Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All Together Now: Tangling with Gamewright's Forbidden Island

Every couple of weeks, Adrienne, Ranger and I (and perhaps a friend or two) launch an expedition to a sinking island in search of ancient artifacts of legendary power. If luck is on our side, if we keep our lines of communication open and if we focus on cooperating, we might unearth The Crystal of Fire, The Earth Stone, The Ocean's Chalice and The Statue of the Wind before our helicopter pad sinks into the treacherous waters of the surrounding ocean. If we don't, we'll be cut off from returning home and forever seal our fates... at least until we reset the board and try again.

"What the heck's going on!?!"  you might ask.

Well, we've been playing Forbidden Island.


Forbidden Island is a cooperative board game of daring treasure hunting that pits all the players against the game itself. The players of the game either win or lose as a group. Forbidden Island is designed by Matt Leacock, designer of two other of our favorite board game titles, Pandemic and Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age. It is published by Gamewright, who also publishes another game we reviewed recently and thoroughly enjoy, Rory's Story Cubes (check out our review, To Tell A Tale: Rory's Story Cubes). C.B. Canga's full color art illustrates the exotic locales of the sinking island.


At the beginning of each game, the players shuffle the twenty four island tiles and place them one by one into the cross layout as illustrated in the Forbidden Island rule book. Next, the four plastic figures representing the treasures of The Crystal of Fire, The Earth Stone, The Ocean's Chalice and The Statue of the Wind are placed in the four open corners of the island.

Forbidden Island includes fifty eight cards that are split into two decks. The red backed Treasure Deck includes twenty treasure cards (five for each treasure), three Waters Rise! cards, three Helicopter Lift cards, and two Sandbag cards. The Treasure Deck is the resource deck of the game, giving players the items that they will need in order to complete their objective. They'll have to watch out, though, as the Waters Rise! cards randomly cause areas of the island to sink and be removed from the board. The Treasure Deck is shuffled and placed to one side of the island layout.

The blue backed Flood Deck consists of twenty four cards, each representing one of the tile cards that make up the island. The Flood Deck is shuffled and placed on the opposite side of the island layout. The island's already started to flood and to represent that, six cards are drawn from the Flood Deck. For each card that is drawn, the players flip the corresponding island tile from its full color side to its blue toned flooded side.

There are six adventurer cards that represent the different treasure hunters that are coming to explore the island. Each adventurer has special skills that let them ignore or break specific rules of the game. Exploiting your adventurers' skills at the right time will be critical to your success or failure on Forbidden Island.

The six adventurers and there special skills are:

Diver: The diver is represented by the black pawn and can move through one or more adjacent flooded tiles and/or sunken tiles for one action as long as he (or she) ends the turn on a tile.

Engineer: The engineer is represented by the red pawn and can shore up two flooded (blue colored) island cards for one action.

Explorer: The explorer is represented by the green pawn and can move and/or shore up flooded tiles diagonally.

Messenger: The messenger is represented by the gray pawn can give treasure cards from their hand to a player anywhere for one action per card.

Navigator: The navigator is represented by the yellow pawn and can move another player up to two adjacent tiles for one action.

Pilot: The pilot is represented by the blue pawn and can fly to any tile on the island for one action once per turn.

During the setup phase, the six adventurer cards are shuffled and randomly dealt to each player. The pawns representing the adventurers are then placed on the island by finding the island tile that has the corresponding pawn icon.

Next, the adventurers are outfitted with their initial gear by drawing two cards from the shuffled Treasure Deck. If they draw a Waters Rise! card, they draw a replacement treasure card and shuffle the Waters Rise! card back into the deck. All cards are left face up in front of the players in order to make it easier to cooperate when completing their player's goals.

Once all of the adventurers are outfitted with two Treasure Deck cards, the group decides on the difficulty level of the game and set's the Water Level  marker on the Water Meter. The closer the marker is to the top, the harder the game will be. For beginning players, the Novice level is recommended which, while being easier, doesn't guarantee a win for the group.

That's it for setup. As you can see, there are a lot of elements that add to the re-playability of the game. The island is going to be in a different configuration every game (with a special note on that at the end of this review). Your group of players will also have different adventurers with different roles and their starting tiles will most likely be in a different starting position every game. And finally, as your group gets better at the game, winning more times than losing, they can start at increasingly difficult water levels.

So, how do you play the game?

Playing Forbidden Island

Each player's turn consists of three phases. During the first phase they can take up to three actions. After they have finished their actions, they must draw two Treasure Deck cards. Finally, they must draw the number of cards from the Flood Deck equal to the current Water Level on the Water Meter. Let's break each of those down. As we look at the basic rules of play, remember the special abilities of each adventurer that allow them to break specific rules during their turns. Players have three actions that they may take.

On their turn, players can move to an adjacent tile above, below, to the left or to the right of their current position. They can make multiple moves during their turn, with each move costing one action. The only restriction for most adventures is that they can't move over or stop on an area with missing, sunken, tiles.

Another option is for the player to shore up a flooded tile. Players may shore up tiles adjacent above, below, to the left, or to the right of their pawn's position. When a player announces that they are going to shore up a flooded island tile, they flip it from it's blue flooded side to its full color side. Each time a player shores up a flooded island tile, it takes one of their three actions.

If two or more players have their pawns on the same island tile, they may then spend one of their three actions to exchange Treasure Cards. Players may not exchange special action cards and they must stay within the five card hand limit. They may exchange as many cards as they have action points remaining as long as they don't go over their hand limit.

Finally, if players are occupying one of the two island tiles that can house each of the Forbidden Island treasures, they can exchange, if they have them, four treasure cards matching the particular treasure in order to capture it. Once captured, they put the four matching Treasure Cards into the discard pile and take the corresponding plastic treasure miniature and put it in front of them.

After spending their three action points, players must then draw two treasure cards into their hand. If they are over the hand limit of five cards, they must discard the excess into the Treasure Card discard pile. The Special Action cards include the three Helicopter Lifts and two Sandbags. A player can play a Special Action card at any time, whether it is their turn or not, and it does not cost any action points.

If a player draws a Waters Rise! card, they must immediately move the Water Level marker up one tick mark on the Water Meter. They then must take all the cards in the Flood Deck discard pile, shuffle them, and put them on top of the Flood Deck. This has the effect of making it more likely that flooded tiles will then sink. Then they discard the card to the Treasure discard pile.

As their last action, players must draw the number of Flood cards indicated on the Water Meter. For each card that is drawn from the Flood Deck, the corresponding island tile is flipped over if it is not already flooded or removed, along with the Flood Deck card, from the game. In this way the island sections first flood and, if they are not shored up, eventually sink into the ocean. As the island sinks away at an ever increasing rate, the players will have fewer and fewer routes to complete their goal of capturing all four treasures from Forbidden Island. If a pawn is on a flooded tile that then sinks, the tile is removed and the player must move to an adjacent tile. If a tile doesn't exist within one space, it sinks into the ocean as well and all the player's lose.

Speaking of losing, how do you win a game of Forbidden Island?

Winning (and Losing) Forbidden Island

As I said in the beginning, Forbidden Island is a cooperative game. Players win or lose the game together. Here's the tricky part. There is one, and only one, way to win Forbidden Island. The players must first capture all four treasures. Then all of the players must move their pawns to the Fool's Landing helicopter pad island tile. Then one player must discard a Helicopter Lift special action Treasure Card to lift the entire team off the sinking island. That's a tall order.

So how do you lose? I'm glad you asked.

There are four ways to lose a game of Forbidden Island. If a set of the island tiles that houses the treasures sinks into the ocean before the treasure is recovered by a player, the players lose the game.  If the Fools Landing tile sinks, cutting off your player's chance to reach the helicopter and escape the sinking island, the players lose the game. As stated earlier, if a player is on a island tile that sinks and is not close enough to another tile to swim to safety, the players lose the game. If the Water Level on the Water Meter rises to the skull and crossbones, the players lose the game.

This may seem harsh to some of our readers. I won't lie, this can be difficult, especially as you gain experience and confidence and start the game further and further up the Water Meter, ratcheting up your starting difficulty. But I will say that playing, and winning a game of Forbidden Island is an event, especially if your players really get into the idea of being treasure hunters and try hard to work together. When you lose, which will happen (heck it might happen the first couple of times you play and continue to happen off and on throughout the time that you own the game), you will all feel it together. You'll talk about what you might have been able to do differently. You'll commiserate over the bad luck of drawing the wrong flood card at the wrong time. You'll wonder if things would have been different if you had a different assortment of roles. Remember, this is a game for two to four players and you have six special roles that are randomly assigned.

And then... you'll want to set the whole thing up and try again. This game is addictive. And when you win, I'll bet you'll do what every group I've played this game with has done. You'll jump up from your chair and cheer and give high fives all around. You'll rehash the close calls and the clever plays. You'll relish the adventure of it. When's the last time you did that when playing Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. When was the last time that you played any game that left everyone playing feeling so good.

So, while it is hard. It's definitely worth the effort.

Components and Cost

Forbidden Island comes in a beautiful full color embossed metal tin. Inside, a molded plastic insert holds the twenty four full color thick cardboard tiles that make up the island. There are six colored wooden pawns representing each adventurer. Additionally, there are the Flood, Treasure and Adventurer decks outlined earlier and the Water Meter. Finally there are four color plastic miniatures which evocatively represent Forbidden Island's lost treasures. All of which fits nicely in this lovely tin with the clearly written and wonderfully laid out full color game rules. All of the tiles and cards are linen backed so they should be able to withstand repeated plays for a long time to come.

Given the quality of the game's tin, components, and rule book, you'd expect Forbidden Island to command a premium collector's game price. One of the most amazing things about the game is that it can be had for under $17. On Amazon.com, Forbidden Island currently lists for $13.44.


Forbidden Island is a great game for two to four players. If you have never played a cooperative game, a genre that has gained popularity in hobby games market in the last few years and one that my family particularly enjoys, Forbidden Island is a fantastic introduction to the category. We love this game as a family and here's why.

Forbidden Island can be played with a diverse range of ages and can still engage everyone involved. We have played this with groups made up only of adults and with mixed groups including players pushing their forties and our five year old son, Ranger. The only difference in the play is that Ranger was more in need of suggestions as to which action to take on his turn. On the other hand, these game sessions enabled him to see how adults evaluated a number of potential actions and chose the few that were most optimal. Over time, he's getting a crash course in creative problem solving. He's also learning how to communicate with other people about a problem and learning how to take suggestions for possible solutions from others.

Forbidden Island captures the imagination. If I'm presented with the choice of playing a card game of Uno or going on a treasure quest to a sinking island, I know which one I'll choose ninety percent of the time.

Forbidden Island builds memories. Like Matt Leacock's other, more expensive, cooperative game Pandemic which focuses on ridding the world of epidemic diseases, a win in Forbidden Island is difficult and memorable. You'll tell stories to other's that you inevitably introduce the game to about an amazing recent win or heartbreaking loss. I still remember the time that a group of co-workers won when there were only four (of the twenty four!) island tiles left on the board. It was the last possible turn before the skull and crossbones was reached and a combination of a lucky card draw, plus having the pilot, won the day. It was intense. It was nail-biting. Everyone screamed and  and stood up and cheered with excitement that we'd actually eked out a win. All in a public snack area with passers by thinking we were crazy. And... it was awesome!

You just can't beat the cost-value calculation of this game. Forbidden Island is cheaper than most kids' games (Sorry, I'm looking at you) and is going to be something that your children's children will be able (and enthusiastically want) to play for years to come. It's not a game that you're going to get bored with easily as it has an amazing amount of re-playability built into its very design. Plus, if you start to get so good that your group regularly wins the game, you can try these European edition and fan created alternate Island tile layouts to increase the challenge level. How well are you going to do on Forbidden Skull Island, or the Forbidden Island of the Crescent Moon?

Are you ready for your family's first expedition to Forbidden Island?

Let us know if you are a fan of cooperative games in general and Forbidden Island in particular in the comments. Happy adventuring.

***Baby Toolkit is brought to you by the neurological happenstance of two geek parents in the midst of the  middle Midwest. While we purchased Forbidden Island from our local Borders (R.I.P.), we do periodically receive review copies from Gamewright. We love Forbidden Island designer Matt Leacock's Pandemic, so we simply could not resist buying Forbidden Island when we saw it in a bookstore- especially since I had a 40% off coupon (sorry, Borders). Expect more game coverage as we're going crazy with GenCon Indy 2011 anticipation.


Doc said...

Those pieces look fantastic. The art and the miniatures are really evocative. Nice review. I had heard of this game but kind of overlooked it. Buying a copy this week.

adrienne said...

Hey Doc,

Your kids are old (and game savvy) enough to contribute to the team's strategy. I suspect they'll LOVE it.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I love this game. Have introduced it to others and it is very addictive. Great review. I like the storytelling memories section at the end. So true. We won a game with only 2 tiles remaining. Good stuff.

Greg said...

I got this game for my four-year old for Christmas, and I think I might pull it out when the grown-up geeks come over next time for board game night.

Played it for the second time last night, and you'd be surprised how well a 4-year-old can handle a game like this.

Another similar game to check out is Castle Panic, a co-op tower defense board game. I discovered it at Pax East 2011, and it's fantastic.

adrienne said...

Hi Greg,

We gave three copies for Christmas (not all the recipients have young children) and we play this every grown-up game night.

We have Bears! by the Castle Panic publishers, but still need to check out Castle Panic.

If your gaming grown-ups like this, Pandemic is also a natural follow-up.