Never Enough Water: Forbidden Desert

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fans of Geek & Sundry's Tabletop series should recognize Gamewright as the makers of Forbidden Island, a 2010 board game where players race to recover precious artifacts from a rapidly sinking island. The followup, Forbidden Desert swaps water and antiquities for sand and flying machine parts, but it still requires it's players to work together to make it out alive. Last weekend I picked up a copy of Forbidden Desert and played a few games. We were tossed about by a relentless sandstorm, battered by a hostile sun and lost among the ancient city ruins.

I've only played Forbidden Island once, but I remember it to have been a very challenging experience. Forbidden Desert is no less challenging than it's predecessor. Each character has special abilities that give them a particular edge on the environment of the game, but the storm can easily get out of hand if players don't use their abilities to their fullest. A couple of the characters abilities are so useful that not having them in the team is almost certain doom. We only won once without a water carrier, and that was with only two players.

Each player is able to take four actions on their turn. movement, clearing sand, excavating an area and using some special abilities cost one action. Players are encouraged to give advice to each other on the best course of action  since losing even one player ends the game in a loss. Losing a game of Forbidden Desert isn't uncommon. In our five games, we only won twice.

After a player completes their four actions, they draw storm cards. There is an enormous sandstorm that moves around the board, leaving heaps of sand in it's wake. One sand token and the tile is still traverseable, but two or more (in one of our last games, one tile stacked up nine sand tokens) and you can no longer cross the tile until you remove the sand from it. Other cards in the storm deck increase it's severity. As the storm worsens, you'll draw more  storm cards (up to 6) at the end of each turn.

Managing the sand from the storm can be difficult, but it can't touch the terror of running low on water. There is precious little of it in the game, and there's even less without the saintly water carrier on your side. Draw a "Sun Beats Down" card and everyone has to move their water marker down a tic. Should you drop below zero, your character is dead and the game is lost. This was the very cause of our demise twice in our sessions last weekend.

As players move from tile to tile, they will be able to "excavate" the tile to see what lies beneath the sands. Some locations contain valuable one-shot "gear" cards like the Jetpack, which allows a player to move to any unblocked square in  the game. Others contain clues to the location of the airship parts needed to escape. Assemble all four of them at the launchpad and your team is home free.

Forbidden Desert supports up to five players, but the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly with more players. Forbidden Desert gives players a lot to do in a very short period of time. Communication between players is essential, and keeping an eye on everyone's water level can save a game more than once. Just one wrong move can spell disaster, and sometimes that disaster plays out over several more turns. Losing a game of Forbidden Desert isn't so bad, but knowing you're the reason the game went south is really painful.

I really enjoyed Forbidden Desert, and expect to incorporate it into our usual menagerie for game nights with the group. It's not easy, and players should expect to lose more than they win. As a veteran of Arkham Horror, I find every defeat can make victory even more rewarding.