Thursday, June 27, 2013

Game Review: Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright

Matt Leacock is the designer of the hit games Pandemic and Forbidden Island. Forbidden Island is often described as a "lighter" version of Pandemic. Now his highly anticipated Forbidden Desert has come out. I played it at the 2013 UK Games Expo, bought a copy, brought it home, and have played a few more times.

The story of the game is that you and one to four friends have flown a helicopter to the middle of a desert where an ancient city is buried. You all came to find a legendary flying machine, but a sandstorm has kicked up. The helicopter crashed and now you frantically search for the missing parts, hoping to rebuild the flying machine before thirst or the storm get you.

The game is played on a 5 by 5 grid of 24 desert tiles. Those of you quick at math will realize that leaves one empty space in the grid. This space is the storm. It will move around during the game, dumping additional sand on tiles, requiring more effort to dig out the ancient city. If too much sand piles up (i.e. the sand markers run out), all the players lose the game.

Sample play area from the rules book

Players randomly choose different roles (archeologist, climber, explorer, meteorologist, navigator, water carrier) who have different special abilities. The roles also have a water meter indicating how much water they are carrying. As the storm continues, occasional "Sun Beats Down" cards will cause everyone to drink, reducing their water. Three of the tiles look like oases, where a well can provide additional water. Too bad one of them is a mirage! If one person runs out of water and the sun beats down again, all the players lose the game.

Players perform up to four actions during their turns--either moving, removing sand, excavating the city, or picking up a part. Excavating is required as it will eventually reveal the location of the missing parts. An excavated tile is flipped revealing either a part of the city (the player then draws an artifact that gives a special one-time power), a tunnel (which provides an artifact, shelter from the sun beating down, and the ability to move to other revealed tunnel tiles), the launch pad (where the players must go after gathering all the missing flying machine parts) or a clue to a missing part's location. Each part has two clues, one indicating an up/down axis, the other a left/right access. Once both are revealed, the part can be placed on the appropriate tile where a player can pick it up. If it isn't buried in sand. Then the player will have to dig.

After the actions, storm cards are drawn. The number depends on how intense the storm is. Most cards move the storm around and cause sand to accumulate on tiles. I've already mentioned the "Sun Beats Down" card. Another type of card increases the storm's intensity, possibly upping the number of storm cards drawn. If the storm intensity track gets too high, all the players lose the game.

Top row is storm cards; bottom row is some of the artifacts

The game is a fun co-operative game with really great parts and interesting game mechanics. The tiles and sand markers are thick, sturdy cardboard, much like the tiles in Forbidden Island. The parts for the flying machine are solid plastic components (again, like in Forbidden Island) and fit into the main machine well.

Flying machine and parts

Ready to escape!

The way the storm moves and builds up obstacles works well though it is not immediately obvious how it works. The rules explain it fairly clearly. Game play is fun and exciting like Leacock's previous games with players discussing what the best plan is. The game seems to favor fewer players. On the one hand, two players can't be all over the board. On the other hand, they can support each other better with water resources. With five people scattered in each corner, the sun beating down is more of a problem and the water resource has been the make or break part of the game for the larger groups I've played with.

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: Since this is a co-op game, it could be played solo with any number of the roles taking turns. The game is a little bulky to carry around. It doesn't really give players any zombie fighting or surviving skills, but it is so much fun it will be a great mental diversion from the grimness that comes with living in an apocalypse.

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