Review by: Grant Rodiek
You can read my review policy here.
Quick Notes: I’m reviewing three cooperative games, all designed by Matt Leacock, so stick with me and follow along.
Forbidden Island is a game for 2-4 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside 30 minutes to play. I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 8 times.
Pandemic is a game for 2-4 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside an hour to play, though honestly, you might fail far more quickly. In that case, get ready to play again to make the most of that hour! I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 10 times.
Forbidden Desert is a game for 2-5 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside 30 minutes to play. I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 6 times.
Something you might not know is that the designer, Matt Leacock, is an interface designer for his day job. He is a master of how people interact with devices, software, and each other, so it should come as no surprise that his rules are masterfully written. The game’s are beautifully easy to learn, but tough to master. Pandemic’s rules are especially inspirational to me as a designer. His diagrams leave nothing unclear. I’d really love to know how much of that was his influence and how much the publisher’s.
Clean, easy to read rules.
All three games scale incredibly well, though as a general rule, with only 2 players they are a smidge easy, and with 4 or 5 players a smidge difficult. The sweet spot is in that 3-4 player zone. What I love is that all come with pre-defined difficulty levels and even then, the games are beautifully tuned such that you will always barely win or lose quite dramatically. It adds a great deal of tension. Think of Leacock’s experiences as Indiana Jones just barely sliding under the door to grab his hat. It’s a close call every time.
The Review (in 3 parts)
Note: I left my copy of Forbidden Island at my house in Napa, so I’m borrowing pictures for it. Sorry!
Forbidden Island: One must learn to walk before they run, and run you shall do, because the island is sinking, the world is coated in a layer of schmegle and disease, and the desert twisters are a twistin’.
Forbidden Island is the simplest of the three games and the cheapest at a mere $15, so it makes sense that this is our first port of call. But oh, what a lousy port! At the start, our heroes find themselves on an island that is sinking. That’s bad. But, there’s treasure! That’s good.
On their turns, players will optimize their actions to do things like move through the island, trade cards with nearby teammates, shore up the island to offset its perpetual sinking nature, and if you have the right cards, pick up the treasure. There are four different ones you must obtain and they are lovely. Gamewright does NOT mess around.
Then, you draw treasure cards. These are used to trade and pick up the treasures, though you must hold them within a strict hand limit. Gah! Do I discard the red to focus on yellow? Choices, choices. You might also get some sandbags, which let you shore up an island tile for free or a helicopter, which can whisk you around the island quickly.
You might also draw a card that forces the water to rise. We’ll get to that in a second.
Unfortunately, after every delightful jaunt through the island, you must take your medicine. Your medicine in this case is the salty froth of the ocean. Based on the current water level, you draw a number of cards that dictate which island tiles flip to their flooded sign, or if already flooded, be removed from the board entirely.
This is not good. This is also part of the genius of the game. Remember the water rising card? These force you to draw more cards every turn, which means more of the island floods every turn. You must also reshuffle the already played cards to the top of the deck, which means the most flooded part of the island will get more flooded. Flooderer? The floodest.
When it rains on the island, it pours. Well, it seems rather sunny to be honest, but the waves are dreadful. Luckily, every player has a special character card which grants them a single game-breaking ability. Using these with your friends is key to winning the game. If you manage to capture all four treasures and get to the helicopter pad without dying, you win.
Goodbye island! So long! Enjoy your treasures, lads and lasses! Our adventurers will return in Forbidden Desert’s review.
Pandemic: I’d caution you to not beat up on Forbidden Island too much. One, because bullying is bad, but two, he has a much bigger brother who spends a lot of time at the gym. It seems this exposure to unclean metal and sweaty seats has made the brother sick. Bring hand sanitizer!
In Pandemic, you are a team of emergency specialists trying to save the world from killer diseases. You are the heroes of the CDC, Doctors without Borders, and other organizations that heal.
If you like Forbidden Island, you’ll love Pandemic. The two games are very similar in that you are leveraging your characters’ abilities, carefully choosing which actions, like traveling around the world, curing illness (instead of preventing sinking), and trading cards to ultimately cure the diseases.
Again, like Forbidden Island, you will draw cards that dictate where new diseases are added and when things get much worse. Over time there will be more cubes, you’ll pull more cards, and best of all, there’s a really clever chain reaction mechanic. Let’s say Paris is full of disease, and why wouldn’t it be? If a new disease cube must be added, every city connected to Paris takes on a “bonus” disease cube. And if those new cities are also full? Another chain reaction. Every time a chain reaction occurs, you move one step closer to failure and global obliteration.
Paris is about to chain react…
I have the first edition of the game, which in my opinion has an absolutely beautiful aesthetic and feel. Wooden cubes and a variety of soft colors really give it a classic aesthetic that I love. The newest printing BLUE is fine, BLUE, but I feel it’s a bit BLUE monochromatic. But, if you want to go deeper down the trail of disease, you’ll need this new version to play expansions, as the 1st edition and new expansions aren’t compatible without a compatibility kit. Lame! Also, BLUE.
You can find Pandemic in Target, Toys ‘R Us, Barnes and Noble, or online for a very fair price.
Forbidden Desert: When we last saw them, our adventurers were flying in a helicopter towards, I presume, a museum, with their four priceless treasures aboard. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn the lessons of the Carter administration and flew over a desert with a helicopter (Killer Carter Administration slam!). It seems our fair crew has crashed and must now escape the desert with their lives.
Where Forbidden Island and Pandemic come from the same parents, Forbidden Desert is the roguish cousin that arrives at the reunion 2 hours late, with a big tattoo, on a *gasp* motorcycle. He’s from that side of the family.
I imagine Forbidden Island sold like the hottest of cakes, because Forbidden Desert is more unique, more difficult, a little more complex, and the production values are turned to a very sandy 11. You can tell its intended for an army of fans who have graduated and want more. I just hope I create a game one day with the production values seen here.
Your goal is to find all 4 parts to an ancient airship, construct it, and fly it out of the desert to safety (or to crash in the next Gamewright title?). You must do this before the storm becomes too great, the sand dunes overwhelm you, or one of you dies of thirst.
Whereas the island disappears, in the desert, sand piles up, which prevents you from accessing the delightful parts beneath the surface until you clean enough sand. You can now excavate and flip over tiles to reveal powerful gadgets, like the jetpack, sun shield, or dustblower, tunnels, that protect you from the sun and help you travel quickly, water to refill your canteens, or the tiles that tell you where to find the airship parts.
You see, it’s not a matter of simply flipping over a tile that says “here’s the propeller!” No, you need to find the tiles that tell you the vertical and horizontal coordinates of the propeller. Then, you need to clear the space of sand and excavate the part. And one more thing — the desert is alive. The island sinks out from under you, but the desert tiles are constantly moving. That’s right! They move, shift, change the surface, all the while adding more sand.
Notice how the red piece (bottom right) was located by the vertical and horizontal arrow tiles.
This. Is. Awesome. It’s brilliant, so easy to understand, and adds more life to the game than its predecessors. Forbidden Desert is Matt Leacock’s best cooperative work. The fact that it plays up to 5 really packs an additional challenge into the experience.
We draw a card that tells us to move 2 tiles downwards…
…so we shifted 2 tiles downwards towards the center and added sand.
Forbidden Desert also stands out for tossing aside the set collection mechanic and putting a greater emphasis on the tools you find. When do you use it? Now? Or later. These elements really freshen the experience and help it stand out.
Considering the awesome bits that come inside the box, it’s a steal at the price.
Conclusion: I love all three of these games and have no reason to push them out of my collection ever. All three are fantastic gateway games to share with non-gamers or family members. All three provide a ridiculous value for the price and have simply outstanding components.
In all three, you, the players, get to go toe-to-toe against the unthinking, unfeeling cardboard robot Mr. Leacock has ingeniously devised. They present a puzzle-like quandary that is surprising, tense, and thrilling, and quite frankly, evil.
If I had to pick one as a starting point, I first need to ask what you want from the experience. If you’re new to games or just want to dip your toes into the cooperative pools, I heartily recommend Forbidden Island. It’s $15! You can set it up, teach it, and play a game in well under 40 minutes.
Character cards. Notice the canteen level on the left.
However, if you are a little more experienced (not much more, really), I have to recommend Forbidden Desert. The game is so reasonably priced for its gorgeous components and just so unique and special. I feel the mechanics allow for greater replayability than the other titles, and the addition of a fifth player means more can enjoy this sometimes brutal game. Hey, if you’re gonna die, die together, right?
Really, you can’t go wrong here. All three get a resounding thumbs up from me.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.