Dicebreaker Recommends: Forbidden Desert, a family board game that builds strong bonds between players

Dicebreaker Recommends is a series of monthly board games, RPGs, and other tabletop recommendations from our friends on our sister site, Dicebreaker. Be sure to also check out their list of best family board games.

Forbidden Desert is a board game about working together to escape a dire situation, which certainly doesn’t echo anything we’re seeing in real life right now.

Good cooperative games have a way of uniting players in order to achieve a common goal. Forbidden Desert can plunge its players into a tense scenario, where failure lurks around every possible sand dunes. But it also pushes players to support each other, listen to each other, and use their unique abilities to overcome obstacles as a team.

Forbidden Desert is part of a series of board games created by Matt Leacock – the designer of another excellent cooperative game, Pandemic – which places players in a variety of perilous situations, from sinking islands to stormy skies, to which they must survive long enough to find an escape.

In the case of Forbidden Desert, players take on the role of adventurers who have ventured into a vast desert in order to discover a flying machine that is said to use the sun’s rays as a source of energy. After your helicopter crashes due to a violent sandstorm, players are forced to search for this mysterious machine as a means of escape – all while having to deal with the relentless sun, intense dehydration and piles of sand.

The game board is made up of a square grid of five-by-five tiles, which are randomly placed face down. A space is left in the middle of the grid to serve as the center of the sandstorm. Some of these tiles contain parts of the machine that players must collect to build it and fly away safely. Finding these pieces is made exponentially more difficult by the excess sand blown in by the storm, causing some tiles to be covered in larger and larger stacks.


At the end of each player’s turn, they must draw a number of cards from the sandstorm deck equal to the storm’s current level – the higher the level, the more cards players must draw – and move the corresponding tiles into the indicated direction. It’s one of the ways Forbidden Desert introduces a real sense of adventure, making the game board move and change like sand in a storm.

The quicksand mechanism not only helps with immersion, it also complicates the ultimate goal of finding the machine parts. Players must place a sand tile on each tile they move during the sandstorm phase, preventing them from flipping affected tiles and discovering their secrets. Additionally, tiles become impassable for almost all players once they have more than one sand tile on them. These tiles can be cleared if players use their actions to remove sand, but the ever-changing landscape of the board means players will need to consider all potential avenues to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Fortunately, players have access to certain abilities depending on the six possible roles they have chosen. These abilities are designed to work in tandem, giving players plenty of cooperative opportunities to navigate the game’s quicksand. For example, the Navigator is able to move other players through unblocked tiles, while the Archaeologist can remove up to two sand tiles in a single action – the perfect combination for any time players need to clear an otherwise impassable road.

Other roles help manage the threats posed by the sandstorm and the ever-present heat created by the desert sun. Players immediately lose the game if they run out of sand tiles to place on the board, making the weatherman’s ability to draw fewer sandstorm cards at the end of his turn – as well as watching and moving the cards down the deck – useful to avoid a loss. The Water Bearer ability, being able to take extra water from all discovered well tiles and give water to players on adjacent tiles, is a boon to protect thirsty players from dying of dehydration.

Besides movement tiles, the sandstorm game contains “the sun beats” cards that require players to drink water from their canisters each time they are drawn. (Unless a player has taken cover on a tunnel tile.) Running out of water means one player character disappears and the entire party is defeated, causing everyone to support each other instead than trying to go it alone. Even with each role’s unique abilities and the promise of fancy gear – which can be discovered on hidden gear tiles – Forbidden Desert is truly a co-op experience.

This is why winning Forbidden Desert is such a satisfying experience. The player harmony needed to maintain control of the sand tiles, keep anyone from dying of thirst, discover the location of machine parts, and get everyone to the launch pad comes from everyone’s willingness to work together. In Forbidden Desert, teamwork is really what makes the dream work.

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