Matt Leacock is the dean of cooperative games, thanks to his crossover hit Pandemic and his entry-level game Forbidden Island, both of which use the same general structure to get everyone involved in pursuit of a common goal while still giving each player some individual characteristics. His newest game, Forbidden Desert, attempts to bridge the gap between the simplicity of Forbidden Island and the difficulty (not to mention stress level) of Pandemic, and largely succeeds, although the challenge is probably closer to that of the latter game.
In Forbidden Desert, two to four players form part of a team stranded in a desert, represented by 24 tiles laid out at random in a five by five grid on the table, with the central spot left blank. That spot represents the sandstorm, which will shift after each player’s turn, causing sand to pile up on nearby tiles. Players work to uncover tiles and locate clues, found on eight of the 24 tiles, that point to the locations of four parts used to reconstruct a flying machine to escort them out of the desert. The team must do this before the supply of sand tokens is exhausted, before the storm’s intensity reaches its maximum level and before any of the players runs out of water.
That final constraint is a new feature for a Leacock game—each player has an individual measure of health, and the team has to work to ensure that none of the players drops down below zero on his/her water scale. The master deck of cards that controls the movement of the sandstorm also includes four “Sun beats down” cards that cause each player to lose (drink) one of his/her remaining waters. Players begin with a fixed quantity of water, but Forbidden Desert offers very limited opportunities to add more during the game, mostly through two tiles with water wells on them, which supply water only when first uncovered—unless one of the players has the Water Carrier role and can go back to the well again and again to ferry water to other players. Every four-person game I’ve played so far has ended with someone running out of water, more than once because two Sun cards came up within a single turn. It’s hard to prepare for that while also hunting for clues.
Beyond the water variable, Forbidden Desert is going to feel a lot like Leacock’s other games to experienced players. On each turn, a player has four actions s/he can use, including moving to an adjacent tile, flipping a tile over, removing a sand token from a tile or picking up one of the machine parts. Half of the tiles have gear symbols that give the player a special card that grants one-time use of a specific power, such as a Solar Shield (stopping the effects of a Sun card) or a Dune Blaster (wiping out all sand tokens from an adjacent tile). After a player’s turn, two to six cards from the master deck are revealed; most move the sandstorm around, adding sand tokens to shifted tiles, but the deck includes four Sun cards and three cards that increase the storm’s intensity, meaning more cards are drawn each turn. If the intensity level gets too high, the players lose, although by that point you’ll likely have run out of water twice over.
As in Pandemic and Forbidden Island, players can assume specific roles that grant certain powers or skills, such as removing two sand tokens in a single action or the aforementioned Water Carrier’s ability to gain extra water from explored wells. Without the Water Carrier, a four-player game becomes extremely difficult to win unless players uncover the parts quickly. As with all Leacock games, it’s an easier slog with two players, in this case because no one will die of thirst waiting for his/her turn to come back around again, but is still sufficiently challenging. We always found a good balance between coordination and one or two people taking command, perhaps more so than in Pandemic because each player was always focused on whether s/he was about to run out water. On the other hand, there’s more luck involved in winning Forbidden Desert than there is in Pandemic because you’re looking for clues that are randomly distributed on the board and can only be discovered through trial and error.
Forbidden Desert takes 45 minutes to an hour for a full game with four players, with very little time lost to setup; a game with two players is about 15 minutes shorter. My daughter, aged 7, had no problem understanding the rules or the overall concept of the game. Like Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert comes in a metal box, and even includes the ancient flying machine and plastic parts to be attached to it when the players discover them. Its format is familiar, feeling almost like an expansion of the other two games rather than a brand-new title, but addresses a need for a game that isn’t quite as difficult as Pandemic but is more challenging than Forbidden Island.
Forbidden Desert was designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature and more, at meadowparty.com/blog/.