Monday 12 January 2015

Forbidden Desert

Pandemic's cousin, with a couple of smart variations.

At a conceptual level, more or less the same thing though.

Name: Forbidden Desert (2013)

Designer: Matt Leacock (Same creator as Pandemic)

Publisher: Gamewright, amongst others

Players: 2 to 5

Age: 10+

Time to play: 45 minutes or so

Price Range (AUD): $40 to $50 (with one even selling for $80 including shipping but clearly that's not worth it). I got mine for $27 sometime in July of 2013.

Availability: Quite widely available online and should be in many hobby game stores.

  • Cooperative/Teamwork
  • Survival
  • More 'Family' than most?

Andre Lim's Rating and Brief Summary:

7.5 out of 10. (Somewhat Great - See my Rating Scale)

The basic premise here is that your group's plane has just crash landed and you are all stranded in the middle of the desert - to escape you will need to find all 4 pieces to a 'legendary flying machine' scattered throughout the sands before you run out of water.

In summary this is a nice cooperative game to have in one's collection - but the important question is this: Should you buy this game if you already own Pandemic?

I think the answer is a tentative "Yes, maybe, if you are a keen collector; but no if you aren't a huge fan of cooperative games."

To be honest, the only real attraction to Forbidden Desert are its interesting components, the nifty sandstorm mechanic, and the added action of excavating or flipping tiles (much like Forbidden Island, I am told - a game I did not get because I heard it was somewhat similar to and a simplified version of Pandemic).  The sandstorm mechanic is pretty ingenious, in that it causes the whole landscape to change (including tiles that your characters are standing on!) constantly on each turn. This is what makes the game interesting and unpredictable. Apart from what I have mentioned above, it retains essentially the same cooperative flavour as Pandemic, except I would say the latter is a lot more serious in tone, feel and theme. I think I slightly prefer Pandemic over the novelty this game has to offer.

However, I would not rate one more highly than the other - they are mostly the same to me. Again, like most cooperative games, this one also suffers from that problem when playing with lots of people, namely, that it feels like only 1 or 2 dominant people are doing all the talking and everyone else (or at least those too timid or polite to voice their opinions) is just following along. Obviously this isn't true of every game or group, but for that reason, it does tend to make a better 2 to 3 player game.

I enjoy the artwork this game has to offer, particularly with its desert theme and the plane's physical components provided. The downside though is that I feel that this game may be a bit too simplistic or childish in theme to those who are after something more sinister; so perhaps on that basis this is a good game for a relaxed atmosphere or a family occasion. That being said, the game is incredibly difficult and quite hard to win if you don't plan your actions well as a group.

The Good:
  • Unique sandstorm mechanic, involving the movement and reshuffling of tiles which changes the whole landscape over which the players move. I really like this concept and I think it makes the game great.
  • Like Pandemic, some cool characters with unique abilities - but not as abundant or diverse as that of Pandemic.
  • Interesting theme, feel and artwork but I think I prefer Pandemic's theme of saving the world from a disease
  • Components are cool (see below) - airplane parts are provided with the game that can be assembled onto an actual aircraft-like device. 
  • Game operates on a life system in which players lose life (ie. water levels) when the sun beats down and the idea of clipping or marking these levels is also pretty interesting.
  • Challenging and hard to win, requires cooperative effort - even at lower difficulty levels

The Bad:
  • Whilst there are some differences explained above and below, it's not too different from Pandemic in terms of its idea and general cooperative nature
  • Can be really hard to win - requires intense strategy and cooperation right down to the wire. For example, you'll need to not only decide which character roles are appropriate, but arranging the order in which these roles sit is also key to winning (certain character powers work well together, one after the other - ideally you'll want to maximise their usage and efficiency instead of waiting one whole round for it to reach a particular character's turn again)
  • Somewhat childish in nature; nowhere near as serious in its themes as Pandemic. Seems a bit too fanciful to be randomly searching the desert for pieces to a flying machine no one has ever heard of.
  • If you don't like cooperative games don't get this.
  • Perhaps not necessary to get if you already have Pandemic - it's much too similar; Hanabi would be a better option.

What makes this game fun? 
The unpredictable nature of the sandstorm mechanic and a search through the desert for your escape route home makes for a casual (but somewhat enjoyable) cooperative game.

- This concludes the basic overview of the game.
If you are interested in reading about the components & rules to the game, please read on -

Rules & Components (Photos courtesy of my mum, Joanne)

Here's what the inside of the tin box looks like:

Character Cards

Everyone chooses a character card from these below, or they can be dealt randomly:

Everyone also receives a clip, which they attach to their card (as seen on the Explorer card above) to indicate their life points (representing water levels). Everyone starts out with their maximum life points.

The Water Carrier, most notably and logically, has the most lives at 6. The arguably more 'powerful' characters (ie the Climber and Archeologist) have only 4 lives.

Set the difficulty (sand storm) level

The Sand Storm meter decides the difficulty level. It changes depending on whether you are playing with 2 to 5 players.

For example, a 3 player game on Elite difficulty would start off like this:

This meter determines how many Red Sand Storm cards (see below) are drawn at the end of a player's turn, which in turn affects how much sand and the number of times in which the tiles are shifted around.

Set up the tiles/'board'

The tiles are set out at random in a 5x5 grid - with a hole in the middle, used to symbolise the eye of a sand storm.

On the bottom left, right and middle are oasis tiles - 2 of which are real oases and 1 is a mirage/fake. These were randomly placed but I am just pointing them out.

The crash site appears on the top left of the board, in which all players' pawns start from.

Two draw decks should be placed on the side; one a Red sand storm draw deck and the other a Blue equipment/gear draw deck.

Plane Pieces..

..are put to one side. I'll deal with this later.

Draw Decks: Cards

The Blue deck is pretty straightforward. Some tiles, when excavated or flipped over, give you cards with special abilities.

For example, the secret water reserve, on the bottom right corner, gives everyone standing on the same tile as the player who plays the card 2 life points.

The Red Deck has 3 types of cards:

1) Sun Beats Down: which reduces everyone's life by 1, unless you are standing in a tunnel or have a special Blue card that protects you.
2) Storm Picks Up: which increases the meter on the Sand Storm meter, which will cumulatively increase the number of Red Cards that need to be drawn.
3) Wind movement (not shown in picture): I will show these later but these are the cards that increase the amount of sand piled upon tiles and tiles being shifted

Victory Conditions

You win if you locate and collect all 4 necessary plane parts throughout the desert AND find your way to the Launch Pad, which is one of the tiles that needs to be excavated.

You lose if:

1) ANY one of the team members dies of thirst (runs out of water life points)
2) There are no more sand tile markers and one more sand tile marker needs to be added at the end of a turn (see below)

Pile of sand markers

3) You run out of time - after a certain number of turns, which varies depending on the difficulty level and the number of people playing, the sand storm meter reaches the Skull symbol (meaning the storm has proven too strong).

On your turn..

You can perform up to 4 actions on your turn.

Each of these actions may be repeated where possible and done up to 4 times:

1) Move one tile away
Moving is straight forward - in the example below red has taken up 3 actions in her turn by moving 3 tiles away.

2) Excavate or flip over one of the tiles to get a reward or a clue to a part [see below for more info on Excavated Tiles]

For example, red below excavates the tile by flipping it over. It reveals a gear symbol, meaning she can draw from the blue equipment card deck alluded to above.

3) Remove Sand from an adjacent tile or the tile you are standing on:

This is important for two reasons:
a) It prevents one of the losing conditions from coming true where sand tiles run out (as sand removed goes back into the pile) and
b) If a tile is blocked by 2 or more tiles it cannot be travelled over; thus removing sand tiles is key to accessing certain areas of the board.

4) Pick up a Plane Part - this is part of the Victory Conditions [see below on how to locate Plan Parts]

Moving tiles according to the Wind Cards

After a person does their turn, it is time to draw Sand Storm Cards. I mentioned above that there were 3 types of such cards; I now explain what the Wind Cards do as these are the most common types of Sand Storm Cards drawn.

Suppose this is the first Wind Card drawn:

This means that two tiles must shift downwards towards the hole in the board - the arrow on the card indicates movement towards the sandstorm eye like so:

Sand is also laid on each tile that has been moved.

I won't show you more pictures, but for this particular 3 player game, according to the sand meter above, two more cards are drawn and if they are wind cards, the tiles are moved accordingly.

Then, the next player in order does their turn.

Excavated Tiles

When you excavate a tile, there are a few surprises you can find:

You can receive a clue (top left tile); the Launch Pad (top right tile); a chance to draw from the Blue Gear deck (bottom left and right tiles); and a tunnel (bottom right).

Tunnels are useful as they shield you from the sun and you can travel directly from one tunnel to another.

Of the 3 Oasis tiles, two tiles contain water (which allow all members to immediately replenish 2 water and lets the Water Carrier take water from) and 1 is a mirage with no water.

Locating Plane Parts 

You need to find 2 clues per plane piece that exists, as they provide you with the exact coordinates of where the piece is located. One piece will show you the X-Coordinates; the other will show you the Y-Coordinates.

For example in the above scenario the Red piece would appear there, at the intersection between the imaginary lines given by each of those excavated clue tiles.

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