Sunday, December 8, 2013

Forbidden Desert Review

I had just gotten Forbidden Island right when Forbidden Desert came out.  So despite the fact that Forbidden Desert was the new hotness, I knew I couldn't justify getting it for a while.  Well a while passed, and a friend of mine gifted it to me for my birthday.  Man did I get a lot of games played that day.

Now I love Forbidden Island, but it is not without it's problems.  It was a slimmed down, streamlined version of Pandemic.  But in the process of shedding excess rules and mechanics, it's quarterbacking problem became more pronounced.  Quarterbacking referring of course to one player instructing all the others what to do with their cold, ruthlessly correct logic.

So Forbidden Desert is Matt Leacock's third cooperative game, published by Gamewright in 2013.  It's another iteration of the same fundamental design he's been molding since Pandemic.  After escaping from the Forbidden Island by helicopter, you crashed straight into the Forbidden Desert.  You must reassemble an ancient Flying Machine who's parts are scattered, buried in the sands.  Only once you've done this can you escape before you die of thirst, or are buried in the sands yourself.  Today I'm going to look at how it's changed from previous iterations, and how well it handles the quarterbacking problem.

Rule Summary

A character card with the
clip showing the water level.
To set up Forbidden Desert, first each player gets a character card at random.  They reveal their characters, and take the colored pawn matching their character.  They place a clip at the highest mark on their canteen, printed on their character card.  Each character has a special ability.  For example, the Explorer can move and remove sand diagonally, which the other character cannot.  Also make sure to shuffle the Storm Deck, and the Equipment Deck, separately.

All the location tiles have a desert side and a city side.  Mix up the location tiles, and place them all desert side up.  Create a 5 x 5 grid out of them, with a hole in the center.  The hole represents the sandstorm.  Next seed the board with some Sand Markers in a diamond pattern as shown in the picture.  Place all the player pawns on the tile with the crashed helicopter and the player symbol in the corner.

Note the player pawns on the crashed helicopter, and the oasis in the upper left

Lastly, take out the Storm Meter, and place a clip on the appropriate difficulty for the appropriate number of players.  There are 4 different tracks on the Storm Meter for between 2 to 5 players.  As the Storm Meter advances, it requires players to draw more cards from the Storm Deck during the second half of their turn.

On a player's turn, first they get to take 4 actions, and then they must draw cards from the Storm Deck according to the Storm Meter.  There are 4 different actions they can take.  The most common actions are moving and removing sand.  Moving for one action allows you to move your pawn to an orthogonally adjacent location tile.  However, players cannot move to tiles with two or more Sand Markers.  Removing sand allows you to take a Sand Marker off your location tile, or an orthogonally adjacent one.

Two more exotic actions are excavating a tile, and picking up a part.  To excavate a tile, you must have your pawn on it, and it must be free of Sand Markers.  You then flip the tile over to it's city side.  This can reveal Equipment, Tunnels, the Hangar, water or clues to where the Flying Machine parts are located.

An easy example of the clues for the propeller pointing to its location.

Each Flying Machine part has two clues buried in the desert, one indicating the row the part is in, and the other the column.  Once both have been excavated, you place the part on the indicated tile.  It will stay there now no matter how the tiles shift around.  To claim that part, you must move there, remove all the Sand Markers, excavate the tile, and then spend another action to claim it.

You could travel straight from
one tunnel to the other.
There is more about the tiles you must know.  In addition to 8 tiles containing clues to where the 4 parts are buried, there are 3 Tunnels.  Each Tunnel with protect you from the sun, which may beat down during the second half of your turn, and cause you to consume water from your canteen.  You can also move from one Tunnel directly to another for a move action.

There are also 3 oasis tiles, which have their desert side marked with a water symbol.  When you excavate an oasis tile, every player who's pawn is on it gains 2 water.  However, one of those 3 oasis is just a mirage.  Many of the tiles have an Equipment symbol on their city side, including the Tunnels.  This allows you to take the top card off the Equipment Deck.  Lastly, there is one tile with the Hangar on it's city side.  This is part of the objective of the game, which I'll cover in a moment.

A few equipment cards.
The Equipment cards allow you to do powerful, one time actions, usually for free.  The ones you will become the most familiar with are the Dune Blaster, the Solar Shield and the Jet Pack.  The Dune Blaster allows you to remove all the Sand Markers off a single tile.  The Solar Shield protects you and everyone else on your tile from the sun.  Lastly the Jet Pack allows you and another person on your tile to jump to any other tile.  These are not all the Equipment cards, just the most common.  There are many more.

Before a storm card...

Once a player has taken all four of their actions, they must then draw cards from the Storm Deck as determined by the Storm Meter.  There are three types of cards in the Storm Deck.  Storm Picks Up cards make the Storm Meter go up.  Sun Beats Down cards cause all players unprotected by Tunnels or Solar Shields to drink from their canteens.  Most cards though just move the storm around.  They will show that a certain number of tiles move into the empty space that represents the storm.  Each tile that moves receives a Sand Marker.  There is no limit to the number of Sand Markers that can accumulate on a tile.  You will sometimes get lucky though.  If there are not enough tiles to move into the storm as shown on the card, you get away with nothing happening.

... and after.

Players will lose if the Storm Meter ever reaches the skull and crossbones symbol.  Players will also lose when they need to place a Sand Marker, but there are not anymore.  Lastly, everyone will lose if a player's canteen ever drops into the skull and crossbones symbol.  Players will win if they collect all the Flying Machine parts, and then all gather at the Hangar where the Flying Machine fuselage resides.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

So first off, Forbidden Desert maintains all the surface level accessibility from Forbidden Island.  There are almost no rules exceptions.  The only one I can think of is when a flying machine part appears in the eye of the storm.  And there just isn't much you can do to avoid an exception for that.  The design of the game is also slim enough that cards can mean exactly what they say.  When a card says you can use it at any time, it really means at any time, no "if"s, "and"s or "but"s.

Forbidden Desert also has all the usual great reference material you've come to expect of Matt Leacocks designs.  Your adventurer card describes everything you can do, as well as the overall turn structure.  The visual cues on the tiles and cards are all clear.  There is just a wonderful sense of agency and clarity in general when playing Forbidden Desert.  New players can quickly dive in and play with confidence.

What could have been done better?

While the turn to turn actions of Forbidden Desert haven't strayed much from Forbidden Island, the overall objective of the game has gotten slightly more vague.  For the sake of contrast, let me describe the goals of each game.

In Forbidden Island you need to keep blatantly marked sections of the island afloat, while you collect cards to claim the treasures on them.  You start the game with several cards, and several island locations are already half sunk.  You can immediately make the connections about how to win.

In Forbidden Desert you need to find pairs of locations which point to where a flying machine part will appear.  You then need to claim all the parts to win.  But at the start of the game, your first time playing, you haven't seen any of the excavated sides of the locations, nor seen how the flying machine parts will eventually appear and be claimed.

This requires a better rules explanation on the part of the person teaching the game.  Setting up a few sample boards, to illustrate the goals of the game before you set up for real could be helpful.  While you are at it, you may also want to emphasize how much of a limited resource the Equipment cards are.  Especially coming from Forbidden Island where they are a renewable resource.

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

So this is the key issue.  How does Forbidden Desert deal with quarterbacking?  Forbidden Island expected the most experienced player to shut their mouth, and let the other players act in ways which would lose the game.  It demanded a willingness to lose from the more experienced players, to allow the less experienced players to catch up in reading the board.

So far, I haven't had this issue at all in Forbidden Desert.  It's much easier to sit back and let players do whatever they want.  Nothing screams out as being an objectively wrong move.  There is always an alternate read on the board about what should be done.

How does Forbidden Desert fix the quarterbacking problem?

I think Forbidden Desert addresses the quarterbacking issue quite cleverly.  Hidden information is usually the tool used to prevent quarterbacking.  Pandemic used this tool with hands of hidden cards.  Except very quickly players would just tell everyone anything they needed to know about their cards.  Forbidden Desert instead has the entire board as hidden information, from everybody.

This results in nobody really being able to objectively say what moves are essential or not.  No one player can perfectly reason out the best course of action.  There is always significant ambiguity, which is great.  It allows every player more room to have their own interpretation of the board, and not have someone berate them for being wrong.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Forbidden Desert really captures the theme of being buried in a sandstorm.  It does a fantastic job of taking you there, and making you feel the sun on your back, and the grit in your teeth.  The art direction is fantastic, and combined with the physical act of burying the board in Sand Markers, it reinforces the theme wonderfully.  I love seeing games where the physical implementation of the mechanics reinforces the theme.  It's subtle, but well worth it.

Feeling buried yet?

The other half of course is discovering this ancient civilization buried in the desert, and that comes through well too.  The artwork for the excavated tiles, as well as the Equipment, is colorful and imaginative, with consistent themes and direction.  Someone seems to have had a pretty well realized Atlantis in the desert type ancient civilization in their mind when the artwork was created.  I'm just not sure how else to describe it.

Plus the amazing components for the flying machine kick the game up a notch that few other games enjoy.  Once again, it's remarkable how the physical act of building the flying machine really makes you feel like you are living out the theme.  It's easy to see how it would appeal to kids, but even as a full grown man the symbolism isn't lost on me.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

I wish it took action or cards to put this together.
The only thing I don't like about how Forbidden Desert feels is the ending can be slightly anti-climactic.  Forbidden Desert can stay so tense, right up until the final turn.  Then the final action which wins the game is just moving to the Hangar.  You don't play a card, or spend an action, or anything else once you are there.  We usually shout "We won!" and then as an afterthought assemble the flying machine.  But it's not mechanically required to win the game.  An assembled flying machine doesn't help track the game state or anything.  It's purely thematic.

I almost wish putting the parts on the flying machine required an action, or a saved Equipment card.  Any sacrifice on your part to make it more of a decision.  I love the mechanic in Forbidden Island where you needed to save a Helicopter Lift card in order to escape the island and win the game.

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

As I've already said, Forbidden Desert has a great deal more hidden information than other Matt Leacock designs.  The nature of the storm deck is also much more contextual.  This has the side effect of making the game much more tactical.  No longer can you focus on a few key locations you know will be vital.  No longer can you safely judge how much time you have to respond to threats.  It's much more of an unpredictable struggle.

I actually prefer this a bit more, since in the old designs, it was quite easy in the home stretch of the game to figure out which actions must be performed in lock step to win.  You knew a certain series of locations were going to get hit by the event decks, and you knew precisely how to counter act or mute the effects of it.  You'd know precisely how to economize your actions to get to each critical location, and put out all the fires.  This typically made the last few turns of the game slightly boring once the plan was hashed out.  You just go through the motions and win.  Yay?

The Storm in Forbidden Desert is unpredictable, and the victory locations never certain.  This creates a fantastic tension right up until the last turn.  The game never feels scripted.  Or at least less scripted.  So far a script hasn't emerged for my group, where as scripts quickly emerged for Pandemic and Forbidden Island.

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

On the easier settings, Forbidden Desert is rather straight forward.  You can get away with wasting your Equipment cards more, as well as ignoring your special abilities.  On harder difficulty setting, you need to be much more shrewd with your resources.  Significant card counting is important as well.  You'll quickly memorize that there are only 3 Dune Blasters available in the Equipment deck.  Or that there are 3 Storm Picks Up cards and 4 Sun Beats Down cards.

One aspect which I've really come to enjoy on repeated plays is the thirst mechanic.  It creates a strong desire to hide in tunnels, or huddle together under a solar shield.  But eventually you gamble that nothing bad will happen in the interest of expediency.  Then you get caught out in the open when a Sun Beats Down card is drawn.  It's a horrible gamble to lose.  Especially when the Water Carrier isn't in the game, and you are a long ways from a water source, or have already used them up!

What could have improved the dilemmas?

Some of the characters seem a bit weak or uninteresting.  Weakest of all seems to be the Meteorologist.  They can burn actions to draw fewer cards, or they look ahead in the Storm Deck and bottom a card.  But the decision always feels a little weird.  It feels like a wasted turn to spend you actions drawing fewer cards.  And bottoming especially bad cards just creates a turn from hell in the future if you do it too much.  It could be I just haven't quite figured out this particular character and their utility in the game design.  But it just feel weak to me at this point in time.

Physical component design and limitations?

Everything in it's place and a place for everything.
As we've come to expect from Matt Leacock's games from Gamewright, the components are unbelievable.  I love the tin it comes in.  Having a toy Flying Machine is an almost decadent touch to the game.  The quality of the cards is solid too, and I can easily riffle shuffle and bridge all the decks.  I have no concerns about them holding up well to repeated shuffling.  The tiles are also of a sturdy cardboard.  No complaints at all about any of the components.

What could have been better?

Ok, I have one complaint.  One tiny complaint.  I wish the tin had the same profile as Forbidden Island's so they could be stored together.  But Forbidden Desert has more parts, and a fantastic molded insert with a space for everything.  More parts is more space, so it's hard for me to hold this against Forbidden Desert.  To have it fit Forbidden Island's dimensions would have meant losing the insert, or losing the Flying Machine.  Both of which I consider unacceptable compromises to achieve such a minor goal.

Long term prospects?

For me, Forbidden Desert has completely replaced Forbidden Island.  It's a little harder.  It's also a little more random and arbitrary.  It could be said that luck is more of an element, since all the locations are hidden at the start of the game.  But these are trade offs I gladly make to solve the quarterbacking problem.  It's possible people might be frustrated that they lost and there was nothing they could do.  But I think most people will be far less frustrated since nobody will be bossing them around anymore.

What I especially appreciate about Forbidden Desert is that it tweaked Matt Leacock's coop formula just enough to fix the quarterbacking problem.  But it left in tact the compact play length, quick setup time, and light rules.  As someone who admires design, this is rather impressive to me.  It's not uncommon for one change in a design to result in a cascade of other changes, and the entire thing gets away from you.

So my final verdict is that I can heartily recommend Forbidden Desert to any fans of cooperative games.


  1. Totally agree, we loved it as we played tonight for the first time. We had three semi-experienced gamers, and two beginnners, and they picked it up well.

  2. Good review, know I'm 2 years late :D, but for people still reading this review I wanted to say the Meteorologist for me is one of the most powerful characters. Once the storm reaches 4 or 5 you can see alt of cards and bottom either a sun beats down if it is in the ones you see or a card that would put 3 sand on the board, especially if you are running low on sand. The card that would replace the one you bottom could be a bad card, but bottoming Sun beats down successfully (2 or 3 times a turn) will give you a huge advantage. You can move freely without having to search for shelter until you are on the last cards of the deck. You will know when 2 or 3 or even all the sun beats down cards will come and will seek shelter only then.