Play This Tonight

Lovingly curated game recommendations.

Forbidden Island

by Rebeca Hulme

Why I Love It.

As an artist, I am drawn to board games with beautiful illustrations or creative mechanisms.  I confess that I have fallen prey to "judging a game by its cover art" more times than I care to comfortably admit.  As a traveler and dreamer, I seek games that teleport me into a new place or encapsulate that feeling of discovery.  During this season of isolation, with clipped wings, I have regained a newfound respect for the collaborative tabletop game Forbidden Island and the way it perfectly merges these elements of creativity and exploration into a treasure-seeking adventure.

Forbidden Island is set on an island that, according to legend, belonged to an "ancient mystical empire known as the Archeans... the Archeans possessed the ability to control the Earth's core elements - fire, wind, water, and earth."  In order to protect these elemental treasures, the Archeans stowed them away on a secluded island that was designed to sink if anyone ever attempted to claim them.  Your mission, as a team, is to collect all four treasures and escape the island before you sink into a watery grave.  If that doesn't sound like a socially responsible adventure waiting to happen, I don't know what is!

Each turn, players can take up to three actions; they can move to an adjacent landmark tile on the island, "shore up" a flooded tile to prevent it from being washed away completely, give a treasure card to a teammate, or capture an element by safely delivering four matching treasure cards to the appropriate landmark.  Each elemental treasure has two corresponding landmarks, but your team must be wary that the flood waters don't wipe away any last chances for survival!  To conclude a turn, players draw two new cards from the treasure deck and then watch with horror as the flood waters slowly creep into new terrain - sending the next player into a frenzy of self (ahem... team) preservation.

In full disclosure, this game was not love at first sight.  My introduction to Forbidden Island came during an impromptu game night with some college friends when I was in the prime of my independence, and the slow pace of collaboration struck an unnatural chord.  However, the richness of C.B. Canga's artwork (and the eerie similarity between the illustrated Observatory tile and my fond memories of our campus observatory) was enough to convince me to add it to my shelf.  Over the years, I've even grown to enjoy the community building aspect of this game as players work together to make it off the island alive.

Observatory Card in the foreground with the game board in the background on a wooden table.

What Is It?

Let's talk about game mechanics.  Besides the artwork that deserves endless praise, Forbidden Island is a master at setting up unique player experiences with every game.  The island is created with 24 landmark tiles that are randomly placed at set-up, ensuring players always have a different path to success.  On top of that, each player is assigned a random adventurer ability: pilot, explorer, diver, navigator, messenger, or engineer.  As the Diver or Pilot, players have access to parts of the island that become estranged through flooding.  The Explorer, with his keen sense of adventure, has the ability to move diagonally rather than following the straight trails of other team members. While some of these roles may significantly increase your odds of escaping the island as a hero of history, players can still expect to be caught off guard by a number of other rapidly changing factors, such as the randomization of the treasure and flood decks and the sudden appearances of "Water Level Rises" cards.  These fateful cards make their show stopping appearance at the least opportune time - perhaps when you are trying to bail out your only means of escape or when you are frantically trekking across the island to claim a treasure from the last remaining collection spot - and unless you've been hoarding sandbags, they may mean losing another breathtaking landmark on the increasingly diminishing island.

A top down view of the entire gameboard with each of the main components on either side. Some of the tiles have been flipped over.

Your team dynamic also greatly influences your success rate, and open communication becomes crucial for survival.  Unlike some other cooperative games, this game is unique in its division of tasks and responsibilities.  For example, you may decide to collect the fire element while a teammate chases after the wind.   However, you aren't fighting an uphill battle alone, and mirroring the best versions of life, you are always invited to reach out to teammates for helping hands or to reevaluate shifting priorities.  The success or failure of a mission does not fall on one person's shoulders, and as someone who can become easily discouraged in situations where I'm not contributing equally, the ability to share that responsibility is comforting.

Your First Game.

Matt Leacock did a fantastic job mimicking the panic of rising water tables by flooding the island in stages.  When the low spots of the island begin sinking, you have the opportunity to rush into action saving as many landmarks from watery ruin as possible.  Each turn, as you draw flood cards corresponding to the number on the Water Level table, you flip over landmark tiles to show which areas are slowly filling with water.  At first, the flooding seems manageable.  You can hustle over to the landmark and "shore it up," rescuing it from complete oblivion for the time being.  Water is a force to reckon though, and parts of the island that were previously susceptible to flooding often become the first to completely disappear.   As game play progresses, the pace of flooding gains momentum.  You then have to make critical decisions about which tiles to save.  While you may decide to simply prioritize the treasure tiles and the Fool's Landing launch pad, you will quickly realize that you need a larger vision to be successful in this game.  Forbidden Island is a balance of priorities, communication, and action - all critical skills that can be transferred to real world situations.

A top down view of the components of the game. Includes the tiles, flood counter, player cards, and card deck.

Going Further.

Feel free to experiment with strategy.  Averaging 30 minutes, this game tends to run on the shorter side  for a collaborative game and offers the opportunity to put various tactics to the test without becoming overwhelming.  Explore different difficulty levels and player numbers.  Get lost in the artwork  - especially during this time when imagination and creativity have become such important coping mechanisms to many of us.  Forbidden Island is both a visually and mentally satisfying journey encouraging real life skill development.  If you're feeling inspired, venture into another kingdom created by Matt Leacock and C.B. Canga.  Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky endure constant comparison to Forbidden Island, and even though I cannot yet vouch for Matt Leacock's more recent games, you may decide to brave a step there on your own.

The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.

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