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Co-op Case Study: Forbidden Sky

Forbidden Sky was the game that we really wanted to include in Meeples Together, but it came out too late in the year for it to meet our schedule. So, consider this a true addendum to Chapter 4, where we offered case studies of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert.

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Gamewright (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Tile Laying

Overview

The players take on the roles of space archaeologists exploring a secret power platform. They must build an electrical circuit to power a rocket ship. But, a storm has overtaken the platform, and it may electrocute the explorers or blow them off the platform, sending them plunging to their death.

Challenge System

The basics of the Forbidden Sky challenge system look very familiar. At the end of each player’s turn, there’s an arbitrary (card) trigger of the challenge system, causing bad things to happen, with the number of cards drawn increasing over time. However, Leacock has built a very different set of challenges upon this familiar chassis.

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert were both about the decay of the game board, as tiles disappeared or as sand piled up. Forbidden Sky is instead about the decay of the characters, as their health weakens due to lightning strikes and as their ropes fray due to wind-driven falls. In other words, players largely face death-tally threats in Forbidden Sky, something that was touched upon in Forbidden Desert with its water system, but which is otherwise largely absent from both the Forbidden and Pandemic games.

However, there’s a bit more depth to Forbidden Sky’s two sorts of death-tally threats:

First, both threats are highly manageable. The lightning threat strikes lightning rods on the platform, then travels along wires, hitting everyone on those tiles. This means that players can not only avoid the tiles which are threatened by lightning, but they can also cooperatively expand the platform in such a way as to minimize the lightning strikes. Similarly, the wind threat only endangers players who are standing at the edges of the platform.

Second, the wind threat also has a secondary effect: it introduces chaotic uncertainty to the game. Though players can somewhat assess where they’re likely to be blown by wind, they never know when wind will strike, and it also has the possibility of changing directions. Where most challenge systems offer results that are absolutely bad for the characters, Forbidden Sky’s wind threat is a refreshing change: if the players are very careful, they can actually harness the wind threat for good, by having it help them along the way.

As in Forbidden Desert, the randomness of the challenge cards is carefully controlled: there’s a specific number of each sort of card in the deck, which the players can easily count, thus knowing what dangers lie ahead. The card that causes the players to shuffle the deck also stops the challenge system for the turn, ensuring that card counters aren’t put back on their heels. But, later in the game, when two or more cards are drawn at a time, there’s still the possibility of surprise from the arbitrariness of the cards: most notably, the wind can suddenly change directions, then blow characters off the platform when they thought they were safe!

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Simulation; Decay; Environmental Consequences; and Tally Threats.

Cooperative System

Forbidden Sky is another of the rare tile-laying genre of co-ops, where drawing and placing tiles on the board to form the map is the core gameplay: Sub Terra (2017) was another recent example.

Leacock takes full advantage of the tile laying system by very cleverly having tiles possess only portions of the components that the players need to form an electrical circuit and win the game. So, an individual tile might possess half of a small capacitor or a quarter of a large capacitor or launch pad. Players then need to strategically work together to place tiles in such a way that complete components are created. Additionally, they work strategically to wire together those components into a complete circuit. There’s almost no possibility for tile trading, so this turns the game into a strategic puzzle, with each player holding only some of the pieces.

It’s a pretty good representation of a core theory of co-op design, which Meeples Together describes as: “Spread the pieces out among the players, then give them the opportunity to bring those puzzle pieces together.” Of course, the book was speaking more theoretically then this wonderfully physical and concrete design.

The tile laying of Forbidden Sky can also be entirely pitiless: if the players don’t lay down their tiles well, leaving gaps in their circuitry where things didn’t connect up, they can create a platform that’s fundamentally impossible to wire together (or at least impractical). Without careful play, players can find they’ve lost before the game is over, which isn’t a lot of fun.

Beyond the tile laying, Forbidden Sky’s core cooperative elements are as familiar as its challenge chassis: players use action points to move and to take crucial actions. But again, the result is very different: it’s strategic in a different way, focusing on connecting up tiles rather than dealing with distant threats.

Adventure System

Like its predecessors, Forbidden Sky has specialized characters, an evocative setting, and a gaming plot that supports rising action (once more: everyone must return to the ship at the end). It also contains an entirely unique element: an electric rocket ship that actually makes noises if you connect up your circuit correctly. Well, theoretically: as long as the wires are all placed carefully and the battery is set in correctly.

Final Thoughts

Matt Leacock is a star co-op designer, and Forbidden Sky shows how he can use his cooperative infrastructure to create totally different sorts of play. The challenge system is interesting for its focus on a death tally and on chaotic interference while the cooperative system is intriguing for its use of tiles as literal puzzle pieces. As with most Leacock designs, Forbidden Sky offers a master’s class in co-op design.

“In Forbidden Island the deal is that the tiles in the game are disappearing as you play … in Desert they’re shifting around and the sand is building up so you’ve got shifting tiles, so we wanted to do something different with the tiles, so this is a bit of an exploration game: you’re building the tiles as you explore.”
—Matt Leacock, 2017, “Matt Leacock Interview and Design Discussion”, One Stop Co-op Shop, http://www.geeksundergrace.com/tabletop/interviews-tabletop/interview-with-matt-leacock-designer-of-pandemic/

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples