SDJ Buzz: Forbidden Island (plus review)

Forbidden Island - image by BGG user keebie

Nominee number two for the 2011 Spiel des Jahres award is Forbidden Island.  The game was designed by Pandemic creator and now three-time SDJ nominee Matt Leacock.  The game was originally published in the US by Gamewright, with the German edition published by Schmidt Spiele.  The game is for 2-4 players aged 10 and up (though it can probably be played and enjoyed by younger gamers) and takes around 30 minutes to play.  It’s a cooperative game where your team will be attempting to collect four treasures and escape an island before it sinks.  The game is essentially a more family friendly version of Pandemic with similar mechanics and a lighter theme.  And, since this is one I’ve actually played, I’m going to review it as well as tell you about it.

COMPONENTS: Here’s what you get in a game of Forbidden Island:

  • 28 Treasure Cards.  Included in this deck are 5 cards representing each of the four treasures you’re trying to collect, three “Waters Rise!” cards, 3 Helicopter Lift cards, and 2 sandbags.
  • 6 Adventurer Cards.  These tell the different roles that will be used in the game, and also provide a turn reference.
  • 24 Flood Cards.  Each is illustrated with a different location on the island.  Each corresponds to one of the island tiles.
  • 24 Island Tiles.  Each is illustrated with a different location on the island, though one side is underwater.  Eight of them are marked with treasure icons, and six are marked with adventurer icons.  They will
  • 6 Adventurer Pawns.  These represent the adventurers on the board.
  • 4 plastic treasure figurines.  These are used to show that you have collected certain treasures.
  • A water meter and a water level marker.

The components for this game are fanTAStic.  The big thing you hear when people talk about this game is their shock that such wonderful quality can be packed into a $15 game.  And I’m adding my voice to that.  The tiles are nice and solid, the art is wonderful, the plastic treasure pieces are very pretty to look at, the cards are of good quality, the pawns are…well, they’re pawns.  The only real component complaint that I have is with the water meter.  As the game progresses, the water level gets higher and higher, and if it reaches the top, you lose (as with outbreaks in Pandemic).  The meter itself is fine, but the little plastic piece that marks your progress on the meter does not slide very well.  It’s nice that it doesn’t easily get knocked out of position, but I can see some damage happening to the meter from using this little plastic marker.

Overall, the components get a solid A.  The game even comes in a nice tin.  Apparently the German edition comes in a regular cardboard box – wonder if that will sway the SDJ jury.

THEME: As I mentioned before, the theme of this game is much more family friendly than Pandemic.  Rather than trying to stop disease from destroying the world, you’re racing around an island trying to collect treasures.  The pressure is added because this island is sinking.  The theme of Pandemic is pretty intense because of its real world implications, but the theme of Forbidden Island is more like a fun movie.  I particularly like the addition of trying to get to the helicopter before the island sinks.  You can just imagine that last person racing frantically towards the chopper, the last treasure in their hand, while the others shout encouragement.  You can even imagine the helicopter pad falling away as that person leaps in the air, reaching out towards the outstretched hands of their compatriots, then being whisked away into the sunset as the last parts of the Forbidden Island sink beneath the sea.  While I like Pandemic’s theme a lot, I can’t deny that Forbidden Island adds that sense of a climax that Pandemic may have been lacking.

MECHANICS: As I’ve said, mechanically, this game is very similar to Pandemic.  Both are cooperative.  Both follow the same basic turn structure – take actions, draw cards, bad stuff happens (disease spreads versus the island sinks).  Both have only one way to win and several ways to lose.  For Forbidden Island, you win by collecting all four treasures, then escaping on the helicopter.  You lose if any player is stuck and unable to make it to the chopper, or if the helicopter pad sinks before everyone gets back to it, or if any treasure becomes unavailable because its locations have all sunk, or if the water level gets too high.  Both make use of variable player powers that help you to succeed.  Both have bad cards that will really screw your plans up (Epidemics versus Waters Rise).

On your turn, you have four options.  You can move orthogonally to an adjacent tile.  You can shore up a tile you are on or orthogonally adjacent to (meaning you flip it from its underwater side to its dry side).  You can give a card to a person on the same tile as you.  Or you can trade in four cards of the same type to collect that treasure when you’re standing on a tile marked with the appropriate icon.  You get to do three actions in a turn.  After taking your actions, you draw new cards into your hand, discarding any that would put you over the five card limit.  You then draw new flood cards based on the water level, flipping the indicated tiles to their underwater side.  If they were already on their underwater side, they are discarded.

If a Waters Rise card comes out when you’re drawing cards, you raise the water level one space, then shuffle all discarded flood cards and place them on top of the flood deck.  This is similar in badness to the Epidemic of Pandemic.

The mechanics of Forbidden Island are definitely simpler than in Pandemic.  I never though Pandemic was that difficult to understand, but Forbidden Island is even easier.  The four different styles of movement have been replaced by one in Pandemic – move to an adjacent tile.  You don’t have to worry about placing research stations all over the board.  The card collection has been simplified since you’re only looking at pictures on the cards rather than cities.  Outbreaks in Pandemic still have to be cleaned up – sunken tiles in Forbidden Island are just gone.  The special actions of Pandemic have been reduced to just two – use a helicopter to either leave the island or fly someone somewhere else, or use sandbags to shore up a tile at no cost of an action.  The Waters Rise cards takes out a step from the Epidemic (you’re not drawing a new card from the bottom of the deck), but they’re also just shuffled into the deck, rather than distributed evenly throughout.  I’ll talk a little more about that in the next part of this review.

So Forbidden Island is a little easier to understand and a little quicker to play than Pandemic.  The use of a modular board helps keep things variable from game to game.  The six included roles are all very helpful.  Everything works together very well to provide a quality experience.

STRATEGY VS. LUCK: Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, so players need to discuss their plan with each other.  Part of the simplification process of this game allowed for player’s hands to be visible to all so you can easily see what treasures are being collected.  Pandemic requires you to keep your cards secret, even though you can talk about them with everyone.  Having the cards visible means that you can better strategize.  While playing with kids, I can imagine that you’ll need to help them along in trying to figure out what should be done.  The strategy is fairly simple – keep key parts of the island from sinking long enough to collect all the treasures you need.  The movement rules, while simplified, take out some of the strategy.  You don’t need to figure out what cards to play when in order to move.  Your cards are solely kept for treasure collecting purposes.

At the same time, luck seems to play a big role.  The initial island setup could put you at a big disadvantage, especially if all adventurers are away from treasure sites, or if the helicopter pad is in a bad location.  Plus, the random distribution of Waters Rise cards makes it impossible to predict when bad things will happen.  The nice thing about Pandemic is that you know an epidemic is coming, and you know approximately where it is in the deck (it’s in a particular section of the cards, as stacked at the start).  With Forbidden Island, you could get three Waters Rise back-to-back-to-back.  You could also lose in the first turn, if the helicopter pad is already underwater and you draw a WR card followed by the sinking of the helicopter pad.  Not only this, but the WR cards get shuffled back into the deck once all treasure cards have been drawn.  In Pandemic, you know that once an epidemic comes out, it’s done.  With the WR cards, you could see them again.  The treasure cards you draw also adds luck, though admittedly that same amount of luck is in Pandemic.  The treasure deck here is just smaller.

THE WIFE FACTOR: My wife doesn’t really like the theme of Pandemic, it’s too intense for her.  Forbidden Island works much better, especially since she likes the treasure hunting theme.  It doesn’t hurt that we’ve won the game every time we’ve played (we haven’t played above normal mode yet).  Plus, she really likes games that are fairly quick, not too complex, and not in-your-face competitive.  This game fits all of those categories.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY?  Yes.  I think this game is a great nominee for the SDJ – I’m frankly a little surprised that more people weren’t expecting it.  It’s got a great combination of family friendliness, unique components, and engaging gameplay.  I’ve been saying for a while that Pandemic is a great gateway game.  If that’s so, then Forbidden Island is your gateway to the gateway.  It’s a wonderful introduction to cooperative games (and hobby games in general) and will surely grab the attention of non-gamers.  The fact that Gamewright has an in with big box stores means that Forbidden Island appears in stores where more people will find it.  And that’s a really good thing.

I’ll talk more about Forbidden Island’s chances when I get to my predictions.  Next time, however, nominee #3.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Well, since its so similar to Pandemic, I’ll stick with Pandemic. You say that the Pandemic theme is much more intense, but that’s the major reason why I like it; that intensity.

    • Absolutely. But for people who don’t really want to deal with that theme, Forbidden Island offers a nice alternative. I prefer Pandemic myself, but I think the theme of Forbidden Island is a lot easier to cope with.

  2. Forbidden Island and Pandemic are both great games, and different enough that I think both are worth playing. Although the basic mechanics are similar, I have family members who feel there’s just too much going on in Pandemic, and have a much easier and enjoyable time with Forbidden Island. It’s also usually a faster game than Pandemic so I’ll sometimes pull it out if I just want a really quick round when I don’t have a ton of time to play.

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