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Eating From the Tree of Knowledge: A Discussion about Forbidden Dessert. Wait, that’s wrong. Sand in the Vaseline: A Discussion about Forbidden Desert.

You guys may recall a couple of other times where your humble narrator and Kickstarter wunderkind Jamey Stegmaier have yelled at each other about games. We still do that. Here’s us talking about one of Jamey’s favorites, Forbidden Desert by Matt Leacock. 

joepicMy first experience with a cooperative game was Battlestar Galactica. This game would sow the seeds of my love for cooperative games and the hidden traitor mechanic (a whole different discussion). I’ve enjoyed a lot of cooperative games since then. Some of my favorites include Pandemic, Shadowrift, Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Pandemic. A newer one to me is Forbidden Desert. Now let me start off by saying, I like this game. The pieces are fun. Building the little ship appeals to the 12 year old in me. I like the theme, I like the sandstorm and how the countdown mechanic works. In short, I like the game. There’s just one problem. I’ve never actually lost this game. Moreover, I’ve never felt like I was in danger of losing it. Maybe we had good luck, maybe we had competent players, maybe both…but that’s been the case every time I’ve played. I thought perhaps we were playing wrong, because a lot of friends of mine (who are not at all bad gamers) repeatedly get pwned by this game, but after reading the rulebook very carefully, I wasn’t making any glaring mistakes. In my experiences, limited though they may be, this game lacks the tension that I love about every other cooperative game I’ve played. Is it the simplicity of the design? I don’t think so. Pandemic is simple and harsh. I’ve almost certainly lost Pandemic more often than I have won, and I enjoy the ego bruising that it inflicts on me. Robinson Crusoe is exponentially more complicated, and I routinely lose that one. I didn’t succeed on the first scenario until my 4th or 5th try. I haven’t gotten to try any of the other ones yet. I enjoy Forbidden Desert, but my experiences have made me think of it as a kid’s game. I’m not myself some super gamer savant, so maybe it’s just repeated coincidence? How has Forbidden Desert stacked up against other cooperative games with you?


JSMLet’s start off with this: “I’ve never actually lost this game.” What?! How is that possible? Which level are you playing at? You’re a smart gamer, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a certain amount of luck in any cooperative game (including this one) that makes it unlikely you’ll win more than 50% of the time. I can certainly see how that impacts your view of the game. I can’t explain it. Speaking from my experience, I have lost Forbidden Desert more than I have won it. There have been times when one of us would have “won” if we were allowed to let our fellow survivors perish in the desert, but the rules don’t allow for that to happen. I like to play the game on medium-to-hard—which level have you played it at? So here’s one of the reasons I really love the game: I can go months between games of Forbidden Desert, and I never have to reference the rules. That’s almost unheard of in a game, and I think it’s the mark of great design. It means that everything is clean and intuitive, and there are no weird exceptions to rules or variable setups for different numbers of players (I can excuse the latter). Because of this, I’m immersed in the game every time I play. Sure, I don’t feel like I’m truly dragging myself through the desert in search of my broken airship, but I’m a lot closer to the game because my head isn’t stuck in the rules for a few minutes every time I play. Have you found that to be true? Is that something you appreciate in games, or do you not mind checking the rulebook?


joepicA prolonged case of beginner’s luck? The fact that I’ve only played it a handful of times? (The first was on easy, the rest were at medium, and I haven’t played hard yet) I can’t really say. What I can say is that now that it’s been talked about, I’m pretty sure that next time I play, I will lose. Probably hard. A friend told me that his first 3-4 games of Robinson Crusoe he won handily. Obviously, my initial reaction was “Bullshit.” Second was “did you read the rules thoroughly?” He did eventually lose, but winning the first 3-4 games of Robinson Crusoe seems exponentially less likely to me than winning the first few games of Forbidden Desert.

Back to the discussion at hand though, not needing to refer to the rulebook is a nice thing. I’m not convinced that it is something uniquely tied to Forbidden Desert though, as much as simpler games. I don’t need to refer to the rules for Splendor, No Thanks or Coup either.

Even more complicated games become second nature after a while. The only time my rulebook for Chaos in the Old World comes out is when I want to show off where Eric Lang wrote in it. Forbidden Desert is a solid, clean design with a neat countdown mechanic, and it is pretty intuitive, but it’s not unique in that.

Something positive I can say to Forbidden Desert’s rules though is that the layout is clear. There’s not a lot to hunt through even in the learning game, and when you do, it’s quick. Well written rulebooks are a real treasure. Take Seasons for example. I picked up the game having read a bunch of reviews for it and I was excited to get it out and try it. A free night came, we got it out, did all the punching, set it up….then got completely befuddled by the rulebook. We ended up putting it away without playing it. It was unplayable by the rulebook. After consulting a video, we got on board just fine and now the only time we use the rulebook is to check FAQs on individual cards. Have you come across problematic rule books?

So for you, not needing to stop and reference the rules helps keep you closer in the game. My immersion level ties more to how well the theme blends with the gameplay. Pandemic, another Matt Leacock design is an almost perfect example of this. When an Epidemic card hits, I start nervously checking the board for what cities have a lot of cubes and if there is anyone close to them who can put the fire out. When you come across a Sun Beats Down card in Forbidden Desert, you lose a water. You maybe check to see if there’s a well nearby. When the sand piles up, I don’t feel the panic that I do when playing Pandemic. Another sterling example of an immersive theme is Argent: The Consortium, a game I can’t say enough good things about. How much does theme matter to you in your ability to really “get into” a game?


jsbetterYeah, I won my first and only game of Robinson Crusoe, but I’m 100% sure we played incorrectly. That game is allegedly quite difficult. Oh, that’s definitely true about the rulebook. That’s the mark of an intuitive game to me. It’s interesting that you cited Seasons as a tough one to learn. Perhaps rulebooks are intuitive in different ways to different people, as I found that one easy to understand in the learning game I played with it. Other games, not so much. I’m trying to think of an example with a rulebook I found tough to teach from. I stumbled through Yedo the first time, but it’s proven to be easy to remember how to play since then. That’s an interesting point about the element of panic and tension in cooperative games. I agree that Pandemic has a ton of that. Forbidden Desert has mounting pressure, but rarely does it have huge moments of panic, and that’s a really important element of cooperative games–perhaps even moreso than theme. Though I love thematic elements in cooperative games, like the cards in Robinson Crusoe that give you decisions that could come back to bite you later. That’s one of the most brilliant thematic design elements I’ve ever seen in a game. Speaking of which, how excited are you about Pandemic Legacy?


joepic“Allegedly” my foot. That game is brutal. Which probably explains why I enjoy it. There are a handful of games that just punish you for every mishap. Agricola is my go-to example for this. It’s a relatively simple game to pick up, but has an excruciatingly tight game clock and is thoroughly unforgiving of mistakes. I once read a critique of Agricola that said “Agricola takes X turns to win. The game lasts X – 3 turns” The author stated it in a soured tone, but I find it to be more of an endorsement; yeah, I’m weird and sometimes a bit of a masochistic gamer. In my experience, it is nearly impossible to do great in Agricola, but you can do better than the other people. You win by losing the least. But I digress, the point is that Robinson Crusoe scratches that same itch for punishment. When you win, it feels like you accomplished something, but you’re going to lose a lot more often, and you’ll have fun doing so.

Not sure why Seasons stumped me as hard as it did. I was warned that the rulebook would not be sufficient, but I ignored it, trusting to my gamer intuition. Nope. I had to watch a video before I understood what was going on. There are plenty of rulebooks that are tough to teach from. How many games can you say afterwards (or often during) “I think we did this wrong?” It’s a startlingly common experience which has grown my appreciation for a good rulebook. My personal favorite is Steam Park, which explains everything in a concise manner and even takes steps to make it entertaining. Seasons I struggled with, and others were just plain bad. I enjoyed Shadowrift a great deal, but the rulebook was awful. So to your point earlier, it is pretty nice to have games that you have to consult the rulebook during your first….maaaaaybe second game, and then are done with it thereafter. I recently learned Jamaica (which came with 4 rulebooks for different languages) and will be unlikely to need to do so again.

Personally, I think that tension and panic are critical to the cooperative game experience. Pandemic gets it perfectly. Robinson Crusoe does a great job. Wok Star by Tim Fowers has a real time countdown mechanic where everyone is playing simultaneously (it’s a good one, I’ll show you some time). Forbidden Desert is a solid and clean design, but to date, while the pressure rises, the tension really doesn’t. This is not to say that it’s a poor game. It’s more that I would use Forbidden Desert to introduce cooperative gaming to kids. My daughter is probably not ready for Pandemic, but she would definitely pick up Forbidden Desert. This is not an indictment at all; one of the projects I have on the back burner is a cooperative dice game targeted at kids. Forbidden Desert is a decent intro to the genre, but given options between this, or Robinson Crusoe, or Pandemic, I’m going to go with one of the latter choices. I agree regarding the cards in Robinson Crusoe that force you to make difficult decisions that may penalize you later (but are very upfront about how they do so – you’re never surprised you got food poisoning from eating things questionably edible) being a pretty novel device. it’s not exactly a Devil’s Bargain (where you gain a lot of power with a strong drawback/sacrifice) but forces the question of what risks are you willing to take in order to survive? (With no guarantee of survival no less).

Pandemic Legacy. Oh man. So much so that I am one of the 52,000 pre-orders. And yes, to answer your question, I chose the blue box. I am fascinated by the concept of legacy style or campaign games. I watched how much you geeked out over Risk Legacy, and it was almost enough to make me investigate it and I am not a fan of the Risk franchise (Comedian Bo Burnham quipped “If every day you play the board game Risk, you’ve probably never taken a risk in your life”). I take a little bit of issue with how the game suggests you make permanent changes to the board and even destroy components to reflect the changing game state, and historically speaking, I have struggled with getting a solid group together to do something like this (admittedly, this is more due to my schedule than anyone else’s) which requires regular participation with the same group of people. It’s why I parted ways with the Pathfinder ACG and more recently Arcadia Quest. They are games that I would absolutely love, but were never meant to be pickup games. In spite of this, my mouth watered the second I heard the concept, and as soon as I saw that pre-orders were available, I put my money down. I am hellbent on making this one work. The issue then becomes…how many other people did this that I personally know? The more copies there are floating around, the more difficult it may be to organize a campaign group.

So we’re both designers, we’re both fairly well-versed in the games we’re discussing, and we both agree that Forbidden Desert, while structurally a fine game, lacks the kind of tension that is necessary to make it a fantastic game. What do you think (purely armchair design, you don’t need to get too specific) would be some ways to ratchet that up besides increasing the difficulty? I think that increasing the difficulty would just make you lose more frequently/faster, but wouldn’t address this issue.


jsbetterThat’s a really interesting assessment of punishment in games. I’ve found that I really enjoy cooperative games that are punishing, but not competitive games. Agricola has dropped out of my top 10 as a result of this.

Rahdo recently did a top 10 of his favorite “heavy” games, and at the beginning of the video he talks about “complexity” in games. He defines a “complex” game as one that has a lot of little rules and exceptions that are hard to remember, even if they made add to the theme of the game (I think he mentioned Mage Knight in that category). It’s really hard for a game to not have any level of complexity in that way–even with a game like Lords of Waterdeep, I need to consult the rulebook every time for the variable setup (# of workers and starting money). So yeah, there are many games I’ve played where I’ve later learned we were playing it wrong. I think we discussed that a while back on your review of Coup.

They’re up to 52,000 pre-orders now?! Wow. That’s awesome. Hopefully it’s a sign of more legacy games to come (I’m really looking forward to Seafall and Gloomhaven). I agree, though, that it really helps if you have a regular group committed to play those games. It’s not the same when you mix and match players. Is there a way you could see the legacy format working for a pickup game?

How to increase the tension and/or difficulty of Forbidden Desert? Hmm. As you can tell, I love the game, so it would be hard for me to change anything, but I’m open to the idea of adding more tension to the game. I think it would be cool to have a traitor mechanism. I don’t think that works for every cooperative game, but thematically in Forbidden Desert it kind of works–you’ve build the airship and don’t want to wait around for everyone else, so you simply take off. Or maybe you’re actually one of the steampunk sand people, and you don’t want to leave, but you also don’t want other players to apprehend you. Do you think a traitor mechanism would add to the tension, or would it detract too much from the positive feelings a cooperative game can create?


joepicI enjoy cooperative games with a traitor element. Battlestar Galactica is a great one (and probably my favorite) and I enjoy Dead of Winter as well (albeit not as much as BSG). Interestingly, Pandemic has a traitor option in the On the Brink expansion. While I own it, I have yet to play with the Bio-Terrorist rules. I would still like to, even though the things I have read have said it fell a little flat. It certainly adds to the tension, and…yeah, I think it detracts from the good teamwork feeling, but not in a bad way. I think a traitor mechanism in Forbidden Desert could be cool. I imagine it would be implemented in a way similar to Chaosmos. Actually, I think such a hybrid could be pretty badass *scribbles notes*


jsbetterI love that this discussion has spanned several months. I get to look back at a past version of myself to see his perspective. Since then I have played Battlestar Galactica twice, and I LOVE the skill check mechanism in it (particularly how it obfuscates a traitor. Dead of Winter does something similar, but I like that BSG does it every turn–it’s the driving force of the game, not just a checkpoint each round. That really has no connection to Forbidden Desert, but I said it anyway. 🙂


joepicThat’s because we talk reeeeeeealllllllly sloooooooooooooowly. And I agree that it’s neat taking a break from this and coming back to see what has changed. Like you playing BSG…which we should do again. Forbidden Desert made your Top 10 list this year, which given the staggering amount of games out there is pretty impressive. I have not made a Top 10 list. I struggle with absolutes, but it’s probably a good mental exercise. I digress, there you mentioned that even in the face of arguably “better” games, you still prefer this one. Is there anything you can elaborate on as to why? It may well be as simple as “I just do” It could be “It doesn’t take all damn night like those other games” it could be any number of things, but I’m curious as to the particulars that keeps this in such a high place on your list.


jsbetterThat’s interesting to hear about absolutes. I’d love to read a Joe Babbitt Top 10 games. I’ve found that the key to doing it is to make it about the the games that right now at this moment excite you the most. They may not even be games you’ve played in a while, but just thinking about them gets you excited, and you’d probably drop everything and play them right now if people asked. Like, are you up for playing Chaos in the Old World right now? (hears knock on door) Wow, that was fast. 🙂 So why does Forbidden Desert continue to make my top 10 list, even as I’ve played other cooperative games with more interesting mechanisms and thematic immersion? I think my continued excitement for it stems from the simplicity of it and short playtime (45-60 minutes), coupled with the interesting choices that stem from discovering what’s under each tile and the puzzle of the shifting sands. It gets my gamer juices flowing. I think sometimes you just have to trust your gut, and when someone brings this game to game night, I will always say yes to playing it. That’s very rare for me, even among games I really like. What are a few games that you will always say yes to?


joepicSigh. I will try to put together a Top 10 list. Just for you, Jamey. I think that’s a good way to do it, just look at games and rate the excitement factor. God knows there are plenty of games where my reaction is “meh”. While Chaos in the Old World (did I mention that my copy is signed by Eric Lang? Twice?) is a classic and one of my favorites, even it is not a game I will always want to play. It has to be played by experienced players (one of the game’s biggest failings is that the game suffers when there is a large disparity in player skill) which can sometimes be a bar keeping it from the table. So what are some games I will always say yes to? I think that’s a whole different topic, and we can address it after I write up my Top 10 Games post. 🙂 This discussion has been fun like the others and I thank you for taking the time to have it with me. Any last statements you would like to make on Forbidden Desert (or any of the other non-FD topics we stumbled into?)


jsbetterI’m so happy to hear my ploy worked, and now I get to read a Top 10 list by you! I greatly look forward to that. As for final words about Forbidden Desert, I highly recommend it to anyone as both my gateway game of choice and my cooperative game of choice.


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