So, pretty much everyone in the whole world of gaming is aware of Matt Leacock’s excellent Forbidden Island, his (slightlier) child friendly take on the award-winning Pandemic. Everyone is aware of the simple approach to co-operative gameplay, the beautiful production values (especially those treasures!), the tin box… it not only plays well, it’s visually sumptuous too, undoubtedly a great game to draw newbies into the fold. Now Matt is back with a sequel of sorts, but instead of the ever rising water being your enemy, it’s now the sun that will destroy you – if you’re not careful.
Forbidden Desert takes a few elements of the original game, sure, but this is no simple cosmetic follow-up. Like any good addition to a series, some ideas are developed and new concepts are introduced to create a whole new game that truly feels like a step up. Yes, it’s still a co-op, but you’re going to have to do an awful lot more work if you’re going to survive the harsh sun and constantly changing landscape. Things are getting an awful lot tougher on those shifting sands…
The story sees your team – each of whom have their own specific skill – crashlanding in the desert that gives the game its name. Stranded miles from anywhere and with only a limited amount of precious water, you’re collectively looking for the components of a mythical flying machine that is your one chance to get out alive. Just digging in the sand to find the pieces won’t do you any good though – you need to actually hunt them out in a ‘discover the co-ordinates’ kind of fashion.
Each turn gives you an amount of actions to perform; moving from tile to tile and flipping them over (so far, so familiar), but there’s plenty of new stuff to do as well. Sand markers pile up, covering tiles and making them inaccessible – any more than two on a space means it can’t be moved on to, but they can be removed at a cost of one of your actions. Once a space is free of sand, you can reveal what lies beneath. This could be a useful contraption, a one-off card that could get you out of a scrape or a tunnel opening that protects you from the sun and lets you move quickly around the board.
What you’re really after are the pairs of tiles that reveal the location of the flying machine parts. Flipping these will show the row and column for each of the bits, and when both are face up the part is placed on the board, which can then be picked up for an action. Get all the pieces, find the launchpad and you escape from the misery of the desert! Except it’s far from that simple. Because you’re contending with the sun, remember?
At the end of end of each player’s turn, the game gets a go at destroying you. Cards are drawn equal to the current Sun Level, and most of the time this will show a bunch of tiles that will be moved and have sand added to them. Some cards increase the Sun Level, meaning more sand and more trouble for you and your colleagues, as well as seeing you need to drink from your very limited water supply. This can be refreshed with the discovery of an oasis, but believe me – water is a very precious resource and will often be your downfall.
Forbidden Desert is very good indeed. It’s far from easy to win, even starting on the lowest difficulty level, but each play is an entertaining ride – even if it does feel like the game is totally screwing you over sometimes. Each play creates its own story, a tale of survival in the face of near impossible odds, and actually managing to pull off a victory against the Desert feels like a spectacular achievement. The production values are on a par with its older sibling, especially the brilliant build-it-yourself flying machine which is MASSIVE and awesome (like, actually awe-inspiring. Kind of.).
What’s best about Forbidden Desert though is the feeling of progression from the Island. Though the basic tenets of the games are similar – club together using different roles in a bid to win out against the game – it really comes across as a step up from the original, and while you don’t need to have played the first one it’ll certainly be a little easier to get into should you have had some previous experience. Not to say that the new release is impenetrable – in fact, it’s still a gloriously family friendly game – but it does introduce a few new concepts that first timers may find a bit strange and off-putting. Persevere though; it’s well worth the time spent getting newbies used to it. As for experienced gamers? Well, you’ll get plenty of challenge out of it – just because you’re a veteran of the Twilight Imperium wars that Forbidden Desert will go easy on you. It plays out in around 30-45 minutes too, so it’s a near perfect filler – just don’t go in thinking that this is a mere kids game.