A to Z Gaming: Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert pawns on a sand-covered tile

We attempted to repair a legendary flying ship while navigating a shifting sand storm in Forbidden Desert, the next game in our A to Z game-shelf play-through.

Basic Info: Forbidden Desert
Players: 2-5
Time: 45 Minutes
Designer: Matt Leacock
Artist: C. B. Canga, Tyler Edlin
Publisher: Gamewright




Forbidden Desert is a cooperative game where players take on the role of a team exploring an ancient city under the desert to repair a flying machine and escape the ever-shifting sands. The goal is to find the machine’s components, pick them up and meet at the launch site before getting buried by the sand or baked in the sun.

The game is set up by dealing out a grid of tiles in a 5 by 5 array. One tile is left out of the middle – this represents the storm, which will move throughout the game. Then a pattern of sand tiles is laid out on selected tiles. Players choose roles, place the corresponding player piece on the starting tile and set their water marker at max (which depends on the role).

On each player’s turn, they have four actions they can spend doing some combination of the following: excavate (turn over the tile they’re on), move to an adjacent tile (up, down, right, left), clear sand, or pick up a machine part.

After completing their actions, they have to draw a number of storm cards as indicated by the storm track. Most of these cards move the storm the indicated direction and number of tiles. Each time a tile is moved due to the storm, a sand marker is added to it. The storm cards can also move up the storm tracker (Storm Picks Up) or dehydrate all players who are outside (Sun Beats Down).

Players win if they uncover and pick up all four engine pieces and meet up on the launch pad. Players lose, on the other hand, if someone needs water and doesn’t have any left, if they need to place sand tokens but there aren’t any left, or if the storm tracker goes off the end of the meter.

There are a few things that help players. Each role has a special ability – for example, the climber can’t get buried in the sand and can carry another player with them when they move. Plus, some tiles will give equipment when they are excavated. The equipment can provide a sun shield, additional water, or allow players to jet across the desert.

We picked this one up just a few years ago, after we already had Forbidden Island. We really liked the mechanics of Forbidden Island, and we like to have co-op games around as palette cleanser after a contentious game.

However, we haven’t been getting these to the table much lately. I blame that on our recent campaigns of Pandemic Legacy (Seasons 1 & 2). When we need a co-op games these days, I’m looking for something that feels a bit different. The “Forbidden”s are different, of course, but some the mechanics start to feel very similar.  These may get back to the table once we’re done with our campaigns.

How is it as a 2-player game?  Forbidden Desert is a great 2-player game. It might be better to have more special abilities on the table and characters spreading out across the desert, but then there are more people to watch out for. Regardless, I think this game works well at a number of player counts.

How about the art and component quality? The flying machine is spectacular, especially with the four different components. The tiles are good quality and the cards are good. I really like the art of the buried city tiles.

Will this stay in my collection?  Yes – Andrew has suggested getting rid of this one or Forbidden Island, but I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that. They each offer something a little different. I started to find Forbidden Island to be fairly easy (though I might change my mind when we get it to the table next week!), but love it for less-experienced players. I like the addition of the shifting sands of Forbidden Desert, and definitely find the game to be more of a challenge.

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