Friday, April 25, 2014

Board Game Review: Forbidden Desert

Do you like cooperative games? Are you interested in a game that will appeal to your extended family, your children, and your serious gaming buddies? Do you like dying miserably in a hostile, unforgiving desert? If you said yes to any of these questions, then you might be interested in Forbidden Desert, a cooperative survival game designed by Matt Leacock (of Pandemic and Forbidden Island fame). 

In Forbidden Desert, two-to-five players team up as a group of scientists on a mission to excavate a fabled ancient city that's been lost to the desert sands. When they arrive at the site of the buried city, a powerful storm wrecks their helicopter, stranding them at the mercy of the blazing sun and a raging sand storm. To survive, the group will have to work together to unearth the city in search of ancient technologies and, in the process, rebuild a legendary flying machine before succumbing to dehydration or being swept away by the storm. 

Forbidden Desert is a deceptively simple game -- so simple that kids and non-gaming adults will be able to grasp its mechanisms and quickly contribute to the welfare of the group. Beneath that first layer of sand, however, lies a fiercely difficult game that will challenge even the most veteran of gamers. It's a game that strongly promotes teamwork and careful strategizing, and its theme shines through the gameplay so strongly that you'll feel genuine tension and desperation as you attempt to escape the forbidden desert.

Forbidden Desert's playing field is a 5x5 grid of nice, thick cardboard tiles. On the surface, they all bear the same desert imagery, save for three that indicate the possible presence of an oasis and one that shows the crash site of the helicopter, which serves as your starting location. If a tile's clear of sand, it can be excavated by flipping it over to reveal hidden treasures, such as ancient technologies that let you draw a card from the item deck, tunnel systems that you can use to travel the city more quickly, a possible water supply, or clues directing you to the locations of the flying machine's four components. 

The fully-assembled flying machine.

The blank space in the center of the playing field represents the sand storm. After each player completes their actions, they draw from the red "storm deck" to determine how the storm moves and what effects it will have on the composition of the playing field. When the storm moves, it slides nearby tiles into its previous location and dumps sand tiles on them -- too many sand tiles on one location and it becomes blocked until someone spends actions clearing the sand. The shifting sands will move players along with them, having the potential to bury players under the sand and/or move them further away from their desired locations, possibly placing the storm right between them and an ally carrying crucial water. 

Also included in the storm deck are cards that indicate "the sun beats down," causing everyone exposed to the sun's rays to lose one water from their canteen, marked by a sliding clip on the side of your player card. The only other type of card in the storm deck says that "the storm picks up," meaning the storm track increases by one and, at different thresholds, thus requires the players to draw more storm cards at the end of their turn, reflecting the storm growing more intense as the time goes by. Players lose the game if at any time any one of them runs out of water, if the group runs out of available sand tiles to place (becoming completely buried in the desert), or if the storm reaches critical levels.

The only way to win the game is to locate all of the parts to the ship and return to the launch pad as a full group -- a task that's much easier said than done. Fortunately, players have a few tools to assist them in this process; each of the six player "classes" comes with its own unique ability to aid the group in different ways. The explorer can move and clear tiles diagonally; the climber can climb over terrain that would ordinarily be "blocked" by excessive sand tiles; the meteorologist can look at the storm deck to predict what will happen next and move one card to the bottom of the deck; the water carrier can spend an action to draw two waters from a well and give water to players adjacently. 

Storm cards and item cards. 

Players can also receive items from excavating tiles, which can be traded among and shared between one another as long as players are on the same space. These items include, among others, a solar shield that will protect players on that tile from "the sun beats down" cards for one full "round," a dune blaster that can clear all sand tiles at once from any one tile, and a jetpack that will let you fly to any unblocked location on the map. These items are all single-use and are discarded for the remainder of that game after use, frequently putting you in scenarios where you have to make the tough choice of whether to use your items while you have an apparent use for them, or saving them for later when you might not have any other options. 

It's usually necessary for cooperative games to be difficult in order for the gameplay to promote teamwork and strategic deliberation between the players, and Forbidden Desert is a quintessential example on how to pull this off well. The game is hard -- so hard you'll probably lose about half of the games you play. I've played two games at the easiest difficulty setting, once with my family and once with my gaming group of friends, and lost both times. The challenge is apparently so genuine that Mensa declared it one of their "mind games" of the year in 2013. As with many cooperative games, there are usually more threats and priorities than there are players, meaning every turn will come with its own consequences as you decide what risks are worth taking and how you're going to attempt to juggle everything.

The game's desert survival theme comes through very strongly because of these mechanisms. Tensions can run high with the constant risk of running out of water, and the longer you survive, the harder the game gets with more storm cards being drawn every turn. No one ever wants to draw from the storm deck, and everyone can be felt holding their breath with each storm card that's drawn, hoping it's not a "sun beats down" card while someone's stranded by their lonesome with no protection from the sun. As you watch your water supplies slowly draining, you also watch the stack of sand tiles slowly deplete and the meter on the storm tracker steadily rising, and you can feel the desperation that sets in when you realize you have to kick things into gear and make a last ditch effort to find the last part and return to the ship before running out of water or sand tiles. 

The theme and mechanics are so effective that I literally felt thirsty playing this game. I drank two bottles of water and still felt thirsty. 

Here's what some of the excavated tiles look like. 

The artwork and physical components do a really good job of selling the theme, too. Everything features a quasi-steampunk vibe from the brown earth tones to the futuristic machinery juxtaposed with whirring mechanical gears. Subtle bits of storytelling decorate the artwork as well, such as how you find the ship's propeller on a windmill-esque tower, and the ship's solar crystal at a mystical obelisk. As pleasant as the artwork is, it's a bit unfortunate, then, that it spends so much of the game face-down or buried under sand tiles. Even when a tile is excavated for the first time and remains clear of sand, your eye is immediately drawn to the symbols in the corner that tell you what's supposed to happen as a result of turning that tile over, and so the great artwork can go largely ignored and unnoticed in ordinary gameplay. 

Gamewright, the publisher, could have easily manufactured everything on cardstock and sold the game in a much smaller, cheaper box, but having those thick cardboard tiles and a fully three-dimensional aircraft, with slots to attach each of the four components, physically assembling it as you progress, goes an incredibly long way in making the game more visually appealing and inviting. Every time I've pulled that ship out of the box, someone has exclaimed "that's cool." The components immediately grab people's attention and make them much more interested in the game, and they make it much easier to feel immersed in the theme. 

Despite the excellent quality of the components, I get the sense that the box didn't need to be the size that is. There's more than enough room as-is to stack the fully-assembled aircraft in the slot that holds the deck of cards, and the colored "meeples" (each player's little scientist dude) and plastic meter-tracking clips can fit into one slot. If you were to compress the space between the sand tiles and the land tiles, and shift the slot with the meeples and clips down next to the deck and above the sand tiles, then the physical footprint of the box could be reduced by as much as 33% (or more), making it easier to carry around and easier to store. 

Look at all that wasted space. 

And yet, the size of the box is yet another factor in its subtle appeal. The game's (relatively) short length and simple ruleset will make it feel more like a "filler" game to serious gamers -- a game meant to kill an hour's worth of time between heavier games or at the end of the night when you don't have time for a 3+ hour game but aren't quite ready to call it quits -- but the size of the box and the quality of its components give the psychological impression that it's a much more substantial game than a basic "filler" time-waster. And in fact, it is a more substantial game than that because of how challenging and engaging it really is. If you're having a shorter game night (two-to-three hours), this could very well be the focal point of the night because it is such a satisfying game. 

Because of its simplicity, the game will appeal to children and non-gamers (ie, the mass market) just as much as it will to serious gamers. The rules are simple enough to grasp that the entire game can be explained in two minutes or less, and people can get right into the gameplay without feeling overwhelmed. At least, until they start running out of water and getting buried in sand, and by that point they've become invested in the game and fully understand what's happening. This game is so family-friendly that I set it up at a family get-together on Easter Sunday and people were instantly interested in playing. Family members who could only generously be labeled "casual gamers" got into the game and were strategizing as deeply as my brother and I, the two "serious" gamers at the table. Even people sitting around not actively playing were watching intently and contributing suggestions to the group.

Forbidden Desert is a classic example of a game that's "easy to learn, difficult to master" -- an accessible game for virtually all audiences. At a price point of $15-20, it's easily affordable, too, and the quality and inventiveness of the components makes it feel much more valuable than a sub-$20 game. The gameplay conveys the theme of desert survival extremely well, and the challenge (combined with all the random variables) will ensure lots of good replay value. I can't recommend this game enough -- if you've never had an interest in board games before, Forbidden Desert is a solid gateway game that can be enjoyed in varied contexts. 

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