Review: Forbidden Island

Designer: Matt Leacock
Artist: C.B. Canga
Year: 2010
Publisher: Gamewright (among others)
Players: 1-4
Game Type: Co-operative

A gateway board game is loosely defined as a board game with easy rules to pick up yourself or teach others so that the board game hobby is appealing. While everyone will have an opinion on what specific game constitutes a “gateway game,” many can agree – well, maybe many can agree – that cooperative games are perfect introductions into the hobby. Forbidden Island easily fits the gateway game definition with basic rules and simple gameplay. Matt Leacock created a game that challenges groups and solo-players with space management and card collecting.

Getting the game ready takes about 5 minutes. There are 24 cardboard tiles to lay in a circular-like pattern – constituting the island – then you’ll shuffle the treasure and island cards and distribute the Adventurer cards. The rules state you randomly deal the Adventurer cards. As a solo player, you can either do that for a challenge or pick your Adventurers if you want to maximize your chance to win. When playing one Adventurer, randomly selecting one is fun and even more exciting.

Initial Setup

One downside to setup, if you are playing another game immediately after playing a game, is the bunching up of similar treasure cards. Since you must have 4 of the same cards to claim a treasure, those cards are all together. Simple shuffling doesn’t break them up, so your next game could get easier since you more likely to pull the same cards multiple times in row. I suggest giving the deck a few normal shuffles, but then dealing out the cards one at a time in 4-5 piles before gathering them. That way, the same treasure cards are less likely to be group in 3s or 4s.

You have 3 actions per turn. That’s it. Doesn’t seem like enough to keep the island from sinking, moving around collecting treasure cards, and getting the right tiles to claim the treasure, does it? That’s what makes Forbidden Island fun, yet challenging: the island is constantly working against you.

During each turn you can move, shore up, or claim treasure as part of actions. Moving is up, down, left, or right (unless your Adventurer has unique movement abilities). Shoring up means flipping over a tile that has changed to blue (meaning it’s sinking) back to normal. The tiles are colored on one side and blue/white on the other. Once you have 4 of the same treasure cards, you can claim treasure by moving to the tile that shows the treasure icon. Once you have all four treasures, then you must get to the Fool’s Landing tile to get away. There are 4 treasures and only 2 tiles per treasure have the icons, so you lose the game when:

  • The tiles that have treasures you haven't collected yet completely sink.
  • The Fool's Landing tile sinks.
  • All the tiles sink.
  • You have no path to Fool's Landing to escape.
After taking your actions, you draw island cards to determine what will begin sinking or vanish form the game completely and move to the next Adventurer.

The crux of the game, and a favorite mechanic of Matt Leacock, is when the Water’s Rise card appears. You take what island cards have been drawn, shuffle them, and return them to the top of the island card deck. (That will sound familiar if you play Pandemic.) The purpose is to get some of the same cards drawn so they sink and disappear from the game.

You win if you get all 4 treasures. It may look easy as you set it up and pick your Adventurers, but the randomness of the game changes your strategy at every turn. Forbidden Island knows how to frustrate you and create tension as you pull treasure cards.

Island cards

I prefer Forbidden Island solo. Mainly because I enjoy sitting there thinking about what to do without coordinating with others or waiting on someone to pitch suggestions. I know that defeats the purpose of a co-op game, but some of the easier, cooperative games travel this route for me.

The rules from multi-player to solo don’t change. You can play as 1, 2, 3, or 4 Adventurers. The number of Adventurers doesn’t matter: the game has the same feel no matter how many you choose. I suggest trying the game with all combinations of Adventurers and switching up the difficulty on the Water’s Rise card to provide different challenges as you become proficient at the game.

Game suggestion: Play with one Adventurer, the Navigator, and set the difficulty on Legendary.

Water's Rise level and Island cards

If you’re looking to building your collection of solo game or to introducing someone to something different in board games, Forbidden Island is a good choice. With simple mechanics and easy-to-learn rules and various ways to make it challenging, this game will be one you’ll pull out again and again when you want to play a game have 20-30 minutes to spare. It was one of the first games I bought for solo play and I haven’t regretted it.

4.5 out of 5 We Roll Solos


  • Rules are easy to pick up
  • Quick setup
  • Deceptively challenging
  • Great gateway game

  • Basic shuffling doesn’t randomize treasure cards if playing a game right after a game
  • Even though it’s co-op, more fun solo (for me at least)

Gregory Gregory Author