Review: Forbidden Island


They call the island, Forbidden.  A little dramatic, perhaps.  You don’t believe in any of that superstitious, mumbo-jumbo.  But maybe there is a reason for the dour adjective?  I mean, every time they want to keep people out, they slap on some ominous-sounding name to discourage snooping, right?  Rumor is there are untold treasures hidden away on the island.  And they can all be yours!  Straight out of a pulp fiction yarn, you and your team ignore the warnings and fly in searching for fortune!  Only to find out the island is aptly named, after all!  Can the stories of great riches be true, as well?  Can you find out before the entire island sinks into the depths – claiming you with it?!

How it Plays

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game.  All players work together, searching for priceless artifacts and then assemble back as a team to airlift off before the land completely sinks beneath the murky depths.  To discover these objects, players must collect and trade treasure cards.  When one player has four-of-a-kind, he/she moves to a particular spot on the island to gather that matching relic.  When all treasures are found, the team can evacuate and revel in their profitable venture.  However, if too much of the island succumbs to the ocean blue, none will live to recount your tale.

Randomly arranged tiles form the island, effectively creating the game board.  Each tile is double-sided.  All of them begin face-up.  When a location is flooded, you turn its tile over.  If it floods again, the tile is removed from the game and that spot is no longer accessible.  Some tiles also designate a starting location, a treasure site, or the very important Fool’s Landing – necessary for evacuation.

4-player setup. It looks pretty stable…?!

Each player also has a special role.  You can randomly assign these or let individuals fight over them.  These roles are unique, giving their owner a distinct ability they can play to the team’s advantage.  Using them well collectively enhances your chance of success.

To move about the island, collect treasure, and just plain survive, Forbidden Island uses an action point allowance mechanic in which players can do three things during their turn from a list of five possible choices.  For one point, they can move one tile up, down, or sideways.  Or they might elect to “shore up” a flooded tile, flipping it back to its normal side.  They can give one of their cards to another player on the same spot.  They can turn in a set to collect a treasure.  Or they can use their role’s special ability.

At the end of their turns, players will perform two more steps.  First, they need to draw two treasure cards.  Why do I say “need” to, instead of “get” to, you might ask?  Well, that’s because treasure cards are not always as pleasing as they sound!  Most of these cards are beneficial – either copies of the artifacts that you’re trying to find or helpful items that will aid your team during a player’s action sequence.  But a few of them are dreaded “Waters Rise” cards.

*Gulp* !! Hope you brought your high-waters!

When the waters rise, an indicator on a separate water level board increases by one.  The water level can be anywhere from 2-5.  This signifies how many flood cards you draw from the flood deck during the final step of your turn.  Each of those card designate a particular island tile that floods.  If it’s at normal stage, you flip that tile over to its flooded side.  But if it’s already flooded, then it sinks completely and is removed from the game.  With the exception of one role, players cannot move through these vanished spots.  If a player is standing on a tile that permanently sinks, they must immediately swim to an adjacent tile – if none exists, then they drown!  Furthermore, when a Waters Rise card is drawn, all of the flood cards in the discard pile are shuffled and placed back on top of the flood deck, thus increasing the likelihood a tile will be removed from the game.

There is only one way to win: find all four treasures between all members of the adventuring party and collectively make it to Fool’s Landing with a helicopter (one of the helpful items in the treasure deck).  There are many ways to lose.  If one player drowns, the entire team is defeated.  If Fool’s Landing sinks into the depths, then the party is doomed with no means to abandon the island.  Likewise, if both tiles of any one artifact’s location are lost before your adventuring band has a chance to collect it, then you cannot win.  Finally, if the water level meter hits the maximum, you succumb to a watery grave.

Goodbye Coral Palace. Wait, did we need that?!

Going the Way of Atlantis?

When you hear the phrase “sinking island,” chances are that Atlantis first comes to mind.  Everyone has read about how that fabled isle sank as the gods’ retribution for the galling nerve to attack Athens.  But if you have a strange sense of humor like mine, you instead remember the tragic disappearance of Hy-Brazilin the Terry Jones comedy Erik the Viking.  For but a single drop of blood spilled upon its soil, Hy-Brazil is doomed to the dim depths, while its loopy citizens and clueless king obliviously debate the seriousness of their situation and naively sing together (quite poorly) until the last gurgles murmur from the highest rooftop as it dips beneath the waves.  Such denial is not a recommended strategy in ForbiddenIsland.

While you may not be singing together, you’ll certainly be battling together – as in on the same team.  This makes the design ideal for involving even younger children in the family.  Kids can feel as if they’re on the same playing field as mom or dad.  I don’t always recommend cooperative games as ways to introduce the hobby to kids, but that’s my personal preference.  I certainly understand the merits behind cooperative games as a means to avoid hurt feelings from losing.  Either way, this is a solid family game.

Priceless Plastic

Forbidden Island will also succeed with casual gamers looking for more of a social experience.  To put it mildly, this is not a heavy design and is not intended as such.  Much of its accessibility lies within the well-designed action point selection.  There are not too many options to overwhelm new players, yet it gives enough of them to allow for real choices.  Additionally, you only do three things per turn and each individual action is quick.  This keeps downtime between turns at a bare minimum.  It runs smoothly and intuitively, therefore is simple to teach and even easier to learn.

The set collection element is also easy to understand as it is immediately recognizable.  Since it is a shared collection, it grants a lot of leeway in allocating who collects what since you can trade cards.  However, there are two built-in restrictions to make the task a little difficult.  First, there is a five card hand limit.  Once you collect four-of-kind, you’re not as helpful in hand management until you can turn them in to pick-up the relic.  And trading cards takes an action – you’re only allowed to give one card per action to an individual on the same tile (unless you’re the Messenger).  So the overall strategy is readily apparent and unchanging.  The crux of the game then becomes a puzzle in figuring out how to trade cards amongst the team as quickly and efficiently as possible while still shoring up the island in a race against time.

Better shore up the Temple and Cave…might need them later…

The special roles really give the game some personality.  Forbidden Island could feel repetitive after a while with taking the same handful of actions every turn, but the unique characteristics provide variability and keep things fresh.  And since there are six roles in a game that only accommodates 2-4 players, it offers a good deal of replayability as various combinations all interact a little differently in that puzzle element mentioned above.  They’re fun to use and can be very helpful in escaping tight spots from time to time.

There is a fair amount of chance involved.  Hitting the Waters Rise cards early will ramp up the rate at which the island sinks.  More significant, the timing of when important island tiles flood can prove problematic.  If you lose Fool’s Landing or both of a treasure’s location tiles just because they happened to be in the top of the deck, then the game might end pretty early!  However, as a lighter design that plays under 45 minutes and is geared towards casual gamers and families, the randomness is not unreasonably chaotic.

WHEW! We made it!

Besides, a little chaos creates tension.  Overall, the game is not terribly challenging.  So when things go slightly crazy, it actually ratchets up the fun.  Some may feel the experience is more reactionary, and they’d be right.  But it adds a wrinkle to the game’s puzzley nature.  After an introductory game, I recommend playing at the highest difficulty level.  Unless you’re playing with only two, which is a little tougher as you’re collecting cards slower.

The production value is second-to-none.  The island tiles are solid.  The cards are slick and of good stock.  The water level meter is sturdy and wears very little despite frequent use in sliding the indicator up and down.  The resin artifact sculpts are pure chrome – well done, attractive, fun to handle, and completely unnecessary for game play – kudos to GameWright!  The artwork is striking with sharp lines and vibrant colors.  The island images have a great, pulpy flavor that evoke degrees of realism, fantasy, and mystery.  At such a low price point for accessibility, replayability, and production quality,ForbiddenIslandis simply the greatest value for any board game actively in print.

Lovely artwork, indeed!

As a pure, unadulterated family game, ForbiddenIslandis a home run.  It is on the light side, has a healthy dose of luck, and you have to crank up the difficulty to really make it challenging.  However, its appeal is that it’s easy to play, cleanly structured, presents your group with a decent puzzle aspect, creates some tension, and requires you to actually make decisions.  And the 1930’s pulp vibe infuses it with a sense of fun and adventure straight out of an old-fashioned, whiz-bang dime novel.


  • Rating 8.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 8
    Your Rating:


  • Easy to learn and play
  • Excellent for the whole family
  • Variable roles
  • Great production value


  • Repetitive
  • Pretty Random
  • Fairly easy on all but most difficult start
8.5 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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