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.