Buzzworthiness: Forbidden Desert

 Matt Leacock’s 2008 game Pandemic brought on a revolution in cooperative games.  In 2010, Forbidden Island took the system, streamlined it, and made it more accessible for families.  Now, we have

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

Forbidden Desert is a 2013 cooperative game from designer Matt Leacock and publisher Gamewright.  It’s for 2-5 players, and takes around 45 minutes to play.  The idea is that you and a team of adventurers have heard about this ancient flying machine that is buried somewhere out in the desert, and you’re on your way to find it.  Unfortunately, your helicopter crashes due to a humongous and completely unexpected sand storm.  Now your only chance of survival is to find the flying machine, assemble it, and fly away before you get buried in sand or die of thirst.

In the beginning, 24 square tiles are laid out in a 5×5 grid, each showing a bit of the desert.  An empty space in the middle represents the storm, and sand pieces (a cardboard X) are arranged in a diamond shape around it (one sand per tile).  Players start on the helicopter crash site.  Each player has a different role with a different special ability.  On your turn, you can take four actions.  Actions include moving to an orthogonally adjacent space, clearing one sand tile from an adjacent space or the space you’re on, flipping over (excavate) the tile you’re standing on as long as there’s no sand on it, or picking up a part of the flying machine.  If you excavate, you could find a piece of equipment that will help you down the road.  You could also find a clue as to where one of the parts is located.  These show arrows pointing horizontally or vertically.  When both revealed, the two areas point to the space where the part can be picked up.

At the end of your turn, you reveal as many storm cards as the current storm level.  Most of the cards tell you where the storm moves (which could be into the edge, at which point it stops).  If you draw a Storm Picks Up card, you move the storm tracker up one tick mark.  If you draw a Sun Beats Down card, everyone’s water goes down one space, unless they are standing in a tunnel or are protecting themselves with a solar shield.

Once you have collected all four parts to the flying machine, everyone needs to book it to the launchpad.  If everyone makes it, you are able to put the ship together and fly away.  If anyone dies of thirst, or if you run out of sand tiles, or if the storm tracker makes it to the top, you lose.

COMPONENTS: As with Forbidden Desert, the components in this game are outstanding.  The tiles are nicely thick with great art.  The cards are nice quality.  The sand tiles are darker with an X on the side you use when the tile becomes blocked (two or more sand).  The plastic pieces that make up the airship are very nice and fit together well (though I have heard that you need to be careful with the propellor).  The storm tracker comes with a stand, and there are little plastic needles that track the storm as well as everyone’s water levels.  The game also comes in a nice tin, which is more square than the original Forbidden Island tin.

If you look at the tiles, there is a compass rose on all of them.  This compass rose is also present on the storm cards so you know which way the storm is heading.  It’s a pretty clever solution to the problem of orientation.

I should note that, while I do not own a copy of this game myself, I have played with two different friends’ sets.  One friend had some issues with the sand tiles – there were places on some of them where it looked like the stickers had been peeled away.  The other friend had no problems.  If you do find an issue in your game, let Gamewright know, and I’m sure they’ll send you some new tiles.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about their customer service.

THEME: One of the big strengths of Forbidden Island was its narrative arc.  In Pandemic, which has a strong theme, there can be a kind of anti-climactic ending because you win as soon as the fourth cure is discovered.  In Forbidden Island, the ending becomes much more exciting as you have to run for the helicopter once all treasures are collected.  Forbidden Desert actually improves on that by having more of a reason for being there.  In Pandemic, you know you’re fighting disease, but you never really know how four diseases started all over the world at once.  In Forbidden Island, you know you’re looking for treasures on a sinking island, but there’s not much of a reason why you’re there at that particular moment.  With Forbidden Desert, you were out looking for the flying machine when a freak sandstorm brought you down, and now you have to find the flying machine to escape.  It makes the overall narrative experience more cohesive, and still has the exciting ending of running for the launchpad.  And someday, I will actually reach that ending (I’m currently 0-4 in the game, with someone dying of thirst every time).

MECHANICS: Unlike Pandemic and Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert is not a set collection game.  It is more of an exploration game as you are looking for parts in this raging sandstorm.  It has the same four action structure, followed by bad stuff happening.  But instead of flipping tiles or adding cubes to places, the bad stuff here comes in the form of the sandstorm moving around.  As the hole moves around the playing area, sand is left in its wake.  But this doesn’t eliminate tiles like in Forbidden Island – just makes places unpassable.  This is the artificial intelligence of the game, and its unpredictability makes the game very difficult.

The biggest problem players have in this game is the water.  If you run out of water, you die and everyone loses, so it’s important to keep an eye on that.  As I mentioned, I have never won, and someone has died of thirst in every game I’ve played.  The water carrier then becomes one of the most important people to have in the game as they are the only ones who can draw from the oasis once it has been revealed.  They can also pass water on to other players in adjacent tiles.  The other roles have their own abilities that help you out – the archaeologist can remove two sand at a time, the climber can cross blocked tiles, the explorer can do actions with diagonally adjacent tiles, the meteorologist can peek at storm cards and spend actions to draw fewer, and the navigator can move another player up to three spaces – but the water carrier is the one I think is essential.   Not that I’ve won WITH it…but I also haven’t won WITHOUT it, and WITH it has been closer.

The method of finding parts is a pretty interesting aspect of the game.  When you flip a clue tile, say for the propellor, it will show arrows either pointing horizontally or vertically.  When both clues for a part are revealed, you will know exactly where the part is.  As opposed to Forbidden Island, where the treasures could be picked up in one of two set locations, the parts will pop up in unexpected places and will move with the shifting sands of the desert.  Other tiles you could encounter are oases (where you get water, though one of the three oases is dry); tunnels (which can be used as shelter from the storm and to move across the board); and equipment tiles (where you get to draw an equipment card that will help you in the game).

As with Forbidden Island, the actions a player must take are very simple to understand.  The trick is figuring out their sequence.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Because of the shifting board, this game has lots of tactical decisions.  You need to try to determine what sand needs to be cleared, where to head next, how you want to use the oases or tunnels, and when to use your equipment/special abilities.  I think I’m finding that it’s better to stick together – every time someone has died of thirst, they were separated from the pack and no one could give them water (by the way, you can give water to someone on your tile – this was a rule I missed the first few times I played).  So stick together, talk through your choices, and maybe you’ll have a chance.  There’s a lot of luck in play in the game, but you can give yourself the best possible chance.

ACCESSIBILITY: Forbidden Island was a very light cooperative game that could easily be played by families, especially children.  Forbidden Island is much more complex, and more of a next step type of game.  I won’t say that it’s the heaviest coop out there, but it is more complexity than its predecessor.

REPLAYABILITY: The shifting board means that the game is going to be different every time.  Plus, there are four levels of difficulty (and I’ve played on novice every time so far).  It’s a tough game, but it is highly replayable.

SCALABILITY: The game plays from 2-5 (and probably 1 as well).  I’ve only played with 4 and 5 so far, and I suspect the game is a little easier with fewer players.  The reason for that is simply that players don’t have to wait as long between turns to move around and try to get to certain locations.  If you’re in the wrong spot in a 5 player game, you could be dead before you get another turn.  That’s just my thought – all I know is that 4 and 5 players is pretty tough, even on novice mode.

FOOTPRINT: This game doesn’t take up a whole lot of table space.  You need room for the 5×5 tile grid, but you don’t really need space for anything else.  Unlike Forbidden Island, where players have cards on the table in front of them the whole time, you only have to keep track of equipment cards here.  The box is bigger than the Forbidden Island box, but it is a fairly small game overall.

LEGACY: I’ve been comparing Forbidden Desert to Pandemic and Forbidden Island this whole time.  I think it’s remarkable that the game took the familiar mechanisms from those two games and came up with a game that feels completely different.  I don’t know that I prefer it to Pandemic, but I do think I prefer it to Forbidden Island at this point.  And I really like Forbidden Island.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Absolutely.  Matt Leacock and Gamewright have another great game on their hands.  I would definitely check this out, especially if you know people who are looking for a little more after Forbidden Island.  Thanks for reading!



  1. Well said. I got hooked on Forbidden Desert a few months ago and played the heck out of it (mostly with 4 players). I would say that it offers a lot more than Forbidden Island, and it’s my go-to cooperative game if I’m teaching people who are new to that genre of games. I actually tried to see if Matt would be interested in designing a coop spinoff for Euphoria, but he wasn’t interested. 🙂

    • The cooperative aspect is pretty strong if just for the water. Every time someone dies in our games, someone invariably asks if we can just bury them in the desert and keep looking. But no – we all survive, or we all die. Thanks for the comment, Jamey!

      • Ha ha…I don’t know if Matt intended that or not, but we do the same thing! It always provides a dramatic moment when the person, dry mouthed and stumbling through the sands, uses his last breath to tell the rest of us to go on without them. We actually won our first game after 4 of the 5 players had died of thirst, and we all helped the one remaining person to win, which still felt like a victory for all of us.

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