Bob from Montpelier stopped by Quarterstaff Games last Tuesday for board game night. He brought something I’d seen at the Game ‘n Grill last weekend, but hadn’t gotten the chance to try: Forbidden Island. I’d heard about the game well before this past week, but I have to admit I mentally wrote it off without doing my due diligence. The initial descriptions I read made it sound like “Pandemic lite”: players work together to retrieve archaeological treasures from a rapidly sinking island. My first thought was a less complicated, more family-friendly version of Pandemic, which other comments around the web seemed to bear out.
As Bob explained the game, the similarities between Forbidden Island and Pandemic became even more obvious. Each player has a specific role in the expedition: explorer, diver, navigator and so on, just as everyone in Pandemic has a different job with the CDC. These roles have different abilities that aid the players as they move from location to location on the island, represented by a grid of tiles, and try to retrieve the artifacts.
See, the island is sinking. At the end of every turn, bad stuff happens. Cards are flipped over, revealing which locations, like the Temple of the Moon or Breakers Bridge, submerge this turn. If a submerged location is drawn again, it sinks beneath the waves completely. This not only makes traveling around the island increasingly difficult, but can cause everyone to lose the game if that location was the final resting place of a particular piece of treasure that hadn’t been recovered yet. Fortunately, sinking locations can be shored up. A player can spend an action to flip an adjacent tile, or the one on which their pawn stands, from submerged to dry. That location will begin to sink again, sooner or later, but it buys breathing room and keeps lines of movement around the island open. In fact, the rate at which the island sinks increases as well, not unlike, say, the infection rate of worldwide diseases increases over time. The number of location cards drawn increases as Waters Rise cards are pulled, so the number of tiles flipping each turn increases, until there are locations that the players just can’t save from sinking.
Recovering a treasure requires a player to have four cards of a kind, of which there’s one for each piece of treasure. This also rings bells for Pandemic veterans. Most of the movement around the island, particularly in the opening turns, centers around getting cards to people who already have a lead in collecting a particular piece of treasure. If someone starts with a pair of chalice cards, everyone’s going to be trying to figure out how to get them more chalice cards with a minimum of movement.
It’s not enough just to keep the island afloat long enough to collect the cards and then treasure. Everybody still needs to get off the island, by making it back to Fools Landing and then playing a helicopter rescue card. So not only do the treasure locations have to be kept above the ocean, but so does the expedition’s means of escape from this water-logged death trap.
I wasn’t super excited about Forbidden Island until I saw other people playing it, which piqued my interest. Playing through it Tuesday night, I was a little wary as the rules explanation put me in mind of Pandemic so strongly, but then I got into the game itself. First, I’m a sucker for pulp action like treasure hunting expeditions. I love the mental imagery of raiding temples and caves for long-lost artifacts. Second, the art is gorgeous. The location tiles have an aesthetic that puts me in mind of the otherworldly beauty of the Myst computer games. Forbidden Island was clearly designed to be an eye-catcher, where its older sibling Pandemic is rather plainer, and even a little awkward with all its pastel pawns and anonymous cubes.
Thirdly, it’s less of a brain-burner than Pandemic and that’s a good thing. Not only are there fewer locations and thus less complexity about potential outcomes, but there are fewer loss conditions to track. It’s much easier to keep track of whether one of five different tiles has sunk than multiple tracks of terribleness and decks of cards.
Best of all, Forbidden Island‘s a quick game. It runs short enough that people will want to try again and again to get off the island safely, where longer co-op games can elicit groans at the notion of starting over after two hours of play. That’s how we got two games in after a ridiculously long game of something that shall not be named.