Forbidden Island (2010) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

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Version Reviewed

English first edition, third printing

Introduction

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert are very similar games – not so similar that there aren’t meaningful differences but similar enough that the issues we’re likely to encounter in the teardown overlap considerably.   At least, that’s how it seems from the perspective of our introduction.   I’m as surprised as anyone at what these teardowns say by the time they get to the end, really.   Is it a fair assumption?  Probably not – remember, the way in which game elements interact create a considerable subtlety to this topic.   Just because two games seem very alike on the surface it doesn’t mean they’ll be remotely similar in a teardown.   Forbidden Island is a meaty enough game to deserve its own chance to shine – it’s three and a half stars of fun in a little tin box.  Enough stalling – let’s find out for sure!

Colour Blindness

There is a colour blindness problem but it’s unlikely to be hugely significant.  There are clashing pawn colours which make identification of players tricky.  That in turn makes it more difficult to properly strategise since the proximity of particular roles to trouble-spots may not be possible to instantly identify:

Colour blind tiles

Just start flipping everything over!

You can just replace clashing pawns with something else but then you lose the colour coding that goes along with the roles:

Colour blind pawns

Am I racist if sometimes I can’t tell pawns of colour apart?

The effect isn’t trivial, but it’s also not game-breaking.    For everything else, colour doesn’t matter. The cards have prominent graphical symbols on them, and the physical treasures have entirely different appearances.

Colour blind cards

Our dealer will pay well for these regardless of the colour

As with Forbidden Desert the artwork remains beautiful even when viewed through a subdued palette.   I’d even go so far as to say some of it looks better.  It’s a little more melancholy, and that seems entirely appropriate for a game in which a beautiful island full of historical treasure and history is being rapidly reclaimed by the ocean.

Pretty tiles

So pretty

As such, we offer a recommendation for Forbidden Island in this category.

Visual Accessibility

The game has almost no text, save for that associated with the airlift and sandbag cards.  The effect those have are easily explained and easily memorised.    That’s great.   What cards are in the game otherwise have very prominent graphical design:

Large graphics on cards

Only a full house can beat this

Forbidden Desert offered an interesting amount of tactility to game state as a result of its stackable sand tokens.  You could finger through and see where things were getting especially problematic.  Forbidden Island doesn’t have that – instead, state information is represented by a change in the colour scheme:

Flooded tiles

Flooded areas are easy to see. Ish.

The colour change is substantial, and provided that a player has some ability to differentiate colour and retains some limited degree of vision it’s likely possible to identify flooded and non-flooded areas of the map.  However, some tiles have special gameplay importance that needs to be taken into account, and these are presented in the corner.

Corner tiles

This really is a very pretty game

These may not be quite so easy to make out if visual acuity is low.  They are all different, and generously proportioned, but if viewed as a blur from a distance the Ocean’s Chalice is difficult to differentiate from the Earth Stone, and the Statue of the Wind is very similar to the Crystal of Fire.   Forbidden Island though is a co-operative game, and while this may limit the ability of a player to strategise on their own there is no gameplay impact that comes from asking the state of play.  Unlike Forbidden Desert while tiles may disappear they never shift position.   As long as you know where the key points are, you’ll be able to navigate around as long as the island remains in place.  The downside of that is that when tiles start to disappear it turns navigation into a problem of path-finding.  The direct route may not work, and it may be necessary to backtrack over multiple turns as more tiles disappear.   More on that in the intersectional accessibility section.

The draw decks are important in determining risk of waters rise and flooding actions, but the flood deck will get smaller as more tiles are removed.  This permits touch to be used to gain an approximate appreciation of just how screwed everyone is.    The fewer cards you can feel in the flood deck, the more likely it is that parts of the island will sink.   The treasure deck is a little more problematic, requiring a player to remember how many waters rise cards have been played in the current shuffle.  To be fair, there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome of the draw but having fore-knowledge of probability may influence the decisions you make.

There’s quite a lot of visual scanning that goes along with flooding tiles – you draw a card with the tile’s name and image, and then you need to do a pattern matching exercise to locate it in the random layout.   In early phases of the game this is a noticeable interaction cost but it speeds up as the tiles start to disappear.  Those that are good at quickly locating the tiles will find this easy to do, but that requires a considerable degree of visual parsing.    Provided that there is at least one sighted player in the game though, this need not be especially burdensome.  Even in a full play group where everyone has some degree of visual impairment, it’s an impediment to efficiency rather than an impediment to play,

Overall, the problems are relatively minor in a co-operative game and we’re still prepared to offer a recommendation for Forbidden Island in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

There is almost no reading required in the game, and the roles that players can adopt are symmetrical except for a single power.   The cognitive burden here is not large.    The core of actions shared by each player remains the same, and aside from sandbags and airlifts there are no conditional actions that can be performed.  You have three action points, and you spend them.

There is an element of set collection within the game, but it’s very straightforward – you need to get four cards of the same token, and you can only have five in your hand at any one time.   While this does imply a very limited amount of numeracy, it’s of a level and form that requires no formal understanding of arithmetic.  It can be mapped to counting on fingers in extreme cases.

The game tiles are a powerful aid to memory, offering as they do a visual cue of where the island is in trouble.   The only thing that needs to be remembered is which treasures have been claimed.  That in itself is supported by the presence of the physical tokens that can be removed from the surrounding map as they’re picked up.     All of the discard piles can be checked at any time, and the hand of cards a player possesses is the reminder as to their progress.   Unlike Pandemic, the game rules suggest playing with open hands so everyone can see what everyone else has available.  As such there is a degree of shared game state and strategy that must be kept in mind.  The burden for that is on the group rather than on the individual.

Game flow is consistent, although the flooding phase changes in severity as the game goes on.  However, the basic execution of turns is reliable – use three actions, draw two treasures, resolve waters rising, flood the island.     It doesn’t have the potentially complex conditional logic of Pandemic, or even the variability of Forbidden Desert with its sun cards.   There is nothing that cascades and nothing that changes depending on rule synergy.

We recommend Forbidden Island in both categories of cognitive accessibility, with that recommendation being somewhat stronger in the area of memory.

Emotional Accessibility

Forbidden Island shares certain characteristics here with Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Galaxy Trucker – it’s a game that requires people to be able to lose with good humour.   Even on the lowest difficulty levels, it’s not a particularly easy game.   The first few times you play, as you get into the rhythm of the emerging disaster, you’ll lose and lose badly.   However, as a co-operative game everyone loses together so there’s no worry about an obnoxious winner.

Being able to lose well is important, because Forbidden Island will lure you into a false sense of security.  Early turns are remarkably easy and become incrementally more difficult with each passing flooding phase.  When the waters rise, the game noticeably steps up a gear in terms of challenge and keeps accelerating.  At late phases of the game, you are guaranteed to lose tiles of the island and there is nothing you can do to stop it.   When tiles are removed from the game, their flood card is removed with them.  When the waters rise, the number of cards you draw increases.  It’s possible to draw more cards per flooding phase than you have left, at which point the discard pile is shuffled and cards are drawn from this new deck.  As such, when the flooding phase begins tiles can disappear without anyone being able to do anything about it.  That’s not an edge case – that’s almost always going to happen.

The effect of this is that late game turns can be staggeringly brutal.  In a single flooding phase you can lose the tiles necessary to get you to your goal, or lose your tile and die, or lose the one tile you needed to cash in a treasure.   Loss in Forbidden Island comes easily, and sometimes without warning.  It is technically possible to lose on the first turn.  Players have no ability to influence the draw decks – there’s no peeking ahead or reordering.   You may easily deal a game-state that simply cannot be won, and only find that out five, six or ten turns into play.    Like Solitaire, your chance of success is going to be shuffle dependent and there may not be any early indicators that your loss is inevitable.  That can be frustrating, once again underlining the need for everyone involved to see the fun in collective humiliation.  Forbidden Desert and Pandemic give you tools with which you can change the course of fate.  Forbidden Island has no such thing.  You’ll get the cards that were shuffled, in the order they are dealt.

The nature of flooding too can create aggravating situations– you may find paths blocked, or escape routes gone.  You may find yourself unable to do anything on a turn if you are surrounded by water and the group has no suitable way to deal with it.   It doesn’t happen often, but a stranded player with no support can do nothing except watch their own death slowly approach.   It’s in everyone’s interest to avoid that happening, but there are only so many tools available in the team’s arsenal to stop it.

We’re going to tentatively recommend Forbidden Island in this category – the arbitrary fate that you deal yourself exacerbates some of the problems that go with this kind of despair generator, but play is sufficiently short that you don’t ruin an evening’s entertainment.  When you fail, you can just set it up and go again.   That said though, that second attempt is not necessarily any more winnable than the first.

Physical Accessibility

There is a fair amount of tile manipulation that goes into Forbidden Island, but it consists almost entirely of flipping tiles from one face to the other, or removing them and discarding them back to the box.  There’s also quite a lot of shuffling, since every time the treasure or flood decks are run down the discard piles must be shuffled into a new draw deck.  It’s nowhere near the physical burden one might associate with a deck builder, and can be done by one single player rather than being a burden on everyone at the table.  As usual, the fact that Forbidden Island is a co-operative game alleviates many of the physical accessibility issues that may otherwise accrue.   There aren’t a great number of these in any case.

The tiles are non-contiguous, and they don’t get placed in tight adjacency.  As such, the alignment shockwaves we might associate with games such as Carcassonne are not necessarily an issue.  However, the more space you leave between tiles the farther a player will need to reach to access tiles at the far end.     The easiest solution, regardless of accessibility concerns, is to make manipulation of the island tiles a collaborative endeavour – everyone can handle the tiles closest to them.

The only tokens that ever appear on the tiles are the player pawns.  Unlike Forbidden Desert you don’t have sand and engine parts to contend with.    When flooding a tile containing a pawn it’s necessary to lift up the pawn, flip the tile, and put the pawn back down. That’s about as far as the busyness of tiles becomes a physical interaction issue.

There is a hand of cards in the game, but cards are played open and in front of each player – the usual issues that go along with hand management need not be a significant problem.  There is some need for discarding and rearranging cards, but it’s not so much that it need be a burden for a given player, or awkward for another player to do on behalf of a physically impaired player.

The evocative locations in the game don’t only give a tremendous sense of place, they also aid in unambiguous verbalisation.

Tile names

I went to the howling gardens last year. It was rubbish.

All instructions can be given clearly, such as:

 ‘Move me to the Dunes of Deception via the Watchtower and the Misty Marsh, and then shore up the Iron Gate’

Or:

‘Move me to the Whispering Gardens via the Lost Lagoon and cash in my cards for the treasure’

We recommend Forbidden Island in this category.

Communication

As with most co-operative games there is an assumption players will be engaging in an ongoing session of strategy.   For Forbidden Island, that strategy revolves around two key elements:

  1. Oh God how do we stop the island sinking in a way that lets us achieve our goals
  2. Oh God how do we get enough cards into the hand of one player to let us claim a treasure

These are interesting puzzles, but they are not overly complex to discuss.  Mostly what you’re dealing with is the probability of tiles sinking, and the cost to the expedition.   Conversational fluency need not be more than ‘I think we should shore up the Whispering Gardens because it’s the only place we can claim a treasure’.

Even the text in the game is present on only two cards, and the effect they have is easily explained and remembered.  Sandbags let you shore up a tile, and airlifts let you move players from one tile to another.

We strongly recommend Forbidden Island in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

It’s striking how many times the theme of cultural looting has come up on Meeple Like Us.   It’s almost as if certain potentially troublesome settings dominate the conventions we have for board game narrative.  Here it is again.  There is an implication in the game that you are little more than tomb raiders, stealing precious artefacts that likely belong to a sovereign nation.   There’s nothing explicitly in the game that makes this especially clear, but it’s hard not to feel a little taste of Western imperialism when you suck on the pieces.    There is nothing to stop you interpreting your actions more charitably though – maybe you’re a preservation team trying to save a site of local antiquity.    I bring it up though because this is a topic that can cause understandable aggravation for people belonging to those cultures that have been the largest victims of such acts of theft through the ages.  This I suspect will not be a significant conceptual problem for the vast majority of players.

For everything else, the game gets a clean pass.  There’s no exclusionary language in the manual, the premise makes use of a fictionalised ancient culture, and at an RRP of £16 it is a bargain.  It packs an awful lot of play into a pretty little tin, and while it gives a ceiling of four players there’s no reason it couldn’t support as many as six at a time.   You’ve got all the components available for that in the tin although the presence of such a wide range of skills within a team would have noticeable impact on the difficulty of a session.

We strongly recommend Forbidden Island in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Those with visual impairments will find the cognitive cost of play considerably higher as a result of having to memorise parts of the state and the available paths through the island.  It’s possible to ask ‘How many moves to get me to X’, but that would require a fair degree of exhaustive questioning every time a turn comes around.    This is especially true when it comes to the island changing in a way that prevents previous paths from being used, or when it becomes necessary for a player to backtrack or navigate around a new obstacle.  The result is that the lack of visual state information dramatically increases the memory burden on a player, to the point that if there were intersectional accessibility considerations we wouldn’t recommend the game.

What visual interrogation of the board is possible for visually impaired players is aided considerably with being able to physically move around the map, getting in close where necessary.   If visual impairments are coupled to physical impairments this may not be feasible, with the result being that parts of the board may become difficult or impossible to perceive.  The consequence of this is that even verbalisation may become difficult if it’s not possible to make out the names of tiles.   It’s possible to alleviate some of this with the use of non-standard layouts, but these will have a very significant impact on the difficulty of play.

A gameplay issue common to many Matt Leacock games is present in Forbidden Island – that of quarterbacking.   However, while this is a justifiably detested element of collaborative gameplay it’s somewhat of an awesome accessibility aid.    All players have access to the state information of every other player, and it’s possible to guide players to an optimal action even if cognitive accessibility may be a problem.  More than this though, it permits for seamless dropping in and out of play – if everyone has access to your game state, they can step in and control your character if physical, emotional, or cognitive discomfort becomes an issue.   At thirty minutes of play-time, the game is short enough that this need not be a serious worry but it’s always nice to know if it becomes an issue it’s easily handled.

Conclusion

Forbidden Island is a game that is a little more accessible than Forbidden Desert with only a few areas where recommendations for the latter become tentative and vice versa.     In short, it’s pretty much what we expected in the introduction.  Sorry if you were expecting something more surprising.  I did kind of imply that.   Mea culpa.

Colour Blindness B
Visual Impairment B-
Emotiveness C
Fluid Intelligence B
Memory A
Physical B
Socioeconomic A
Communication A

The lack of tools to control the deck make it a slightly more awkward proposal from an emotional perspective, but the reduced clutter on tiles mean it’s easier from a physical perspective.  The simpler mechanics make it somewhat better for those with cognitive impairments, and the simpler strategy reduces communication burdens a little.

Radar Chart

Forbidden Island Radar Chart

The quality of a game is an important consideration for everyone, but for many people the accessibility of a game is equally, or even more, important.  As such, while we would likely recommend Forbidden Desert over Forbidden Island as a game, there are clear accessibility advantages to Forbidden Island over Forbidden Desert.  Which should you get?  That’s up to you.  You should get one of them though, because there are few games so effective at turning 30-45 minutes of your free-time into the kind of crucible of escalating despair you just can’t wait to experience again.


If you like what we're doing with Meeple Like Us, please consider liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and sharing our content on Reddit and your own social networks. Drop us a comment too in the discussion section below! We appreciate every thing you do to help us get the word out!

  • LordStar

    Nice tear down, one point of contention is the blue cave for the Fire Crystal, where it looks way too close to identical on both its normal side and flooded side, the only real difference between the two sides are the parchment looking banner of the tile becoming light blue. Also, as a teaching aid for new players playing the Diver, you can introduce blue chips/wooden parts to the game to help signify which tiles are lost and where tiles never were at the start of the game. The Diver is a weird mix of an ‘easy’ role and a difficult role. The Diver IS immune to drowning, but in normal gameplay they’re not that useful in the early game (outside of swimming through multiple flooded tiles, which is a commonly missed rule by me) and it could be harder to remember which tiles existed, especially with playing with a freely available custom layout.

  • I hadn’t picked up on the fire crystal tile, but you’re right – it doesn’t change a lot when flooded. I did a side by side for the benefit of anyone reading.

    One of my colleagues at RGU is currently working with an honours student looking at using augmented reality as a way to help teach Forbidden Island. It needs a projector shining down onto a relatively large surface, but as a proof of concept it’s pretty cool.

    If you’re interested, you can find their paper on the topic in the October 2016 Sigaccess newsletter: http://www.sigaccess.org/wp-content/uploads/formidable/sigaccess_newsletter_116_Oct2016.pdf

    There’s a video somewhere too – I’ll check if it’s for general consumption and then edit it in if it is. 🙂

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2da8dfff837528189284122d35ee84f2abf17af56597cc4451d48193c5b00155.jpg

  • Redmond Jennings

    I appreciate the work you are doing and it’s so sad you have to post a disclaimer for people who object to, I guess, everything?

    • On the whole people have been pretty positive about the project – and to be fair, I think originally I didn’t communicate very well what the tear-downs were for. They were just a thing that came out of nowhere and people thought, not unreasonably, ‘these are terrible reviews and this is a terrible site because it doesn’t even talk about how good the games are’. Now at least if they think it’s a terrible site it’s for *accurate* reasons and I’m happy with that.

      The social stuff though… yeesh. There be dragons.

      Thank you for your kind words. 😀