Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island (Gamewright, 2010) just won the widely respected Mensa Select Seal, and I’m happy to say that it received my number one vote there (Mensa Select Seals are awarded annually at Mensa Mind Games, which was held in San Diego last weekend; go to my other blog at for a description of the top five winners).

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, so instead of players trying to outdo each other, they are working together to “beat the game.”  Players compose a team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. If they escape with all four treasures, they have won.

Each player takes on a different role (Pilot, Engineer, Navigator, Messenger, Diver, or Adventurer), each having a special – but not outrageously powerful – ability, which aids in the three main tasks – getting around the island, “shoring up” the island (undoing the effects of rising water), and moving or claiming treasure. The island itself consists of tiles laid out randomly  in a cross-shaped grid. Some tiles are labeled as places to claim treasure, and some are labeled with pawns, and serve as starting places for that player (pawn colors correspond to the identity and special ability of that player). There are six roles to choose from, but a maximum of four players results in the absence of at least two specialists.

Players alternate turns, performing three actions per turn, from this list: Move to an adjacent tile, Shore up a tile that has been flooded (i.e., unflood it), Give a treasure card to another player, or Claim a treasure. After the actions are taken, players draw two treasure cards – one of which might actually be one of three “Waters Rise” cards in the deck, but many of which represent one of the four treasures to be claimed. It takes four treasure cards to physically claim a treasure. When a “Waters Rise” card is chosen from the treasure deck, “Flood Cards” are drawn from a different deck. Each Flood Card represents one tile, thus revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are removed from the game, along with their flood card. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher…so more cards are drawn…thus more tiles flood when the Waters Rise cards are drawn. To make matters worse, when the Waters Rise cards is drawn, all the flood cards previously drawn are reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, so they are the first to be drawn again.

Forbidden Island is exciting to play. Your fate is bound to the fate of your colleagues, so each player has a stake in what the other players do. The bulk of the time is spent deciding, as a group, how to spend each of the three activities a player gets. In my first game we were literally one card away from being overtaken by the flood waters, and it was surprisingly simple to imagine ourselves on the rapidly disappearing island, trying to make it safely to the helicopter pad (“Fools’ Landing”).

For me, one very reliable sign of a good game is how easily immersed you are into its world, and Forbidden Island did that within two turns, and maintained it. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, which is probably fair because one must really consider possible future problems and contingencies to win, but an 8 year old could enjoy the game with a little help. If you want to try something new for just a few people, give this game a shot!

Buy Forbidden Island from Amazon!



I like realistic features in a game, and I like balance. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible, so a game maker needs to be able to decide what goes: realism or balance. In the case of WildLife (Uberplay, 2002), a certain amount of realism had to be sacrificed for the sake of balance, but for me it was a worthwhile trade off.

In WildLife, a player takes on the role of a creature on a primordial continent. There are six creatures, and six types of terrain on the continent (you can see the balance already, can’t you?). Each player is trying to dominate the continent by various means, but they are constrained by the types of terrains available to them – and thanks to the balance, each creature is very potent in one area, but totally impotent (in fact, not even able to exist) in two of the six area types.

The picture above shows the six “creature cards,” and on each there is a rating for each of the six terrain types. The mammoth, for example, may “Attack” (the most potent ability) in the plains, but may take “No Action” in the desert or the water. Fair enough, right? But the snake is most potent in the desert (so far so good), but totally impotent in the mountains and in the savanna. One doesn’t need to be a wildlife biologist to know that snakes can be found, plentifully, in each of these habitats – so if you are the type who must insist that every aspect of a game must conform to reality, you might have a problem with WildLife. But if you can somehow get through this, there is a great game waiting to be played. By the way, in the interest of completeness, there is one “Migrate” terrain per animal, and two “Expand” terrains, each of which allow limited use of a terrain type.

Once a player has taken a creature and made initial placements, they struggle to expand their herds and dominate regions of the continent, and by doing so they earn points. Points are awarded for how dominant an animal type is in each region on the board, the size of the biggest herds, and the holders of different game tokens: Food points, adaptations, and ability cards.

The key to WildLife is the use of WildLife action cards every turn, which is initially limited to three. These cards allow use of a certain type of terrain, provide an upgrade in adaptation for a specific terrain (see pic immediately below), or confer a special ability (through “ability cards,” pictured below), such as intelligence, food, etc. The player is allowed to do whatever their creature card says they can do in a given terrain – Migrate (move an existing tile into an adjacent open spot), Expand (Introduce a new tile into an open spot), or Attack (Introduce a new tile onto an occupant’s spot, forcing that occupant’s tile out of the game).

If an upgrade, or “adaptation,” is chosen, that tile is placed onto the creature card, and becomes the creatures new level of ability. Hence, a snake could go from No Action on a mountain to migrate, to expand, up to attack. If an “ability” is chosen, that could allow extra points every turn, or an extra action, or more. In fact, some of the abilities described on the cards can be used every turn, sometimes amounting to an extra action for that turn. One feature that makes WildLife fun is that there are limited numbers of these ability cards, so when a player makes a bid for one, they must take it from the current holder who has the most points at the time – this is a very cool mechanic that made our most recent game very interesting.

The fact that a player is limited to three action cards per turn forces some interesting decisions – go on the offense, tighten up on defense, or build up a multi-turn strategy. What really forces the decisions, however, is the fact that each player must use one of their actions each turn placing one of their own cards up for auction for opposing players. The currency in the game is food, and these food tokens are used to place bids – and the winning bidder pays the auctioning player. A player may also choose, an unlimited number of times, to turn in three food tokens in order to move one space up in victory points, or they may move one space down to earn three coins they might need for something else.

One other very interesting feature of WildLife is the uncertainty about scoring rounds. Every time a particular region (as defined by its single terrain type) is filled, a minor scoring round occurs. Each player is assigned points based on their relative dominance within each region, then the game continues – until the 4th, or the 8th, or the 12th region is filled. At those points in the game, a major scoring occurs, in which players get points per region (as in the minor scoring), and points are awarded as outlined above (for largest herd, etc). There is an excellently done, attractive, and very useful scoring system on the left side of the board pictured below, so the substantial risk of missing something while scoring is not an issue at all.

All in all, WildLife is one of those complicated games that turn out to be pretty simple once you get going. Half way through the first play, when all the possibilities and implications of the various abilities and adaptations are understood, it may be a good idea to stop and start over. Just half of a game played provides enough of a learning curve for this game.

I recommend WildLife to all serious gamers. People who are into board games like me will love it. Otherwise, the theme of biological variation, competition, and adaptation might appeal to some (like me!), enough to justify it as a gift. Any folks who show an interest in the complex Eurogames would like it as well. But don’t be buying this for the kiddies just because there is a wooly mammoth on the box cover – they might be a few years older before they can try it out.

(This game is not available through, and is now, sadly, out of print, because Uberplay is out of business – but it can still be found online through various game vendors!)


Tikal!! (Rio Grande Games, 1999) What a great game! Players “build” the board as they go, trying to give themselves an advantage, or providing their opponents the opposite. Players can hope for lucky draws, but still have a lot of flexibility in deciding what to do with whatever they end up drawing. This is a great blend of luck and strategy.

In Tikal, players are archaeologists, digging through the jungles of the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Players earn points by uncovering treasure tokens and by controlling dig sites (temples). But to get to the treasures or the temples, one must get through the jungle, and that’s where the fun begins.

The picture above shows a game after only a few turns. In the beginning, there are only two hex tiles that are not jungle; one is the sandy-colored base camp, where player pawns are introduced, and the other is a grassy spot with no structures. The first part of each player’s turn is to draw a new hex tile and place it in the location of his or her choice, following one simple rule: it must be immediately accessible. As turns continue, more of the board becomes defined, and newly opened jungle spaces will be empty, have treasure rings on them, or else have temples on them. Each hex has several borders with stones on them representing pathways to the adjacent hex. If neither one of two neighboring hexes has stones, then there is no path between them – these stones are what determine what hexes are accessible from where.

The most important strategic element in Tikal is the use of “action points.” Each turn, a player may use up to ten action points, which allow movement of pawns, “working” on a temple (which “uncovers” more temple and makes it more valuable; see the different values on the temples in the pic below), “digging” for treasure (uncovering one piece of treasure from a treasure hex), or some other more complicated things. The use of these action points is critical because they are limited; there is not enough to do everything a player might want to do in one or two turns, so each player must decide how to budget his or her action points.

The final strategic element in Tikal is the unpredictable but ever-looming volcano hex, which, when drawn, initiates the beginning of a scoring round. Since the volcano hex is mixed in with the regular tiles, it (there are several, actually, one for each of several stages of the game) can be drawn at any time, more or less. That means that, if a player does not have his men in the correct positions, he will not benefit from the scoring round. This results in something analogous to musical chairs, in which players are constantly moving but ever ready to settle into a better “point-scoring” position.

For example, a player who is in control of a temple (by having more men on that hex) when the volcano hex is turned up, will end up winning whatever value the temple is worth (see pic below: white player wins the level 3 temple). A player who is able to retrieve the most matching treasure items will get points from them – more points for more matching treasures (pictured further below). But if a player can’t manage to outnumber an opponent on a temple, or beat an opponent to a treasure spot, they will not win those points.

As volcanoes are turned over throughout the several stages of the game, scoring rounds occur in which players get one more turn and then have to count the number of points they have on the board at that time. Points are kept on the scoring track of the perimeter, and whoever has the most points at the end, wins the game.

I like Tikal so much because it’s unpredictable, but the player has a lot of control. Draw a tile you can’t use to your advantage? Stick your opponent with it! Tile placement is such a simple thing, but clever layouts could make the difference between winning and losing where just a few victory points are concerned. One other excellent feature of the game is that even most losers have a chance to win because, since treasures are being uncovered and temples are being added to, there are far more points to be had at the end, thus allowing those far behind to make a last minute run.

This game is complex at first to most casual gamers, but I have been able to teach kids as young as 7 the basics. Having said that, though, the age recommendation is 12 and up, and I agree that younger kids won’t get most nuances, and could lose interest. But it’s a perfect game for adult and teen gamers who like this satisfying combination of luck and action-points-budgeting. Three thumbs up!!

Buy Tikal from Amazon!