Forbidden Island is our first example of a kind of game that generally has people split: the cooperative game. In co-op games, the players are pitted against the rules of the board. There’s no winner; either everyone wins together or everyone loses. Some people really enjoy the genre, others are quite against it, and more don’t really ‘get’ that it’s a thing that exists since cooperative games have only recently been growing in popularity. We both like this kind of game but Steffanie especially prefers being able to enjoy a gaming experience without the pressure of having to try to beat other players.
In Forbidden Island, the players are explorers who’ve landed on a mysterious island in search of fabled treasures. Your goal is to get those treasures and get off the island, but you have to be fast–the island is sinking out from under you!
Each game is slightly different, as the island is made up of tiles that are dealt out at random; the tiles are flipped between “normal” and “flooding,” and get removed completely if the ocean overwhelms them. There’s a deck of island cards with one card representing each of the tiles. At the start of the game, some island cards are flipped up and those tiles are flipped to “flooding.” If an island card is drawn for an already-flooded tile, then both the tile and the card are returned to the box, leaving you both with less space to move and with fewer cards in the island deck, making it more likely that later tiles will sink.
Each player gets a different role with a special ability, but aside from that, the turn sequence is fairly simple. A player gets three actions, which can be to move from one tile to an adjacent one, to flip their tile or an adjacent one from “flooding” back to “normal,” to hand one of their cards to a player on the same tile, or to turn in four cards at a color of temple to get that treasure. The maximum hand size is five, which ends up being a large part of the difficulty; you can’t work on multiple sets at once, and it’s time-consuming to transfer cards between players in a game where time is your enemy.
After a player goes, it’s the game’s turn. The player is dealt two player cards. If you’re lucky, both of them are treasures or helpful cards. If you’re unlucky, one (or in rare and extra-unlucky cases, both) will be a Waters Rise card. When the Waters Rise, you increase the Waters Rise meter, causing there to be more cards played from the Island deck, and then reshuffles the Island discards and puts them back on top—if you haven’t fixed those tiles, you’re risking losing them now! Whether or not the waters rose, you then deal out a number of cards equal to the Waters Rise meter from the Island deck (between two and five, depending on your chosen difficulty and how many times it has increased), and either flip or remove those tiles, depending on whether or not they were already flooded.
It’s nearly impossible (and quickly becomes strictly impossible) to keep up with the rate of the island flooding. Fortunately, that’s not your actual goal. You win by collecting all four treasures, getting all players to Fool’s Landing (a helicopter pad), and playing Helicopter Lift to escape. You lose if any of these become impossible: if both temples of one color sink before you get that treasure, if any player drowns, or if Fool’s Landing sinks. You also lose if, as mentioned earlier, the Waters Rise meter reaches the top.
For some reason, possibly its small size, Forbidden Island’s card deck seems particularly spiteful. Like many co-op games, it can go from “under control” to “we’re all doomed” in a single turn, but Forbidden Island has a frustrating tendency to not just do that, but do it multiple times per game. Part of what contributes to this is the distribution of the Waters Rise cards; in genre-cornerstone Pandemic and many of its imitators, this kind of card, the one that accelerates the rate at which you lose, is divided more or less evenly in the deck — say, one somewhere in each quarter if there are four, and the deck is never reshuffled, but in Forbidden Island, it’s completely random and has a nasty tendency to come back in a deck that’s perilously thin because players are holding on to cards in later shuffles.
The game can get tense, especially in the late game, but at the same time, it’s a fun kind of tense, with the players madly scrambling about to get the cards to the right people and places to claim the treasures. It is very similar to Forbidden Desert, Pandemic, and several other games, but Forbidden Island is probably the shortest of the lot with some of the simplest rules, so if you think this style of game might be your cup of tea, this is a good one to start out with.