Forbidden Island Review

Forbidden Island Cover
Released 2010
Designer Matt Leacock
Publisher Gamewright (Website)
Players 1 – 4
Playing Time 30-45 minutes
Category Cooperative
Action Points
Hand Management
Set Collection
Player Powers
BoardGameGeek View on BGG

But the tin says 2-4 players…

In board gaming circles, Matt Leacock is considered the father of modern cooperative board gaming.  Depending on who you ask, he is also the father of the frustrating ‘draw a card – you lose’ mechanic as well.

All this started with a board game called Pandemic.  I am sure anyone looking at my site would have heard of Pandemic or one of its numerous spin-offs, most likely Pandemic Legacy.

New players looking into any Matt Leacock game will undoubtedly see comparisons to Pandemic and its mechanics.  The cooperative nature and randomised events by card draw ask for this.  But this review is for someone that hasn’t played Pandemic, so if you have – I apologise, there will be some information you already know.

If you haven’t played Pandemic, welcome to a review for you!

But how do you play a multiplayer game solo?  The official player count is 2-4 people.  And this is true.  It’s also a fully cooperative game with no hidden information, so good thing to remember is you can play a lot of these style of games solo with no problems – just control multiple characters!

It does take a bit of practice, but it can be a lot of fun as well.  So I won’t be talking about players so much in this review as characters, because it doesn’t matter so much how many players are involved as much as the number of characters they control.  I have played Forbidden Island and similar games a few times with two players at two characters each.

Simple but beautiful components will entertain players for many hours

The reasoning for wanting to play at the full character count I will talk about later.  As a general tip, keep that in mind whenever you look at a cooperative game, there is a good chance it will solo play well as well.

So what is Forbidden Island?

At its heart, Forbidden Island is a cooperative exploration game where you play as a team searching an island for four rare artifacts.  When I first played Forbidden Island, my thinking was basically ‘So a team of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft types’.

As usual, this was both correct and incorrect.  Each character has a distinctive role, represented by a different skill.  These skills are all rule breaking abilities, giving the character the chance to do one “That would be nice” thing.  For example, the Diver can swim through sunken tiles and the Navigator can move other characters on its turn.

Story-wise I was initially very meh about.  Legends of an ancient race called the Archeans that could control the elements – Fire, Wind, Water, Earth.  Fairly standard fare but it was as good a reason as any to be coming to an unexplored island.

Of course, this was 10 years ago.  The board game renaissance had not yet begun, and we were a lot more forgiving of a lack of good narrative experiences.  Little did we know that 10 years later, Forbidden Sky would come along completing a trilogy (so far) of games where explorers continue to chase down the Archeans!

The treasure - the ability to control the elements. Wind, Fire, Water and Earth - I still want to paint these years later.

Of course, just finding the island to search for the treasures wouldn’t be that exciting.  But what if the Archeans had booby-trapped the island to collapse if anyone set foot on it?

Playing the Game

And that is where the game of Forbidden is played.  Sure, you need to explore a randomly set out bunch of tiles, but you need to do it while parts of the island sink away beneath you.  The Diver doesn’t sound like such a strange ability now does it?

On your characters turn, you can perform up to three actions.  These include moving, shoring up a tile to stop it from sinking, trading treasure cards, or finding a treasure.

Most of these actions are self-explanatory.  Move your pawn one tile in any direction up/down or left/right (no diagonals!).  Flip an adjacent tile from flooded to safe.  Give another player on your tile a treasure card.

A pretty standard setup. Some areas of the island begin flooding immediately, as you can tell from the blue tiles - they are going underwater.

Finding a treasure means being on a tile marked with the treasure you are trying to find and exchanging four matching treasure cards to receive the treasure piece.

You find treasure cards at the end of your turn, where you get to draw two treasure cards every time.  The only issue when doing this is you have a five card hand limit, so you need to work with everyone so that people can focus on concentrating on a particular treasure.

Also in the treasure cards could be special powers that can be used by anyone as a once off reward.  There is also the Water’s Rise! cards, but I will go into those later.  For now, they are worse than you are probably thinking.

It all sounds pretty simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?  It’s one of the aspects of many of Matt Leacock’s designs I really appreciate – the mechanics don’t usually get in the way of enjoying the game.  The players just need to concentrate on solving the ‘puzzle’ presented to them before a ‘You Lose’ condition is met.

Oh yes – Forbidden Island is not the relaxing zen-like puzzle you may be imagining.  After you have drawn your treasure cards, rewarding you with exploring for another turn, you get to draw flood cards.

You draw the number of Flood Cards currently shown on the Water Meter.  Most game modes start at 2, and you can draw up to 5 cards each turn.  In the flood deck, there is a card for each tile in the game.  Draw the card, and flip the tile corresponding tile to the blue ‘flooded’ side.  If the tile is already flooded, remove the tile and the card from the game – that part of the island has been claimed by the sea and can never be visited again.

And one round in, we already found one Water Rises! card, leading to the Watchtower being lost forever. Luckily the Engineer had somewhere else to swim!

So now you can see where Shoring the tiles comes into play.  At the start of the game, you can let a water be around the island as the island is slowly sinking.  But as you pull Water’s Rise! from the treasure deck, you increase the gauge on the Water Meter.

Pulling more cards means getting through the deck quicker, meaning less time for a card that has already been pulled to appear again.  Letting a tile sink also means fewer cards in the deck, speeding up the island sinking!

Oh and those extra cards your pulling?  It includes the discarded cards straight away.  In Forbidden Island, you take the remaining flood deck and the discards and shuffle them into a Flood deck.  This way you have no way of knowing what is likely to be sinking next!

And this is where the ‘Draw a card and lose’ aspect of a Leacock game comes into it.

To win, you ‘just’ need to have everyone on the ‘Fool’s Landing’ tile with all four treasures, and a Helicopter Lift card to fly away to safety.

To lose, just one of the following needs to happen:

  • Fool’s Landing Sinks (No Escape)
  • It the Water Level reaches the Skull and Crossbones (Island Sinks)
  • If a character has nowhere to swim to if their tile sinks (Character Death)
  • Both Treasure Temples sink and the treasure is not collected (Cannot retrieve all 4 treasures)
The items giveth, and the items taketh away. Looking at the water level gauge, you think there is plenty of time to spare - but it's less than you think!

It sounds hard to win, and initially the random nature of drawing good and bad cards can seem unfair, but there are ways to win almost every time.  Rest assured there are definitely winning strategies that will let you win a majority of the time.

So there is a set way to win?

Yes and no.  This is probably the biggest difference of player opinion occurs.

The Treasure and Flood decks are fairly fixed.  Even if you are not a card counter, you get a feel for how likely a ‘bad’ draw is to happen.  Knowing these odds are a big help in planning your strategy.

If you play with the same team every time, even with the island tiles placed randomly you learn how the team works and how to get the most out of them.

There are also obviously ‘better’ characters to play early games with.  Better in this context means ‘easier to use their powers all the time’.  Playing a game without an Engineer and their ability to Shore Up multiple tiles is more challenging, but that doesn’t make the character superior over the others.

Mastered the original island? Try variants like Skill Island! The different layouts change gameplay nicely.

You may hear reviews or opinions that Forbidden Island is too easy.  Most people I have played with or spoken to about difficulty have a caveat to this though.  They play the same configuration every time.  And not just the same characters – the same characters played by the same players, on the same difficulty,  in the same play order – every time.

Now, to me this is fine – people enjoy this style of play.  I am not one of them.  My only complaint is that I wish people that simply dismiss Forbidden Island with ‘Too Easy’ clarified this is how they play.

Think of Forbidden Island like a video game for a second.  Worked out how to beat easy every time with the same group?  Play with the two characters you don’t normally pick.  Mastered that?  Start playing at higher difficulties, and randomise the character selection.  Unfortunately not in my copy, but there are even official alternate island layouts you can play to increase your challenge.  Just finishing the game once doesn’t mean you ‘beat’ it – there are other ways of increasing the challenge for you.

Yes, there are more challenging games out there these days – that’s not in question.  If you are new to gaming or cooperative games, then Forbidden Island is a great way to start.  The challenge in Forbidden Island can be tailored to your wishes more than many people acknowledge, and I find that unfortunate.

Downsides to Forbidden Island?

Apart from difficulty, the other divisive item is the tin.  Yes – Forbidden Island comes in an embossed tin.  It’s pretty, it holds the components well, and I don’t mind putting it on other games or having other games on top of it.

I like the tin, but there are those that are very opposed to it.  That said, I hope that future reprints come in a cardboard box, because the third game has ditched the tin.  Unless something goes very wrong, I won’t buy another copy just for the box.  But if you are looking at padding your collection and want the Forbidden series, this may be a consideration.

It's a small thing, but series defining - a 'Forbidden' game not in a tin! Still makes a nice pyramid though...

The other potential problem is common to all cooperative games.  While it’s great that you can play them solo, some players think they are playing it themselves even when others are at the table.  This little gem is known as Quarterbacking.

Quarterbacking – at least problem quarterbacking – is when usually one player dictates the actions of the game.  You think something else is better?  Too bad, they know the game better than you, so just do it their way or else.

Now that might sound childish and overly simplified, but I have seen Quarterbacks treat players like that – and much worse.  When you are playing with your friends, you can point out that they should probably tone it down, and all is well.  But Quarterbacks during gaming meetups and conventions have been known to bring the entire experience down for everyone.

If you are ever in a situation like that, leave the table and just let the host know what’s happening.  Don’t let Quarterbacks ruin your games.  Coming soon, I will be writing an article on Quarterbacking with some advice on defining it and how to deal with it, so keep an eye out for that.

The only positive to the experience is you can use it as a litmus test for a new organised games group – if they are a friend of the organiser and left alone, you probably don’t want to be with that group.  If the host takes it seriously and tries to work with everyone and handles it maturely, take it as a good sign.  Either way, let people know about your experiences – good game groups are hard to find!

Until next time,

Forbidden Island - Not the ideal getaway location!

Final Thoughts

Forbidden Island was my second Matt Leacock game, and the first board game I played solo (that wasn’t a solo game).  It’s also a great game to introduce non-gamers too, as everyone is working together, you can talk through many standard game mechanics and help players get used to some now standard game mechanics.

The game to a degree will scale with your skill.  Too easy?  Play as different or random characters.  Check online (or the app) for different island layouts.  There are a lot of possibilities for replayability.

The randomness can get to some players, but to me, it just adds to the tension of playing and the theme.  While not a game for everyone, this is a game that a lot of people have played for many great reasons.



  •  A great introduction for non-gamers
  •  Simple yet challenging gameplay
  •  Beautiful art and fun components


  •  Some people get frustrated by randomness
  •  ‘Quarterback’ players can dominate the game experience

Wait, what about those other pieces?

You may have wondered about the meeples in the banner – these are an aftermarket set I bought from Meeple Source. I have a set for Forbidden Desert as well.

I am hoping that they do a Forbidden Sky set soon!  The pawns work fine, but I do like playing with the customised pieces and they take up much less room than minis.

They don't improve the game in any way, but the customised meeples are fun to play with 🙂

If you like the idea of sprucing up your games, give Meeple Source a look!  I don’t order much from them because of shipping, but every year they seem to do an upgrade Kickstarter and I can order in bulk whatever catches my eye.

Want to send to someone that may enjoy this?