Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Holidaying With Canute

One of the most hotly anticipated games of late is Forbidden Island from Game Wright  anticipated because it has been designed by Matt Leacock, the highly regarded designer of the equally highly regarded co-operative board game, Pandemic. For fans of that board game’s desperate attempt to stave off the spread of four deadly diseases, the news is good. Forbidden Island is another co-operative board game, another desperate race against time rather than your fellow players, and another tense, taut playing experience. The enemy are not four deadly diseases, but the rising tides that ebb and flow, threatening to sink the island before a band of plucky explorers can land, rescue its hidden treasures, and get back to safety...

This is a game designed for two to four players, aged ten and up that can be completed in under thirty minutes. It is easy to learn – for our first game we got everything out and were playing in five minutes – and fans of the designer’s classic Pandemic will recognise certain similarities.

The first thing that strikes you about Forbidden Island is that it comes in a tin. Inside the deep tin can be found fifty-eight cards, twenty-four Island Tiles, six wooden pawns, four Treasure pieces, a Water Meter, a Water Level Marker, and an eight page Rules Booklet. The cards are divided between a twenty-eight Treasure Card deck, a twenty-four Flood Card deck, and six Adventurer cards. The red-backed Treasure Cards are divided between depictions of the game’s four Treasures, Waters Rise! cards, and various special cards. Each of the cards in the Flood Deck corresponds to one of the twenty-four Island Tiles. These Island Tiles depict locations such as Breakers Bridge, the Cliffs of Abandon, the Coral Palace, and Fools’ Landing, where the helipad is located. Each Island Tile is double-sided, showing a location in full, fantastic colour on one side, and a pale version with a blue wash on the reverse. When this pale version is face up, it indicates that the location is flooded and is in danger of sinking.

The six Adventurer cards each double as a quick reference card and each has a special ability. For example, as the Messenger a player can give a Treasure Card to another player anywhere on the island, while the Engineer can shore up two adjacent flooded Island Tiles instead of one as an action.

The Water Meter shows Forbidden Island’s rising waters in terms of the number of Island Tiles that are flipped over at the end of each player’s turn, from two rising up to five. A marker is clipped onto the Water Meter, and this marker will rise up the Meter and through the numbers until it hits the skull and crossbones at the top. When this happens, the game is over. The marker only rises when a Waters Rise! is drawn at the end of a player’s turn. There are just three of these cards in the Treasure Deck, but as the game proceeds, the players will exhaust and reshuffle the Treasure Deck several times.

Lastly, there are the four Treasures. Each of these – the Earth Stone, the Statue of the Wind, the Crystal of Fire, and the Ocean’s Chalice – is done in very tactile and appropriate plastic. For example, the Crystal of Fire is done in translucent flame red plastic.

To set up a game of Forbidden Island, the Island Tiles are laid out face up in a roughly crossed shape pattern, one each of the Treasures is placed at a corner of the island, and each player receives two Treasure Cards and an Explorer Card. Their corresponding pawns are placed on the marked Island Tiles. The top six cards from the Flood Deck are drawn and turned over to form the Flood Discard Pile, with each of the Island Tiles that correspond to the cards drawn being turned over to show their flooded side. Lastly, the marker is set on the Water Meter at a starting point that ranges from Novice up to Legendary. The higher the starting point on the Water Meter the closer the marker is to the skull and crossbones and the game ending in failure.

On his turn a player can take just three actions. He can move orthogonally – up, down, left, or right, but not diagonally (unless he is the Explorer) – to an adjacent Island Tile; he can shore an orthogonally adjacent flooded Island Tile or the flooded Island Tile that he is on – this flips the tile over so that it shows its non flooded side; he can give a Treasure Card to a player if they are on the same Island Tile; or he can capture one of the four Treasures by discarding four matching Treasure Cards on one of the two Island Tiles where that Treasure can be found. Doing any of these takes one action.

At the end of his turn a player draws two more Treasure Cards, with the maximum he is allowed to have in his hand being five. He also draws a number of Flood Cards as indicated on the Water Meter. For each Flood Card drawn, the corresponding Island Tile is flipped over. If the Island Tile has already been flipped and shows its Flooded side face up, it sinks into the abyss and creates a watery chasm that cannot be crossed – unless you are playing the Diver. Both this Island Tile and its Flood Card are removed from play. Any player caught on an Island Tile lost this way immediately swims to an adjacent Island Tile.

If a Waters Rise! card is drawn from the Treasure Deck, the marker is raised by one notch on the Water Meter. Over time this will increase the number of Flood Cards drawn at the end of each turn. The Flood Discard Pile is shuffled, put back on top of the Flood Pile, and Flood Cards are drawn as normal.
So how do you win a game of Forbidden Island? Simply by collecting all four of the Treasures, getting every player to the Fools’ Landing Island Tile, and then using a Helicopter Life card – one of the few special cards from the Treasure Deck – to get everyone off the island. The point is, everyone wins.

So, one way to win then, how do you lose? By lots of ways. If both of the Island Tiles where a Treasure can found are lost to the abyss or if the Fools’ Landing Island Tile sinks, preventing everyone from getting off Forbidden Island. If an Island Tile sinks and a player cannot swim to an adjacent Island Tile or if the marker on the Water Meter reaches the skull and crossbones. The point is, everyone loses.

The time between a game starts and when it ends – either with a win or a loss, a player will be very busy. Primarily, he will be rushing around Forbidden Island to shore up Island Tile after Island Tile, the danger being that if too many Island Tiles are lost to the watery abyss it restricts everyone’s movement and reduces the number of Island Tiles where the Treasures can be found. Secondly, he will be collecting Treasure Cards enough to collect one or more of the Treasures. In between all of this, his fellow players will be advising and suggesting on his best course of action, usually based upon the special ability granted to the player by his Adventurer Card or where a player needs to get to in order give a Treasure Card to another player or to receive a Treasure Card from player in his turn.

I found a demo copy of Forbidden Island at UK Games Expo ’10 – where it would in an award for Best Family Game – this last month and rounding up three other players, cracked open the game, and was playing in five minutes. We lost. On Novice level. On the second try, we won. I resolved to purchase a copy the following day when it was launched. In discussing the game, we agreed that the game felt very much like Pandemic, the comparisons being impossible not to draw. It has the same strong co-operative play element; it has the same deck refreshing element that sees the same cards appearing again and again – but on Forbidden Island they are Flood Cards rather than Infection Cards as in Pandemic; and it has same tense atmosphere in play as the players try to stave off the rising waters. It also feels like a scaled down Pandemic, with a player having three actions per turn rather than four and having to collect four Treasure Cards per Treasure rather than five City Cards per disease as in Pandemic.

Yet despite the tense nature of the game play, Forbidden Island is not as doom laden. Its theme is more upbeat, more adventurous, and without the fate of the world being at stake. With its excellent artwork and the fantastic nature of the names given to the Island Tiles, Forbidden Island is more like playing a desperate adventure movie.

If there is an issue with Forbidden Island, it is in that having played Pandemic, the comparisons leave you slightly dissatisfied. This is due to this new game not having quite the same depth of play that Pandemic offers, making Forbidden Island not quite as appealing to the dedicated games player. For all its scaling down and simpler rules, Forbidden Island is not necessarily easy to win, and the dedicated games player should consider adjusting the starting difficulty upwards to Elite or Legendary. To be fair though, Forbidden Island is not Pandemic and is not meant to be a replacement or a variant, instead being a family game that can enjoyed by younger players and serious gamers alike. In fact, it actually serves as a fantastic introduction to the concept of the co-operative play. That it plays in a similar fashion just shows us how good the underlying mechanics are in Forbidden Island’s older and more polished, more intricate forebear.

Which all means that Forbidden Island is not just another fine entry to the growing family of co-operative board games, but an excellent introduction to that family. As an introduction to co-operative game play and as a family game, Forbidden Island is clever, sophisticated, and a great new gateway game into the hobby.