REVIEW – Forbidden Desert

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Forbidden DesertName: Forbidden Desert
Publisher: Gamewright
Type: Cooperative game
Players: 2-5
Best with: 2-5
Length of Playtime: 30-40 minutes


Give It to Me Quick: Forbidden Desert is a satisfyingly medium difficulty cooperative game, several steps more difficult than (and the anticipated follow-up to) Forbidden Island. Intelligent mechanics, fun theme and components.  You’ll be working as a team to excavate sand, moving around the desert to find where missing parts of a flying machine are hidden, and ensuring that the entire team has enough water. As you might have guessed, a sandstorm will keep moving the tiles around and the hot sun will keep draining your water supply. Your ultimate goal is to find all four parts of the flying machine to escape the desert.

A very different game from Forbidden Island.

A very different game from Forbidden Island.

Gameplay Summary

At the start of play, the game tiles are shuffled and placed face down in a 5x5x5 grid. Then, sand tiles bury a pattern of the game tiles, hiding what is underneath. Players will need to excavate the tiles to find where the machine parts that they are looking for are hidden.

Initial setup

Initial setup. Everything is hidden or buried.

Each player is assigned a role which gives them a special ability to help the team. For example, typically players can only excavate one sand tile at a time. The player assigned as the Archaeologist can remove two at a time.

On their turn, players move around the desert, using up to four Actions. They will uncover equipment, tunnels, oasises (oasii?), and ultimately the four pieces of the flying machine. At the end of each player’s turn, Storm cards are drawn which either move the Storm around the board, shifting game tiles and burying them in sand, or cause the sun to “Beat Down,” draining each player’s water supply.


How many players is it best with?

To have a better chance to win the game, sometimes it seems easier to win with more players since you have more of the roles used in the game. Other times it seems easier with fewer players since there are fewer players to worry about their water supply. One thing is for sure; it’s a lot harder than Forbidden Island in both cases.

If you ignore the whole thing about forever being lost in the desert, or running out of water, Forbidden Desert is definitely more fun the more players that you have. We’ve had a lot of fun with four players, and lost the first five times we played. Each time, though, we were so close. We needed to keep trying.

We’ve played with two players multiple times as well. It’s fun as well, and varied/interesting enough to keep you coming back.


Our Positives

Since the game board is random every time, it’s a lot of fun anticipating what you will uncover as you start to unbury tiles. It is also cool how you locate the machine parts; the player must uncover both a horizontal and a vertical tile corresponding to the same part. Once both the horizontal and vertical pieces are uncovered, they create two lines that intersect the tile where the part may be found.

The water requirement for each player adds a palpable sense of urgency to each turn. Several times we had decided on what our next move would be, only to lose water in back-to-back turns and require an immediate change of strategy to find the nearest water source. These strategy shifts also happen from turn to turn as the storm moves the tiles around.

Each player has their own water level. Anyone runs over!

Each player has their own water level. Anyone runs out…game over!

Forbidden Desert has an interesting built-in timer. Not only is there a turn limit with an increasingly strong storm, you have to keep moving and removing sand, since the longer the game goes on, the more sand keeps piling up. Near the end of the game you’ll find yourself splitting up part of the team to cover damage control while the rest keep exploring. Or you’ll have people cowering in tunnels, nearly out of water, helpless until the Water Carrier arrives. That happens a lot too.

Just as in Forbidden Island, the game tiles and pieces are very high quality, which adds to the great theme of the game. Unlike in Forbidden Island, players don’t have to wait for the game to “come to them” and wait until they draw the cards they need. In Desert, players know what tiles are left to excavate and can determine the best way to do so. Send the Climber with the Water Carrier to grab that tile and the oasis on the way back? Check. Send the Archaeologist through the tunnel to prepare the way for the Explorer? Got it.  There is a lot of cooperative interaction in this game and it’s a lot of fun.



The game looks great.

Our Negatives

The different player roles are well balanced, with one exception. In our ten or so playthroughs, and especially in games with more players, the Water Carrier has proven nearly indispensable to winning the game. Since being able to continually retrieve water is so important, we’ve lost many times when no one had that role in the game.  If you’re up for a challenge, winning without the Water Carrier is it. Increasing the difficulty level? More power to you.

Sometimes “Sun Beats Down” will hit your team multiple times right at the beginning of the game. If you don’t have a tunnel excavated yet, then you’re at the mercy of the luck of the card draw that another one won’t happen soon. And if you do have a tunnel excavated, sometimes you have no choice but to sit there and wait for someone to bring you water. And if you don’t have anyone who can do that, well then you just have to sit, a burden to your teammates. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it’s annoying for players that always want to do something.








35_party for a Party No, though if it were played in a corner somewhere it would probably draw a crowd.
casual Casual Depends; if the group is up for a cooperative game, yes. Desert is more intricate and deeper than Forbidden Island.
35_competitive Competitive No, you’ll be lucky to last one turn through the deck without teamwork.
35_strategy Strategic Yes, even if you’re not much of a cooperative gamer, you’re constantly juggling risk/reward decisions for the whole team.


Final Thoughts on Forbidden Desert

The water requirement adds an extra dimension to the game; it requires all players to be aware of everyone at all times. In one game this created a great moment where we finally assembled our entire water-starved team on one of the remaining water tiles to excavate it, only to flip and find it was only a mirage. Of course, we lost a few short turns later. It was an amazing letdown moment that you simply wouldn’t get except in a cooperative game.

Forbidden Desert is a great follow-up to Forbidden Island. It definitely feels like a different game and is quite a bit harder than Island. Even though you’ll lose many times, you’ll feel that that you need to try “just one more time” to beat it. Addicting and fun.

Similar games: Forbidden Island   Pandemic

Check out more reviews!

Forbidden Desert






      Game Mechanics





          • - Challenging but quick to pick up
          • - Creates lots of interesting team moments
          • - Good varied roles


          • - Some players will find the water requirement unforgiving.

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