Forbidden Island : get the treasures and don’t drown!

I love cooperative games (or co-ops) where all the players work together to survive and beat the game. To me the master of co-ops is game designer Matt Leacock. His games are polished and always ramp up the tension the longer you play, but they are not overly complicated or take all night. The first of his games that I tried was Forbidden Island, published by Gamewright. It’s a neat little co-op in which 2-4 adventurers work to get all four treasures while the island is sinking, trying to take both treasures and adventurers with it. It sounds and looks simple, but it won’t be easy to survive the Forbidden Island…

The Basics

forbiddenisland-boxThe board in this game is a so called “modular board” which means that the players build the board themselves from the tiles provided. In this case the board is set up at the start and won’t shift. However, parts of it will sink and disappear. Modular boards are good to ensure replay value. It means that no game will be the same and will vary in difficulty depending on how lucky you are at set up. Forbidden Island is made up of 24 square tiles with beautiful artwork. Eight of these are treasure tiles (two for each treasure) and one is called Fools Landing, which is where the important helicopter pad is located. The tiles are double sided with one side being a two-tone blue version of the location art – it is flooded!

There are two deck of cards in this game: the Flood deck and the Treasure deck. There are 24  Flood cards that correspond to the  24 tiles that make up the board. Cards taken from this deck signify which tile to flood or sink. The Treasure deck consists of 20 treasure cards (5 for each treasure), 3 Helicopter Lift, 2 Sandbags, and 3 Waters Rise! So let’s take look at the cards from the Treasure deck:

  • The treasure cards are used to capture the different treasures that you need. Four cards of a kind will give you the treasure if you get to the right tile.
  • Sandbags are used to shore up a tile for free, at any point in the game.
  • Helicopter Lifts can also be used at any point during the game, to transport pawns from one tile to another for free. One of these cards is needed at the end to escape the island with the four treasures.
  • Waters Rise! are really bad cards. When one of these are drawn you move the marker on the Water Meter (which shows how many flood cards you draw after each turn) one step, shuffle the used Flood cards and put them on top of the Flood deck. These are the cards that will get you!


The game is set up in a square of 4×4 tiles + two tiles in the middle of each side of the square (as the picture below shows). The six top cards are drawn from the Flood Deck and the corresponding tiles are flipped to their blue “flooded” side. Each player chooses and adventurer, and places their pawn on their specific gate tile on the board (except for the Pilot who begins at Fool’s Landing). Each player also gets two treasure cards (which could include Sandbags or Helicopter Lift). The game can begin!

Game setup, with the first six tiles flooded. The Water Meter is set to the “Normal” difficulty. The orange deck is the Treasure deck.

Each turn a player has 3 actions. The type of actions to choose from are:

  • Move: unless you’re the Explorer or Pilot (and later the Diver, but more on that further down) that means one step to the side.
  • Shore up a flooded tile adjacent to you (or below you. Or in the Explorer’s case – diagonally from you). This means it is flipped to it’s “dry” side and is safe from sinking for the time being.
  • Give a treasure card to a player on the same tile as you (unless you’re The Messenger).
  • Capture a treasure by handing in four cards of the correct type at the correct location. The Earth Stone (purple) can be found in the Temples. You can capture The Statue of the Wind (yellow lion) in the Gardens. The Crystal of Fire (red) is hidden in the Caves. And The Ocean’s Chalice (blue) has been tucked away in the Palaces. If the treasure deck runs out, the discard pile is just shuffled and used again.

Once a player has taken up to three actions (they can all be moves, or all shoring up, or a combination of two or all three types of actions) she draws two cards from the Treasure deck. There is a handlimit of five cards, so you exceed that you have to discard down to five. At this point you can use Sandbags or Helicopter Lift while discarding them, which is very handy. Then you draw cards from the Flood deck, equal to the number on the Water Meter, and flip those tiles to the flooded side. Flooded tiles work just as “dry” tiles, except they sink and are taken off the board if their corresponding flood card is drawn again. You can still walk on them and capture treasures on them.If the tile is already flooded when the corresponding Flood card is drawn, it sinks – both tile and card is removed from the game. This creates an ever increasing difficulty throughout the game. The Water Meter can be set to a few different starting points depending on what difficulty level you want to play on. When a tile sinks, only the Diver can move across that space. If a tile sinks with a player’s pawn on it, the player can swim to an adjacent tile. No adjacent tiles? That player drowns and the game is lost.

This is what it can look like after a while. Not many tiles are still dry! Some are flooded and plenty have already sunk. At least two treasure have been captured, so it’s okay that both Caves are sunken and gone.

The only way to win the game is to collect all four treasures, get to Fool’s Landing, and use a Helicopter Lift card to fly away. There are however several ways to fail and die. If the water level reaches the skull on the Water Meter you’re toast (soggy toast). If both of the tiles from which you can get a treasure sinks before you have captured said treasure, there is no use to continue the quest and the adventurers fling themselves into the sea in despair. If Fool’s Landing sinks there is no way to get off the island and you all starve to death. And if one of the adventurers drown the others get so depressed they follow him into the deep. Doesn’t sound as easy anymore does it?

Most co-op games come with different characters for the players to use, and these characters possess special abilities that will help in the game. Forbidden Island comes with six different adventurers (even if it’s a game for a maximum of four players) with different specialities/abilities. The outcome of a game depends partly on the luck of the draw and your strategy, but also a lot on the kind of team that you have assembled. The first few times you might want to try out different combinations, but eventually you will probably want the challenge of a blind draw. The characters to choose from are as follow:

  • The Diver (black), who can swim across deep water (= missing tiles). That also applies if the Diver is on a tile that sinks.
  • The Engineer (red), who can shore up two tiles for one action (instead of just one).
  • The Explorer (green), who can move (also when a tile sinks) and shore up diagonally.
  • The Messenger (grey), who can give cards to any player without sharing a tile with them.
  • The Navigator (yellow), who can move other players up to three steps for one action.
  • The Pilot (blue), who can fly to a tile of their choice for one action (instead of walking), even when the tile sinks.

I really enjoy co-ops and they are good when you want to engage newbies who don’t feel ready to go head to head with you. But it’s important to let them work out strategies themselves. You who know the game will see the best moves easily, and it will be tempting to just instruct everyone but that is only fun for you. Discuss the strategy and gameplay, help the ones who struggle, but don’t boss people around. If someone seems lost, help them see a few different options and let them make their own decisions. Only really stop them if it’s a really bad move, but do it nicely along he lines of “Have you considered this option?” instead of “NO! Go there!” If you lose the game, no harm done – you can just start over! That’s the fun of gaming after all. Forbidden Island is the perfect introduction to co-op play as it’s easy to understand (and teach), and with a rather limited amount of choices that can be made on each turn. There’s not as big of a risk of one player taking all control of the strategy as you can’t really plan that far ahead, and it’s also easy to see what needs to be done here and now.

The components of Forbidden Island are of good quality. The cards are of decently good stock, and the tiles are nice and thick. The pawns are old fashioned ones (rather than “fancy” meeples) and made of wood. The treasures are nice too, made from different kinds of plastic and/or rubber. The game comes in a nice tin rather than a cardboard box, and what makes me really happy is that the insert is perfect. Not much dead space, and a dedicated spot for every single game piece.

The box insert. Doesn’t it look great?

In the end Forbidden Island is a really good game that looks deceptively simple. I’ve played it many times, and one of my friends has never managed to survive the island when we’ve played it together, despite playing it in Novice mode. The island can truly be ruthless.


  • Title: Forbidden Island
  • Designer: Matt Leacock
  • Publisher: Gamewright
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 30 min 
  • Type: co-op, set collecting
  • Size: medium
  • Release year: 2010

BGG link


2 thoughts on “Forbidden Island : get the treasures and don’t drown!

  1. New to coop game.
    Two questions: 1) Can engineer shore up any tiles on the island or only adjacent one?
    2) What does capturing treasure means? Should we keep the treasure on the tile same as our pawn and move it to fools landing with the pawn or you just basically say its captured, and take them out of game?


    • Hi there!

      1) It’s still only adjacent tiles, but the engineer can do two (to the right and left for example. Or whichever combo you need that’s adjacent) instead of one for each action which is very useful.

      2) You just take it off the board and keep it with your other cards. I like to put mine on the character card or just next to it. That way it’s easy to remember that you got to it in time, and no need to waste precious movement points on getting it back to Fool’s Landing. Actually you never put the treasure on any tiles in the first place. They’re a bit too big for that, and it will be annoying when you have to flip the tiles a lot. I like to place them just outside of the board, near one of the two tiles where you can get that particular treasure (as you can see in the set-up picture)

      Does that all make sense?



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