Review: Forbidden Island
by Moss Scheurkogel
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2-4 Players, Play Time 20-45 mins.
Cooperative gaming is a notion that many people are hesitant about at first glance. Indeed, when I proposed to my parents that we play a game where we all work together to win as a communal group, they must have thought I was one braid away from joining the drum circle that lives down by the beach. But working as a team to overcome a set challenge is actually quite a natural form of gaming. We do it in video games, we do it in roleplaying games, and we even do it in sports. So why do board games need to be head-to-head, territorial fight-for-dominance bloodbaths? There are a number of fantastic cooperative games out there in which the players rely on teamwork to triumph over the game itself, and one of my personal favourites is Forbidden Island.
Forbidden Island, which in fact has nothing to do with the US embargo of Cuba, is a game where you play as a team of treasure hunters intent on plundering an island full of fantastic locales. The map is randomized each play so the locations are transient, and in fact it is the inconsistency of these locations that forms the main conflict of the game. You see, the moment you set foot on the island, it begins to sink in an Atlantean-curse style countdown to destruction. As your team explores the island, drawing cards so that you can claim its four treasures, areas become flooded and, if not properly sandbagged in time, eventually vanish from the board altogether. The result is a game where you need to be constantly repairing the map so that key locations (including the precious helipad at Fool’s Landing, your only escape) stay afloat. In a way it looks like reverse Carcassonne, with the map starting in perfect condition and slowly becoming more and more patchy. Collect the four treasures in time to escape in your helicopter and you’ll find victory, but if you lose any critical locations, allow the island to flood too often, or just straight up drown in the treacherous waters, the game wins. It’s us against the machines, people, and if you thought computer chess was bad, just remember that it can’t drown you. With good teamwork, Forbidden Island can be a breeze to play and is appropriate for younger gamers. But even though Forbidden Island is published by Gamewright, predominantly known for its children’s games (albeit fantastic children’s games,) don’t assume that its appeal is limited to the lil’ guys. The difficulty of this game is on a sliding scale that can be ramped up to a point where even the most seasoned player can still barely draw their first card through the slippery morass of sweat they’ve already produced.
If all of this gameplay sounds familiar, it may be because Forbidden Island is made by Matt Leacock, the same designer who created Pandemic, a similar game in which you fight off global disease in an Outbreak-style race against the clock. The games are, in fact, almost identical with a few exceptions. Namely, Forbidden Island is much more streamlined than Pandemic, with fewer options, a smaller scale, and less setup. The result is that Forbidden Island plays faster than Pandemic and is easier to learn, although may offer fewer strategic options for keen tactical gamers. This simplicity focuses the game though, and makes the actions more intuitive and less contrived. My games of Pandemic tend to transform into elaborate planning sessions detailing all of the things that need to get done across the next several turns with a level of detail that stops just short of needing PowerPoint. When I play Forbidden Island with my fiancé though, our plans tend to be more “you take the four on the left, I’ll take the four on the right.” It’s fast, it’s punchy, and the sense of personal danger intensifies the gravity of each move. In fact, we tend to speed up as we play until we’re racing through every turn just because the feeling of impending doom grows to the point where you’re convinced that if you pause to breathe your whole coffee table is going to cave in on itself.
An Island of Beauty
Knuckle-biting tension aside, one of the simple joys of Forbidden Island is its rich theme. The sense of exploration and adventure are palpable just from looking at the box, and when it comes to the character roles, I’d much rather be an explorer with a machete and a climbing-axe than some kind of civil engineer with a hard hat and a cellphone. Pandemic is a chilling race to save lives, but being set on a familiar map of the globe, it leaves little new ground to be uncovered. Forbidden Island’s unique, fanciful locations and randomly ordered map means that there is a real sense of wonder while playing it. There is a mysterious, almost Jules Verne-esque quality to spots with names like the Watchtower, the Crimson Forest, or the Cliffs of Abandon, and the magnificent artwork makes it all the more tragic when these locations slowly sink beneath the waves one by one.
Make no mistake, Forbidden Island is a game with tragedy designed into it. When you scramble with your loot onto the helicopter and lift off from an island that crumbles away from view beneath you, you are left with the knowledge that you destroyed it. It’s the ending of Last Crusade, where the cave comes down around the knight, sealing the tomb off forever. You weren’t saving the world down there, you were just after an adorable golden statue of a winged lion. You end the game knowing that something beautiful is gone because of your greed. It’s a victory that is always bittersweet, at least until you remake the map for another game.