Forbidden Island – Not Really Forbidden, Just A Bit Soupy

You know those people who win the lottery and then wax philosophic about “how they were always fortunate” and it was “only a matter of time” before winning? Yeah, I’m not that guy. I don’t play slots because I don’t win. I don’t bet the horses because if I did, I’m almost positive the horse would have a pulmonary embolism right there on the track. When it comes to any contest of chance, I’m just not that guy. I have a wonderful, amazingly hot wife, and two wonderful kids. I have a great job that I love and don’t mind working my ever-loving ass off for because I believe in the company. I figure that I am incredibly blessed and fortunate, so I am OK with not winning these little things very often. Why do I say this? Because of the way I came into getting a copy of Forbidden Island.

I won this in a contest on sponsored by an incredibly generous soul known as Cate108, who sent me the game unannounced as a “surprise” because she couldn’t send the original item I had won, a John Carpenter film. I told her it was fine and she’d done so much already that it wasn’t necessary, but she insisted on sending something, and thus I am now sitting 5 feet from the box as I type this. Good form, Cate108, you’re a real gem amongst the rough.

Anyhow, this game is actually pretty neat. It holds a lot of resemblance to the mechanics in Pandemic, just not quite as nasty and no chance that we’ll lose because the Arabian peninsula contracts a bad case of amoebic dysentery. In Forbidden Island, six opportunists land on the island, which is slowly sinking as Atlantis into the frigid depths of an undisclosed body of water. These mercenary sorts are intent on gathering four treasures of incredibly archaeological and historical renown (read: worth a pretty penny) and must get them before the entire island is overtaken by the sea. Once these not-so-noble explorers have the treasures, they need to catch a chopper off the island from the lone helipad before it, too, is drowned beneath the waves.

Looking at the components, whose visuals were nominated for a 2010 Golden Geek Award at, I have to say I cannot possibly conceive of how this game was nominated. Yeah, it’s decent looking, but not award-winningly so. The game itself comes in a petite tin which holds a perfectly-designed blow-molded insert. I have to give it to the Germans: those guys sure know how to design their bit-holding inserts.

Anyhow, the game comes with maybe 60 cards of three types, 24 game space tiles, a water-level indicator board, four plastic treasure icons, and saving the least for last, six colored pawns. Everything is above-average in quality, and the little wooden pawns are fine. What has me a little pissed about them, though, is that the German version of the game boasts six little prepainted miniatures. It’s pretty salty that those in Hamburg get nice little guys to play with but someone in Peoria gets the shitty end of the stick, stuck with six nondescript wooden dowels. All things considered, the game looks and feels durable as hell. Some of the art is a bit on the repetitive side when viewed in the game’s totality, but it is pretty nice, regardless.

Setting up the game takes all of about three minutes. First, lay the 24 tiles out in a “plus sign” shape, with the tiles’ colorized side facing up. Next, randomly choose a role to play from the six available, or cheat and take the one you like best since they all have unique and game-changing powers. Starting positions are based on the color you chose, so you will place your figure (if you’re in Berlin) or dowel rod onto the tile that has the matching colored icon. After that, decide how hard you want the game to be by setting the water level indicator to the designated height on the indicator board. The rules say to put the four plastic treasures in the corners, to add ambiance, I’m guessing, but it’s best to just let them sit in the box. In fact, it’s a great idea to keep the box nearby, with the unused player cards sitting at the bottom of the little deck-holder area. Anyhow, the last bit to do before you play is to have each player take two treasure cards and then draw six tiles to be flooded by drawing six cards from the “Flood deck”.

Now that you know how easy it is to set the game up, let’s examine just what the hell you actually do to win. On any player’s turn, that player may take three actions. These actions consist of the option of moving to an orthogonally-adjacent space, or bailing water out of an area, giving an item to a teammate on the same tile, or taking a treasure if you’re able. Some cards in the treasure deck provide you some special powers as well, and can be used at any time, and without penalty. That’s pretty much the whole nine yards on the available options, but the game gets more interesting after your turn is over. After you’ve taken or forfeited your actions, you must draw two cards from the “Treasure Deck, remembering that the hand limit is five. These treasures generally have an icon of one of the four treasures on them, and when you can collect four of the same one, you can then go to one of the two tiles that has the same icon on it to claim that treasure.

The last action you must take before your turn ends is that you must draw as many cards from the “Flood Deck” as are indicated on the water-level indicator. Each one of these cards indicates a tile that must be flooded, and thus you must flip over each tile to the “flooded” side. If the tile that corresponds to the card you drew is already flood-side up, that tile and card are taken out of play. The sinking of that tile causes a hole in the map, so to speak, that all but the Diver character may not move through.

There’s one variable factor that I haven’t mentioned that gives the game a slight sense of tenseness…the “Waters Rise” cards in the Treasure deck. These cards, when drawn, immediately are played and cause the water-level indicator to bump up a notch on the scale, meaning that more flood cards are drawn at the end of your turn, but in the immortal words of Billy Mays, “…but wait! There’s more!” In addition to potentially making more tiles flood at the end of each turn, you must also reshuffle the Flood discard pile and place them on top of the remaining flood deck, meaning that tiles that were previously flooded have a high probability of flooding again.

These cards are not exactly ample, but they come up fairly often and in the seven games of Forbidden Island I’ve played so far, these things can come at any time, including coming up several turns in a row. Unlike “epidemic cards” in Pandemic, these are just shuffled randomly into the Treasure deck and therefore have no even distribution. Add to this that when the Treasure deck is completely empty that you simply reshuffle them, these can come up infinitely if the players are slow to collect the treasures.

To win, it is incumbent upon players not allowing loss conditions to take place, which amount to losing the helipad, losing two of any kind of treasure area without first getting that treasure, and having a player drown by being on a tile that sinks from under them without having an adjacent tile to “swim to”. Add to this that one player must have a special power card, gotten in the Treasure deck, that allows escape via helicopter in addition to having every player’s pawn on the helipad when this is enacted. All in all, it’s a light, fun little game that plays in about 30 minutes and can be learned by anyone at all.

Why Forbidden Island Needs A Tourism Department:
– Nice art on the tiles helps the theme of the game shine through
– Fast turns and easy rules make this a simple game to learn and play
– This game is a better filler than the stuff inside a Twinkie
– Supporting six players makes this a great choice for a party game
– This game sells for around 12$ at many online game retailers…it’s a hell of a deal

What Makes Me Glad The Island Is Doomed:
– It’s a little salty that the miniatures were lost in translation to English and us Yankees only get colored dowels as pawns
– This game can suffer from one player “having the solution” and bossing other players around
– The art on the treasure cards is really pretty bad, especially since the island tiles are so much better

Light, but not overly light, and fast gameplay makes Forbidden Island a great go-to game for a family or as a filler game while awaiting a deeper or longer game. I recommend this to anyone who has kids between 8 and 14 years old as the game really requires teamwork, and it’s short enough to keep kids engaged without getting bored. Definately one I’d think you should pick up and keep around the house, although I don’t expect that it will be played on a daily basis.

3.75/5 Stars

If you want to learn more, head to Gamewright’s website:

And a nice person on BoardGameGeek was nice enough to dig up some “official” variants, although they are nothing more than just placing the tiles in a different starting position…

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One thought on “Forbidden Island – Not Really Forbidden, Just A Bit Soupy”

  1. I need to clarify something: This game is made for 2-4 players, but when I say “It supports six”, it can be played by 6. Not well, mind you, but it can be done.

    We played a 6-player game and got beaten very, very quickly. There’s not enough cards to go around, so you have to discard ones that you don’t want/need in order to have a draw pile, else you end up having only “Waters Rise” and special power cards in the draw pile eventually.

    So, it is MADE to be a 4-player max, but it can be played with 6.

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