Video games are fun, but sometimes it's nice to step away from the screen and do something equally involving with an actual group of people. Board games have been filling this gap for years, from hipster classics like Settlers of Catan to family-oriented puzzle games like Blockus, or even the simple dice and peg game Parcheesi. There's just something fun about sitting around with friends and family to break down a mystery or simply race to the finish. The problem is, where do you start?
There are literally thousands of games to choose from and picking a game that you know will suit your group can be a daunting task. Some games seem childish but are actually quite complex, while other games sound fun but require hours of time, hundreds of pieces, and lots of patience to play; let alone trying to figure out what games are worth the price tag. Easy to learn games aren't always worth playing over and over, and on the same page a costly difficult game can just be a hassle to drag out again. It's a lot to consider, which is why we're doing a bit of the trial and error for you.
Our board game reviews will focus more on if a game is generally fun, exactly how difficult it is for a group to learn to play and how often you'll want to replay it. We'll also do our best to select games we think will play well in a group of 3-4 young adults, so you know that our games aren't selected entirely at random, and each game we play will be done in a completely inexperienced group to ensure everyone is in unbiased in learning how to play. For the purposes of this, we will also be including our resident board game experts at The Game Chamber in London, Ontario who are kind enough to provide both a venue to play and a friendly crowd to try out the game with.
So without further ado, let's take a look at our very first pick:
Introducing Forbidden Desert
Forbidden Desert is a co-operative board game that has players searching for parts to repair their flying ship in order to escape a raging sandstorm. Sand dunes will build as the game progresses, burying lost artifacts and impeding player progress, and every turn risks the threat of dehydration as the sun beats down on shifting sands that try to hinder player progress.
The best part about Forbidden Desert is how simple it is to pick up, sort out the pieces and get right to playing. This is partly due to the game's fantastically easy to understand instruction booklet and partly due to how intuitive the system works. Setup requires the group to shuffle 24 titles, then place each one desert side up in a 5x5 grid (leaving one gap in the center of the grid to represent the sandstorm). The goal of the game is to explore each title, searching for parts in order to build a flying ship which must also be discovered under one of the tiles. Once you have each part, all players must then race to the ship with all four parts in order to win.
Uncovering tiles is pretty straightforward. Each player is given a class card at random that assigns them a job from a decent range of occupations. Whether you get Navigator, Archaeologist, or Water Carrier each class has its own perks and a water bottle that holds differing amounts of water. Everyone has four actions they may take per turn, and turns are taken in the order of whomever has the lowest amount of water first. Moving, un-burying a tile of sand, exploring a tile and picking up ship parts all take one action; and different classes give players bonus abilities to do with their actions like digging up extra sand or being able to refill their water bottle more easily.
Once each player has completed their action they draw cards from the sandstorm deck and follow its instructions; generally in the form of moving the storm in a direction, draining water from players or increasing the intensity of the storm (how many cards are drawn a turn). Wherever the storm moves, sand builds and if more than two piles of sand build up on a single tile, players can become trapped (or buried!) while searching for ship parts. The more turns that pass, the worse the storm gets and the more cards that players must draw. It creates a natural timer for how quick everyone must be in their exploration.
Not every tile flips to reveal the location of the airship parts however, and scattered across the desert are lost artifacts and hidden passageways designed to help you beat some of the sandstorm's harsh build-up. Using equipment doesn't count as an action for the turn and players are able to exchange equipment with one another, further encouraging the use of teamwork and communication to win.
Players win the game if they find every part and take off in their flying ship before anyone loses all the water in their canteen from the desert sun. It's also possible to lose if players take too long in finding the ship parts by letting the sandstorm meter build too high or if all of the sand markers have been used up on the board; meaning that every player needs to be helped in some way, whether it's collecting water for the group or digging out the ever-growing dunes of sand.
Forbidden Desert sounds like an ominous title but the game couldn't be easier to play. Setup is quick and simple as the pieces are all easy to identify and the instruction manual that comes with the game has so many visual aids it's impossible to get lost. A single game for a group of four inexperienced players takes just over 40 minutes, and you can expect that any adults who are familiar with the game should be able to clear the game much faster.
For kids (or ridiculously impatient adults) the general simplicity of the game is even more appealing, as it combines a lot of really basic elements (ie- card matching, grid movement) into a very streamlined package.
Fun Factor / Replay Value
On one hand the game is undeniably enjoyable due to how easy it is to pick up and play, but the same simple rules also mean that the odds you'll come back to Forbidden Desert for multiple runs in a single evening are low. Granted, many board games don't see play on a fairly consistent basis, but if you're looking for a game that will be played once a week for hours on end Forbidden Desert will become slightly repetitive.
If you're looking for a game to rotate into your monthly social hangouts, or something to pick up now and then on a rainy day, then there's plenty to enjoy here. Making plans with the group means that everyone plays together rather than waiting for a single turn, and it's hard to grow impatient in a game that everyone participates in. It's also a game that can be played multiple times over the course of a few hours with varying levels of difficulty for those who need a greater challenge.
Overall Score: 8/10
Some board games are a literal event in how they take over an entire evening, negating side conversation almost entirely as beating or winning the game becomes the sole focus of the session. But there are times when you don't want a game's rules, complexity and depth to completely overtake your evening and spending time with your friends and family is just as important as playing the game itself. This is where Forbidden Desert truly shines; as a great social board game that encourages the group to work together without hijacking your attention for hours on end.