It feels like games season, with all of the sales and PAX Unplugged literally overflowing my game room shelves (I’ve resorted to stacking games on the floor). There are so many exciting games I haven’t played enough to review yet…Gloomhaven, TI4, Nations, Exceed, Fog of Love, Pandemic Legacy Season 2. What’s a guy to do? In my case I’ll hide from my stacks of games and review an old standby. Honestly I’m kind of surprised I haven’t reviewed Forbidden Desert yet. I always feel like I’m king apologist for this game, brazenly declaring to all who can hear that it’s superior to Pandemic (and maybe even Pandemic Legacy–how’s that for brazen?). But alas, no review yet. Let’s fix that.
I’ve been playing a lot of games that seem to want to appear bigger than they are. They hint at a world beyond the game mechanisms, or leave a ton of space in the insert for promised expansions, or they’re legacy games or campaign games with surprises and story arcs. I love the sense of scale that board games can have, don’t get me wrong. But Forbidden Desert is exactly what it wants to be and nothing more. It feels complete and full. And that’s nice.
The story is that you’ve crashed your magical flying machine in a mysterious (forbidden) desert, and you need to find the lost ship parts and get out of there before the sands consume you or you die of thirst. Anyone who has played Pandemic will know the gist of how to play. On your turn, you get four actions to spread between moving, digging, and picking up ship parts. See, this is a desert so everything is annoyingly buried in the sand. And then more sand stacks on top of it like layers of a grainy, flavorless cake.
The problem is that you’ve crashed in a sandstorm. After each turn you draw a number of cards that show where to move the eye of the storm (represented by a blank space in the grid–so you’re moving it like one of those slide puzzles. So cool). Everywhere it moves it drops another sand token. Run out of sand tokens? You lose the game. Two sand tokens on your location? You have to un-bury yourself before you can move. Want to see what’s on the other side of that tile? Better get all the sand off of it first. Sand will become your most hated enemy and you will curse its name. That and the sun. Scattered into the bad stuff™ deck are “sun beats down” cards that cause everyone not in shelter to lose one thirst point. Get to zero and you DIE. And also everyone loses.
The sandstorm and thirst issues are perfectly implemented flavors of the necessary co-op entropy. I love how visceral and thematic the sandstorm is, and thirst creates its own difficult choices. Together they create a nice blend of challenges. See, the sandstorm is the simplistic entropy machine. It deposits more sand on average than you can dig up, so you’re trying to maximize your sand removal efficiency as much as possible to give you the ability to uncover the necessary tiles. Thirst, on the other hand, is a much more rare, but serious issue. Some of the characters will barely make it through the deck of cards the first time through because of their pathetic thirst-itude. They’ll need a water solution, and fast.
What can you do about it? Well, there are three tiles that look like oases. Two of them are, but one is a mirage. Mirages suck. An oasis will help you get some water. Even better are tunnels. There are two sets of tunnels among the tiles in the game, and you can travel between them, which is rad. Even radder is the fact that you don’t get thirsty in tunnels, just like in real life. The point is that while the sandstorm slowly beats you down with its relentless persistence, thirst is more fragile and sudden. Both need to be managed carefully.
The game is classic co-op efficiency plays and managed risk-mitigation. It’s a bit more chaotic and random than Pandemic, but I think that’s a good thing. See, Pandemic has the brilliantly thematic mechanism where cities that are hit with diseases are more likely to continue being hit. The problem with that, from a mechanical standpoint, is that it makes it easy to effectively count cards and know exactly what your odds are in any given situation mid/late game. The sandstorm of fate is ever chaotic, however, and in a 30-45 minute game, I don’t mind the marginal increase in randomness. Being able to calculate the exact odds drives down the tension for me, and creates a more frustrating experience. I’d rather have more of a general impression of my chances, and see what the cards do from there.
There’s a wonderful narrative arc contained in this box. You land in the same spot with some sand strewn about, but not much. As you spread out and quickly try to uncover as many tiles as possible the sand builds up rapidly and thirst becomes a serious issue. Around mid-game everyone needs to start figuring out what they’re going to do about their thirst, which creates a nice beat of crisis. Soon you start to find parts, and recovering those parts gives hope. But as the sand builds up and the heat gets more intense, the group has to all rush back to the landing pad in a final push before the desert envelops them. It’s a little 45-minute built-in story every time you play.
Forbidden Desert has a lot of really nice touches that spice up the game. If the eye of the storm hits the edge of the map and can’t go any further, it simply doesn’t drop any more sand. Seeing it stuck in a corner and repeatedly issuing no negative effect is a nice victory in the midst of chaotic despair.
Each player will have a different character with their own special abilities, which helps make everyone feel like they’re contributing in their own way. The climber can navigate large sand dunes, the archeologist is twice as good at digging up sand, and the water carrier can…distribute water. Utilizing the special abilities is so important to doing well, too, because they’re just so powerful. Without them the game would be too simplistic and the choices would be too repetitive.
Another nice touch is the fact that the location of each of the ship parts isn’t on any one particular tile. Rather, there are two tiles that show the row and column of the part’s location, and the actual spot isn’t locked in until both are revealed. This means that when you reveal one of them, you’ll know an approximate location, but not an exact one, which adds another layer of suspense and risk management.
Additionally, every time you uncover a tile you get something cool. Even if you’re not acquiring water or finding the coordinates for a ship part, you at least get a card from the deck of gizmos designed to help you along. They’re very powerful, too. The dune blaster will immediately remove all the sand tiles from one location. The jetpack lets you jump to any spot on the map. The solar shield will block the sun on your tile for an entire round. Using these cards wisely is absolutely necessary to victory, and acquiring them feels nice, even if it’s really a consolation prize.
The cherry on top of this delicious game sundae is the fact that the ship parts you’re recovering attach to an actual plastic flying machine model so, upon victory, you can assemble the ship and fly it away while making whirly flying machine sounds. It’s pure embellishment and I love it. Bravo, Gamewright.
Problems As Old As Time
Despite Forbidden Desert’s lighthearted tone betrays its sometimes brutal difficulty. I’ve played my fair share of this game and I still play on the “normal” difficulty. It’s hard, and every single decision matters. The downside to this is that there’s absolutely nothing in the game that prevents quarterbacking. Like with Pandemic, a game of Forbidden Desert can be easily ruined by one overly-aggressive person who wants to dictate the game. You’ll need to be careful to avoid this.
Also, at the harder difficulties some of the roles are simply better than others. We’ve found that the water carrier is overrated because if you’re going to win at a hard difficulty, you’ll need to do it fast. Solar shields are tunnels are way more important because you don’t have to coordinate your actions with the water carrier person to spread the liquid love. All of those actions moving around are actions not spent digging sand and uncovering tiles. More valuable are the people who can do things fast, like the navigator and the archeologist. And if you’re going to brave higher difficulties, you should be custom-arranging your characters rather than choosing at random as the rulebook suggests. Doing this helps navigate the challenge, but it does make everything feel more game-y. Tradeoffs.
And with nearly all co-op games of this nature, Forbidden Desert does have the potential to reduce into a game of drawing “you lose” cards. How games avoid this demoralizing problem is elusive, but Forbidden Desert doesn’t feel like that to me. I can see how it could be a problem for others.
At the end of the day, Forbidden Desert is a rock solid co-op game that I’ll play anytime. The visual and tactile nature of the shifting sandstorm elevates it above its peers, and it finds a perfect level of tension through randomness for its style and length. I love that, despite having important powers and getting awesome tools, the game still feels challenging and fresh on normal difficulty after dozens of plays. Did I mention that it’s only about $20? It’s a bite-sized chunk of cooperative goodness that works for both the family and the game group. It doesn’t avoid the problems associated with other co-ops like Pandemic, but it does seem to rise above them better.
+The moving sandstorm is perfectly thematic
+Challenging with the right amount of luck
-Quarterbacking can be an issue
-Some characters are better than others