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Board Game Review: Forbidden Island

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We need more games like Forbidden Island. Every so often while my friends and I are playing Risk or Attack! or some other war game, I’ll jokingly ask, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

“This world isn’t big enough for all of us,” is one reply. Another is simply, “Because we have to kill each other.”

Though I am no enemy to some healthy competition, I must admit I’ve had one or two friendships ruined by Monopoly. Something takes over a player, greedily raking in the last few play-money dollars of a friend and demanding more until the friend is driven into bankruptcy and tears. Other competitive games aren’t quite so harsh, but the element of defeating an opponent can still cause problems. On a number of occasions, I’ve purposefully lost a game so the night isn’t ruined. Cooperative board games cure the threat of bruised egos.

The old HeroQuest had cooperative players, but they were still pitted against someone as the gamemaster (or “Zargon” for purists) sending monsters after them. Increasingly, the gaming market is coming up with cooperative games. Rather than pitting players against each other, creative gameplay dynamics have the players team up and fight the system. In Arkham Horror, players battle Lovecraft monsters and gods, trading weapons and items and casting spells to help one another. Pandemic has the players as specialists at the CDC fighting global outbreaks of disease. Both are great games, but they take hours to play.

Gamewright’s Forbidden Island, however, has a playtime of only thirty minutes. It’s fast-paced and doesn’t require understanding a 30+ page rulebook just to get started. Listed for two to four players ages 10 and up, the game is at the upper end of complexity for Gamewright, but still easily comprehensible for middle schoolers as well as entertaining for adults. Four difficulty levels allow a little breathing room (or lack thereof for the more daring).


Despite its ease, the game takes itself very seriously, almost to the point of an epic. The game's description paints a picture of a disappearing ancient island, telling players to "make some pulse-pounding maneuvers as the island will sink beneath every step! Race to collect the treasures and make a triumphant escape before you are swallowed into the watery abyss!" To further the appeal of adventure, Gamewright put together a teaser loaded with sound effects of thunder and helicopters and the majesty of "Dance Macabre." Gorgeous illustrations of exotic landscapes and quixotic ruins may be my favorite part.

Aside from outward aesthetics, the system is clever. Created by Matt Leacock (also creator of Pandemic, and the similarities can be seen in the gaming dynamic), winning depends upon cooperation and strategic thinking. The basic rules are simple, with player actions being to move, "shore up" a flooded tile, trade cards, or collect a treasure. Each player gets one of six character cards with specials tweaking those actions. As examples, the Engineer can shore up two tiles at a time, and the Navigator can give other players additional moves. Meanwhile, players compete against the system itself as the island constantly sinks around them, flooding and drowning tiles that may contain the treasures players need to win.

The game goes above and beyond with its "tile" board. Instead of being a stagnant map like most board games, the board is assembled afresh with every game. Tiles are laid out randomly in a cross pattern, meaning that sometimes the treasures may be close together and, other times, they might be spread out over a wide range. With differing character cards, the probability of two games being the exact same is astronomical. Each one requires new strategy and problem solving.

All in all, it's a great game. The only thing I can think to count against it is the Cave of Shadows tile when above water is colored similarly to how it looks when it is flooded, so players need to look at the title rather than the picture. If I have to nitpick like that to find anything wrong, that should tell you something about the game.


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About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.
  • Eric

    Forbidden Island is crazy fun. However, cooperative games, especially co-op games without a traitor like Forbidden Island, can give way to one strong-willed player bullying everyone else into doing what he thinks is best.

    That said, while not a panacea to game table drama, I’m excited by what the current co-op games have to offer.

  • http://www.boardgamereviewsbyjosh.com Josh

    I agree that this is a very good game. One of my favorite parts is that it is really playable by most anybody 10+ regardless of other gaming experience.