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Board Game Reviews

Forbidden Island: Tastes Great - Less Filling

G Updated April 29, 2020
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Forbidden Island Board Game

Game Information

There Will Be Games

So apparently 2010 is the year of the Pandemic clones... We've already had Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead and Defenders of the Realm, both of which bear more than a passing resemblance to Pandemic in several ways, and there's also Forbidden Island, which may be the closest match of all.  And in the case of Forbidden Island, that's more understandable, considering that it was created by Pandemic's designer, Matt Leacock.  The game is published by Gamewright, known mostly for its popular card games for kids like Rat-a-Tat-Cat and Slamwich, and it is obviously meant to be a mainstream family release with some designer game appeal. I think it succeeds on every level.

Shipping in a nice medium-sized metal tin box which holds all of its components very well (an important thing for kids/family games, which can tend to get mangled pretty easily), and with a price point of only $15, this is a great deal and should prove to be another big hit for Leacock, especially if it ends up in large store chains like Walmart and Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us, where other Gamewright games are accustomed to being sold.

Many have referred to Forbidden Island as "Pandemic Lite", and while that's certainly an apt description, I was surprised at how differently the game feels and plays, considering how similar it is to its big brother.  Granted, Pandemic is already a pretty light game in terms of its accessibility and the ease at which most people can learn it, but Forbidden Island definitely simplifies things even further and also adds some more appeal for families with its theme and artwork.  I'll assume that anyone reading this is already familiar with Pandemic, so as far the gameplay is concerned, I'll try to focus more on what's different about the two games...


Pandemic: Players are a team of specialists trying to cure four fatal diseases that are spreading around the world.  At the beginning of the game, several cities will be infected with disease cubes.  These may grow and overrun certain cities and spread around the world and will need to be treated while working to discover the cures.  The players win only by curing all four diseases and can lose if they do not succeed before the player card deck runs out, or if there are too many outbreaks of disease cubes, or if too many cubes of one type of disease are on the board.

Forbidden Island: Players are a team of adventurers who have landed on a mysterious island and must find four treasures and escape from the island before it sinks into the ocean.  At the beginning of the game, 24 island tiles are laid out and 6 of them will be flooded (flipped over to their flooded side).  Flooded tiles will need to be shored up (flipped back over) or they may be lost entirely, making it harder to move around.  There are two tiles designated for each of the four treasures, as well as a helicopter pad tile.  If the helicopter pad tile is ever lost, or both tiles of one type of treasure are ever lost, or the flood level in the game (which rises periodically from certain card draws) ever gets too high, the players all lose.

I like the theme of both games.  They are both quite original and there is not a zombie or dwarf or European shipping route to be found in them.  Forbidden Island's theme is clearly more palatable for a family game, though.  Yes, if you fail, the implication could be that you are all stranded and drown in the ocean, but who knows, you might still get rescued.  In Pandemic, if you lose, everybody in the whole world dies, or at least several million, if not billion.  That's a lot more bleak, no doubt.



Pandemic: Pandemic is played on a fixed map and will have the same layout every game, with some variety in the grouping of cities that you'll concentrate on from game to game.

Forbidden Island: In Forbidden Island, you deal out the 24 tiles randomly into a specifically shaped grid.  Where the different treasure tiles are and where the helicopter pad (Fool's Landing) is located will make a difference in how you move around in a particular game.

All told, there's about the same variability in this regard... Forbidden Island has the variety of the tile placement, but while Pandemic's map is fixed, there is a variety in how you'll use that map from game to game depending on which cities are infected.



Pandemic: Each player gets four actions per turn.  The actions available include the ability to move for one action per turn; to treat a disease cube for one action each; to give or take a card used for curing diseases with other players in your city for one action each; to fly to or from the city matching a card you have for one action; to build a research station in the city you are in (if you have the card for that city) for one action; and to perform a cure of a disease for one action (if you have the right cards and are at a research station).

Forbidden Island: Each player gets three actions per turn  The available actions are to move to an adjacent tile for one action; to shore up (flip over) a flooded tile (the one you're on or one adjacent to you) for one action each; to give a player on your tile a card for one action; and to find a treasure by discarding four matching treasure cards while on a tile matching that treasure for one action.

So the available actions in Pandemic are not that many, really, but Forbidden Island cuts them in half, making it easy enough for younger kids to grasp and remember.  It maintains the difficulty of the challenge, though, in different ways, including the fact that you can only give cards to other players on your turn, and not also take them, which is the case in Pandemic.


Pandemic: There are five roles in the base game of Pandemic, including the Medic (treat all disease cubes in your city for one action, instead of one action each); the Scientist (cure a disease with four matching region cards instead of the usual five); the Dispatcher (move other players around on your turn); the Researcher (give another player cards on your turn, even if the cards don't match the city you're both in); Ops Expert (build research stations in the city you're in, without needing the card for that city).

Forbidden Island: Forbidden Island ships with six roles, which include the Engineer (shore up two adjacent flooded tiles for one action); the Pilot (fly to any tile once per turn); the Diver (move freely across flooded or missing tiles); the Messenger (pass other players cards even if you're not on the same tile); the Navigator (move other players up to 2 spaces per action); the Explorer (move and shore up diagonally).

Of course, there are some similarities with the roles here...  The Messenger is essentially the Researcher and the Engineer is more or less the Medic.  I think the roles in Pandemic are more universally useful than the ones in Forbidden Island; the Diver's ability is really cool in theory and sometimes in practice, but there are some games where you just can't really use that ability at all or to any great effect.  But the roles in both games seem to favor certain types... statistics have shown that more games of Pandemic are won when the Medic is in the game, and the same is probably true with the Engineer in Forbidden Island.  But the variety of the different roles and the interaction between them is what makes both games fun and adds to their replayability.



Pandemic: In Pandemic, the disease cubes are constantly being added to cities every turn based on the current infection rate and there is often the threat of outbreaks (when a fourth disease cube would be added to a city), and before each game you shuffle a number of Epidemic cards into the player card deck, depending how difficult you want the game to be.  These Epidemic cards are not shuffled randomly, but are put into different sections of the deck so they'll come out with some semblance of regularity, and when they hit they increase the infection rate, infect a new city with three disease cubes, and cause the discarded infection cards to be shuffled and returned to the top of the infection deck.  There is also the danger of the player card deck running out, which will end the game in a loss for humanity and gives a built-in timer to the game.

Forbidden Island: The flood deck includes all of the island tiles and every turn after players draw two cards from the player deck (as they do in Pandemic), a number of flood cards are drawn equal to the current flood rate.  If the tile from a flood card is not flooded, it is flipped over to its flooded side.  If it was already flooded, then it sinks and is removed from the game, and the flood card is also removed from the game.  There is no equivalent of outbreaks in the game (another obvious simplification), but there are, in essence, Epidemic cards, called Waters Rise cards.  There are three of these mixed into the player card deck and when they come up, you increase the flood rate by 1 and then shuffle all of the flood card discards and put them back on top of the flood deck.  Unlike Pandemic, though, the Waters Rise cards are not spread evenly throughout the player card deck but are shuffled in altogether.

While the randomness of the Waters Rise cards being shuffled into the deck altogether is less predictable, it's also provides more tension and potentially some nice ebbs and flows to the game.  If you happen to get all three of them early in the deck, well, you probably had a rough time of it, but if you survived that then you know that you'll get a break for quite a while after that.  And once that player deck is reshuffled (it does not end the game when it runs out), which it invariably will be at some point, then you have three fresh Waters Rise cards on their way again which could hit you sooner than later.  What really is nice about this game is how the tiles disappear, and how the flood cards for sunken tiles are removed from the game, meaning that the ones that aren't flooded or sunk are more likely to be flooded or lost.



Pandemic: Pandemic often ends with some decent tension as you are desperately trying to cure the fourth disease before the player deck runs out or before you max out on outbreaks, and sometimes it requires a clever combination of planning and interaction between the characters and players in the game.  Often there is a point where you have to draw a number of infection cards and are hoping that one of them is not a particular city that might outbreak and lose the game for you.  If you draw that card, there is a groan and disappointment as all of humanity dies of The Blue Disease.  If you don't draw that card, then there is a sigh of relief and you can proceed to take your final turn and perform the needed cure.

Forbidden Island: In addition to getting the four treasures, in order to win all players must be at the Fool's Landing tile and one of them must have a Helicopter Lift card.  (There are three of those in the player deck, which function like the special event cards in Pandemic, and in addition to one being required to escape the island, they can be also played to fly someone anywhere on the island during the game.)

I love the endgame of Forbidden Island.   It's very cinematic and much more climactic than Pandemic often is.  You may have attained the four treasures easily, but that doesn't mean it'll be easy for everyone to get back to that helicopter pad, and perhaps you've already used all of your Helicopter Lift cards and now have to wait to hope to draw another one.



  • The hand limit is 7 in Pandemic and 5 in Forbidden Island.
  • There are 12 of each color card in Pandemic from which you need 5 to cure a disease, but only 5 of each type of treasure card in Forbidden Island from which you need 4 to find a treasure.  Of course, in Pandemic you use cards to fly around and build research stations, so that is probably balanced.
  • There are 5 different special event cards in Pandemic, with one of each, and only two different types in Forbidden Island (3 of the Helicopter Lift cards and 2 Sandbag cards, which let you shore up any tile).
  • Pandemic's difficulty level is measured by how many Epidemic cards you include in the game, and Forbidden Island's difficulty levels are measured by what number you begin the Flood level on.  While it took quite a while to win at any level in Pandemic, after several dozen plays I can now win regularly on the Heroic level.  So far after about a dozen plays of Forbidden Island, I can win pretty regularly on the Normal level (second easiest) but have only rarely won on the Elite level (second hardest), and I haven't tried the Legendary level yet.  But it seems to provide a good challenge that can be scaled to taste.
  • I always thought the graphics and artwork for Pandemic were solid and served the production well, but Forbidden Island takes the prize on that one, with some really beautiful artwork.
  • Pandemic is usually about a 45-60 minute game and Forbidden Island is probably more like 30-45 minutes.



One thing I always liked about Pandemic is that it requires a good deal of interaction, not just among the players discussing what to do, but between the roles themselves.  Sometimes you need to set it up so that the Dispatcher moves the Researcher to the Scientist so the Researcher can give the Scientist a card and the Ops Expert builds a research station near the Scientist so the Scientist can find a cure.  I like how late in the game when it seems impossible to win, you can sometimes figure out a way to do it, right down to the last possible action... the game may thwart your efforts, anyway, and you may lose from an unexpected outbreak, but at least you figured out a way to make it possible.  And throughout the game, there are a number of decisions that can have an important affect on the outcome.

Forbidden Island is definitely lighter in this regard, and is also more random in general...  There are a number of important decisions to make, and some of that player and role interaction is possible and required to win, but I'd say that overall it's about 2/3 the weight of Pandemic as far as that goes.  So considering that Pandemic is already relatively light, will a hardcore group of gamers get a lot out of Forbidden Island?  Probably not.  And though I enjoy playing it solo (controlling a few roles) and will gladly play it any time with adults, I'd probably go with Pandemic or Defenders of the Realm when looking for something a little meatier to consume in this vein of a puzzle-ish co-op.  But for the intended audience of families, and for parents who want to introduce their kids and casual gamer friends to a challenging cooperative game, this is a terrific choice.

Pandemic is easy enough to learn for many, but Forbidden Island will definitely be more accessible for a younger range of kids.  My 5 year-old learned this game very easily, and I hope that doesn't come across in a "my oh so brilliant 5 year-old beats me at Agricola" kind of way.  She is very bright, but most games require a kind of attention and focus that she doesn't begin to have.  She absolutely loves games, but she's still more likely to want to play "around" with games than actually play them.  And while she also does play around with Forbidden Island on her own, she will eagerly set it up correctly and is excited to play and experience the actual game, and she and her older sister (7yo) add great dramatic flair throughout, moaning and groaning as tiles are flooded and sunk, and practically bursting from the end game tension.  And while my girls may not always make optimal moves, they appreciate the experience enough to be happy to learn some of the tactics involved (e.g. "Instead of moving there, what would happen if you moved over here instead?"  "Ahhh, yeah!  Then you can give me the card I need!").  They don't have any resistance or resentment for me being the "alpha dog" of this cooperative game, which can certainly be an issue with a group of gamers.

By and large, Forbidden Island is a really clever game with an engaging theme that is a great way to spend a half hour with your family. Defenders of the Realm may be a good choice for players who can appreciate the system of Pandemic but want to add more gravy on top of that, but Forbidden Island is also a great alternative, especially for kids and families and lighter gamers.  Considered in that context, it's a big winner and will hopefully find its way into the game closets of many families around the world.

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