Review: Forbidden Desert11 Feb 2016 0
I have added Button Mash Games to my list of developers whose work I should always check out. Their only other release was 2011’s Forbidden Island, so I might well forget all about them by the time I have the opportunity to make good on that desire, but their digital translation of Forbidden Desert (henceforth FD) is very nearly perfect. An uncharitable player might point out that this is a cooperative game with no information possessed by some players but hidden from others, which simplifies the programming task immensely. Doubtless this is accurate--I really wouldn’t bother playing online even if the option were present, and there’s no AI to write. But FD does so many things not just adequately, but exceptionally, that I find myself feeling like it’s the best Match.com profile I’ve ever seen. They just get me, you know?
The first thing to know about FD is that it’s a Matt Leacock design. If the name rings a bell, it should: you might know it from Forbidden Island, Pandemic, or BoardGameGeek’s new number one (dethroning Twilight Struggle after a decade-long reign): Pandemic: Legacy. These are all cooperative games in which each player’s turns consists of taking a number of actions which advance progress toward the shared goal and then being forced to advance the game toward one of the many possible causes of failure. FD has players in the unenviable position of digging around a desert ruin during a sandstorm trying to find pieces of an ancient flying machine which they believe they’ll have an easier time repairing than the helicopter they came in on. The ancient civilization also left behind various trifles you might run across in your search, like water bottles, parasols, leaf blowers, and temporal manipulation devices. One presumes that the reason the time dilation device doesn’t occasion more interest is that we already have caffeine.
Though there are various player roles available with different powers, rather than just two kinds of people, none of them have loaded guns. As a result, most of what you’ll be doing with your actions is digging. Before you can do anything on a tile, you need to clear off the sand, then you can excavate for clues to the resting places of the four pieces of the flying machine or pick up pieces you’ve already located. There are a few other wrinkles, but, as in most purely cooperative games, you’re generally running around trying to avoid losing in one way or another (buried in sand, dead of thirst, shredded by a sandstorm of overwhelming power) while making at least a little progress. On a tabletop, collectively planning how best to balance the threats and pursue the goal can be enjoyable, but weaker players tend to have very little to do other than carry out the plans of stronger ones. Unlike Forbidden Island, which had an interface based on the assumption that the iPad would lay flat on a table with players around it, FD is presented entirely right-side-up, in acknowledgement of the fact that most players who play multiplayer will pass the device to one another, and most play will actually involve a single player running all of the characters. Because so much of the experience of playing with others requires talking, Button Mash have wisely skipped the substantial development costs of online multiplayer.
Instead, those resources seem to have gone into quite possibly my favorite digital boardgame interface ever. There’s no distracting 3-D models or constant animations, just the brightly legible art and icons from the cardboard version. As a result, subtle motion cues can attract your attention and guide you to the next phase of your turn. Everything you need to know is visible all the time, but further detail is a single tap away. If you find your memory failing you, the game keeps track of every card played from the storm deck (which moves the sandstorm around, intensifies it, and forces everyone to drink whenever a character says, “I have a bad feeling about this” and/or the sun beats down). The tutorial is perfectly pitched, quick but thorough enough to leave you feeling like your untimely death was your own fault, rather than the result of never having heard about some crucial rule. About the only thing I can say against it is that the “storm picks up” animation takes a smidge longer than I’d like.
FD sits between Forbidden Island and Pandemic in complexity. It’s still quite approachable to children, and the bright colors and yesteryear pulp theme may give the impression that it’s suited only to them. But, on the higher difficulty levels, it manages to wring quite a challenge out of its simple rules. [I have yet to beat it on the easier difficulty levels. -ed.] I do find myself missing the interaction with other minds when I play alone, and wishing there were a bit more to it; decisions are tense, but there aren’t that many different concerns to affect my thinking. So there will rarely be a situation in which FD is my first choice, but the interface is like a warm blanket and a chocolate chip cookie fresh out of the oven on a cold winter’s night. I want to keep it around just to show other people what I have in mind when I talk about interface design, and perhaps to dip into on those occasions when I’ve played with some hacked-together, opaque pratfall of an interface obscuring a good game. I doff my cap to the developers.
Forbidden Desert was played on an iPad Air for this review.