Forbidden Desert Strategy Primer

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.

High-Level Strategies

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.

Early 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.

Middle Game

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.

End Game

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.

Swept Away

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.

Pandemic Strategy Primer

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you think there may be opportunities for improving your Pandemic winning percentage. If that is the case, you have come to the right place. If you play the game perfectly, you will win just over half of the games you play on the hardest difficulty. This is intended for the base game, but a lot of what is discussed applies to the expansions as well. For the in-depth text version, keep reading, otherwise the brief video version is immediately below.

General Tactics

The two most important tactics are:

  1. You must find a cure for at least one disease within the first 3 rounds. If you cannot do this, you will probably lose, but you have a small chance of winning if you just hold everything off and get very lucky with the card drawing and just happen to draw most of what you need for the cures. I call this the “hold down the fort” strategy, but it will only succeed with lucky draws, so it should only be used as a last resort.
  2. Once you get to two rounds left in the game, you must stop and plan out your remaining turns so that you obtain the rest of the cures. If you wait until you have 1.5 rounds left, it’s probably too late because a couple of your disease-fighters will only get one turn left, which would require them to get the remaining cards for their cure and get to a research station.  This will be very difficult.


Turn order is VERY important.

Operations Expert

The best thing you can do with this role is to throw down research facilities whenever you have an extra action and can either help someone cure a disease faster or are in an area of the world without a research facility. This role was terrible before he was much improved in the rebooted version of the Pandemic base game.


This is probably the best role to have because the ability to transfer cards to anyone who needs them is so critical in curing disease.  They should not be using cards for transportation unless absolutely necessary because they can give them to someone to help cure a disease at some point in the game.  Also, they will never be at a point where they need to discard cards.


This role is pretty much equal to the Researcher in best-ness.  Moving around the board is the greatest action point sink, so providing the ability to move more efficiently is incredibly important in speeding up your disease-curing/treating.  Moving one player to the location of another player is AMAZING.


The Medic is a close third in importance to the team.  Shipping him off to the most disease-ridden cities in the game will, if nothing else, make all the players feel a little less depressed about the current state of the world.


This role is great, but not a necessity.  To be able to cure a disease with 4 cards instead of 5 is a very nice luxury.  They should not be using cards for transportation unless absolutely necessary because they are the primary disease-curing force on the team.

Contingency Planner

Depending on when the event cards come up in a game, this role can be either ineffective or a godsend. When playing this role, events should be used sooner to allow for the Contingency Planner to grab them and use them again. This will free up space in players’ hands too!

Quarantine Specialist

This role should head toward the most disease-ridden areas of the map, primarily in a city connected to any 3-cube cities to prevent them from outbreaking, but also in areas where you expect/know disease will spread.

Turn Order

Dispatcher -> Medic

When the Dispatcher goes before the Medic, he can move the Medic somewhere and then he can just go crazy treating/curing disease afterwards.  It is effectively 2 full turns of disease-treating, which is sometimes needed when all hell breaks loose.  After a cure has been found, the Dispatcher can just use the Medic as a vacuum cleaner to vacuum up all those cubes on the board.  If the order is reversed, the Dispatcher doesn’t really want to move the Medic because there might be more important places to cure by the time it gets to the Medic’s turn.

Researcher -> Scientist

If the Researcher is immediately before the Scientist, they can move to the Scientist’s location, give them cards they need, and the Scientist can bang out those cures.  This cannot be used very effectively if the Researcher goes immediately after the Scientist because the Researcher has to give them whatever cards they have on their turn and then 6 more cards are drawn (in a 4 player game) before it gets to the Scientist’s turn, which may have been useful to her.


The awesome 3-role combo, which doesn’t happen very often, is Dispatcher->Researcher->Scientist so the Dispatcher can move the Researcher to the Scientist’s location from anywhere on the board.


Finding optimal transportation between cities is paramount in Pandemic.  If you cannot do this, you will lose.  Treat every action you have like gold.

Make sure to use all methods of transportation at your disposal.  It is easy to forget about some of them, particularly the Charter Flight.  You should use all methods (Drive, Direct Flight, Charter Flight, and Shuttle Flight) in every game of Pandemic to travel optimally.

Treating Disease

Do not worry about cities with 1 or even 2 cubes on them. Having a city with 3 cubes on it is FAR worse than having one with 0, 1, or 2 on it. Send your people out to knock those 3-cube cities down to 1 or 2 cubes. You’re really just trying to “hold down the fort” until you can find the cures.

You are often faced with choosing between two different cities with 3 cubes on them. You can’t get to both of them so you have to choose one to knock down to 1-2 cubes and one to leave for another turn in hopes that it will not be drawn from the infection deck. These are the factors you should consider when deciding, in order of importance:

1)      Is one city closer to the top of the infection deck? If so, and you do not expect to draw an epidemic, treat that city. Or, if you highly anticipate an epidemic card to be drawn on this turn, choose a city that is in the infection discard pile instead of one still in the deck.

2)      If they fall into the same category for #1, choose the one connected to the most 3-cube cities.

3)      If they again fall into the same category for #2, treat the one with more vectors to other cities.

4)      If the cities are still even, flip a coin… and pray.

If you find a cure for a disease early in the game, try to eradicate it, but if it’s later in the game, don’t worry about it and just try to get the other cures unless eradication is fairly easy.

The Infection Deck

Knowing the contents of this deck is INCREDIBLY important.

Keep in mind (or memorize, if possible) which cards are on top of the infection deck so you can preemptively cure diseases there, keep them from outbreaking, and keep your disease-fighters close to them.

Once the infection rate gets up to 3 and 4, this gets much harder, but before then, you should know every card that is near the top of this deck so you know where to position your forces.

Special Event Cards

Save these until the later stages of the game unless you risk utter devastation if you do not.

Play One Quiet Night and Resilient Population immediately after an epidemic card is drawn, especially if it is when the infection rate increases to 3 or 4.  Pretty much never use this when an epidemic card has not been drawn.  If you feel this is required, you are doing something wrong.

Use the Forecast card after an epidemic card is drawn, but before the infection cards are drawn.

Airlift should usually be used when you need to get someone somewhere to give a card to someone about to cure a disease, often in conjunction with the Dispatcher.

Cures and Eradication

If you do not have 5 of every color of uncured disease in the collective hand of the disease-fighters, this is a problem.  Do not use too many cards for transportation purposes until that color disease has been cured.  Once you have at least 5 of each color disease, you now have a chance to win the game.

If you have 3 or more of a particular color card in your hand, you might want to start making your way over to that part of the world to make it easier for other players to give you cards to complete your set of 5. (or 4 if you are the Scientist)  This is less important if you have a Dispatcher on the team.

It often makes sense to just go for an all-out cure strategy near the end of the game if your outbreak meter is not too high.

If you cannot eradicate a disease in the next two consecutive turns, do not bother and work towards finding cures and saving cities from outbreaks.  Eradication is great, but spending an entire round to do it is a waste.

Tuning Your Strategies

You won’t win every game when you start playing.  In fact, you will lose most of them.  If you notice yourself losing from the Outbreak Meter every time, make sure you focus on making sure no city ever has 3 cubes on it when you draw from the infection deck (or as close to this as possible).  If you always run out of player cards, focus more on curing diseases quicker and improving your turn efficiency.  If you always run out of cubes of one color, make sure you aren’t concentrating too much on a particular disease.  Once you fix the source of your losing one way and you start losing another way, that’s good!  Now fix why you are losing using your current tactics.


You have to remain adaptable in every game when the deck throws its worst at you.  You have to be able to weather the storm and cure those diseases because chaos now often means a reprieve in the near future.