‘Batten down the Chronotron’ he said. ‘We’ll make it so long as the power crystal holds out’ he said. ‘The only way out is through’ he said. And now here I am, the finest engineer my guild has ever seen, and what am I doing with my life? Digging, with a shovel no less, through this gods-forsaken desert in some vain hope that I’ll come across our engine. The Sun beats down like a raging inferno, the desert winds do little too cool me off and, of course, that damn dust storm covers up ground twice as fast as I uncover it. ‘You get the engine’ he said, running off with both our sand blasters and the reserve “water” supply, which we all knew was gin ’I’ll get the rest!’. If we get out of here alive I swear I’m throwing the captain back overboard.
Forbidden Desert is a 2-5 player cooperative game about the crew of a crash-landed steampunk airship. You need to search the desert for the missing components of your ship, desperately digging them out of sand that keeps piling up and trying to chase them down in an ever-shifting environment before the sandstorm truly picks up and all chance of leaving is lost. The game certainly feels a lot like Matt Leacock's previous game Forbidden Island, but refined, made more difficult, and with a cute airship model.
The game consists of a 5x5 grid of tiles (with a gap left in the centre) which all feature desert on one side and a feature on the other. Thee of the tiles have a small water drop on them indicating that they have water on the reverse side, however only 2 actually do, one is a mirage. The feature side of the tiles can be wells; which restore water to everyone on the tile when they are revealed, tunnels; which provide fast travel across the desert and shelter from the harsh sun, empty bits of city which provide an equipment card, and clues which tell you which row/column a ship part is in. Find both clues for a ship part and you place it at the intersection of the clues, all that’s needed then is to go there and collect it.
At the end of each turn you will be drawing storm cards, the exact number varies on the game difficulty you chose and increases as the game goes on. Most of these show an arrow and a number of tiles which relate to the movement of the gap in the game setup, the gap represents the eye of the storm which is constantly moving around and moving the desert around with it. Each tile that gets moved by a storm card gets one additional layer of sand placed on it, a tile with 2 layers of sand is impassable without being cleaned up so this can soon restrict travel. The other two cards that can appear are Storm Picks Up cards; which slowly increases the rate that you draw storm cards, and Sun Beats Down; which serves to drain water from everyone’s canteen (assuming they aren’t in the shade).
It’s always worth reviewing the ways you can lose a coop. In forbidden desert you lose the game if any one player runs out of water (water level reaches the skull on their player card), or if you run out of sand tiles to place when the storm moves, or finally if the storm meter reaches the skull at the top. There is, of course, only one way to win, collect all 4 ship parts and get everyone onto the launch pad (another hidden tile) to escape, at which point it is mandatory to pile all of your playing pieces onto the ship and swoosh it through the air back into the box. This is a vital part of the game experience!
Each turn you get 4 actions which can be spent moving 1 tile, removing 1 layer of sand from a pile, digging up (flipping over) the tile you are standing on or picking up a ship part at your feet. The last two can only be done after you have cleared all the sand from the tile you are standing on. There are also a range of free actions, trading/using equipment and trading water, which can all be used at any time. In addition each player has a unique ability that ranges from being able to move other players to being able to draw water from an already used well, good use of these abilities is important to do well in the game.
I found the game to be very fun and it has quickly risen to near the top of our most played game list, an impressive feet for a game we’ve had for about 2 weeks as of me writing this. The game has that extra bit of spice that makes it a bit more enjoyable than Forbidden Island, the water mechanic gives incentive for players to group up at certain points of the game or spend actions to stay inside tunnels if their water supplies are low. All of this results in more teamwork, you really feel that you need to help each other any way possible, and surely that is what a coop is about! All being said the game is noticeably easier with less players, with 2 players we’ve managed to win fairly soundly at the higher difficulty levels, while a 5 player game set on normal resulted in people dying of dehydration before we found any ship parts. But really what’s the fun of a co-op where success is guaranteed? Forbidden Desert is brutal at times and for that I applaud it!
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