Fear Is the Mind-Killer: A Review of Forbidden Desert

By FirestoneThe storm is relentless—making movement, visibility, and clear thought impossible. The water is nearly gone, but so are you. You decide to drain the last of it, but just before you put the bottle to your cracked lips you see a dark outline through the sandstorm. A cave!

Forbidden Desert is the follow-up to Matt Leacock's hit cooperative game Forbidden Island. Is it just the same game with a new setting? Or is there something more to explore here...?

The Overview

Your team has been sent to excavate a wonderful flying machine from the sands of the desert. But your helicopter makes a crash landing in a storm. Your only hope is to find the pieces of the machine, and fly it to safety.

The Components

31 Storm cards

12 Equipment cards

6 Adventurer cards

48 Sand markers

24 double-sided city/desert tiles

6 wooden pawns

6 Water Meter clips

1 Flying machine model

4 Parts for the Flying Machine: Propeller, Engine, Solar Crystal, and the Navigation Deck

1 Sand Storm meter and stand

The Setup

DesertExplorer

You'll randomly set out the 24 tiles with the desert side up, in a 5 x 5 Grid. Leave the center spot open, as that's the Storm that'll be kicking your butt throughout the game. Then you'll place out 8 Sand markers onto the board in a certain pattern (check out the pic). Each sand marker has two sides—a light and a dark with an X on it; make sure these are on the light side. Assemble the Sand Storm meter and place the clip on your starting level. There are different tics for how difficult you'd like to make it. Then separate and shuffle the cards into the Storm deck (with red backs), Equipment deck (with gears on them), and the Adventurer cards. Place the Storm deck so that the compass is facing away from the board to indicate North. Then randomly deal out an Adventurer card to each player (or you could decide to pick roles), and then get the matching pawn and put it on the crash site tile on the Grid. You'll also get a plastic clip and put it on the side of the card, which will indicate how much water you have. Finally, randomly pick a start player.

The Gameplay

On your turn you'll do two things:

  1. Take up to four actions.
  2. Draw Storm cards equal to the Sand Storm level.

You can take up to four actions each turn, and it's perfectly okay to discuss your moves with your teammates. This is a cooperative game, so cooperate! You choices are:

Move--You can move to an orthogonally adjacent unblocked tile for one action per tile you move to--a tile is unblocked if it has fewer than two Sand markers on it. You can also move between unblocked tunnel tiles for one action. You can never move through the Sand Storm space.

Remove Sand--You can remove Sand markers on your tile or an adjacent tile, for one action per marker you remove.

Excavate--If you're on a tile that has no Sand markers on it, you can excavate it for one action. You'll turn the tile over and follow the rules for any icons that might be on the tile.

Pick Up a Part--If there's a piece of the Flying Machine on an unblocked and excavated tile, you can spend an action to put the piece in front of you. It's now been found, and once you find all four parts, you can head to the launch pad and escape!

You can also share water or equipment with players on the same tile for free. To share water, one person moves the clip down one spot, and the other moves their clip up one spot.

Let's go over what the tiles do-- these will only be revealed once they've been excavated.

Gears--Twelve of the tiles have Gear symbols on them. When you excavate one of these tiles you immediately draw a tile from the Equipment deck, read it aloud so everyone knows what you have, and place it in front of you until you decide to use it.

Tunnels--Three tiles have tunnels on them. Moving between any two of these tiles only costs one action, as long as both ends of the tunnel aren't blocked by sand.

Water--Three tiles have water symbol on the bottom of the unexcavated side. When you excavate these tiles, two of them will have wells under them, and each player on the tile when it's excavated gets to add two water to their canteens. One of the three is a mirage, though, and you get no water.

Part Location Clues--There are four pieces to the Flying Machine, and two Clue tiles for each piece. One clue tells you the row the piece can be found (East/West), and the other tells you which column (North/South). When you've found both Clues, you'll know exactly where the piece is and can put the piece there. What's neat about this mechanic combined with the Storm mechanic is that if you only have one clue, it can shift thanks to the Storm. It just adds some uncertainty to this aspect of the game.

Launch Pad--One tile is the Launch Pad, and this is where everyone must go after you've found (and picked up) all four pieces of the Flying Machine.

The Storm

After you take your actions, now you'll draw Sand Storm tiles equal to the current level of the Sand Storm meter level. You draw them one at a time, and make sure the wind rose symbol is on the bottom of the card, so the orientation is correct. Most tiles will cause the wind to blow a number of tiles equal to the number of squares on the tile. The cards also have a direction, which means that number of tiles move that direction, toward the eye of the Sand Storm. After you move each tile you'll add a Sand marker to it--regardless of whether it's excavated or not.

There's no limit to how much sand can pile up on a tile, and every Sand tile past the first one blocks the tile, so you can't move into or out of it. If you're on a tile that has more than one Sand marker on it, you'll have to dig out before you can move on. Sometimes, because of where the eye of the storm is that turn, you can't move any tiles (or might only be able to move one). When that happens you get to do a happy dance!

Those aren't the only cards in the Storm deck, though. There are three Storm Picks Up cards, and when you draw one of these you move the Sand Storm meter up one tick. Starting with the next player's turn you'll draw that many Storm cards now--it might still be the same number, but it might be more.

There are also four Sun Beats Down cards, and when you draw one of those, every player must drink one water (by moving their water marker down one tick). If you happen to be in a tunnel, or play a Solar Shield Gear card, you are protected from the effects of the Sun Beat Down card.

There are three ways to die in the game. First, if anyone runs out of water, the team dies. If you have to raise the Sand Storm meter to the top level, the team dies. Third, if you ever run out of Sand markers, the team dies.

So how do you win against this diabolical desert? If you've found, and grabbed, all four parts of the Flying Machine and make it to the Launch Pad (which has to be unblocked!), you win!

The Verdict

So the first thing I should address is this: If I already own Forbidden Island, do I need Forbidden Desert? The answer: Yes! Probably! Granted, there are some definite similarities. The board is made of double-sided tiles. There's a bad deck that the game uses to attack you each turn. As the game progresses you'll be drawing more and more bad cards. Each player has a unique role that lets you break the rules in some cool and useful way. But the way I see it, that just means that someone who already knows how to play Forbidden Island can jump right into Desert.

That's exactly what happened with my 9-year-old the first time he played with me. I told him about the new and unique rules, and we were off and playing. And he loved it! It's his most-requested game right now. And he couldn't wait for us to introduce it to Mom. The 6-year-old was too young to get into it, but he enjoyed placing the Sand down...

The game genuinely feels different, too. In Forbidden Island you're protecting tiles, whether that's because there's a treasure there and you don't quite have the cards, or because it's a path through the island that you need to preserve, or whether it's just a useful tile to have sink because that keeps other important tiles from sinking. In Forbidden Desert the tiles have more things on them: water, equipment, tunnels, pieces. But once they're used, you can often let them go. A little. You still  need to keep on top of Sand, and preserve paths, but it didn't feel the same.

One of the things I liked least in Forbidden Island was the Treasure cards. The hand limit was harsh and meant you could only really go for one type. And trading them felt clunky. There's nothing like that here, and the game is better for it. The narrative flow of the game is better, and you have more interesting things to do. Don't get me wrong: I still really like Forbidden Island, but Desert feels like an evolution of the former game.

Part of that evolution is that this game feels harder than Forbidden Island. My group of seasoned gamers lost their first few games on Normal difficulty. But then I joined them and they won their first game...I'm sure that's just a coincidence, right? In Island you had a good idea where the island was likely to flood. In Desert the Storm is very unpredictable, and can move tiles all over the place. That can also move Machine pieces around, which is just cool.

The components are top-notch. The tiles are thick and have great steampunky artwork, and the Flying Machine parts are just awesome. I'm not a big fan of these games coming in tins, but that's a very small complaint.

I suppose my biggest complaint is that the Storm can make things fiddly: Every turn you're moving tiles all over the place and putting Sand pieces on them. It's not a big deal, but it's worth mentioning.

The Final Verdict

This is a terrific game. My oldest has played his share of Forbidden Island, and without me mentioning it he sensed that Forbidden Desert was a next step, and he really likes it. If you didn't like Forbidden Island, this is similar enough that you probably still won't like it. But if you did like Forbidden Island, this keep some base mechanisms and adds enough flair and flavor and new mechanics that I absolutely recommend it. It even made out Top 10 list from last year.

Thanks to Gamewright for providing a review copy of Forbidden Desert. This in no way affected my opinion of the game. 

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