Forbidden Island Review & Board Game Guide

Take a quest worthy of Indiana Jones. Add a doomed Titanic-esque setting. Then subtract the iconic hat, deadly iceberg, nefarious Nazis, and Leo’s surprising talent for painting nudes, and you get the kind of high-stakes adventure found in Forbidden Island.

All you have to do is escape – with your lives and your treasure – from an island that sinks bit by bit with every move you make.

Brief Overview of Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island Cooperative Board Game

Forbidden Island is all about cooperation and strategy. Your goal is to acquire four powerful artifacts from a remote island.

There is, of course, a catch.

The ancient Archeans who first inhabited this island used these treasures to control the four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. And they didn’t want anyone else to harness these powerful artifacts once they were gone. So they did what any mysterious civilization would do; they boobytrapped the island.

Now, with every move your team makes, you risk the island sinking further beneath the waves. Your job is to find the treasure, get to Fools’ Landing, and make a getaway via helicopter before the island and your team ends up on the ocean’s floor.

Versions & Expansions 

Forbidden Board Game Versions

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.

Check out our full review here.

Forbidden Desert
  • Thirst for Survival
  • 2 to 5 players
  • Playing time: 45 minutes

Forbidden Sky: Height of Danger

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.

Forbidden Sky - Height of Danger
  • Soar to dizzying heights in this electrifying adventure!
  • Works as a team to uncover a mystical power platform that floats...
  • Connect a circuit of cables to launch a secret rocket - all...

Unboxing Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island Board Game

Forbidden Island comes in a metal box with rounded edges. It’s sort of like those cookie tins your grandma used to get every Christmas. But instead of stale baked goods, you get:

  • 58 playing cards (28 Treasure cards, 24 Flood cards, and 6 Adventurer cards)
  • 24 double-sided island tiles
  • 6 pawns
  • 4 treasure figurines
  • 1 water meter
  • 1 water level marker
  • Rules of Play

The first thing you’ll notice when digging into Forbidden Island is the bright hues and tasteful artwork. Even the rulebook is lush with color. It includes both textual instructions and visual demonstrations of how to play – and hopefully win – the game.

The tiles used to build your island are thick and sturdy. They are double-sided and include beautiful illustrations. They are labeled with catchy (and ominous) names like “Cave of Embers” and “Cliffs of Abandon.”

The treasures themselves are solid plastic pieces. They represent the powers of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water – but, alas, not Heart, so no Captain Planet will be swooping in to save the day. But my personal favorite is The Crystal of Fire, which is red and transparent and oh-so-shiny.

The water meter is not quite as thick as the island tiles but is still of good quality. It comes with a pinkish water level marker to note just how close your team is to dog-paddling its way home. 

The visual appeal of Forbidden Island carries over to its playing cards. These cards are much thinner, making it easier to shuffle them before each game. They are also standard-sized (2.5″ X 3.5″). This is a huge benefit because it allows you to easily buy sleeves that will fit, protect, and extend the life of your cards.

The only parts of the game that I found a bit unappealing were the pawns. They are wooden and have a nice, solid feel. But they remind me of the pawns used in the classic game of Sorry. This sort of retro look seems more appropriate for Grandma’s tin of Christmas cookies than for the adventurous atmosphere of Forbidden Island.

How to Play Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island Board Game

Building Your Island

Ironically, you get to set up your island before you start sinking it. Take your 24 Island tiles and place them with the colorful sides facing up and the blue/white sides facing down. You will do this in a diamond pattern with six rows (let’s call these A-F). Here’s how many cards will be placed in each row:

  • Row A – 2 cards
  • Row B – 4 cards
  • Rows C and D – 6 cards
  • Row E – 4 cards
  • Row F – 2 cards

It’s important to note that some of these cards have symbols. In the bottom left corner, you might see the image of one of the four treasures. And on the bottom right corner, you might see an emblem that matches a pawn. We will discuss the importance of these symbols a little later on.

The Three Decks

Next, you’ll divide your cards. There are three different decks, each with a different color or image on the back. 

Red cards: This is your treasure deck. It includes:

  • 5 cards for each of the treasures
  • 3 Water Rise! cards
  • 3 Helicopter Lift cards
  • 2 Sandbags 

Blue cards: This is your Flood deck. There is one Flood card for every Island tile. When you draw a Flood card, it will flood – or sink – a tile on your island. 

Adventurer cards: These are the roles you and your teammates will be assigned. Each Adventurer has a different skill that will help you escape the Forbidden Island. 

  • The Explorer may move or shore up diagonally.
  • The Pilot can use one move during his/her turn to move to any tile.
  • The Navigator can transport other players up to two tiles away from their current position.
  • The Diver may swim through any adjacent flooded or sunken tile to get to another tile.
  • The Engineer may use one of his/her moves to shore up two tiles.
  • The Messenger may give any of his/her cards to any other player, no matter what tile they are on.

Let the Flooding Begin

Take your flood deck and place it next to your tile island. Draw 6 cards, one at a time. Place them face up to form the flood discard pile. These cards will tell you which tiles on your island have become flooded. Flip these tiles so that their blue and white faces are now on display.

Assign Adventurers

Now it’s time to assign your adventurers! Shuffle the adventurer deck and deal out one card to each player. Don’t be shy; reveal your role and read your cards to each other. Each adventurer has a special power that you and your team can use to acquire treasure and win the game.

This is where those funny little wooden pawns come in. Each pawn represents one adventurer card. Grab the pawn that matches your adventurer card. Now, also look back at your island tiles.

At the bottom right of the tiles, you’ll see a representation of each adventurer’s pawn. Place your pawn on the corresponding tile. It’s okay if the tile is already flooded at the start of the game; your adventurer is apparently a very strong swimmer.

Treasure Time

Next, you’ll be handing out treasure cards (yay!). Give each player two cards. If any of these cards is a Waters Rise! Card, return it to the treasure deck, and shuffle it back in. Make sure your cards are face up in front of you so that your teammates can see what you’re working with.

Water Meter

Don’t forget to choose the water level. This will decide how difficult your game will be. Take your water meter and place the water level marker at the level of difficulty you’ve decided on. 

Turns and Moves

With each turn, you can take up to 3 actions based on your own logic and the advice of your teammates. There are four different kinds of moves you can make. Don’t forget that some Adventurers have special skills that allow them to bend the below rules!

  1. Move: You can move your pawn to any adjacent tile as long as it is not diagonal to your current tile. This includes flooded tiles, though you cannot skip over or move into the space of a missing tile.
  2. Shore up: With this action, you can flip any adjacent flooded tile that is not diagonal to you. This means you can make flooded tiles unflooded once more.
  3. Give a Treasure Card: If your pawn is on the same tile as another player’s pawn, you are allowed to give them one or more of any of your treasure cards except Special Action cards.
  4. Capture a Treasure: If your pawn is on a tile with a treasure emblem in the lower-left corner, you can discard four matching treasure cards that correspond with the emblem. This includes treasures that are on flooded tiles. Keep in mind, there are only two tiles for each treasure!

After completing the actions in your turn, you must draw two treasure cards. Draw them one at a time and place them face up in front of you. If you draw a Water Rise! card, follow the instructions, and then discard it into the Treasure discard deck.

If you run out of Treasure cards, have no fear! Just reshuffle the Treasure discard pile and use the cards once more.

Flood Cards and Water Rise! Cards

Treasure cards can be a blast to draw, but after doing so you must immediately draw from the Flood pile. The Flood pile is basically the ancient curse of the Archeans; it floods or sinks Island tiles. The number of cards you draw depends on where the water level marker rests on the water meter.

There may only be 3 Water Rise! cards in the deck, but drawing one is no bueno. If you draw one, you must immediately move the water level marker up one line on the water meter. This could increase the number of Flood cards that must be drawn at the end of each turn. The Water Rise! Card goes into the Treasure discard pile.

Remember, each Flood card can flood or sink a tile. So the more cards you draw at the end of your turn, the more likely you’ll lose a tile. And to make matters worse, each time a Water Rise! Card is drawn, you must take the Flood discard pile and reshuffle it into the main Flood pile. This gives the potential to redraw Flood cards that have already been used. 

Drawing a Flood card for a tile that has not yet been flooded will cause you to flip the card. But if you draw a Flood card for a tile that is already flooded, that tile sinks and is removed from the island completely.

Pawns on a tile that becomes flooded stay where they are. Pawns on a tile that sinks must swim to a tile left, right, above, or below the tile that was removed. If there is nowhere for your pawn to swim, the game ends and your team loses.

Winning Forbidden Island

Winning may sound simple enough but it takes a lot of luck, teamwork, and strategy. If you manage to gather all four artifacts, you and your teammates must then make your way to Fools’ Landing. Here, a teammate must use a Helicopter card to extract your team. Then, voila, you have conquered the Forbidden Island!

Your First Game of Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island Board Game Art

If this is your first time playing Forbidden Island, I’d recommend placing your water level marker at the lowest point on the water meter. This will allow you to get the hang of things before taking the plunge and prevent you from getting in over your head (pun intended).

It’s also important to keep your priorities in order. If you lose two of the Island tiles associated with a treasure, you cannot win the game. The same is true if the Fools’ Landing tile sinks. So try your best to use your moves, adventurers, and cards to keep these tiles in place.

Pros & Cons 

Pros:

  • Many gameplay options with each turn
  • Teamwork and brainstorming
  • Ability to adjust the difficulty level
  • Inexpensive gateway game

Cons:

  • A tad difficult for newbies
  • A tad easy for maestros

One of the best parts of Forbidden Island is the array of tile combinations and actions you can take during your turn. One right – or wrong – decision can lead to either triumph or despair. Add to that the variety of Adventurers that can be drawn for any session, and you get to experience diverse gameplay.

The same can be said for Treasure cards and Flood cards. One bad draw and you’ll be destitute and damp, hitching a ride on a dinghy to the nearest bit of land. But at least you’re working with a team. If you lose, you can spread the blame between you and your teammates. If you win, you can celebrate your victory as a group.

And if you master one level of gameplay, you can move the water level marker up a notch and give it another go. A change in players, number of participants, and difficulty level can create an entirely new gameplay experience.

As far as downsides, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Players that are new to board games or cooperative games may struggle to pick up the multitude of rules and diverse gameplay options. But those who are familiar with similar games might find Forbidden Island simplistic in comparison to other more sophisticated cooperative board games.

TL;DR

Forbidden Island hinges on an expedition for powerful relics and an island rigged to sink the moment your team sets foot on it. You embark on your adventure with a sense of excitement and urgency. With a combination of teamwork, strategy, and luck, you can acquire ancient treasures before the ground under your feet literally disappears beneath the waves. 

Conclusion: Verdict?

Forbidden Island is a great introduction to cooperative board games. Its attractive packaging immediately leaves a lasting impression on players. Its combination of Adventurers, Treasure cards, Flood cards, and Island tiles adds diversity and depth to what might otherwise be a pretty but forgettable game.

It also offers levels of complexity and difficulty for players so that gameplay continues to be exciting and compelling, even after multiple sessions. While it may be challenging for novices, it becomes much easier to navigate with a bit of practice. And enthusiasts may find that it’s a comfortable respite from other cooperative games that require encyclopedic knowledge and hours of gameplay.

So if you’re looking to dive into a new game that is both novel and beautifully designed, go ahead and dip your toes into the Forbidden Island. The water’s just fine!

Forbidden Island
  • 2010 Mensa Favorite Brainy Games Winner
  • Join a team of fearless adventurers on a do-or-die mission to...
  • 2 to 4 players

Have you tried Forbidden Island? Let us know what you think by dropping a comment below.

Stats at a glance

Players: 2-4

Ages: 10 +

Easy

30 Mins

Publisher: Gamewright

Published: 2010