Forbidden Island Review and Gameplay

Game tiles and pieces

Forbidden Island has been around for awhile–long enough that I kind of forgot that it was a game I could review! There have been iterations since, but Forbidden Island remains my favourite of the GameWright cooperative “we’re all going to live or die together” games suited for children. Today, my students pulled it out to play during their social-emotional time, and I was immediately transported back to when my own children couldn’t get enough of this game. 

Winning multiple awards and even coming in as a Spiel des Jahres finalist in 2011 (losing to Qwirkle, which is no shame!), Forbidden Island clearly had people’s attention. Today, it is still a great game, with plenty of qualities that make it a go-to for families and schools. It is inexpensive, with pleasant and high quality game pieces. Kids need to work on strategy and talking amongst themselves as they share treasure cards to come to a positive conclusion. Also, as I’ve found out more than once, GameWright has fantastic customer service, and has even sent me new game pieces when ones went missing after particularly rowdy game days. 

The premise is simple. You are attempting to rescue treasure from the “forbidden island” before the water overtakes it–or you–and escape with it. Kids easily get into the idea, and the disappearing tiles cause just enough stress to keep players completely in the game. Unlike some other children’s games that last about 20-30 minutes, I don’t see kids wandering away or losing attention. They are completely engaged in the concept and the game play, shooting ideas back and forth. 

Game play is similarly accessible. Each player picks a role that gives them a special ability. Players take turns engaging in up to three actions – you can “shore up” sinking tiles, move, grab a treasure by turning in four matching cards, or pass a card to another player. When actions are completed, the player gets two treasure cards. They then draw the appropriate number of “flood” cards based on the water level marker. If the player draws a “Water’s Rise!” card, the game gets much harder. It also gets that much more exciting. The stack of drawn flood cards is shuffled and placed back on the top of the deck, increasing the likelihood that those particular tiles will “sink.”

Game box

As we play this game, the kids talk strategy. The one complaint that I have with the game is that it is very easy for an alpha player to take over, but that’s also one of the benefits. You can talk children through correct strategy, and they can work together, but can still be successful by listening to other players. The rule that we have put into place to assure that no student dominates is that the player whose turn it is has final say. They can listen to everyone’s options, and then we have a 30 second timer of silence for the child who is playing to think about what they want to do. In so doing, my children work on all kinds of social skills that are very important.

Although I’ve largely focused on how well this game can be played by tiny humans, this game is great for adults, too. The game scales in difficulty accordingly. It is a good “bridge” game between more common games and more strategy-based games. Every time I’ve played with other adults, I’ve found it interesting how invested everyone gets in the game. There’s an honest level of stress as someone draws a “water’s rise!” card and you have to adjust strategy accordingly. 

Overall, this game has a great deal of challenge for all players. As long as you manage the “alpha player syndrome”, it has great playability among a wide variety of play groups, which, as we all know from my previous reviews, is what really makes a game stand out to me. 

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