The water is rising. The Earth Stone is safe in your backpack, and the Ocean’s Chalice is within grasp, if only you can make it to the Coral Palace before the marsh your wading through floods entirely. You’ll have to trust your team-mate’s to have succeeding in their tasks, getting the other treasure’s. You’re all due back at the helicopter soon, because the water is rising, and this island will soon be lost to the ocean… Along with anyone still on it.
Maybe you should invest in some scuba gear… Or maybe you’re playing Forbidden Island.
Forbidden Island is a co-operative adventure game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright. For 2 to 4 players, the game has players explore a constantly-flooding island through an action point allowance system, with the players trying to collect all four of the island’s treasures and escape before it is lost below the water. Through unique player powers and item cards, players can take some steps to slow the sinking of the island, but in the end they’re in a race against time for treasure… And survival.
Like many co-operative games, Forbidden Island has a single victory goal and several ways to lose. Tiles containing the treasure you need sink? You lose. The helicopter pad you need to escape sinks? You lose. Water gets to high? Lose. Player dies? Definitely lose.
You can only win if you and your team get all the treasure, then you all make it back to the helicopter pad, and you all escape with a helicopter lift card. With so many things that can go wrong, Forbidden Island can be a stressful game. Interestingly, though, I think it’s actually a lot harder to lose than it sounds. Yes, there’s lots of ways you can lose, but there’s also lots of steps you can take to mitigate those risks. In all the times I’ve played, I’ve only ever lost by the water level rising too high, which is the only thing you can’t directly prevent through abilities or cards… And even that I’ve only seen once or twice. So while it can be stressful, it’s not necessarily a hard game to win. And the adrenaline-fueled feeling when you push through the stress and reach victory is a rush.
I really like the board mechanics and physical parts of this game. The tiles comprising the island are sturdy, beautifully drawn, and seem like the kind of thing you’d find in adventure books like Treasure Island. The Crimson Forest, The Coral Palace, The Cliffs of Abandon… The tile names are just fun, and the way they are shuffled and laid out at the start of the game means the board is different every time you play. The inclusion of plastic figurines for each of the four treasures is also neat. Mechanically, “claiming” the treasures could have been accomplished with cards or even just a check list, but the three-dimensional figurines somehow make it seem more of an accomplishment.
The only complaints I have about Forbidden Island are small ones. As I said above, the game seems easier than some other co-operative games I’ve played, to the point where – as long as you don’t make any serious mistakes and don’t get very unlucky – it’s rare to lose. Now, the game does allow the difficulty to be adjusted by changing how high the water is at the start of the game, allowing it room to rise 9 times at the easiest, and only 6 at the hardest. Since, in my experience, the water rising is one of the most likely causes for defeat, and the higher it starts the faster it goes, this changes the game from fairly easy to quite difficult very quickly. The step from the “normal” setting to the next difficulty up can make the game harder and more stress-filled to the point of not being fun anymore for some players, so you’ll need to try it out to find what starting point is most fun for you. My other problem comes in the six unique character roles players are randomly assigned. Each role grants a unique ability… But some just seem more useful than others. More than once, I’ve heard (and given) sighs of disappointment at an assigned role.
Those small complaints aside, though, Forbidden Island is a fun game, and it’s co-operative nature makes it a nice break from more competitive games. The immanent threat of the rising water makes for an interesting sense of stress, of the need to win, without (usually) getting too frustrating. It’s also fairly quick to learn and easy to teach, which is good…
After all, it’s really a matter of sink or swim on the Forbidden Island.