Review: Fireball Island
Play Time: 45+ Minutes
Reviewed By: Dillon
Fireball Island was released in 1986 from designers Chuck Kennedy and Bruce Lund, and then published by Milton Bradley
It has been said that the journey is more important than the destination. Tabletop Games in many ways even reinforce the saying, placing less importance on the outcome and the winner while creating opportunities for fun even during a loss.
Fireball Island, on the other hand, takes that very same saying, and punches it right in the damn face. This isn’t a game about a tropical island getaway, with four explorer friends trekking along to combine their forces and return a jewel twice the size of their own body. Fireball Island could care less about the experiences and lessons learned on their “journey.” Getting on that boat with the jewel and leaving those other suckers is the only thing that matters.
Personally, Fireball Island was also a beginning of a journey for me – it was the very first thing I ever bought with my own money. 30 years later, I’m still buying board games. Every couple of years, this game gets busted out, for a little reminder of those esteemed games that have come before.
How well does this cutthroat 3D tabletop game hold up on its 30th anniversary? Let’s take a fireball-laden stroll on the island and find out!
Gateway Game - Awesome for KidsNo complicated mechanics to be found here. Roll a dice, move forward, occasionally pick a different direction. You also get cards to direly screw over your opponents and to help mitigate the randomness of the dice. We played this game as kids, and had an absolute blast.
Fireball Island is definitely a game that was designed with components as the primary selling point. It’s hard to argue that aspect of the game was a resounding success. Taking one look at the board once it has been set up sums it up:
The game made a big deal of being a “dimensional” adventure game, but the fact that it was 3D was very cool then, and still stands out as an excellent feature. The fact that the 3D nature of it was more than just a feature to attract attention and was an integral gameplay mechanic is what really takes it to the next level.
This imposing fellow here is the idol that claims Fireball Island as his home: Vul-Kar. He spends most of his days sitting atop the island, looking down on all of the petty weaklings that would dare try to climb up, and pretty regularly vomiting huge balls of friggin’ fire down the pathways that lead up to his abode.
That jewel next to him is really the only thing he cares about, besides setting people on fire. It’s hard not to respect a powerful idol that only has one or two real drives in life.
The thing is, that jewel is… well it’s really big. It’s very near two-and-a-half times the size of the adventurers that show up on this island. That kind of thing attracts a lot of attention
These are the explorers that have come to plunder Fireball Island, and just one look at their faces tell the whole story: Vul-Kar’s jewel is the sole object of their lust, and it probably belongs in a museum.
These guys have actually held up to quite a lot of abuse over the years. I would estimate they’ve taken somewhere between 3,000 to 3,500 fireballs directly to the face and still manage to pick themselves up for another go at the jewel time and time again.
The red fellow has taken more than his fair share of abuse though – poor bastard doesn’t even have his left arm anymore!
The cards have stood up to a similar amount of abuse but haven’t fared quite as well over the years. Three decades later, it’s actually pretty impressive to only have four of them that really show signs of significant love/wear.
This re-roll the die card in particular has barely stood the test of time, but we did our best to keep it going on life support. It’s not that big a secret when you pull it from the pile, but we just chalk that up to part of Vul-Kar’s curse now.
The other key component that makes Fireball Island tick is just that: the fireballs. They are really nothing more than red marbles, but considering the scale of the explorers they become quite menacing. The board creates natural pathways these fireballs hurtle down, and enough practice will give a pretty good idea of what they will hit – but never a guarantee.
Fireball Island’s rulebook is actually rather complicated for a game that’s marked as 7+. I’m very sure we played the game wrong for many, many years since some of this was beyond what we were going to be comprehending at the time.
We actually had plenty of fun just walking our explorers with a simple dice roll and every time a 1 came up, skipping the move and rolling a fireball. Even that version of the game worked well enough.
A surprising amount of thought went into the rules, though. This page in particular shows some of the effort that the designers put in when selecting just what fire pits your adventurer will repeatedly be getting placed in through the course of a trip to Fireball Island.
Fireball Island’s gameplay has one very central, and reoccurring theme: Screwing your buddies over, severely, and often. The mechanics behind it are relatively simple as well: Roll and move, and the use of cards and hand management to make sure you have the right ability to screw someone over or keep yourself from being screwed when it matters most.
Each roll of the dice typically moves you ahead that many spaces, although rolling a 1 on the D6 means that instead you roll one of the fireballs on the board. The instructions are pretty clear that you’re supposed to push the fireball instead of flick them, but this was one area where a more liberal interpretation of the rules is probably acceptable.
The cards are the other pretty integral part of Fireball Island’s gameplay. The map is filled with spaces that are either light or dark gray. Landing on a dark space lets you draw one card, up to a maximum hand size of 4. These cards are another of the main ways to really mess up the day of every other explorer.
The FIREBALL! card in particular is a prime example of just how over-the-top Fireball Island is. Not only does one out of every six die rolls result in a fireball flying down the paths, but there’s even a card that tosses them out. In practice this usually means that aside from a very few points on the island that are safe at all.
Another subtle rule about fireballs is that when rolling a 1, you don’t have the option of rolling a fireball – you “must” roll one. There’s a lot of explorers on fire in every game.
Every time you’re knocked down, or even just hit by a fireball, the game considers you to be “FIREBALLED”. This knocks your explorer down and puts you in a fire pit, on your side. Your action on the next turn consists of simply standing back up in the pit. The following turn you’ll get to roll and move again.
The main goal of the game is to climb to the top of the island, in the middle of the board. This is right at the pinnacle where Vul-Kar sits and watches his jewel. The explorers are all vying for it, and once you climb up and grab the jewel, you get a few quick perks like a fireball and three consecutive turns. You also get to fill your hand to 4 cards! After that, however, the insanity bubbles over to a fever pitch.
All an explorer really has to do to secure the jewel for themselves is pass the explorer who currently has the jewel on the board. Seems simple enough, but it can also create situations where an explorer has to move backwards to try and grab the jewel. This gives any stragglers time to catch up, and in a 4 player game can quickly turn into a clumped up orgy or burning, fireballsy explorer goodness.
The caves are another interesting gameplay element in Fireball Island. You can step into them on your turn and roll a die – and you pop out in the other cave of the number you roll. On your next turn you can try the dark cave network again or move out and continue as usual.
This is a great little mechanic that adds some fun randomness to the game and also can reward a player who takes risks. Shocker, however, even the caves don’t limit you from your fireball-throwing quota: rolling a 1 in a cave moves you to cave 1 AND… you have to throw a fireball.
Now, let’s take a moment to talk about Fireball Island’s most ridiculous mechanic: The Bridges.
The Bridges are an element designed mainly to give everyone else time to catch up to the explorer who gets the jewel first. There are two bridges towards the end of the map that overlook ravines with rapids below. Both of them are vulnerable to fireballs that hit about 99.642% of the time. That doesn’t sound so bad though, right? Most other spaces in the game are vulnerable too.
The Bridges stop all movement when you land on them, though. That little wrinkle in the rules right there has single-handedly caused most of our Fireball Island games to go from the 45 minute suggested mark to upwards of two hours in some cases. In a two player game, one player will get to one bridge, and everyone else will blow them away. Maybe you get lucky for a turn and get past the first, but you’ll have to try and get lucky twice to get past another one. If you get hit? You start the whole bridge hokey pokey over again.
In a three or four player game, you can actually get past them easier, as you can “leapfrog” them, by counting the bridge but not stopping. The problem is that you need most of the players on the bridges to pull this off, and before you know it every single explorer is bunched up on the bridges or right over them.
It usually leads to a hilarious conga-line of explorers all drafting each other to try and make the last few spaces to the boat. Of course there’s fireballs there too so anyone not in the lead is blowing everyone else and themselves away to keep the game going. Cards start to dry up and it all comes down to the dice. It’s incredibly stupid, but still a lot of fun. Thanks, nostalgia!
The other interesting item in the game is the token which can be picked up in the first few spaces. This can be turned in at any point in time to fill your hand up to 4 cards. It’s a pretty cool strategic piece that rewards explorers who don’t use the caves to try and clumsily zip around the island.
Collecting a hand of 4 cards, and blowing them all to get the jewel, grabbing another 4 for that, and then burning them can put you at a significant advantage. If you can then also use your token you’ve got a potential 12 cards to decimate your opponents with and buy as much of a lead as possible. It’s hard to overstate the ridiculously big target you’ll have on your back once you get that jewel and a lead, though!
Some of the other cards in Fireball Island act as fake jewels, so you don’t lose it when someone passes you. My personal favorite card is the “Cancel” card, which allows you to throw it on top of a card just played to cancel the effect. You can also cancel a cancel card, and cancel a cancel on top of a cancel card. It sounds completely silly, but I would need all of the fingers on both of my hands to count how many times the triple cancel has shown up in our games.
Even the mighty cancel card, however, has it’s limits: it’s called “Cancel Any Card Except Fireball Card.”
Nothing stops Fireball Island’s Furious Balls. Nothing.
4-year-old Me thought that this game had endless replay value. As a kid there’s something incredibly satisfying about rolling marbles down island lanes and knocking your friends over. We didn’t really care about the insane slogs that could take place when everyone got bunched up towards the end.
34-year-old Me has a much different take on the game now. I have a hard time recommend picking it up (aside from the fact that a good copy runs hundreds of dollars) for most adult tabletop gamers. Kids, on the other hand, will adore this game. It combines some pretty interesting mechanics and card-based play that you find in modern boardgames with some of the physical gameplay that is very engaging, and fun.
Fireball Island is very much a cross between Indiana Jones and Jackass. It’s a bumbling romp through an island “paradise” that usually starts as a casual Take-That game, and quickly grows to a more playfully vicious version of the same thing towards the end.
Playing it for the first time, you’d likely feel underwhelmed by the simplistic rolling and moving and fireball mechanic at first. Then a bit more intrigued as the cards start to fly out, and more interesting plays come into effect. After that comes the dramatic conclusion and desperation as amazing moves are picked to pieces and the luck of the die has the final say of who is in charge on Fireball Island.
Once it’s over, however, you’ll come away with an experience – and it’s one to be remembered. I’m not sure if I would be as big a fan of tabletop games today if it wasn’t for Fireball Island.
There’s also something very special about the sheer size of the box and the size of the board. It’s right in line with the over-the-top bombastic nature of Fireball Island, but it also stands out as markedly different than today’s tabletop games.
It also seems like a game that could do well with a reprint and some rule updates and slight mechanics tweaks. For as many great modern tabletop games that we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years, it seems like games designed for that 5-10 year old market haven’t seen the same kind of love in innovation. Granted, I haven’t bought more than a handful for young cousins, so I could be way off here – but I think a modern take on Fireball Island would still be received well.
At the end of all those long games, it’s hard not to look back and agree that it was the journey that was more important than the destination. Through the three decades since it’s release, a lot has changed in the tabletop gaming landscape. Fireball Island will always be right there, just off the coastline. Because from age 5 to 105, setting your friends alight with giant fireballs will really never go out of style.
While it doesn’t quite hold up to modern standards, Fireball Island is still a blast and well worth an occasional trip!
What we Loved
- Vul-Kar is a complete bad-ass idol who pukes flaming balls.
- That moment right when your friend thinks he has the card to win him the game, and cancels are thrown in from all sides.
- Watching a red marble bowl over every other player on the board at one time.
What we didn’t Love as much
- The bridges, lovable in their own stupid way, make every game extremely predictable
- The game doesn’t encourage fair play and making friends. Just kidding, screw em’! Winning means everything, and Fireball Island encourages it! The bridges are the only really obnoxious part.