Forbidden Island (for iPad)
My breakthrough moment with the iPad came when I played Settlers of Catan and realized that digital slates are an excellent venue for board game adaptations. It required no setup, quickly taught me how to play, and let me practice offline with digital players before going online against real people. I still don’t like Catan, but then I don’t like the board game in the first place. I do, however, love the cooperative game Forbidden Island and was thrilled when it was released as an iPad game. The digital version preserves the nail-biting nautical challenge of the original and neatly supports up to four players gathered around an iPad. But I feel the game loses some of its charm in the translation, and it doesn’t take full advantage of its new home on a tablet, either.
Forbidden Island is available for iPad, but not for iPhone or iPod Touch. The game requires iOS 8 or later, and I had no trouble installing it on the iPad Air 2. It costs $4.99, which might seem steep for a mobile game, but keep in mind that that’s just a quarter of the price of the board game version. Carcassonne, another mobile adaptation of a board game for iOS, costs $9.99, but justifies that cost by offering an excellent experience on both the iPad and iPhone.
The Game, In Brief
In Forbidden Island, two to four players take the roles of explorers on a quest to recover four objects of great power and then escape the island. The landmass consists of several tiles, each displaying a beautiful drawing of a particular landmark such as the Crimson Forest or the Cliffs of Abandon. Some of the tiles, such as the Tidal Palace, are elemental temples at which players can exchange four matching cards for the objects they seek. Collect all four, return to the helicopter landing site, and play a Helicopter card, and all the players win.
But the island is as beautiful as it is doomed. Each turn, players draw from the Flood deck and flip over the corresponding tiles. Unless you shore up these waterlogged tiles, they sink under water and are lost forever. At first you only draw two cards from the Flood deck, but the number steadily increases as play progresses, ratcheting up the pressure.
Working together is critical because Forbidden Island is a cooperative game. Players win or lose as a team. If one explorer is lost, everyone loses. And that’s just one of this challenging game’s several losing conditions.
Mobile versions of board games generally fall into one of two categories: Faithful adaptations and clever reimaginings. The iPhone game Lost Cities is an example of the latter, stripping down the game to its core and optimizing it for small screens. On the other end of the spectrum is Carcassonne, which carefully recreates all the aspects of the medieval city-building game, but also takes advantage of its digital home with unique game modes, local and online multiplayer, and tools like a graph of remaining tiles that isn’t possible with the physical board game.
Forbidden Island on the iPad is a very faithful recreation. From one screen, you see each player’s hand, the Flood deck, the Treasure deck, and a meter showing how many Flood cards will be drawn each turn (this also marks progress toward one of the game’s losing conditions).
It’s a tactical arrangement, apparently meant to present you with all the options available each turn. Each player’s movement options are outlined in green, making it clear what’s within reach. The game even suggests playing certain cards during the Flood phase, which might not be obvious to first-time players. I especially appreciated how easy it is to look up each explorer’s special ability—something I’ve often overlooked.
Another great feature is an Undo button. You can undo any movement right up to ending your turn. This is great, as I frequently need to walk through each turn before I settle on a final strategy.
Different tile arrangements are a surprising addition to the game. Included are the standard diamond-shaped island layout and an additional variant. For a 99 cent in-app payment, you can buy 10 more island layouts to try.
Unfortunately, a lack of attention to detail means that some of the charm of the game is lost. The sides and corners of the screen are crowded with player’s hands, deck facsimiles, and other elements that could be minimized or removed. Hearthstone, while not an adaptation of a board game, does a great job of presenting a tactical but fun and engaging environment for play.
In Forbidden Island, you can’t even zoom in on the island to admire the tile’s artwork, which makes me wonder why they went through such effort to recreate the look of the original game. And while the game includes sound effects, I am surprised that there is no music during actual play. Looping themes can get annoying, but I would prefer at least something to create even a little ambiance.
Playing in Person
Many iPad and iPhone board games provide both local single player and online multiplayer. Forbidden Island, unfortunately, does not. I quickly realized that because Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, local single player is impossible. Because the game is cooperative, it requires a lot of planning and discussion between players and you can’t do that with an AI (yet). Notably, Carcasonne recently introduced a Solitaire mode for its iPad game.
That said, I am pleasantly surprised that playing Forbidden Island by myself in two-player mode is still challenging. In fact, it’s so challenging that I tend to lose the game.
The lack of an online multiplayer mode is more surprising. Forbidden Island isn’t a party game like Spaceteam, which thrives on the chaos of people shouting at each other in the same room. Perhaps Forbidden Island’s developers were unable to implement a system that allowed teams to easily communicate with each other. Or perhaps they assumed online play wouldn’t be popular enough to justify its expense. I’ve experienced this before with other games like San Juan, where I spent more more than 20 minutes waiting for an opponents who never materialized.
Worth the Trip?
Forbidden Island, either on the iPad or out of a physical box, is a solid entry point for modern board games, especially cooperative ones. It’s simple to learn, maddeningly tough to master, and offers great replayability. The iPad version of the game captures most of that, but it fails to take full advantage of the tablet’s power. I found the interface clunky and drained of the original’s charm. Plus, there’s has no iPhone equivalent. Forbidden Island will be fun and familiar to fans of the game, but I still prefer the boxed version. Perhaps we’ll have better luck when Forbidden Island’s spiritual successor, Forbidden Desert, comes to tablets soon.