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How To Play Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island Board Game

So you’ve heard about the four great treasures of the Archeans – the Crystal of Fire, Statue of Wind, Ocean’s Chalice and Earth Stone. They are held secretly on their Forbidden Island, which has been lost since the collapse of their empire. Until now. The clue is in the name – this island is forbidden so it will bite back if you try to steal its treasures. For our review of Forbidden Island, check it out here. But if you’re up for the challenge, let’s learn how to play. 

Set Up

Shuffle the 24 island tiles and then deal them face up randomly onto the table, firstly in a 4x4 square and then place two tiles next to the middle two tiles on each side of the square. This acts as the board and should look like this:

Note that there should be a space between each tile because you may need to turn them over at various points of the game. Then place the four treasure figures around the board. Separate the three decks of cards: Flood (blue back); Treasure (red back); and the six Adventurer cards. Shuffle the Flood and Treasure decks and place them face down besides the board. Draw the top six cards of the Flood deck. Each of these cards relates to a matching tile and for each card revealed, flip the corresponding tile over to the blue flooded side. 

Next shuffle the Adventurer cards and deal one randomly to each player. Each adventurer has a special power so discuss these powers in the group so you know what each other can do. Then take the coloured pawn of your character and place it on the tile with your pawn in the bottom right corner. It is ok if your starting tile is flooded. Any extra pawns and Adventurer cards are returned to the box.

Now deal two Treasure cards to each player, which can be placed face up in front of the player so all can see them. If any Waters Rise cards come out, put them to one side, deal a new card to each player and then shuffle the Waters Rise back into the deck. Finally, choose the level of difficulty you wish to play at by putting the red Water Level marker on the left side of the Water Meter. 


Once you’ve decided on a starting player (either randomly or by the suggested way of who last visited an island), each player will do the following on their turn:

  1. Take up to three actions.
  2. Draw two Treasure cards. 
  3. Draw Flood cards equal to the water level. 

There are four actions which you can take and you can take each action multiple times on a turn, including zero. You are also encouraged to discuss your turns with your teammates (but don’t force anyone to do anything; it's cooperative, remember!) The action options are detailed below but there are some exceptions based on the character powers which we’ll discuss later:

  • Move. You may move one space orthogonally (up, down, left or right, but not diagonally) for each action. You may move onto a flooded tile but not over a missing tile. How tiles can become missing will be discussed later. 
  • Shore Up. You may shore up a single tile in an adjacent space, flipping it from the flooded side to the coloured side. 
  • Give a Treasure Card. You can give a single Treasure card to a teammate who is on the same tile as you as an action. You cannot give special action cards. 
  • Capture a Treasure. As an action, you may discard four matching Treasure cards whilst your pawn is on one of the two corresponding tiles and claim that Treasure. For example, if you’re on the Whispering Gardens, you can discard four Statue of the Wind cards to claim the Statue of the Wind. 

Forbidden Island Character Options

  • Diver: The diver can swim across one or more adjacent missing or flooded tiles as an action.
  • Engineer: The engineer can shore up two tiles as a single action.
  • Explorer: The explorer may move and shore up tiles diagonally from their location.
  • Messenger: The messenger may give cards without being on the same tile.
  • Navigator: The navigator may move other players up to two adjacent tiles per action. 
  • Pilot: The pilot may move to any tile once per turn for one action. 

After you’ve taken your actions, you draw two cards from the Treasure deck one at a time. These are added to your hand unless you draw a Waters Rise card. The Waters Rise card act similarly to the Epidemic cards in the 2013 game, Pandemic (also designed by Matt Leacock) but more on those in a second. If you exceed your hand limit of five, you may choose any card in your hand to discard. 

Back to the Waters Rise cards. When these cards are drawn, move the Water Level token up one mark on the Water Meter. Shuffle the Flood discard pile and then place the shuffled cards on top of the Flood deck. Then discard the Waters Rise card to the Treasure discard pile. There are a couple of special rules to be aware of for these cards. If you draw a Waters Rise card, you do not draw an extra card to replace it. If you draw two Waters Rise cards, you only shuffle the Flood discard pile once but you move the Water Level marker up twice. Finally, if there are no cards in the Flood discard pile, you just move the Water Level marker up one space. 

When you draw cards, you may draw one of the five special action cards. These count towards your hand limit but can be played at any time, even during a teammates turn, or if you have to discard a card from your hand. Should the Treasure deck ever run out, you shuffle the Treasure discard pile and turn it over to start again. 

The last step on your turn is to draw Flood cards equal to the number indicated on the Water Level meter. For each card drawn, find the matching tile and do one of the following:

  • If the tile is un-flooded, flip it to the flooded side. 
  • If the tile is flooded, remove it from the board and return it and the card to the box. When this happens, you cannot use a Sandbag special action to save the card. It’s too late. It’s gone forever. 

If any pawns are on a tile that is removed, move them to an adjacent tile that is still part of the island, even if it is flooded. If a pawn is not able to get to an adjacent tile, the game is over and everyone loses. The exceptions to this rule are the diver, who can swim anywhere; the pilot, who can fly to any tile; and the explorer who can swim diagonally. If the Flood deck is empty, shuffle and flip over the discard pile. 

Like any good cooperative game, there are multiple ways to lose the game and just one to win! You win the game if all four treasures have been collected, all players have made their way to Fools Landing and one player plays a Helicopter Lift card for everyone to escape. You can lose if one of the following occurs:

  1. Any player is on a tile which sinks and there is nowhere for them to swim to. 
  2. The Water Level rises to the skull and crossbones. 
  3. Fool’s Landing sinks. 
  4. Both Temples, Gardens, Palaces or Caves tiles sink before you are able to claim their respective treasure. 

You now should be ready to give Forbidden Island a go! Once you’ve beaten the game at the Novice difficulty, bump it up a notch and see how you get on! Good luck!