Last Updated on September 1, 2022
I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating. Not like you, Dear Reader. You’re soft and smooth.
Now, Forbidden Desert has a lot of sand. That’s right. But don’t let that put you off. This is one fun excavating adventure. (Unless you’re Anakin Skywalker. Probably best to stick to Dejarik). Check out the full Forbidden Desert review below.
Brief Overview of Forbidden Desert
With your helicopter having crash-landed in the center of an arid desert, your team of archaeologists has only one hope for survival. Traversing the dry and barren landscape, you must track down and excavate a legendary flying machine from beneath the dunes.
A game based on cooperation, decision-making, and a whole lotta sand, you better get your act together or you might find yourselves victims of the encroaching Sand Storm. That’s if you don’t die of thirst first.
Anyone got a drink?
Versions & Expansions
Forbidden Desert is a standalone game. However, it’s part of a series designed by Matt Leacock that also includes:
Forbidden Island, the predecessor to Forbidden Desert, uses some of the same mechanics as the original but is very much a game in its own right. This time, it’s a battle to survive on an island that’s sinking. As the water rises, things start to look increasingly pear-shaped.
In this installment of the series, players find themselves on a mysterious floating platform in the sky. As the storm intensifies, your job is to connect up and launch your rocket before you get struck by lightning or blown off the edge.
Unboxing Forbidden Desert
Forbidden Desert comes in a shiny metal tin. It’s probably not for everyone, but it certainly looks bold. Inside you’ll find:
- 49 cards (31 storm cards, 12 equipment cards, 6 adventurer cards)
- 48 sand markers
- 24 double-sided desert/city tiles
- 6 wooden pawns
- 6 meter clips
- 4 flying machine parts (propeller, engine, solar crystal, navigation deck)
- 1 Sand Storm Meter
- 1 Sand Storm Meter stand
- 1 flying machine model
There’s a lot to like about the Forbidden Desert components. It feels like plenty of thought has gone into how to make them visually interesting and intuitive, both of which contribute to the ease of playing this game (although, not winning it!).
The ship itself is the stand-out bit for me. It’s largely plastic but feels nice and sturdy. The pieces that you fit together throughout the game do so seamlessly – often something that could end up being quite awkward. In particular, I really liked that they made the engine part out of metal. It feels great. And, while it’s totally not necessary, it shows the pride the designers have in the game.
The character cards all come with plastic canteen-level indicators attached to them. These can be a little fiddly, but I like how they don’t overcomplicate things and make the cards much more mobile during play.
On the artwork, I loved it. The city has been designed nicely and it made it all the more fun unearthing (unsanding?) the different parts of it to see what lies beneath. The cards and characters are also beautifully designed, with a very Phileas Fogg-style presentation. It all contributed fantastically to the theme.
How to Play Forbidden Desert
To start, create the game board by laying out the 24 desert/city tiles desert-side-up in a 5×5 grid, with one missing in the center. The gap in the middle represents the Sand Storm. Then place eight sand markers on eight separate tiles in a diamond formation.
Next, set up the Sand Storm meter and select the Sand Storm Level depending on how many players you have and the difficulty level you want to play.
Finally, randomly deal each player one of the Adventurer cards. This sets out your role for the game and your specific character strengths. The Climber, for example, can traverse obstacles, or the Explorer can move diagonally. Your player card also has a Canteen Level, showing how much water you have left. This starts off at four.
Aim of the Game
To win Forbidden Desert, your team of Adventurers must find all parts of the hidden flying machine and then congregate at the LaunchPad to put it together and escape.
However, time is against you. You could run out of water and die of thirst (Canteen level reaches zero), become buried by the desert (run out of sand markers) or get swept away by the storm (Sand Storm meter reaches zero). Either way, none are a nice way to ‘expire’ (as the game likes to describe it).
Players all start with their pawns on the Helicopter Crash Site. Each players’ turn is split into two phases:
- Take actions
You can take up to four actions on a turn. These can be any of the following:
- Move – move to an adjacent tile, providing it isn’t blocked by two or more sand makers or the Sand Storm.
- Remove sand – remove a sand marker from your tile or an adjacent tile.
- Excavate – providing your tile is desert-side-up and has no sand markers on it, flip it over. This will reveal part of the ancient city and will also have some special instructions. You could unearth a well that gives every player on the tile one extra water; find some useful equipment; come across a hidden tunnel, or locate the Launch Pad. Importantly, you could also discover a clue to the hidden parts of the machine. There’s two for each part, and you need to find both to be able to get the part.
- Pick up a part – pick up a part that you have discovered.
Alongside the above, players on the same tile can share water or pass equipment between each other as many times as they like.
- Draw Sand Storm cards
This is when things really start to heat up (sometimes literally) – the desert gets to hit back!
Draw the number of cards from the Sand Storm deck equal to the current Sand Storm meter level. Then, turn each one over and resolve it one at a time.
There are several different ways the storm could act. Most of the time it will move around, leaving sand markers in its wake. This could result in a tile becoming impassable (having two sand markers on it) or your character becoming buried in sand and unable to move until you or a teammate gets you out. Alternatively, you could draw a card that increases the Sand Storm meter level (Storm Picks Up) or causes everyone to need to drink from their canteen (Sun Beats Down).
As the game progresses…
So, that’s the crux of the game. Now your team will move around the board, excavating and digging to find the parts of the legendary flying machine before time or water runs out. Players will need to work together to survive – such as digging each other out of trouble or planning to be in the same place at the same time to share water or resources.
Your First Game of Forbidden Desert
Helpfully, Forbidden Desert lets you choose the difficulty level you want to play at. This is a very hard game, so I strongly advise starting on Novice. However, Normal, Elite or Legendary options are also available (if you choose the latter, you’ll barely have time to pull on your desert shoes before being engulfed by the storm).
I’d note, too, that some of the characters are more useful than the others (although not drastically so). For me, the Archaeologist and Water Carrier, in particular, were very helpful to have in the team. Perhaps it’s worth having at least one of these in your line-up to begin with.
In this regard, make sure you really do leverage your character’s skills, whoever you are. The Water Carrier, for example, should always do what they can to collect and share out water. Even when things aren’t looking too bleak, as you never know how the situation could turn in a short period of time (luckily, for Brits like me who stick religiously to a ‘rounds’ system in the pub, the owed drinks in Forbidden Desert don’t carry over into real life).
Finally, on set-up, make sure everyone’s agreed upon and clear about which direction is North and lay out the tiles as such. Various features of the game, such as the clues to the hidden parts and the directions on the Storm Cards, rely on you having your bearings. So don’t go thinking this is a thematic throwaway.
Pros & Cons
- The damn storm
- Varying levels of difficulty
- If you don’t like random, it’s probably not for you.
My favorite part about this game is the Sand Storm. The nature in which it acts is totally random and can’t be predicted, a lot like real storms (sorry, meteorologists). This can make it a very tense and unnerving experience. Its trail of sandy havoc can completely alter with no warning, while a quick succession of Sun Beats Down cards could end a game out of nowhere.
Like the other features in the game, it’s a brilliantly thought-through mechanic that fits neatly into the theme.
I loved the co-operation in this game, too. You simply have to work together to win, all using your special abilities to support one another. You’ll probably spend more time digging a teammate out of the sand or sharing water than excavating for parts. And that’s what’s so good about this. The whole experience is about working together to beat the elements.
Now, there’s no doubt about it, this game is hard to win. However, that doesn’t mean it’s hard to learn. This is the perfect family game, as it can be easily picked up by younger players, but is stimulating and challenging enough for the more experienced folks. The nature of its co-operation means that it’s perfectly easy to give advice and share ideas. Indeed, it’s part and parcel of the game. And luckily, if it is proving too challenging, there are several ways you can make it easier if you need to, as well.
Lastly, it may not look it at first sight, but there’s a lot of replayability to this game. The random set up of the map can create an entirely different challenge each time. While the various combinations of characters and their special abilities will require totally different strategies to win.
The only drawback I can see is that some players are unlikely to enjoy the randomness of the game. For me, it’s the beauty of it. But sometimes, drawing the wrong cards will mean there’s simply nothing you can do to win.
Forbidden Desert is a high-energy, co-operative game where you and your fellow adventurers are racing to excavate parts of a legendary flying machine, hidden in the remains of an ancient city. You’ve got to be quick though, a Sand Storm is picking up and you’re nearly out of water!
Fantastically designed and with slick game mechanics, you can’t help but get drawn into the challenge. Players have to work together as a team if they want to win, sharing resources and digging each other out of trouble. It’s quite the bonding experience.
Forbidden Desert is a difficult game, but very enjoyable. There are few co-operative experiences that will bind your team together quite like this one. Whether it’s the rush to share water with a teammate, group efforts to dig someone out of the sand, or that final, last-minute dash across the dunes. It’s intense.
This only works, though, because of some fantastic game mechanics. The unrelenting storm is simply terrifying. The clues to find the hidden parts are electrifying. The random ways that sand markers can build up out of nowhere and totally ruin your plans is excruciating. Forbidden Desert is one slick machine.
It’s all bound together by beautifully-presented components, which impressively draw out the arid desert theme, without making it look boring.
Quite whether you’re going to make it out alive is doubtful. But one thing’s for sure, I could use a glass of water.
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