Game review: Forbidden Island

You know those memes where people’s heads are melting, turning into horrible, bloated balloons, or otherwise undergoing some kind of excruciating suffering because they have to listen to someone read the rules of a new board game?

This is me. I’m too old and dumb and my neurons are all completely busy trying to remember where I put my pants. I don’t want to learn a new game!

So I was very skeptical about Forbidden Island. There seemed to be a LOT of rules and exceptions and actions and sub-actions and choices for each turn, and I could feel my head start to puff up by page two. But a promise is a promise, so I forged ahead. 

Glad I did! It’s a neat little game, and once you go a few rounds, it really does make sense. I would have made a few small stylistic changes to make it feel a little more coherent, but the structure is solid and all action and variety fall into place quickly. I played with kids aged 11 and 8 who had played once before, and it was well within their grasp. The game took about half an hour. It combines chance and strategy, but you’re supposed to confer and collaborate with your team members, and the tension comes from trying to escape in time, rather than beat each other.

You’re a team trying to rescue all four elemental treasures off a mysterious island and flee before it sinks into the sea. At each turn, you move around to different spots, or sometimes move others around, trying to collect treasure or achieve various goals. You also have to turn over cards that make sections of the island fall into the sea; but you also have the chance to shore them up, sometimes (but if they sink too often, they’re gone for good). Each player has a slightly different set of skills, which encourages you to work together and forge a plan that uses everyone’s skills and the fruits of everyone’s luck. You also occasionally draw a card that makes you ratchet up the speed at which the water rises. You can control how hard the game is by starting out at various levels, but it will get harder as it goes. I can imagine lots of variety in different games, depending on luck and on who’s playing. 

It is a beautiful game. The island is made up of an array of little cardboard cards printed with brightly-colored vignettes, each with a dramatic name, and when the different locations fall into the sea, you flip the cards over to see the same scene depicted in an eerie blue.

The treasures are little figurines made of heavy plastic, and are appealing and will seem worth collecting to kids.

The whole thing fits nicely into a medium-sized tin box that will fit on a bookshelf. 

I would have come up with some term a little more evocative than “actions” for the three things you can do on each turn; and I would have chosen something more romantic than a helicopter pad for the only possible escape route. But these aren’t deal breakers; they just disrupt the mood a bit. 

But I definitely recommend this game for kids who are ready to play something a little more complicated than the same old games that take you around and around the board, or require you to act viciously toward each other. It requires strategy, but only a little bit, and stronger players who have better ideas can guide the more confused players whose head blew up like balloons when the rules were being read (so it would work well for people of different ages to play together, as long as they don’t hate each other). It’s compelling but not nail-biting, and it will capture the imagination of visually creative players. You do need to be able to read, but not a lot. It says it’s for ages ten and up; but as I said, my smart eight-year-old did fine with it.

It’s also reasonably priced! Some games are insanely expensive, but this one is listed at about $20 right now. This game apparently has some expansion packs, and also a follow-up game called Forbidden Desert

Other game reviews:
Ransom Notes
The Catholic Card Game (NFP Expansion pack)
Snake Oil 

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2 thoughts on “Game review: Forbidden Island”

  1. I’m a fan of collaborative games where the players have a shared objective to “win” together and the opponent is the game itself. Sounds like Forbidden Island is good; also Pandemic is pretty solid and easy enough to learn.

    Battlestar Galactica and Betrayal of the House on the Hill are both also excellent games with strong collaborative elements, but can be a bit complicated to learn.

  2. We love Forbidden Island as a family game! My 9 and 6 year olds do very well with it with guidance from me and/or dad. Coincidentally today we were playing (for the second time) another game from the same people, Forbidden Sky. It is significantly more complicated than Forbidden Island (in my opinion) but it is also pretty fun because you build a working circuit to “launch” a rocket at the end to win the game(lights and sounds when the circuit is complete but no actual movement). Our first time playing it was a bit stressful but this second time through went much more smoothly as we could take into account all the ways we went wrong the first time.

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