Game Buzz: Forbidden Desert

I don’t think anyone denies the place of Pandemic as one of the most important games in the cooperative genre, and potentially one of the top 5 most important board game releases of the last decade.  While it was certainly not the first cooperative game, it was definitely the one that ushered in the current era of cooperative games we’re living through.  In 2010, designer Matt Leacock and Gamewright came out with a more kid friendly version of the game called Forbidden Island.  It was cheap, had great components, gave the same feel of Pandemic, but had more family-friendly elements and more of a climactic finish.  Now, a new follow up is being released called

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Forbidden Desert is being released very soon by Gamewright Games (having already been released in Germany by Schmidt Spiele).  It’s a 2-5 player game that takes 45 minutes to play.  You’re attempting to excavate an ancient desert city to discover parts for a rumored flying machine powered by the sun.  However, there’s a huge sand storm that has disabled your helicopter, so you have to find all the pieces of the flying machine if you want any chance of escape.

In the game, you get 49 cards, 48 sand markers, 24 desert/city tiles, 6 wooden pawns, 6 meter clips, 4 flying machine parts, a sand storm meter and stand, as well as a flying machine model.  The tiles (desert side up) are dealt into a 5×5 grid with the central tile missing.  This hole represents the sand storm.  Eight sand markers are placed on the tiles in a diamond shape, light side up.  The sand storm meter is set to your desired difficulty level.  Each player gets an adventurer card which indicates your role and special power for the game:

  • Archeologist: Removes 2 sand markers from a single tile as an action.
  • Climber: Can move on to blocked tiles, and may take one other player with him when climbing.
  • Explorer: Can move, remove sand, and use Dune Blasters diagonally.
  • Meteorologist: May spend actions to draw fewer storm cards (1 per action) and may spend an action to look at the top storm cards, placing one at the bottom of the deck if desired.
  • Navigator: May move another player up to three unblocked tiles per action.
  • Water Carrier: Can take 2 water from already excavated wells for one action, and may give water to adjacent players for free.

Your matching pawn is placed on the helicopter crash site, which is shown on one of the desert tiles.  Also, you’ll mark your card with the amount of water you have (4 for most, 5 for the Water Carrier).

On your turn, you take up to four actions, then draw storm cards equal to the Sand Storm level.  Your action choices are to move, remove sand, excavate, or pick up a part.

MOVE: Move one tile orthogonally.  Only the Explorer can move diagonally.  You cannot move through a tile that has 2+ sand markers on it – this tile is blocked.  You also can’t move through the sand storm space.  You can, however, move between unblocked tunnel tiles for just one action.

REMOVE SAND: For each action you spend, remove one sand marker from the tile you stand on or an orthogonally adjacent tile.  It is possible that you will become buried under sand, that is, be on a tile that gets too much sand.  In this case, you have to dig out before you can do anything else.

EXCAVATE: If there are no sand markers on the tile you stand on, you may excavate it (flip it over).  You then follow the instructions of the tile – gain water, draw an equipment card, or discover a clue to the location of a machine part.  Each part has two tiles that point to it – one for the row, one for the column.  You could also find tunnels or the launch pad – you have to all be on the launch pad to escape.

PICK UP A PART: If you land on a space that has been revealed to be the location of a part (you will have placed the part on the tile), you claim it for an action.

You may also share water and pass equipment to another player on your tile.  This is a free action.

Once you have taken your four actions, you must activate the sand storm.  Draw as many cards as the current sand storm level.  This could blow tiles towards the hole, adding sand to them.  This moves the hole around the board.  There are also three Storm Picks Up cards in the deck.  In this case, you move the Sand Storm meter up a tick.  Additionally, there are four Sun Beats Down cards, which causes everyone not in a tunnel or protect by a Solar Shield to lose one water.

You win if all four ship parts are collected, and the ENTIRE party makes it to the launch pad.  You lose if any player runs out of water, or if the Sand Storm meter gets too high, or if you don’t have enough sand to add to the board.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about this.  I couldn’t imagine how it wouldn’t just be a rethemed version of Forbidden Island.  But I think I have to stand up and applaud Mr. Leacock for once again coming up with a game that is familiar, yet seems completely different.  It is similar to its brother Forbidden Island (and father Pandemic) in that is cooperative, has the same action point system, special role powers, and amps up the difficulty as you move through the game.  However, it differs from those two in a couple of ways.  First, FI and Pandemic were both location based – disease would infect specific locations in Pandemic, and water would submerge the tiles in Forbidden Island.  Here, it’s much more fluid and unpredictable – the sand storm could move in any direction.  There’s not outbreaks or lost tiles as in the others, but you could end up with a big stack of sand on an important tile and will have to spend lots of time trying to get it down.

I find the narrative arc here to be very compelling.  Pandemic suffered a bit from a sort of anti-climax at the end, which Forbidden Island fixed by adding a race to the helicopter pad.  Forbidden Desert, I think, has the best overall story running through the whole game.  You’ve crashed, you have to find these machine parts, a sand storm is trying to kill you, AND you still have the race to the launch pad.  While I love the intensity of Pandemic’s theme, and think Forbidden Island can be tremendously exciting, I think this one makes the most sense for what you’re doing.  There’s no collecting sets of cards – you’re just trying to hunt down what you need, and using equipment and your roles will be VERY important.

I must say that I’m much more excited about this after reading more about the game.  It’s not just another rehash of the system, it’s its own game, and I really respect that.  I’m excited to hear how people like it, and think I’ll have to seek it out myself.  Thanks for reading!




  1. Looking forward to this! My wife’s first foray into board gaming was Pandemic and she loved it. This might also do the trick to keep her interested in the hobby. Thanks for the preview!

    • Thanks! One thing that I think Forbidden Island did really well was provide a gateway to learning about cooperative games that was entertaining for all ages…I have some friends with kids that always want to play it, and one who is just as delighted when they die horribly as when they win. Forbidden Desert looks like it retains the same sensibilities while providing a different experience, and maybe even a step up in complexity. We’ll have to see…I’m also looking forward to it!

  2. I watched the Tabletop of Forbidden Island the other day and was surprised at how it’s just Pandemic. Seriously. It’s the same game. I can’t think of any reason why I would buy Forbidden Island if I already have Pandemic. Do you think Forbidden Desert is different enough that it warrants owning both?

    • If you’re happy with Pandemic, then no, you don’t need Forbidden Island. The biggest draws to having Forbidden Island are the more kid-friendly theme and gameplay, and the more climactic ending. Forbidden Desert seems like it might be different – you’re not collecting cards, but are rather trying to discover the location – but again, if you’re satisfied with Pandemic, then that’s probably the one to stick with.

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