dehydration for fun and profit

This is second in my series of blogs about boardgames. Introductory post is here.

I know this blog has seen more action in the last two days then in the last two months but, well, the thing about series is that if you don’t start them you lose momentum. I’m hoping to keep this going on a more-or-less weekly basis until I get bored or run out of games to talk about. As promised, I’m going to start with Forbidden Desert.

In my introductory post, I said that Forbidden Desert was my go-to Monopoly replacement. I should probably clarify that a bit. At the risk of over categorising, you could say that there are two reasons to play any given board game which, roughly speaking, are gameplay and theme. That is, you can want to play a game because it’s fun or challenging or mechanically interesting or a good laugh (for the purposes of this post and this series I’m lumping all of those together under “gameplay”) or you can want to play a game because you want to feel like you’re doing the thing that the game is about doing.

For example, one of H’s favourite games is Dominion which is a deck-building game where you are ostensibly managing a small generically Medieval kingdom. But, actually, apart from the fact the cards have names like militia and festival and duchy, there’s very little about it that actually feels like running a kingdom rather than playing a card game. On the other hand, the card game itself is very good.  By contrast, Arkham Horror is a frequently mechanically tedious board game that nevertheless manages to capture the sense of being Lovecraftian investigators struggling in vain against the heedless might of the Great Old Ones. At least until you get to endgame and wind up smacking down Ithaqua with a tommy gun.

So when I say Forbidden Desert is a good replacement for Monopoly I’m speaking from a gameplay perspective. I mean that playing Forbidden Desert is better choice than playing Monopoly for most of the situations in which one normally winds up playing Monopoly. Traditional family board games tend to get played at traditional family gatherings and if you’re looking for a way to get all your relatives around a table at Xmas without them wanting to murder each other then, “hey, let’s work together to escape from this desert” is a much safer proposition than “hey, let’s do our level best to bankrupt one another.” If what you like about Monopoly is the empire building and wealth acquisition then I’d probably recommend Puerto Ricco instead. Or, for that matter, Settlers of Catan.

To put it another way, the reason I recommend Forbidden Desert as a replacement for Monopoly is that virtually everybody I’ve played it with has a) bought their own copy and b) taken it home to play with their parents at Xmas. It basically kicks the shit out of traditional family games in the social niche that traditional family games are supposed to fill. And I’m going to spend the rest of this post explaining why.

Reason Number 1: It’s co-operative

Forbidden Desert is a game in which up to five players take control of a group of surprisingly skilled individuals whose airplane has crashed in the middle of the eponymous forbidden desert.  Fortunately, the desert is home to an Indiana Jones-esque steampunk city that just happens to contain all the parts to a working flying machine. Your goal is to locate these parts and re-assemble the flying machine before you die of thirst, are blown away by a sandstorm, or are simply swallowed by the rolling, ever-shifting dunes. You spend your time exploring the desert, digging away sand, looking for lost artefacts and cowering in tunnels to hide from the blistering heat of the sun.

If you want a game to play with your siblings, parents and, potentially, children around the same table then a co-operative game is just a flat out better choice. Because, let’s be honest, there is probably no gracious way to beat a ten-year-old and definitely no gracious way to lose to one. And, obviously, different social groups have different dynamics. I’ve played with people who really enjoy the spirit of friendly competition, even when playing in a group with a fifty year age spread. And I’ve known people who get really acrimonious about co-op games because they treat other players as resources to be allocated. But, basically, for a harmonious gaming experience I find everyone working together towards one goal far more reliable than everyone working to shaft each other.

Forbidden Desert falls into the quite broad category of co-operative games in which every player has a distinct role, giving them a unique skill that they use to help everybody. This means that, whoever you’re playing it with, everyone gets to feel like they’re making a contribution. You get real sense of teamwork when the navigator sends the climber to pull the water carrier out of a sand dune so they can stop the explorer dying of thirst before the next turn. And, for what it’s worth, if the explorer did die of thirst that would be game over, because Forbidden Desert has a strict all-for-one policy so either everybody wins or everybody loses and nobody ends up getting sacrificed for the greater good or sitting in a corner for an hour because they got knocked out early.

Reason Number 2: It’s short

One of the many reasons that the popularity of Monopoly tends to be so confusing and infuriating to people who play more modern board games is that it isn’t just dull, it takes for-fucking-ever.  Perhaps I’m over-generalising but I feel like a key feature of any game aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers, and especially one that includes families, is that you should be able to finish it in less than six hours and, if at all possible, in less than one.

Forbidden Desert is played on a small board, with a small number of easily tracked objectives and is essentially played on a timer so it’s practically impossible for a game to go more than ninety minutes without resolving one way or the other. The playing time on the box is 45 minutes and, once you’ve played a few games (and it’s short enough and accessible enough that you actually can play a few games) you can get pretty close to that figure pretty reliably.

While I’m on the subject of shortness, I’d add that from my perspective (and this is very much a personal opinion) I find co-operative games that last a long time and end in defeat can leave quite a nasty taste in your mouth. If you spend your evening trying to defend Camelot and then lose in this really abstract way because you’re forced to fill up the last siege engine slot then you become acutely aware that those are three hours you’re never going to get back. And, obviously, it’s difficult because mileage varies but I’ve never resented losing a game of Forbidden Desert the way I have some other games.

Reason Number 3: It doesn’t use random movement

Okay, this isn’t really to do with its suitability as a family game so much as its suitability as a game to be played by humans who don’t enjoy enduring boredom for no good reason. This comes back to the two types of board game thing I talked about in the last post. People who don’t think much about board games have assumed, for basically centuries, that “roll dice to determine how far you move” is a necessary feature of a board game. It isn’t.

Obviously, random elements in games are often fun.  Forbidden Desert, for example, uses a deck of cards that cause the board to change unpredictably and which you have to plan around as part of gameplay. Random movement, on the other hand, only ever means that you either do or do not get to do the thing you were intending to do this turn depending on a random factor that is completely out of your control.

I could rant about this for a long time but to be as succinct as possible: fun random is when you don’t know which cool and/or scary thing is going to happen next, boring random is when you just don’t get to do stuff that would be cool and/or scary. Like when you can’t get into the kitchen to find out whether Reverend Green used the lead pipe. There is just no fucking reason for it.

Reason Number 4: It is simple but not easy

By modern board game standards Forbidden Desert has relatively simple rules. On your turn you get four actions which can be: move somewhere, clear some sand, look for cool stuff, or pick up the things you need to win the game. At the end of your turn you draw some cards and follow the instructions. It says ages 10 and up on the box, and a 10 year old can genuinely play it.

That said, I have had the game kick my arse more times than I care to admit. Because while the rules are simple, well, so are the rules of Go. There are just enough ways to lose and just enough things you have to do to win and just enough things to distract you from the win and loss conditions that it’s very easy to find you’ve got yourself into a bad situation entirely avoidably and entirely without noticing. This is actually pretty fun, especially because (and this links back to “it’s short” above) by the time you’ve realised you’re probably screwed, you will have either won or lost within the next ten minutes.

Reason Number 5: Feelies

I will admit that Monopoly comes with fake money and fake money is pretty cool and also you get to be a hat, but on the other hand Forbidden Desert comes with beautifully illustrated tiles that you interact with in a pleasingly tactile way. I’ve never played a game in which whoever was moving the sandstorm didn’t make little whooshing noises as they did so. More importantly, it also comes with a little plastic airship that you can build yourself as you find the pieces. I’ve also never played a game in which, on winning, somebody hasn’t picked the airship up, spun the propeller and flow it off triumphantly into the sky. These might seem like small things but playing a board game is a kinesthetic experience and the stuff you get to touch and pick up and play with and move around is really, really important.

Also it comes in a metal box that looks a bit like a biscuit tin, which I find strangely pleasing. But that might just be because I like biscuits.


37 Responses to dehydration for fun and profit

  1. Kaetrin says:

    Oh, it sounds like fun!

  2. Lennan Adams says:

    We (me, 46, and my kids, 13, 10 and 10) play Forbidden Island a lot, which my kids love. This sounds more fun though, with the whole building an airship thing. Have you played both? My 13 yr old always wants to play Settlers of Catan, which bores me to tears, so I’d be willing to get another Forbidden game as a new, shiny distraction. (I’m also obviously going to immediately buy the Love Letter games – sound perfect. Takenoko sounds great, too, but my twins might not be quite old enough yet.) We also play Pandemic. It’s hard for my 10 yr olds but it’s my fave of the cooperative games, mostly bc I am fascinated by actual pandemics, haha. Anyway, great long, well thought out review. Thank you!

    • I played Forbidden Island fairly recently – I basically Forbidden Desert is a sort of … refinement of Forbidden Island? They’re very similar games mechanically with a slightly different theme and Forbidden Desert being a bit more polished. I also find the setup of Forbidden Desert a bit more sympathetic – in that you’re trying to escape an accident. Whereas in Forbidden Island you’re just a bunch of psychotic looters 🙂 I guess the one minor advantage FI has over FD for me is I like the named locations in FI: The Silver Gate and the Tidal Palace and all that stuff is super cool to me. Whereas FD is, errr, just desert. So … what am I saying. I think the best way to see FD is a relatively minor upgrade from FI that is worth investing in if you really like that style of game. Which it sounds like you do.

      I LOVE Pandemic. I agree it’s probably on the verge of a bit much for a ten year old but it actually has quite a similar mechanic to FI in that you act, gather cards, and then spread disease / make the flood waters rise. So I’m sure they’ll get there 🙂 Honestly, if I had kids I’d make them play Pandemic with me all the time, and then I’d probably be arrested for child cruelty. We have a game of Pandemic Legacy currently on going and that is … omg … that is the best thing ever. It’s like everything you love about Pandemic with MORE STUFF.

      • Lennan Adams says:

        Ooooohhhhh… Pandemic Legacy sounds amazing (I looked it up on ☺️). Wow. I actually have a (British expatriate, hmmm…) friend who likes communicable diseases and board games just as much as I do – I’m going to rope him into it, and some other adults hopefully. Pandemic is just not as fun for me with the kids playing, haha.
        I am definitely getting Forbidden Desert, though – my kids will love it. It’s funny how the setting and props for a game can make such a big difference. Forbidden Island IS sort of magical because of the names and my kids LOVE the treasure pieces. Wasn’t there a PC game that looked similar to FI? It makes me nostalgic for some reason. Pandemic is the same for me – it’s basically the same game as FI but I do feel kind of like a CDC badass when I’m playing it. Then there are games like my kids’ absolute fave card game, Sleeping Queens, where the subject matter doesn’t matter at all – it’s just fun, the queens could be anything.

  3. Allison says:

    We got Forbidden Desert for Christmas on your recommendation and fell in love with it. I want to play any time we have a random hour free and I can! 😀

  4. I’m intrigued… and may be shopping.

  5. Carey says:

    I’ve always hated boardgames, probably precisely because it was always Monopoly or Parcheesi. Now I want to go buy Forbidden Desert.

    • I can’t remember when I realised that family board games and actual board games are massively different entertainments – but it was a complete revelation and I’ve never looked back. If you want to jump down the rabbit hole, Forbidden Desert is a really good gateway …err … rabbit hole? Wait, that sentence went wrong.

  6. Pam/Peejakers says:

    This really does sound like a fun game & the “Feelies” sound adorable 🙂

    About Monopoly: “you get to be a hat” *giggles* True, but you get to do that all the time 😉 Also, I haven’t played in so long that I’d forgotten what a long game it was until you mentioned it. It was one of our our go-to family games when I was little, but I do remember it had to be saved for when we had the entire evening to play, and if we didn’t start early enough my Dad would say it was “too late for Monopoly”. Even so, we’d be up playing into the wee hours! Pretty crazy considering my brother & I were only like, 8 & 10 years old, respectively, when we started playing it regularly . . .

    • I’ve always thought one of the reasons Monopoly goes on for too long is because people basically play it wrong. It’s meant to be a family game so ruthlessly bankrupting each other and screwing people out of properties feels bad – but if you don’t do that, you’ll be stuck playing til doomsday.

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Yes, this exactly! In our family my Dad was the only one who played it the right way, putting hotels all over his properties, etc. The rest of us thought this was “mean”. In one game we all started calling him “Scrooge”, until we hurt his feelings & he told us he didn’t want to play anymore. So then we felt bad & stopped saying it, but we still hated the hotels. Poor Dad, he really was a very nice man in RL, not a Ruthless Capitalist 😉 he just thought the game should be played to win. From what I recall, he basically *did* always win, for that reason. Whereas the rest of us would do crazy stuff like not charging people rent if they landed on our property, and they didn’t have much money left 🙂

  7. KJ Charles says:

    I was loving this right up to ’10’ because my son is 7 and nightmarishly competitive and Monopoly is our family hell. Is this def too hard for a bright 7yo? Or, any other recs for collaborative games? You could save our summer holidays here.

    • Hmmm….I mean, Monopoly is recommended for 8 up I think, so he’s already over-reaching in the board game stakes 🙂 I mean, FD comes in a biscuit tin and is about £15 ( so it’s not a terrible investment to make, even if you end up sitting on it for a year. But, actually, I think that’s unlikely – I mean the advantage of co-cooperative games is that you can learn them together as a family (it comes with in-built difficulty settings, from novice to HOLY CRAP WE’RE ALL DEAD IMMEDIATELY). I probably wouldn’t recommend chancing it if your kid wasn’t already into games but since you’ve already got the interest … why not?

    • formerlyfrozen says:

      For seven year olds, Ticket to Ride should be doable and while not co operative is a lot more fun and less murder inducing than Monopoly. I’ve also played Castle Panic, another fun co operative game, successfully with eight year olds.

  8. Mel says:

    This sounds so good. E’s birthday is coming up 😀

  9. Lotta says:

    This sounds interesting! Collaborative games are good, but so far we have one that’s for younger kids, and the one we got last Christmas turned out to be too difficult for the youngest of the family, especially since I am not super experienced in board games (not even the boring kind), and neither is my partner.

  10. Beverley Jansen says:

    Monopoly was created by the spawn of the devil, and nearly caused J and I to divorce before we married! My brothers turned me off board games briefly by refusing to let me play Risk and Diplomacy with them, so I would play by myself with imaginary players TMI 🙁 ….I loved D&D until my, then, boyfriend and his friends wouldn’t wash during weekends of D&D…
    Anyway, I love boardgames (and card games) – we have a dinner group of 8 and we meet every 4 weeks or so, and are looking for games to play (Cards for Humanity lasted two plays – yuk) so I am purchasing this now for our March session – Thank you!

  11. Maarja says:

    This game sounds like so much fun! I’m already imagining gifting it to my family next Christmas. 🙂
    Just one question – considering we’re not English native speakers – is there a lot of complicated text on the cards? Because while everyone in my family knows some English, I’m not sure the 12-year-old could read it that well… Of course, with a co-op game, there’s always the possibility of the ones better at the language translating for others.
    I don’t quite agree about Monopoly being the horror everyone speaks of (we bought it voluntarily around the beginning of our relationship with my now 10-year partner and haven’t broken up over it since), but there are definitely much, much better games out there.

    • Oops, so sorry to be slow responding to this, I missed it.

      With regards to the cards in Forbidden Desert, this is what they look like:

      Some of the language is a bit complicated if you’re small and English isn’t your first language, like “clear sand from an adjacent tile” but there’s a limited number of cards and they’re all quite similar (move here, remove sand from here) so I think you could pretty quickly learn what’s what, even if the English is a bit obscure? The bulk of the cards are the arrow one in the top middle – that shows you how the storm moves (so one space up), and they’re very visual.

      Does this help?

      Monopoly is much less awful if you play it with the actual intended rules (like auctions) but most people play a simplified, family-friendly version which is just hopping round the board forever … and that is hideous. So sorry if I’ve been a bit harsh on poor ol’ Monopoly 🙂

      • Maarja says:

        No problem with the lateness of the reply, I was in no hurry – and thanks for the answer! Looks like as long as I teach the co-players the word adjacent, I can easily play with the family. 🙂

        Also, I agree with you about Monopoly so far that it’s undeservedly popular.

  12. Kris says:

    Oh I’m sold. I have a birthday in a few weeks. I have put in my request. *grabby hands* I want it.

  13. willaful says:

    We were given this for Christmas, probably because son is a truly rotten loser. Our family Monopoly game was positively tragic. Going to drag this out soon. Son and I have just been doing wonderfully noncompetetive jigsaw puzzles.

    • Oh I hope you enjoy it – I think you will find it much, much less painful than Monopoly. It’s kind of like a jigsaw in a way … a jigsaw that wants you die alone without water in the baking heat of an imaginary desert…

  14. Patrick says:

    I just tracked back to this from the Arkham Horror post. Yay, co-op games! My wife and I get out Forbidden Island now and then, and plan to get Forbidden Desert, probably next time we’re spending time away from home.

    She’s an early-career teacher and is taking distance-ed university classes toward accreditation, so pretty much is working all waking hours except when she’s utterly collapsing. But 45 minutes to play Forbidden Island as partners? Perfect!

    Toddles off to add to RSS reader

    • I’ve played both Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island and they’re … sort of the same game with a different ‘theme’. Though the mechanics of Forbidden Desert are slightly more refined (IMHO) so I think I do prefer it. I do have some friends who own both but they’re similar enough it’s probably not worth splashing out unless you specifically want to ‘upgrade’ Forbidden Island or you really love Forbidden Island.

      Also, yes, it’s a really good short partner game. A couple of friends of mine were apparently playing it in hospital while, err, awaiting a child to happen 😛

  15. KL Noone says:

    *wanders by while avoiding writing this Academic Book Proposal, ironically enough about gaming and neomedievalism*

    We have Forbidden Island, and like it – I actually like Forbidden Desert more (we bought it for friends) because, as you said, it feels a bit more refined in terms of mechanics, and that fun-random element makes every game potentially different. Which is great for replay value.

    Have you tried A Touch of Evil? Seems like something that might be up your gaming alley, especially if you like co-op (you *can* play competitively and determine an individual winner at the end, but you still work together to defeat the Evil) with specialized roles among players. And monster-hunting. 🙂

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