Forbidden Island - box

Players: 2 – 4

Age Range: 10+

Average Game: 30 – 60 mins

Strategy/Complexity: Medium

My Rating (1-10): 8

Recently my wife and I been looking into adding to our board game collection.  Specifically we like games that require strategy but that aren’t overly complex or time consuming and also that can be played with a minimum of two people.  We picked up a few games this past year, and Forbidden Island was one of the first and one of our favorites.  It is a cooperative game, meaning that all players work together to try to beat the game together.  Everyone either wins or loses.  The retail price on it is also quite low compared to many other modern board games, which was part of the reason we picked it up early on. The board setup is random, there are multiple difficulty levels, and also a variety of characters with different special abilities to play as, giving the game great replay value.

Description / Objective

Forbidden Island is a cooperative survival based tile and card board game designed by Matt Leacock and produced by Gamewright.  The goal is for the players to collaboratively collect four treasure pieces and then meet at a helicopter pad to escape the island before it sinks into the ocean.


Island Tiles – There are 24 tiles and each has a picture depicting a location on the island.  When a portion of the island becomes flooded, the tile can be flipped over which displays a more watery version of the same location. 

Treasure Cards – The deck has cards that either represent one of the four treasures, a special card, or a Waters Rise! action card.  Two cards are drawn at the conclusion of each turn.

Flood Cards – There is one card for each tile on the board. Cards are drawn from this deck at the end of each turn.   The number of cards drawn each turn is determined by what difficulty level they are on, and how many Waters Rise! cards have already been drawn.  When a Flood card is drawn, that tile is either flipped over to represent it has been flooded, or if it already was flooded it is removed from the game.

Water Meter – Each time a Waters Rise! card is selected, the meter goes up one notch.  The current location of the marker dictates how many Flood cards are selected each turn. If the marker reaches the top of the meter, the game ends and the players lose.

4 Treasure Pieces – There are four treasures that are needed to be obtained to win the game.  A player can get one by trading in four matching treasure cards while on a tile with that treasure’s symbol on it.

Adventurer Cards – Each player is randomly assigned one of six adventurer cards at the start of the game.  Each has its own special ability.  For example, the pilot can teleport to any land location, while the diver can swim through sunken or missing tiles.

Wooden Pawns  - Tokens represent each player’s location on the board and are colored to match their Adventurer card’s color.

Forbidden Island - board setup
Credit: Eric Turner


First, the difficulty mode is selected for the game by placing the marker at the appropriate level on the Water Meter.  The tiles are shuffled and randomly placed together to form an island board.  Six cards are selected from the Flood deck and the six matching locations start the game flooded.  Each player is assigned a character and a corresponding token and starts with two treasure cards. 

On each player’s turn they must perform three actions.  The four possible options are: 1) move to an adjacent tile; 2) shore up an adjacent tile that is flooded, by flipping the tile to its un-flooded side; 3) give treasure cards to another player occupying the same tile; or 4) trade in four matching treasure cards for a treasure piece.  Each adventurer has a special ability which may slightly amend the way these actions are utilized.

At the end of the turn the player selects two Treasure cards. If a Waters Rise! card is drawn, then those actions (detailed below) need to be performed immediately.  Only five cards can be held in each player’s hand at one time, so a card must be immediately discarded or a special card must be utilized when drawing a 6th card.

Waters Rise! cards – When these are drawn from the Treasure deck, the Water Meter rises one notch.  Also, the Flood card discard pile is reshuffled and placed on top of the Flood deck. This is significant because it increases the chance that tiles which were recently flooded will be drawn again from the Flood deck. 

After any actions associated with drawing two Treasure cards has been completed, Flood cards are drawn next.  The number drawn is equal to the water level on the Water Meter. For each card drawn, players find the matching island tile and do one of the following: 1) if the matching Island tile is un-flooded, flip it over to its flooded side; or 2) if the matching Island tile is already flooded, it sinks and is permanently removed from the game, along with the matching Flood card.  This is key because it shrinks both the playable board and the Flood deck!

After the Flood cards have been drawn for the turn, it is the next player’s turn.

Game End

Players win if they have collected all four treasures, all tokens meet together on the helicopter tile, and if at least one player holds the Helicopter Lift special card (which can be randomly drawn from the Treasure card deck).

Players lose if any of the following scenarios occur: 1) both tiles with a specific treasure logo sink before that treasure has been collected; 2) the helicopter pad tile sinks; 3) if any player is on a tile that sinks, and has no adjacent tile to swim to; or 4) the water level reaches the top of the meter.

Forbidden Island
Amazon Price: $17.99 $13.49 Buy Now
(price as of May 29, 2015)

Strategy Considerations

How should you utilize each player’s special abilities?

Should players stick close together so they can trade treasure cards more easily, or stay separate to protect a wider portion of the board from flooding?

Which treasures should you look to obtain first? You will need four matching cards to trade for a treasure, but can only hold five total cards at once (including special cards).

Are you willing to sacrifice less important portions of the island to protect other areas? Keeping treasure tiles and the helicopter pad from sinking are essential to winning, but the more the rest of the island shrinks, the quicker Flood cards for important tiles will be drawn.


The biggest characteristic of this game is that it is cooperative.  All players are teammates and all win or all lose.  Some may see this as a positive, and others as a negative.  This can be a fun alternative to games where there is only one winner among a group of friends and family.  It may be advantageous especially if there is a sore loser in the group or if you want to avoid hearing your wife gloat after she beats you at yet another game.  I like to think of it as a puzzle that you get to work together to solve.  As with many cooperative games, a negative is that more experienced players will often have an edge with strategy and may take a more vocal lead in dictating each turn’s actions.

The game sets up quick and is very easy to learn for new players, of all ages.  The pace of the game is fast without feeling too short.  Since the board shrinks over time and the Water Meter rises as more Waters Rise! cards are drawn, there is a semi built-in timer that keeps the game moving.  It really can only slow down if players take a long time to discuss and execute their moves, but since the rule book and strategic options are relatively straight-forward, extensive time-consuming strategy discussions aren’t necessary.  The game is easily completed in under an hour.

Overall the game is a lot of fun, and can be very challenging on the higher difficulty levels. We lost many times in a row on Elite and Legendary before getting out strategy down and getting our first victory at those levels. 

One of the best aspects to the game is its randomization and replay value.  There are six adventurer roles / special abilities, which will alter your strategy from the start.  The board is randomly generated so that every game is set up differently.  The Treasure and Flood decks are shuffled so the timing and location of flooded tiles changes every game.  The starting difficulty can also be adjusted so that the number of Flood cards drawn each turn at the start of the game is higher.

I have only played this game in groups of two, but it works for up to 4 players.  Some games suffer in two-player mode, by having a different set of rules or limited functionality, but the rules and strategy does not change with Forbidden Island.  This makes it a very flexible game depending on your group size.

Forbidden Island - Contents of open boxCredit: Eric Turner

The low cost of this game was one of the things that drew me to it initially.  It definitely seemed to be the highest reviewed game in its price range, at around $15 when I bought it.  Not only is the game fun and has great replay value, but the production value is surprisingly high.  The tiles and cards all have vividly drawn illustrations depicting the 24 locations of the island.  The tokens and treasure pieces are sturdily made, and the tin box and holders are all very solid.

The biggest negative to this game is probably that it has a limited complexity.  Some more intense gamers may prefer something with more strategic complexity or rules.  I think there is a lot of replay value, but after a while some may get used to the strategy that works best and feel ready for something deeper.  For these gamers, I would recommend graduating to Pandemic, which is another game I would recommend and will review at a later time.  It is made by the same company, but has a much thicker rule book.  However for those who want a quick, fun, inexpensive cooperative game with high replay value, I would strongly recommend giving Forbidden Island a try first.