyone else has a chance to even think.  Then everyone gets to sigh, realize they were right, and go along with what they were told.

But rarely is there a 100% right answer to the problems you face.  It's only towards the end you may find yourself with only one possible path to victory.  So if the other players have a little backbone, or the dominant player shuts up for a minute, there can be a lot of interesting discussion.

What could have been done better?

Two of the simplest fixes many cooperative games implement to the alpha player problem is limiting table talk, and having a hidden hand of cards.  However this tends to have a chilling effect on the game.  Players are more or less on their own attempting to tackle challenges in a rather uncoordinated manner.  Often the difficulty of the game erodes the groups desire to follow those rules which hinder them, and open hands and table talk find their way back in.

With everything out in the open, what do you really need other players for?
For Forbidden Island especially I don't see them being preferable solutions to the alpha gamer problem.  This is a very tight design, and players need to use absolutely every resource at their disposal to have a chance of winning.  You absolutely need the table talk and open hands to coordinate card sharing, and maximizing each other's special abilities.

I think what could have been a fascinating solution is a team leader mechanic.  If you've ever been a part of an activity where only the person with the baton is supposed to talk, you'd know what I have in mind.  But it's a double edged sword.  For the sorts of groups that have to cope with an alpha gamer, this could rescue the game from being obnoxious.  For the groups that don't have an alpha gamer, it could kill the game with needless rules governing who can speak.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Forbidden Island starts off rather easy, and rapidly escalates, just like any good cooperative game should.  In the beginning players will feel like they have all the time in the world, and won't concern themselves too much with making every action count.  However, thanks to the waters rise mechanic, certain trouble areas will be a constant problem.  Players may find themselves constantly scrambling between Fool's Landing and the Whispering Garden because if either one sinks, the game is over!

Forbidden Island is also one of the few games I've seen non-gamers get very emotionally invested in.  My girlfriend plays games, but tends to not get into them.  However even she gets incredibly anxious playing Forbidden Island.  But not overly so.  Despite all the tension the mechanics of Forbidden Island create, the artwork does a good job of taking the edge off and keeping it fun.  It's colorful and light hearted, and keeps you from taking your horrible situation too seriously.

How do the mechanics facilitate the feel of the game?

The way this game escalates it's truly brilliant.  As players are scrambling to keep their choice Island Tiles afloat, the rest are sinking.  When a tile sinks, it's Flood Card is removed from the game.  Because of this, players will begin to see the other Flood Cards more and more often.  By the end of the game, you are flipping 5 flood cards, and there may only be 4 cards left in the Flood Deck!  Basically an Island Tile will sink every turn at that point.

What I love most about this is how it creeps up on you.  You will feel like you are doing fine.  You are keeping Fool's Landing and all the Island Tiles to claim treasure afloat.  Suddenly you realize, you've let too much of the island sink, and now the waters are lapping up against the remaining tiles you absolutely can't lose.  Every flood card left in the deck is one that will sink a vital piece of the islan.  Then you panic.  It's a brilliant and actually quite different spin on a similar mechanic from Pandemic.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

These cards tend to involve the most tactical play
I've actually found Forbidden Island to have a great mix of tactics and strategy.  Turn to turn you'll be worrying about keeping the vital Island Tiles afloat, and trying to claim the treasures.  You'll scramble to use a Helicopter Lift or Sandbags cards in order to make a turn easier when you feel another Waters Rise card is coming.  All that alone would easily occupy your mind.

However, over the long term there is ample to think about as well.  You need to manage how many treasure cards you discard, and be aware of which sets you are trying to collect on this pass through the Treasure Deck.  You also need to be aware of how many times you can go through the Treasure Deck before the Waters Rise cards automatically end the game.  Lastly, you need to stay conscious of the rate at which you are burning through Flood Cards by letting the island sink.  All those non vital Island Tiles are important buffers between the sea and the important Island Tiles.  Lose too many of them, and suddenly those pivotal tiles will be threatened increasingly often, to the point where there is nothing you can do.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Forbidden Island nails that quality of a good game with interesting decisions.  Like I keep harping on in every review, good dilemmas pull you in multiple directions.  They keep you balancing several mutually exclusive goals.  And Forbidden Island nails that quality.

Do you prioritize keeping the island afloat, or getting to your destinations and trading cards?  If you can only save one section of the island, which one do you pick?  When do you want to commit those Helicopter Lift cards?  You need one to win the game, but they are so useful, since moving can be so expensive.    But if you use them all, you have to go through the deck, including the Waters Rise cards, all over again to find another one.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

For better or for worse, Forbidden Island is closer to a logic puzzle than a game.  Although I think that is by design.  All players' hands are public information, as is the discard piles.  With all the of open information, there really isn't anything unique about each player's position.  Sometimes it can feel like you are just filling a seat at the table, as opposed to being an active participant since there nothing you really contribute.  The decisions are made by committee and your agency in the process may not be strongly felt.  This is exacerbated by the simplistic nature of the game.  What was a pro for new players is now a con.  It's too easy for a single player to flawlessly run the game in their own head, and have done it perfectly.  They may not ever need other players input, and they may immediately know an objectively best move.

I really feel like each player should have had some sort of hidden information.  Because partial information is what makes cooperative games a group puzzle instead of just a puzzle one person can solve on their own.  So players need some piece of information they, and only they, can contribute.  It could be a hidden one time special power.  Or maybe the hands of cards should have been hidden after all.  Thankfully it's easy enough to just play the game with a hand of hidden cards and see how you like it.

Physical component design and limitations?

There is an amazing amount of high quality game in a very small package here.  The cards are of good quality, and I can shuffle them and bridge them easily.  The plastic figures for the treasures are a fantastic touch.  I want to call special attention to the imaginative artwork on the Island Tiles and Flood Cards.  After a few plays, they really become actual places to you.  Not just abstract points of occasional interaction.

Left: Dry side, Right: Flooded side
The game also has very clear graphic design.  The blue tinted flooded sides of the tiles are quite easy to distinguish from the dry tiles.  On top of this the title bar of the Island Tiles also changes to make it easy to pick out.  This is great for the few tiles that are primarily blue regardless of the side they are on.  The icons on the Island Tiles which say which treasures can be claimed there are also prominent and obvious.

What could have been better?

I'm going to get extremely nit picky here.  But there are two things that have annoyed me about the artwork of Forbidden Island.  First, the silhouettes of the treasures are very similar.  The Chalice and the Globe are both similar in shape, as are the Lion and the Flame.  So every now and again, someone will read the Island Tiles incorrectly, and confuse one of those types of treasures for the other.  Especially if you are colorblind, and the light is poor.  So perhaps the treasures could have been designed to have less similar silhouettes.

The other thing is, compared to the rest of the game, the Water Level Meter is just plain dull.  Almost every other component in this game has beautiful and fanciful artwork.  The Water Level Meter is just different shades of blue.  Plus when you think about it, it doesn't go in the right direction either!  The meter starts at the bottom of the ocean and slowly goes up!  It could have started at the top and gone down.  They could have thrown some sunken ships and sea monsters on there.  But once again, I only bring this up because the rest of the game is amazing, and this shortcoming only stands out in contrast.

Long term prospects?

After 10 plays, I have begun to find elements of Forbidden Island a bit solvable.  You should always save your Sandbag cards for after a Waters Rise card, but before you flip the Flood Cards for example.  But there is still no way to completely account for the variance of the Flood Deck or the Treasure Deck.  What has become more of a problem is the alpha gamer issue, which I am admittedly the cause of.  I try to make a special effort to keep my mouth shut.  But while there may not be an objectively best move, there are some objectively bad moves.  And I've been robbed of giving other players the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they know something that I don't?  Well not in this game, because everything is public.

But it is a game we enjoy, and perhaps most importantly its easy to set up, plays quickly, and my girlfriend enjoys it.  The difficulty level scales quite well, and it's been great with 2, 3 or 4 players.  Plus the box is so small I can cram it anywhere, which lessens the need to get rid of it for more space.  If I still owned Pandemic I'm not sure I would have gotten it.  But I'm glad that collectively, my group has both, since they suite distinctly different needs.


  1. "Pop quiz, where can this diver move to?"

    Trick question; it's an Explorer.

    As regards the Diver, for one action, the Diver can make any series of horizontal or vertical moves, so long as the final move is onto a tile (flooded or otherwise) and the other moves are through flooded or missing tiles. The Diver cannot swim outside of the island (I like to think it's shark-infested); the Diver can only swim through places where tiles used to be, but have now been removed.

    1. Yeah, that was my color blindness acting up again.

  2. Water Level meter orientation is correct, in my opinion. The marker should not go 'down' when you draw "Water Rise", which would have been counterintuitive.

  3. Brilliant games. Only problem is when a 13 year old 'alpha' player thinks twice as fast as his parents and ends up telling them what they should do with an unerring level of accuracy.

  4. Helicopter lift clarification help needed... can a helicopter lift be used on any pawn(s) on a single space or only on pawn(s) on the same space as the holder?