Board Games & Me: Forbidden Bridge
After being bored out of our minds retrying Risk last week, I promised this time we would play something fun — and I’m making good on that promise with Forbidden Bridge, the first board game I ever begged my dad to get for Christmas (I think I asked for the Game of Life a few years earlier, but we’re going to pretend that never happened. We only played it twice, so it functionally didn’t).
Forbidden Bridge is amazing, despite not being that great a game. I’ll explain why.
It was about 1993. Maybe ’94 or ’95, maybe later — years as a measurement of time didn’t hold much meaning at that age. Now that the curtain had been pulled back and the magic of board games had been revealed to me in their full transcendental glory, one of my young goals was to replicate that Risk night with my father, uncle, and cousins, without having to actually play Risk, because heaven forbid I would ever have to play that again. So I began to notice board games all at once, and saw that they were everywhere, all around me, and being played by all sorts of people that I never would have guessed had any entertainment in their lives at all. I discovered that my grandfather was something of a chess master, so I sat down with him and learned how to play (to play well — I already knew the rules) on an ornate stone set that he had brought back from South America at some point, and lost over and over again. The camping 7-board-games-in-1 set that included backgammon, dull dull checkers, and one of those horrible ball-bearing labyrinth toys was suddenly a whole lot more interesting than it had been before. I got better at UNO to the point that on one vacation I challenged my dad to a best-of-15 tournament and won. I finally played a couple RPGs with one of my childhood friends whose life had always been full of rich and textured games (and the older siblings to teach them, an essential tool that I lacked).
Problem was, I wasn’t playing the right games, and I knew it. I was having fun, and with the loved ones in my life, but chess, UNO, and a Klutz book on board games just weren’t cutting it. Some of the games I was playing were every bit as tedious as Risk, and many of the others were plain incomprehensible to my young mind.
Then I saw the commercial. This commercial, if you’re interested.
In it, kids were having fun, and I was too young to realize that commercials full of fun-having kids might be lying — I wouldn’t realize that until I asked for and received a Bop It in 1996. What a sham. Anyway, whatever they were playing, it was colorful and dynamic and beautiful. I would have associated it with Indiana Jones if I had seen an Indiana Jones movie, but the allure of khaki-clad explorers to threatening jungles was strong even without that cultural linchpin. I begged for it, and I got it.
Here’s how it works: You’re an explorer in a raft. Your goal is to boat up the river, beach your raft, climb the mountain, and cross the dangerous idol’s bridge. Once you get there, you steal a jewel from his massive paws. Then you rush back to deposit your jewel in your raft. First one to sail out of the jungle with two jewels is the winner. As a kid, I remember being disappointed about only needing two jewels to win.
It’s a roll-and-move game, the least-compelling genre in all of boardgaming, except for maybe Apples to Apples (genre: abomination). On your turn you roll two dice. One is a regular 1-6 die that indicates how many spaces you can move. The other is a bit more interesting, giving you one of three options. The first is an explorer’s smirking face, which allows you to move another explorer from his safe position on one of the bridge’s slats to another more dangerous space — for instance, you could move your opponent from a spot where he has good footing and a railing to lean against, to the far end where he’ll probably just slide right off if the idol is awakened. Second, a jewel symbol that lets you steal another explorer’s loot if you begin on the same space as him or can move to him that turn. And third, the prize: the idol’s angry glare. When you roll this, you press down the idol’s head. Deep within his plastic tower is a mechanical construct of unknown make (meaning I could never pry the back off to figure it out), and when pressed the bridge will jerk from side to side, tossing explorers and jewels off into the jungle below.
The bridge mechanic is a crowd pleaser. I’ve never seen it engaged without everyone at the table breaking into grins. And that’s great, because it’s not only a testament to what you can accomplish with a clever marriage of mechanics and components, but it’s also one of those rare fantastic game designs in which people are happy when they’re losing. It’s such a delight to see your hero flung down into the river and his bag — nay, his satchel — of jewels spill into a whirlpool that you don’t really care that you’re going to have to march back through the jungle, climb back up the mountain, and cross the bridge all over again.
But therein is the problem, because Forbidden Bridge is a broken game. People fall from the bridge often enough that the designers knew they couldn’t just say the fall killed you. Player elimination is generally frowned upon in game design these days, and here’s a prime instance of that decision making complete sense. If the fall were considered fatal, I can guarantee that 99% of the time, Forbidden Bridge would end with everyone’s demise. And instead of imposing some other restriction, like saying you’re “stunned” or “recovering” for a few turns when you fall, which would be on the complicated end for this kids’ game, as soon as you fall you can jump right back up and get back to adventuring. Oh, and if your jewel didn’t land in the river, you can just waltz right over and pick it up.
That’s right — this means that falling off the bridge is often beneficial. What’s more, while the rules say that you must always be walking towards a jewel (which indicates to me that the designers were at least aware of this problem, since it means you can’t just mill around in the jungle below waiting for someone to fall), often the person who gets his first jewel back to his raft can just walk over to the jungle and pick up his second. As I said, it’s not a very good game.
Still, when I sat down with my wife and two of my friends to play it, we had a grand time. Here’s the proof:
We shouted “Forbidden!” each time we engaged the bridge because it was wildly fun, and because once we did it the first time we couldn’t stop. As always, the bridge itself was the highlight. At times we almost forgot that we were playing a roll-and-move game.
Forbidden Bridge taught me something about board games, way back as a kid. I only played it a few times, then never really bothered with it again — at least, not the game portion. Instead, I used the bridge as a setting for epic battles. I’d run toy soldiers across it, one side defending against a superior force that was hurled from the bridge time and time again. It was possibly the best warzone I ever owned. Again last week, once the game was over, we had as much fun setting up our explorers with jewels in their packs and spilling them over the edges. We did this for a lot longer than it would be adult to admit.
Risk taught me that board games are about company. Forbidden Bridge taught me that they’re just as much about their wonderful components, and that a lot can be forgiven when something drips theme and prettiness.
Next time, I’ll finally play a good game. Well. Good-ish.