Review – Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island
More than just Pandemic’s little brother?

Designer: Matt Leacock (2010)
Publisher(s): Gamewright
# of Players: 2-4 (solo play is great, too)
Ages: 10+
Play Time: 30 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #222/6.97
Category: Family Strategy Game

As you may already know, Pandemic is my favorite game.  When I heard, ages ago now, that Gamewright had asked Matt Leacock to develop a more family-friendly game similar to Pandemic, I was pretty intrigued.  When Forbidden Island finally came out, in a tin no less, and still had a $16 retail price tag, I was pretty flabbergasted.  But the big question continues to be whether or not it is only “Pandemic Lite” or if it can really stand alone as its own game.  So finally, after all this time and nearly a score of plays, let’s talk…

Game Basics (click here for complete game rules)

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game where the players take on the role of explorers trying to work together to find four powerful artifacts and then escape before the cursed island sinks beneath them.  

Before beginning, the 24 beautiful island tiles are randomly arranged in a roughly circular shape.  6 cards are drawn from the Flood deck and the corresponding island tiles are flipped over to their flooded side (which is all blue and white, rather than being in full color).  Players each get a unique role that grants them a special power, and place their pawn on the island tile picturing their color.  Everyone also starts with a hand of 2 Treasure cards, which are kept face-up on the table for everyone to see. 

One cool thing is that during setup, you get to choose one of four difficulty levels for the game, which range from Novice to Legendary.  This is marked on the Water Meter chart, which determined how many island tiles are flooded each turn. 

Playing the Game

One each player’s turn, they start by performing 3 actions.  The actions are:

  • Move orthogonally to an adjacent tile
  • Shore Up” the tile you’re on or that’s orthogonally adjacent to you by flipping it from its flooded side back to its regular side
  • Give a treasure card to another adventurer who is at your location
  • Capture a treasure by discarding four matching Treasure cards at one of two Island tiles picturing that treasure
The player then draws two additional Treasure cards and adds them to their hand.  Most of these are good, either being actual treasure cards used to claim one of the treasures or special action cards (Helicopter Lifts or Sandbags), which can be used at any time.  However, there are also 3 Waters Rise cards, which are bad. When drawn, the Water Meter is increased one notch and all of the previously drawn Flood cards are shuffled and put back on top of the Flood deck.  That way, the tiles that have already been flooded can be drawn again, making it much more likely that they will sink and be lost forever.

At the end of their turn, the player then turns over the number of Flood cards indicated by the Water Meter.  The tiles corresponding to those cards are flipped over to their flooded side.  If a tile is already flooded, it sinks instead, and is removed from the game (along with its card).  If Fool’s Landing (the helicopter pad) or both tiles for an unclaimed Treasure are sunk, the players lose the game.  If a player is on a tile that sinks, they can usually just swim to an adjacent tile, but if all the orthogonal tiles are also gone, they die and the players lose the game as well.

Winning (and Losing) the Game

Through drawing and giving cards to each other, players will hopefully be able to capture all four of the island’s treasures.  They must then all make their way to Fool’s Landing and play a Helicopter Lift card to escape with the artifacts and win the game. 

As I’ve mentioned before, the game is lost if any player drowns (because there is no tile to swim to when their tile sinks), if Fool’s Landing sinks (since they wouldn’t be able to escape), if both tiles for an unclaimed treasure sink (since they couldn’t claim all four treasures), or if the water meter ever hits the skull and crossbones mark. 


In the German edition of the game, 10 alternate configurations for the island are given.  This adds in a lot of options both making the game more difficult and for just adding replayability for the game in general.  So far, I’ve tried three of them and had a lot of fun with the changed they bring to how you have to play the game. 

Plus, you can find lots of alternate player roles and even more island configurations if you check out the Forbidden Island forums at BoardGameGeek.  There’s even an ArtsCow gallery set up if you want to get them printed out on playing cards. 

The “Bone Island” variant setup

What I Think…

I like Forbidden Island a lot.  In general, I’m a big fan of cooperative games, and this is probably the most notable attempt at creating a family-friendly coop game for the mass market.  The production is gorgeous, and I still don’t understand what kind of deal Gamewright made with the devil to get it packaged in a tin and still have a $16 price point. 

And almost by the nature of being cooperative, this is a perfect game for families to play together.  With open hands, it would be very easy for parents to teach and play the game to children, basically leading them through their turns until they got the hang of it and then slowly handing off control as the child was ready to accept it.  And again, it’s simple enough that older kids should be able to pick up on the rules without much trouble, and it’s short enough (usually 20-30 minutes) that it won’t wear on a child’s attention span too much.  Plus, how cool is it to think about families actually working together to accomplish something in a game rather than always being at each other’s throats in competitive games? 

But despite its relative simplicity and brevity (both of which make it more family-friendly, of course), Forbidden Island is not an easy game to win.  It can be, I guess, if you play at the Novice level, but even at Normal (and certainly at Elite and Legendary), the game hold enough challenge to create the tension necessary to make coop games exciting. 

So, is it just “Pandemic Lite” or not?

Well, to be honest, I guess the answer is sort of both yes and no.

Yes, it has the same basic mechanics as Pandemic.  You have a certain number of actions each turn, chosen from a specific list of things you can do.  You are trying to collect sets of cards to cure/claim the four objectives.  You flip cards from a “bad” deck that creates location-based problems that the players have to manage while trying to cure/claim the objectives.  There is a mechanism where you draw a bad card from the player deck that intensifies how bad things are, and which causes to shuffle the bad cards and put them back on top of that deck (creating “hot spots” of trouble that come back again and again).  And yes, there are lots of ways to lose and just the one way to win.

So, unless it’s for reasons of length and complexity (which is unlikely), people who don’t like Pandemic will probably also dislike Forbidden Island as well.  

However, for fans of Pandemic, I feel pretty strongly that there’s enough difference between the two games that makes it definitely worth pittance to own both.  Here’s a few of my reasons:

  1. If you have children or even want to introduce a game to non-gamers, Forbidden Island is a much better bet.  It is simpler, quicker, and easier to teach.
  2. The modular “board” created by the island tiles is actually more interesting than then static board of Pandemic. 
  3. While the flooding/sinking mechanic is similar to the infection/outbreak in Pandemic, it still feels quite a bit different in how it plays out.  Actually losing locations permanently from the game changes how you move around and play the game, and adds a lot to the tension and challenge of play.  Plus, it’s really cool and thematic to watch the island sink out from underneath you!
  4. The game ending is just plain better.  In Pandemic, you win immediately when you cure all four diseases, despite what the board looks like or where you are, which feels a little abrupt at times.  In Forbidden Island, however, not only do you have to find all the treasures, you then have to all make your way to Fool’s Landing and escape.  It’s a lot more cinematic and seems to add just the right amount of closure to the game.

In the end, I still like Pandemic a lot better, mostly for the theme and all the extra complexity, but I’m still very happy to own and play both.

The Verdict!

Forbidden Island is a great, family-friendly cooperative game that looks gorgeous and is a lot of fun to play.  With how it plays, its price, and its accessibility, I really think that every family in America should own this game, and hope that it continues to find more penetration into the mass market.  

  • Rules: Pretty simple, and being cooperative allows you to teach while you play.
  • Downtime: Turns are short and players can work together and discuss strategy all the time, so very little.
  • Length: A very appropriate and kid-friendly 20-30 minutes.
  • Player Interaction: Lots of cooperation!
  • Overall Weight: Light
  • GamerChris’ Rating: 8 (on the BGG 10 point scale)


  1. Hey Chris,
    My wife and I love this game too. I also think playing with the additional layouts is a huge plus for this game. I too wonder how they kept the pricepoint low like that with the components they packed in the game as well as the tin box.

  2. Hey Chris, great review. I’ve been eyeballing Forbidden Island, but was worried it would be too similar to Pandemic (which I own and enjoy).

    I may have to put this back on my list of games to purchase.

  3. Chris Norwood

    I do have to admit, though, that Gwen (my wife, to whom I technically gave Forbidden Island for Mother’s Day 2010) doesn’t like FI that much.  She’d just rather play Pandemic.  But then again, she doesn’t play games as often I do, and doesn’t want to “waste” her time.  As I said, though, I find the experiences to be different enough that I really like owning and playing both.

    And since I’ve seen it for as low as $11 or $12 online, I see no reason not to buy it… 

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