Updated: Feb 23, 2020
Category: One vs. Many
Designer: Prospero Hall
Publisher: Ravensburger Spieleverlag GmbH
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 60 mins.
To Play or Not to Play? Play.
Confession time: I have never seen Jaws. I know, it’s a classic. It just hasn’t come up yet. I know the theme song pretty well? And the general plot? That’s probably enough. I’ll come back and revise this review after the movie if I get anything terribly wrong. Or you can correct me in the comments! People love to correct errors on the internet!
Last year, Ravensburger released a shiny new game: Jaws. It’s based on the 1975 hit thriller, which was based on a 1974 novel of the same name. Why did this board game get released 44 years after the film release? Great question! I’m no trademark or copyright lawyer, but I would safely assume that it’s because A) Prospero Hall had a cool idea for a game that fit the movie’s theme, and B) the trademark had probably expired on the 1975 Jaws game. Yes, you read that correctly. It was a children’s dexterity game where players had to fish stuff out of the shark's mouth with a gaff hook without triggering the spring-loaded jaw. Jaws: totally a kids movie!
2019’s Jaws game is completely different. One player takes on the role of the shark that terrorizes Amity island. Their goal is to stay alive, evade the other players, and eat as many swimmers as possible. The other players are the three main characters from the film: Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Their job is to save is to save the hapless swimmers and ultimately kill the shark.
The game is split into two phases: Amity Island and Orca. During the Amity Island phase, the players move around a board depicting Amity Island and the surrounding ocean. The island has four beaches, one in each cardinal direction, plus several other locations that the human players will use to thwart the shark. The shark player secretly moves through the ocean on their turn, writing their actions down so the players can double-check there was no cheating later on.
Each character has their own special power. Hooper and Quint both have boats, and can only move in the ocean. Their job is to rescue swimmers from the beaches before the shark eats them. They can also collect barrels, which Quint can launch off his boat. If the shark swims through a space with a barrel they have to tell the players, which can help them locate the shark. Once they know where the shark is, Quint can launch barrels directly at it. Hooper’s boat is faster than Quint’s, and it has a built-in fish-finder which can help track down the shark. Brody is the only character that moves on land. He can move barrels from a warehouse to the docks, use his binoculars to try and find the shark, and close one beach each round to keep swimmers away. He can also rescue swimmers from the beach.
The shark counts as a character, and has its own powers. It can use special cards to eat more swimmers, move extra fast, and more. After all players have taken their actions they draw an event card that alters the game conditions for one round, and also spawns new swimmers at some of the beaches. The Amity Phase ends when one of two conditions is met: Quint hits the shark with two barrels, or the shark has eaten ten swimmers.
The Orca Phase takes place on the reverse side of the board, and is a simple battle between the three players aboard the ship and the giant shark. The number of swimmers that the shark ate in the Amity Phase determines how powerful it will be in the Orca phase. The three humans have a few tools to try and fight the shark, but the odds are not on their favor.
Each round, the shark will lay out three cards on the board representing which of the Orca’s eight sections the shark will attack that round. The shark secretly chooses one, then the other players can move, select equipment to use that round, and place a target token in the space where they think the shark will appear. The Shark then reveals which card they selected and appears on the board. The human players can use their readied equipment to attack if they targeted the right space and potentially damage the shark. Then the shark will attack based on the selected card, which will determine how many dice the shark rolls to damage the ship or a player floating in the water. If the shark damages the ship, that part of the ship is flipped over to reveal the damaged art. If it takes more damage, it is destroyed and any players on that space fall into the ocean.
The game can end in three ways: if all three humans are dead, the shark wins. If the shark dies, the humans win. If the Orca is completely destroyed, the shark wins. Good luck!
Frankly, this game knocks the theme out of the park. The Amity Phase is really tense. That shark just shows up out of nowhere devouring swimmers left and right. The three characters are woefully under-equipped and understaffed to protect the entire island. Just when you think you’ve trapped the shark somewhere, it turns out you were completely wrong and it’s actually at the other side of the island. For the humans, it’s dispiriting, challenging, and terrifying. Meanwhile, as the shark you get to feel like this powerful stealth killer. You watch your opponents sweating and struggling to figure out where you are, and where you’ll show up next. And then you get laugh at their shock when you show up somewhere else!
Then in the second phase, the tables turn. The humans now have weapons and equipment to fight back. They have more knowledge about where the shark will appear and better tools to deal with the situation. There are no more distractions, just an all-out fight. The shark is now outnumbered and outgunned. Instead of free choice, there are only three options for where to attack. It becomes more of a psychological puzzle. If you pick the card that deals the most damage, you’ll hit the ship pretty hard, but they might expect you to pick that card, so you’ll be a pretty obvious target. Maybe it’s safer to take a worse option. But maybe they’ll be expecting you to think that . . . you can work yourself into a tizzy cogitating through it all!
I really like this arrangement. The group struggles more early on, which presents the shark as a major threat. Then in the second phase the players are still psychologically worried about the shark. Thus, while defeating the shark is the more likely outcome of the second phase, the players will still feel like they made a major accomplishment and pulled success from the jaws of defeat. Heh.
And don’t get me wrong, success or failure for either side is not predetermined. Bad plays or unlucky rolls could easily swing things to the other side’s advantage in a heartbeat. But in general, the first phase favors the shark, while the second phase favors the humans. In a one-vs-many game, I think this is an important balance. If four players play the game and three of them lose, it feels great to be that winning player, but the other three had a less satisfactory experience. But if three of them win, then overall the group had a good time. And, generally, the more experienced player will play as the “one,” so they are presumably more interested in playing again regardless of the outcome. If you think about it, this game is really two different games combined into one. So, rather than having one evenly balanced one vs. many game, Jaws is two imbalanced games, each of which favors a different side. If you prefer one or the other, the rules actually include variants to just play half the game instead of the full experience. Nice!
What’s really fun about this game is that it feels a lot like you’re playing a cooperative game, but instead of the game’s rules determining the threats, it’s an actual human. You get the creativity and innovative thought of a human brain combined with the overwhelming odds cooperative games have to throw at players to keep them on the back foot.
As someone who’s never watched Jaws, I was pretty impressed by this game. I felt like I got a great sense of the movie’s narrative from the event cards, and I developed a healthy fear of the shark! The rules are a little wonky and complex if you’re not familiar with cooperative games that use multiple actions per turn (like Pandemic), but not too bad. It is a little annoying to have to pause halfway through the game to switch to phase 2 and explain those rules, but neither phase is terribly long, so it’s not a deal-breaker. If you’ve got a thing about sharks, maybe stay away. Otherwise, you should play this game.
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