Forbidden Desert… Thirst for More

Base Game Review

Player/s: 2-5

Play Time (Box): 45mins

Play Time (Goof): 60-90mins

Producer/s: Gamewright

Designer/s: Matt Leacock


The setting – an ancient desert city with hidden artefacts. The mission – uncover the legendary flying machine. The catch – the desert is alive. And it used a sandstorm to destroy your helicopter. Now you must work together in order to survive. And what was supposed to be a lucrative discovery has now become your only way out…

Seriously. The setting for this game is so cool.

I love cooperative games. And to me, cooperative games should be hard. They should involve meaningful teamwork, and they should have a kickass theme. I’ve never been more immersed in a game than I have playing a co-op. The fact you’re literally fighting against the game itself sucks you into the narrative and storytelling aspects.

Forbidden Island is the big brother of Forbidden Desert. The rules are incredibly similar, with a few extras and things to keep a track of. If you liked Forbidden Island but are looking for something a bit more gamey – this might be for you.


Gameplay (9/10)

I’d like to do something I’ve never really done before and take a quick moment to praise the designer of Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and other games like Pandemic. Matt Leacock, you truly are the master of designing really difficult games which involve a great amount of team work with simple rules. It makes it easier to teach my friends and family, and since they can grasp the basic concept so well, it makes the challenge addictive. All three of these games have featured at our local Boarding School events for exactly those reasons.

For me, cooperative games have to be hard. If they’re too easy, there’s really no excitement to playing them. I should go into a game and know we’re really unlikely to win. However, I want my actions to mean something. If it all comes down to luck than you’re not really playing a game, you’re going through the motions until someone wins. Forbidden Desert is hard, but decisions you make right from the start can set you up for victory.

I mentioned this game is the big brother of Forbidden Island. On the Island you had parts sinking and cutting you off. Here, it’s a sandstorm making things unpassable. They have slightly different mechanics but create similar challenges, with the addition of being stuck in place and having to use actions to get yourself out on a turn, rather than swim to another tile. The threat of being cut off or unable to move around the board makes dealing with the sand your top priority on most turns. But whereas the island sinking was your only real issue on the Island, here you also have the heat to contend with. And if too much sand kicks up across the desert then it’s game over. By creating more threats and more challenges to manage, Forbidden Desert really steps up the difficulty.

One of the best inclusions in this version has to be the gear deck. Every tile which isn’t an oasis, or a clue to finding the parts of the flying machine, gives you equipment which can help you survive. At first this sounds like it makes things too easy. But what it really does it move the treasure cards of Forbidden Island on to the board and reduce the amount of cards you get. Arguably, gear is more useful than the treasure cards. However the additional challenges mean you’ll need to manage this gear efficiently in order to win. We’ve lost so many games by using equipment either too early, or waiting for the ideal time to using it and missing our opportunity.


The roles feel varied and fun to play. I know if I’m playing the Water Carrier for example, it’s my job to keep the team hydrated. No matter what else I accomplish on my turn, I need to be keeping an eye on those water reserves. When you play the Archaeologist, you feel the same about sand. When you play the Navigator, it’s all about making sure you’re team members are where they need to be.

One thing new players don’t often identify when I teach Forbidden Desert is how quickly the storm can get out of control. You need to be clearing sand right from the beginning, and making optimal plays about how to get rid of the most sand the fastest. It looks like it would take a while with all those sand tiles. But don’t let it fool you. Running out of sand is the number one way we’ve lost Forbidden Desert.

Pros: +Challenging, +Simple Rules, +Equipment, +Roles

Cons: None


Theme (7/10)

I mentioned above about cooperative games being more immersive. When I think about why, it’s because the game is designed with theme in mind. If you think about a competitive game, the other player wants to win. So you’re both playing the rules, not the role. When you play against the game, it wants to do what the designer wanted it to do.

The mechanic about how you locate the parts of the flying machine really makes you feel like you’re actively discovering clues. The way you connect the intersecting tiles and have to pick up the part is really exciting whenever you turn over a second coordinate. Even if you’ve already been there, I imagine a hidden cache where the gem is, or we didn’t realise the importance of the sundial. You could easily spend time crafting the narrative as you look at the artwork on the tiles you excavate. Yet the theme doesn’t clog up the gameplay, and I’ve played through several games with people who couldn’t care less about the narrative and just want to overcome the challenge. The theme isn’t intrusive, which actually makes it more inviting.

The challenge the water adds, with the characters drinking each time the sun bears down and things become too hot to handle, actually makes me thirsty as I play. I rejoice whenever I find a tunnel to protect me, and even sigh in disappointment when I flip an oasis card to find it happens to be the mirage. In real life, I hate sand. Forbidden Desert has not done wonders for our relationship.

Pros: +Can be immersive, +Isn’t intrusive

Cons: None



Production (6/10)

I LOVE the flying machine miniature which comes in Forbidden Desert (I was making “whoosh” sounds when the feature image was taken). It’s so satisfying to put the pieces of it together. They all snap into place or slot in nicely, and the final product is like completing a satisfying construction of Lego.

I really like the artwork for the Forbidden games, but I would say Forbidden Desert’s artwork is almost too subtle. Most people don’t even look at it, instead just checking out the important symbols. Unless you take the time to check it out, it really doesn’t add much value.

I love the way the sand tiles are cut. You can pile the sand up on top of tiles and yet still see the important symbology without needing to pull the sand off to check it out underneath. It keeps the game moving along nicely, while still showing the appearance of a civilisation buried in sand.

The way the storm deck cards are designed, which are supposed to show you which way the storm moves, are just counter intuitive. Does the storm move the way shown? Do the tiles push in the direction with the storm moving opposite? It’s the biggest issue with the design and often confuses the hell out of people I play with. I’m not often a fan of house rules, but with Forbidden Desert we have an exception – it doesn’t matter what way we move the storm as long as we play consistently the entire game.

I want to tell you how the beautiful box for this game should be on display in my house. I want to tell you how appealing the box is, and how well it works as a box. Might sound like an odd thing to say, telling you about how well the box works – but here’s why I bring it up: it freaking doesn’t! I wonder if I can pray to the deities of gaming and get them to strike down whoever decided games should come in tins. They don’t stack, they dent easy, and the damn lid falls off. So no. Bad producers! Bad! Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done. Or at least go pick up my damn game pieces, they fell out of your stupid tin again.

Pros: ++Excellent Miniatures, +Sand Tiles, +Artwork

Cons: –Stupid Tins, -Confusing Storm Deck



Forbidden Desert is a fun challenge. Our gaming table brings it out a few times every couple of weeks. And it’s featured at Boarding School!

I give Forbidden Desert:


Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get a drink of water. And stop thinking about sand.


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