Off the immensely popular cooperative game Pandemic, Matt Leacock brings us Forbidden Island. 2 to 4 players work together to loot the eponymous island of 4 treasures and escape before the island sinks into the sea.
The core gameplay will feel very familiar to Pandemic fans. Each player draws a random role from a deck of 6. Each role grants a special power to aid in the mission. At the end of each turn, a player draws 2 Treasure cards in their hand. Most of the treasure cards match one of the 4 treasures. A player with 4 of the same treasure can go to one of 2 matching tiles on the board and turn in the cards to claim that treasure. Since there are only 5 of each type of treasure in the deck, players will need to meet each other on the board and exchange cards to build sets.
The treasure deck also contains a few beneficial cards that allow players to move quickly across the board or to delay the sinking of the island. But it also contains the "Waters Rise" cards, about which more in a moment.
The board itself is made of 24 tiles randomly placed into a roughly plus shape. Each tile has 2 sides, a normal side and a partially flooded side. 8 of the tiles have symbols matching the treasures, 2 for each treasure; these represent the tiles where sets of cards can be turned in.
The danger is represented by the Flood Deck, which has one card for each tile on the island. Each turn a player will draw and immediately play 2 or more Flood cards. A revealed tile is flipped to its partially flooded side. If the tile is already partially flooded, it sinks and is removed from play, potentially eliminating key tiles or connectivity to key tiles. A key part of play is spending ones turn shoring up tiles, allowing them to return to the normal side.
Forbidden Island reuses Pandemic's clever tension mechanic. When a player draws Waters Rise from the treasure deck, the Flood cards in the discard pile are shuffled and placed back on top of the Flood Deck. The players might get lucky and get a long run without a Waters Rise card, but that usually means a pair in quick succession will follow leading to almost certain loss of some tiles. The Waters Rise card also increases a simple counter, at regular intervals it increases the number of Flood cards drawn. In the normal game players start drawing 2 The Waters Rise card also increases a simple counter, at regular intervals it increases the number of Flood cards drawn. In the normal game players start drawing 2 The Waters Rise card also increases a simple counter, at regular intervals it increases the number of Flood cards drawn. In the normal game players start drawing 2 The Waters Rise card also increases a simple counter, at regular intervals it increases the number of Flood cards drawn. In the normal game players start drawing 2 Flood cards, but as the game progresses it will increase to 3, 4, or even 5.
Forbidden Island feels like Pandemic, ruthlessly edited to make it a 30 minute game. And it succeeds at the task admirably. In 30 minutes you get a tense, fun cooperative game. It is, regrettably, much simpler, and identifying the optimal strategy each turn is usually simple. This may hamper replay value, but it's survived 3 games so far.
Forbidden Island is carefully balanced to keep the tension high, but with an interesting ebb and flow. Things always feel just one or two bad draws from catastrophe. The uneven distribution of Waters Rise cards mean the game can alternate between a calm and nail biting. By increasing the number of Flood cards drawn as the game progresses, there is a need to move quickly, and things keep getting more dangerous. Early on it's relatively easy to keep the entire island shored up, but eventually you'll need to start making sacrifices. As treasures are claimed, parts of the island become unimportant and players are more likely to allow them to sink. (Keeping them in play reduces the risk for still important tiles, so there is incentive.) Combined with the larger number of draws, the island tends to break apart just as the players escape the island, bringing the game to a satisfying climatic end.
Again, like Pandemic, Forbidden Island gets the difficulty just right. New players will almost certainly win when playing the novice difficulty, but it still feels close as the island sinks around them. Reaching out to new players is key in cooperative games and Leacock clearly understands this, making his games far more approachable than the brutal The Island of Dr. Necreaux or Ghost Stories. As the game proves too easy, the game offers 4 total difficulty levels to try.
Cooperative games frequently suffer from a bullying problem, where a particularly skilled player can dictate what everyone else does. While such play tends to be very effective at winning, it can make the other players feel like irrelevant puppets. Forbidden Island does nothing to alleviate this problem. The solution is simply to play with people who don't do that, but it does limit the potential uses.
The physical product is extremely nice, especially given the list price of $15. The game comes in a metal case, features 4 colorful, large, nice looking plastic pieces for the treasures, and nice heavy cardstock tiles. On the down side, the card backs are a bit bland and inexplicably have the Gamewright's logo prominently displayed, which looks a bit tacky.
For fans of cooperative games looking for something short and satisfying, especially fans of Pandemic, Forbidden Island is a great deal at $15. It may lack the long term replayability of Pandemic, but I believe you'll get your money's worth.
Updated 2010-12-31: Added a paragraph in the review section on tension.