Getting lost in the Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert cover: A steampunk aircraft crash landed in a desert. Dust cloud in the distant.

There’s an allure to what we can’t have. My wife tells me not to buy board games, I double down and buy twice as much and start a review site. I tell you this, so you’ll believe me when I say that while I don’t understand why six people ventured into the forbidden desert without a pilot, engineer, or any sort of backup plan; I sure as hell empathize with them.

Forbidden Desert is a cooperative game from Matt Leacock. It plays from 1-5 players, who take the role of brave but dim-witted adventurers trapped in a desert. Dying of thirst, and scared of the ever-growing sandstorm, their only chance to escape is to find and collect all the parts of an ancient vehicle, and then use said vehicle to fly away – Lenny Kravitz style.

A 5 by 5 grid of desert tiles, storm and item decks to the left, ship components to the right.
Before the storm rages on

How to Play

This is an incremental improvement on the design of Leacock’s other cooperative games. Meaning that it follows the blueprint of a player having four actions, and then bad stuff happens. There is only one way to win, and many ways to lose.

Setup has the players laying out 24 tiles in a 5×5 square leaving the centre square empty. This empty space represents the sandstorm that will wreck your game, your day, your marriage and whatever else it can get its windy hands on.

A player’s turn consists of four actions. The following cost one action and can be performed in any order, any amount of times:

  • Move to an orthogonally adjacent tile
  • Remove a sand token from a tile
  • Excavate the tile you’re standing on by flipping it over
  • Pick up a piece of the ancient technology

Once four actions are spent, cards are drawn from the storm deck. There’s a couple different types of cards, each introducing their own losing condition.

Typical Storm cards move the empty storm space across the board like a drunken nomad, leaving sand tiles in its wake. If sand needs to be added, but cannot, then the players lose.

The Storm Picks Up cards increase the number of cards drawn at the end of a player’s turn. If it picks up too much, then the players also lose.

The last are the Sun Beats Down cards. If one of these bad boys are drawn every player not in a tunnel loses water. If anyone’s canteen is completely empty, you guessed it, the players lose.

To get water back, players can excavate one of three Oasis tiles and all players on top of the tile at that time gets two water back. Hidden under one of these tiles is a mirage, meaning there’s no water there except for the tears of thirsty players.

For the team to escape the desert and win the game, they must find the four ancient LEGO pieces, collect them, and then attach them to a generic fantasy flying boat. From there it’s assumed that they figure out how the ancient ship works, and fly off into the sunset. Whereas the more likely scenario is that the aircraft never leaves the ground. The group runs out of food and resorts to cannibalism before eventually starving to death.

All components packed away in the plastic insert.
Everything packed away nicely

The Good

There are so many well thought out ideas that go into this package that by deconstructing it you can tell that the designer has put the effort in. Taking the idea of a sliding picture puzzle and turning it into a cooperative game is alone crazy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The storm deck has an equal amount of left, right, up, down cards and relies on shuffling to create unpredictability. Combined with the rule that says no more sand is placed if the storm were to go off the map, this leads to organically forming peaks and troughs throughout the game. This mechanic leads to times where your team either breathes a collective sigh of relief, or are thrown into a pit of lightning sand from the Princess Bride, but because of the randomness it ends up feeling natural.

Don’t get the wrong idea though, with enough time and TI (Texas Instruments) calculator you could theoretically puzzle out the optimal move every turn. However, for the average game player there are too many variables to comprehend. That said, there’s still objectives to concentrate on, like the four Sun Beats Down cards, and finding the ship pieces. This makes it easy to find a right move, but hard to find the optimal move, because of this there’s a feeling of adventure throughout the game.

The hidden optimal move creates grey areas when deciding on what actions to use, with player priorities further skewing these decisions. This generates team discussions, as each player may have a different idea of what the current player should do. There’s also group decisions that need to be made. Examples being when to gather on an oasis, or when to trade water and items. This need to communicate is reinforced by the losing condition of any team member running out of water.

There is a consistent theme of tactility and table presence throughout the game. The excavating mechanic is a great example because flipping a tile is a tactile event – also no backsies. It doesn’t stop there though, you’re also moving pawns, picking up ship parts, adjusting counters, placing and picking up sand, and sliding tiles around at the will of the storm.

Often games forget that they’re being played in a 3D space, Forbidden Desert however, brings this to the forefront. Real thought has gone into lifting the game off the table in ways that look good and convey information. For example, the stack of sand tokens to the side of the board makes it immediately obvious when it’s running low – important because when you’re out, you’re out. Another example is how the sand tiles pile up on the board, indicating which tiles are in trouble and how much. Then there’s the imposing storm tower that stands well above the board, having this vertical allows all players to see it without craning their necks.

While talking about components, it’s interesting to note that the graphic designer thought about accessibility. Every mechanic is communicated through both colour changes and iconography. Even if you could only see in polka dots you’d still be able to play.

Cards for all of the roles in Forbidden Desert. Including Navigator, Climber, etc.
All the roles!

Another large tick for Forbidden Desert is the quick setup time, and the turns that progress so smooth and fast that it picks up any woman it wants. It’s easy to slip into a rhythm with the only time you slow down being when you need to reshuffle the storm deck. Or if some jerk plays the Meteorologist character, more on that later.

This all goes without mentioning the biggest plus of them all: it’s fun. Excavating is such a rewarding mechanic as it either moves you closer to winning the game, or you gain an item. These items are powerful and when used correctly make you feel like a superhero – amplifying that rewarding experience. Not to mention the difficulty is finely tuned, and great at making you feel hopeful even when there’s no hope to be had.

Finally, I had no good paragraph to put this in but one of my favourite gaming memories is when my team collapsed on an oasis desperate for just one drop of water, only to find the mirage. It was a fantastic gaming moment, and something we still talk about every time we bring out this game.

Late game. Sand tiles have piled up on the board, item cards are being used.
What late game looks like

The Bad

One of the negatives about the ‘four actions then bad stuff happens’ or FATBSH blueprint is that it makes for some boring turns. Turns where you’re not progressing towards the goal, but instead having to bucket water out of a sinking ship. For instance, some turns you must spend all four actions to remove sand. When it’s immediately replaced by the storm, you begin to question the meaning of your life, and how it came to this.

The Meteorologist character allows you, on your turn, to spend actions to either draw a couple storm cards then put one of them at the bottom of the deck, or to not draw them all together after your turn. While strategically important, it ruins the rhythm of the game, having to stop and calculate. Or worse, it also creates turns where all the player does is stop cards from being drawn – this isn’t interactive, or interesting.

Forbidden Desert claims to play from 1-5 but this feels like the biggest lie in pop culture since Milli Vanilli. With the storm hitting after every turn, it increases the games susceptibility to uncontrollable loses for each additional player. In a five-player game, even on the easiest setting you would draw ten storm cards between turns. If you’re not in a tunnel, or you haven’t found one yet, then you better start praying for rain because the sun will have no pity. With four Sun Beats Down cards in the deck there is a decent chance that some adventurers will die before they even get a chance to live.

The game does nothing to stop alpha gamers from taking control – also known as quarterbacking. The game also doesn’t stop people from eating pineapple on pizza. Some people, for better or worse, are just going to do it. Know your gaming group and buy games accordingly.

Lastly, and not really to do with the game itself but the management of these Leacock cooperatives. There are now more versions of Pandemic then Monopoly – don’t quote me. Along with the super popular Forbidden Island, they’re wildly cannibalising their own demographic. Which, looking at Board Game Geek ownership stats, unfortunately means that this game didn’t and still doesn’t garner the interest it deserves.

Close up of the flying machine minature, in the background the storm tracker looms.
In the background the storm tracker looms

The Verdict

Released in 2013, Forbidden Desert is a bit old hat by now. However, it still stands up to the test of time. The design of the game is phenomenal, and the feeling of playing is fantastic. As a huge fan of cooperative games, Forbidden Desert might be at the top of my list. It’s easy to say that this game is a Roll to Review Critical Hit, and furthermore it’s Matt Leacock’s Michelangelo’s David. He got every detail right, even down to the purple meeple between the legs.

Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one dry list. You can see Forbidden Desert’s initial ranking below.

Initial Rank: 8

There have been many games that follow the FATBTH formula, Pandemic, Horrified, Forbidden Island. Why has this mechanic become an almost staple of the cooperative genre? Is it that we’re out of ideas already?

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

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