Getting Your Feet Wet

Co-op games are great, aren’t they? I love a good bit of co-operative play. In fact it seems that almost all of my recent purchases have been about playing together nicely with friends. Having a family gather round a table for a fun game – only to scream at some cards and inanimate pieces of cardboard that are just trying to repeatedly screw with you. Who doesn’t want to get on board with that?

I’ve spoken about the concept of co-op games in the past and despite having discussed it in passing a number of times, I realise that I have never shared my experiences with you of one of the first true co-op games I’d played. Well surprise, surprise – this changes today. I give to you Forbidden Island published by Gamewright and designed by probably the master of the genre, Matt Leacock.

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Forbidden Island sets the players as a group of adventurers and treasure hunters, who have heard of four artifacts of great value located in a previously unknown island. These artifacts are hidden upon the island by an early advanced culture that did not want the treasures removed. In order to do so, they set up the island to sink should any interlopers arrive. Interlopers exactly like our players. So what occurs in a frantic race against time to find the treasure before either they; or your helicopter; or your entire team sink to the ocean depths.

The game begins with the difficulty being set by the players – essentially determining how quickly the island is going to sink. Then the island itself is set in a cross shaped pattern as seen below;

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This is randomly created, so there is no guarantee as to where the various locations will be. The most important locations are the various sites where the treasures may be found (as shown by a picture of the treasure on the bottom of the card) and Fools Landing, where the helicopter awaits the players. Each of these locations is double sided – a full colour illustration on one side and the blue shaded one on the other, to represent the area being flooded.

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Players are then dealt a character card, which represents the profession and abilities of their character. Examples of which include the pilot who is able to go anywhere on the island once per turn, or the explorer being the only person able to move and interact with areas diagonally. The players are also given two cards each which either have a picture of an artefact on it or a useful ability such as sandbags to prevent flooding, or a helicopter lift to get about easier. Then the island begins to sink …

This is done by dealing out a number of cards from a location deck. Each location on the board has a corresponding card in this deck. Once the card is dealt out, the location is flipped over to represent it being flooded. If the location comes out of the deck when the area is flooded, it sinks and both cards are removed from the game. This is a very bad thing …

Each turn a player gets three actions which they can choose from the following list – they can move a square; trade cards with another player in the same square as them; shore up a flooded location by turning it back over or find a treasure if the conditions are met. They can repeat actions if they wish – so spend all three actions shoring up three flooded locations next to them.

Then they draw two cards from the deck which may provide addition artefact cards or could also contain the dreaded Waters Rise card.

Let’s make no bones about this – everyone hates Waters Rise. This card will make the table groan in unison or yell all manner of abuse at it. Because it does two things – it increases the water level track (which is how you set the difficulty at the start of the game) which can cause you to draw more cards when you flood the island. It also makes you shuffle the location cards already drawn and puts them back on top of the undrawn location cards. These means flooded locations are more likely to sink in future.

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After this takes place, you draw a number of location cards again and even flood or remove cards as required. If either Fools Landing or the locations of the treasures sink before you find them, its game over the Island has beaten you.

So the only way to win is to find the artifacts, but how do you do this? It all comes down to those cards we mentioned earlier. Once you have four copies of a single type of artifact in your hand, you can go to one of the locations and trade them in for the artefact itself. Collecting cards is easy right? It would be if the game didn’t have a five card hand limit – some people may find this frustrating, but I have no problem with the game forcing you to make some difficult choices as to what to hold on to.

Get the four treasures, make it to Fools Landing and play a Helicopter lift card – congratulations. You have beaten the Island and your characters are now wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

One of the best things about Forbidden Island is that it is simple without being shallow. The game states that it’s for ages 10 and up. I regularly play with my son who is 7 and he understands it perfectly. There are summary cards for every player that details possible actions, so you always know your options. And you have to carefully plan out your turn in order to get the maximum benefit to the group. But the options are not so many that you a plagued with possible doubt over the next step. It means that the game does frequently stick to its 30 min approximate game length.

As a result it’s also wonderfully accessible for new players and non-gamers. My wife, who would not describe herself as a gamer by any stretch, could understand and get on board with it very quickly. One of the reasons for this would be the clarity of the board – everything is very clear from a moments glance. It doesn’t take it too long to realise how screwed you are …

The pacing of the game is very good – it builds nicely with everything appearing to be in control at first, before thing start spiralling out of control. Then you have to make those tough choices – which locations do you sacrifice to the waves in order to concentrate elsewhere. You will fail a lot at this game as a result, but it rarely seems unfair. Normally you are able to track back to a choice you made and understand that if you had done thing differently, you may be celebrating a win right now.

The production quality is exceptional – lovely art on the cards and good quality components. It comes in a same metal tin and even the interior of that if well thought out with a space for everything to go (yes – I am complimenting a box). The artifacts are great as well, with miniatures for each one. It does make you wonder why they had to give you generic pawns for the characters pieces. A nice meeple wouldn’t have broken the bank, would it? But really if that’s all I can criticise about the design, I’m really splitting hairs.

Another minor criticism I would have about the game is the card collecting. It doesn’t really feel like you are active in search out the treasures – more like you are wandering around and hoping something drops out of the sky. At the start of the game, you can fully concentrate on making sure the island is staying afloat whilst cards drop into your lap. For players that this may bother to the point of distraction (of which I am not one), I would suggest you look at the follow up game, Forbidden Desert.

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The puzzle like nature of the game does also lend itself to alpha player syndrome, which is tough to avoid if one of those characters is part of your group. Discussion should be encouraged within the solving of the Island, but it should never be one player’s will imposed upon the others. My suggestion is to make your point and then shut up – the other people have to be in control of their actions.

What the game does bring is plenty of replay value. Even though you may have played the game a dozen times or more, you know each time will be challenge. And if you think you have cracked it, you can take the difficulty up by a notch and be drawing more flood cards quicker – essentially putting a tighter time limit on getting the treasures and getting the hell out of there.

Forbidden Island is not my favourite co-op game of all time. I do prefer the sequel or the more story based Eldritch Horror. But that doesn’t make it a bad game at all. It fits a nice niche for me – for speed, simplicity and challenge that very few co-op games can hope to match. And if you have stumbled upon the blog and want to try some of the games I waffle about, this may just be the perfect place to get started.

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