Previously on Tabletop Tales, I discussed the game Tsuro and how it was one of the most beautiful examples of artwork in the board gaming world. This week, I’m going to draw you attention to a title that I also class as art in board games, arguably having some of the most impressive components ever to be bundled with a game
From popular designer Matt Leacock, Forbidden Desert is a co-op released in 2013 by publishers Gamewright, and serves as a stand-alone sequel/reimagining of Forbidden Island released three years prior. Renowned for his Pandemic series of games, Leacock is at the forefront of co-op game design and Forbidden Desert provides, arguably, his most difficult tabletop adventure of all.
The theme of the game sees two to five players assume the roles of adventurers that must work together to find the parts of a legendary flying machine that are buried within an unforgiving desert in order to make their escape from inevitable death. Navigating through the ever-changing environment, players must manage their water supply, evade intense heat and always be wary of the ruthless sandstorms that can spring at any moment. Played on a modular evolving tile board, players need to manage their resources and stage a combined hunt for the five parts of the airship, bringing them together to be assembled and before gathering all survivors to make their escape.
Each player takes a character role that provides a unique special ability, and on their turn can take four actions from a choice of the following; move to an adjacent tile, clear sand, excavate a tile with no sand by flipping it over and finally pick up a piece of the machine if it has been located. On top of this, players can also share water and trade equipment with any player occupying the same space as them as a free action. After each player goes, cards from the storm deck are turned depending on the current storm intensity and these can move the board, deposit sand tiles, deplete players water supplies and potentially make the storm pick up, advancing the marker on the sand storm meter. If this reaches the top, you are done for and if any single player runs out of water it also brings about your downfall – you all get out or no one does! However, it isn’t all doom and gloom as there is some nice little bonus cards to be unearthed and each player will have a unique ability to help combat the threat.
Players must unearth clues that point to the location of the airship pieces using a clever mechanic that means no two games will be the same. Once the location is identified, they must be collected and brought to the same location in order to assemble the ship. Upon completion, all players need to make it to that space before it can leave and ultimately win the game. While hunting for the all important clues, players will also discover shelters to shield them from the intense heat, tunnels to help them move around the are easier and wells that can replenish the vital water supplies.
Far less complex than Leacock’s Pandemic, this is more family friendly and a perfect gateway game to co-op games that offers excellent replayability. However, that does not detract one bit from the fact that this game is as tough as it gets. You are going to lose. A lot. Yet, as it plays in around 45 minutes, the constant defeat inspires a determination to finally master the pitfalls of the Forbidden Desert. Not only that, but the sand storm marker is also a difficulty setting, with the option to set an escalating level of challenge by having a higher starting point on the meter. Beating this game on legendary difficulty is genuinely a monster achievement, like a NG+7 run of Dark Souls! It projects its theme with such class, encouraging the panic of such a hopeless situation as being stranded in a desert – although naturally without the life or death element.
But that is only half the story…
You see, Forbidden Desert has what I consider some of the finest game components readily available today. Not only is the artwork sublime and rich in theme, the weight and feel of all the cards and sand tiles are far superior to what you would expect from a game with a £25 price point. The game comes in a fantastically designed and eye-catching embossed tin box that makes the game stand out on the shelf, and makes it feel a little more special when your bring it out. The rules are perfect; clear, concise and engaging.
Yet the pièce de résistance comes with the five little pieces that make up a legendary airship. They all are wonderfully designed and click together to form the airship. They are simply magnificent.
And that quality of components and attention to detail has always made Forbidden Desert stand out as more than just a board game for me. It’s something to be treasured; offering real quality and value. Being transparent, if you are a hardened gamer it is a game that won’t find it’s way onto your table as often as the heavier co-op games, clearly living in the shadow of its more complex big sister Pandemic (and of course Pandemic Legacy). However, it has absolute pride of place in my collection for one simple reason: this is yet another example of board games as art.
It is a game that has been crafted with such refinement that it feels utterly unique; each copy feeling like a limited special edition tailored just for you. While it may not merit that tag on its traditional art style alone, it is for me, without any shadow of a doubt, a stunning example of board game production as art. Each element adds up to present a combined and enriched game experience that is enhanced by the incredible attention to detail across the design.
In this booming industry, games need a solid USP to make it stand out in a crowded market and Forbidden Desert does that and then some. Not only has Matt Leacock delivered an absolutely stellar quick-to-learn, long-time-to-master co-op game that has broad appeal, a quick play time and great freshness, but publishers Gamewright have packaged it in an utterly spectacular manner; crafting a game that feels fantastic in your hands and delightful on your eyes, serving as a beacon of what is possible with board game design.
Make no mistake, this is a game that everyone with a passion for board gaming should not only check out but find a place for in their collection.
Simply put; it’s a work of art!
NEXT WEEK: I’m looking at what happens when you take to retro classics in Subbuteo meets Scalextric and smash them together.