This is a strategy primer for the game Forbidden Desert, by Matt Leacock. Each time you sit down to play it, you have a monumental challenge in front of you, and if you are able to achieve victory, you have earned it. I will be covering a high-level strategy that I recommend and then a discussion on how to avoid each of the three losing conditions. Check out the video immediately below or the text version that follows it.
The game can be separated into 3 phases, divided by the excavation of each well. I will call these Early, Game Middle Game, and Late Game.
This phase involves splitting up the team to excavate in different directions while planning to end on the first well tile when water gets low. Hopefully someone finds a Terrascope so you can be sure everyone is heading to a well and not a mirage. Decide on one of the wells to be your first meeting spot right away and confirm it if you find a Terrascope. No one needs to excavate near the meeting point because everyone will be there soon to help with that.
Before you go, have first player excavate the helicopter spot and distribute the equipment where it makes sense, since you all begin on the same spot. For example, you wouldn’t want the Archeologist to have the Dune Blaster, or if it is a Jet Pack, it should go to the person with the most water so they can go to the furthest corner without worrying about making the return trip on foot.
Your goal is to excavate as much as you can while making it back to the meeting spot for the first well excavation. The number of turns you take before meeting depend on the difficulty level, the number of players, the canteen capacity of team members, tunnels found along the way, and how early Sun Beats Down cards are drawn. Each game will be different so stay within 4 squares of the meeting point after your first couple turns.
Everyone should all be back at the meeting point with at least 3 drinks of water to begin the middle game. Assume that you will need to excavate every tile before the end of the game and be happily surprised if you find everything earlier. With that in mind, decide on your next well meeting point and head to the places that still need to be excavated. Again, stay within 1 turn (usually 4 spaces) of that meeting point so you can run back to excavate the well if you run low on water, but if you can end your turns in tunnels, you may be able to skip this meeting point. But with the storm meter rising, if you are not able to end your turns in tunnels, you won’t have as much time before your canteen begins running dry, so do not stray too far from the meeting point unless you have a Jet Pack. If you find a Terrascope, you can use it to confirm the location of the last well to better plan for your meeting point.
Each game is so different that the game state during this phase need to be analyzed before deciding on how to finish your remaining objectives, but there is one key piece of advice I can offer. During this phase, at the beginning of each player’s turn, take a look at the 3 possible ways you can lose and assess your risk of them occurring. This will help you mitigate this risk and buy you as much time as possible. The next section will help with this task.
Risk Mitigation for Loss Conditions
The most important key to Forbidden Desert is improving your understanding of where you are compared to the 3 loss conditions. When you lose, note how you lose so you can work on preventing losing in that way in future games. You can run out of sand tiles, run out of water, or lose from the storm meter, and learning how to avoid them all is like learning how to juggle. It’s easy to avoid one of them, and even two isn’t that hard, but juggling all 3 is a formidable challenge. If you lose by running out of water, figure out how to use tunnels, water trading, and wells so that doesn’t happen anymore. Then you’ll start losing in another way, which is OK, because you can then start figuring out how to avoid that one.
This is the most annoying way to lose because it can happen even if you play perfectly. You are only as hydrated as the person with your smallest canteen. Take note of who that is at the beginning of the game since they will determine how long you can go and how far you can travel before filling up. But if the 4 Sun Beats Down cards happen to be the first 4 in the deck when you start the game, you will lose immediately if you have someone on your team with a canteen capacity of 3. Because of these kinds of scenarios, you have to accept some risks concerning water.
The most important key to avoiding this loss condition is to use tunnels effectively. Those with the least water in their canteen should stay around the tunnels and end their turn there whenever possible. This is even more important with more players because ending a turn outside of a tunnel means you are exposed for more draws of the Storm Deck before you can move again.
If you get a Terrascope early in the game, you will use it on a well so you can better plan on where the wells are so you can stay loosely tethered to them. If you get a Jet Pack early, you can explore a far corner and still jet back to a well before it is excavated by your team.
Keep a close eye on how many of the 4 Sun Beats Down cards you have drawn and how many are left compared to the number of cards remaining in the Storm Deck. This will give you the percent chance of drawing one as you draw on each turn.
If you lose because you run out of sand tiles, you simply need to spend more action points on the Clearing Sand action. If you have an Archeologist on your team, make sure they know it is their primary responsibility to ensure the team does not lose because of this condition. Having this role will allow you to focus more on avoiding the other two loss conditions. If you do not have this role, each player will have to spend some of their action points on the Clear Sand action. It’s usually a very acceptable use of an action to clear sand on an unexcavated tile, even if you do not plan excavate it any time soon.
If you lose because of the Storm Meter, you are likely just not being as efficient as you need to be. You may be spending too many action points to end your turn in tunnels, not taking the shortest path between two points, or not taking advantage of each player’s role as frequently as you could be. If you can avoid the other two loss conditions, this one will just take experience to find ways to become more efficient.
Again, Mr. Leacock has created an extremely difficult challenge when he created this game for those playing on the Legendary difficulty, so losing is expected sometimes, even if you play perfectly. Improving your chances of winning is a logic puzzle that will likely take you MANY playthroughs before you feel like you have mastered it.