Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 21 December 2019

Battling Bruce

If you are a board gamer, then 2019 is a good time to be alive. You are spoilt for choice and you are spoilt for choice in terms of good games and you spoilt for choice because games can be designed around a theme or an intellectual property and they can fit that theme or property. For there cannot be any other good reason why Ravensburger can get the licence for a nearly fifty-year-old blockbuster and turn that blockbuster into a game that is not models the blockbuster, but which is actually a good game. A game that could and would never have been designed or published in 1975, the year of the blockbuster’s release. A tense, desperate game of cat and mouse—or rather shark and mouse—for the blockbuster is none other than Jaws. In fact, it is the first summer blockbuster, in which a giant man-eating great white shark attacks beachgoers at a New England summer resort town, prompting the local police chief, marine biologist, and a professional shark hunter to hunt it down. The film is regarded as both a classic thriller and horror film, and has been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense is an asymmetrical, two to four player semi-co-operative board game for ages twelve and over, which is played in two acts and lasts about an hour. One of the players takes the role of the Shark, whilst the other players take the roles of the hunters, Police Chief Martin Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper, and shark hunter, Quint. (If there are fewer players, then the roles of Brody, Hooper, and Quint are shared between them, so that it is possible to play a two-player game). In the first act, ‘Amity Island’, the Shark hunts the waters off Amity island, eating swimmer after holiday swimmer as the hunters try to track its location and tag it. Once the Shark’s hunger is sated or it has been tagged twice, the Shark swims out to sea and the second act, ‘Orca’, begins. In ‘Orca’, the shark attacks the hunters aboard Quint’s boat, Orca, until they manage to kill the Shark or the Shark eats them or the boat.

Act One: ‘Amity Island’ is played out on a map of the island, which depicts the island’s four beaches—North, South, East, and West, two Docks, Shop, Mayor’s Office, and Amity P.D. on the island. Each Round is divided into three phases—Event, Shark, and Crew phases, which are played out in that order. In the Event phase, an Event card is drawn which determines on which beaches new swimmers will take to the water, plus an event and its special rules. For example, ‘The Fourth of July’ opens all beaches and they cannot be closed that Round; ‘Amity Island in the News’ grants one player an extra action that Round; and ‘Ben Gardner’s Boat’ enables the Shark to knock either Hooper or Quint from their boat and into the water if it passes through the same space as the boat, forcing their players to expend actions getting back aboard.

In the Shark phase, the Shark player has three actions he can undertake. Obviously, he can Move and he can Eat swimmers. He can also use one of four special abilities, represented by Power Tokens, like being able to swim faster or avoid the detection methods that the hunters are putting in his way. Each Power Token and its special ability can only be used once per game. All of this is done in complete secrecy, the Shark player tracking his movement on a pad included with the game and noting how many swimmers he has eaten on the Shark card. At the end of the Shark phase, all his player has to do is tell the hunter players how many swimmers he has eaten, whether he swam past a motion tracker, and whether or not a Power Token was used (but of course, not which).

In the Crew phase, Brody, Hooper, and Quint get to act, but they can act in any order and each has different things they can do. All three have four actions each and can Move, Rescue a Swimmer if at a beach, and Pick Up Barrels, though what each of them does with these Barrels is slightly different. Brody is famously afraid of the water and so runs around Amity Island, collecting Barrels from the Shop and carrying them, one at a time, to the Docks, but if at the Mayor’s Office or Amity P.D., can issue an order to Close a Beach, which temporarily prevents Swimmers entering the water there when directed to do so by an Event card, and when at a beach, can use his Binoculars to scan the water for the Shark.

Hooper spends this act on his fast boat which enables him to move further, but as well as picking up swimmers, his primary task is to ferry the Barrels from the Docks where Brody has dropped them off, to Quint aboard the Orca. He also has a Fish Finder, which he can drop into the water to determine if the Shark is in the zone he is in or an adjacent zone. Lastly, once Hopper has got one or more Barrels to him, Quint can Launch a Barrel into the water, either in the zone he is in, or an adjacent zone. If it hits the Shark, it sticks, and the Shark player has to tell the hunters where he is. If the Shark is not there, then the Barrels floats in the water and acts as a motion detector which will alert the hunters whenever the Shark passes through the zone it is in.

Act One: ‘Amity Island’ ends when the Shark swims out to sea. This will either because the Shark has eaten nine Swimmers or because the hunters have attached two Barrels to the Shark and forced it to flee. The number of Swimmers that the Shark has eaten by then is important because it determines the number of Shark Ability cards the Shark will have in Act Two: ‘The Orca’ and the number of equipment cards the Hunters have. The more Swimmers that the Shark has eaten, the more Shark Ability cards the Shark player will have and the fewer extra Equipment cards the Hunters will have—and vice versa.

Act One: ‘Amity Island’ is a game of hidden movement upon the part of the Shark and deduction upon the part of the Hunters. In this, it feels like the hidden movement of Fury of Dracula where the vampire hunters try and track down the vampire count, the trail narrowing and narrowing. In Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense the search area is narrowed by placement of the Barrels as Motion Trackers, but at least on one occasion the Shark will be able to avoid them with a Power Token. Doing so will probably be best used by the Shark to sneak past a Motion Tracker onto a beach and grab one or two last Swimmers which will increase the number of Power cards he will have in Act Two: ‘The Orca’. Another game which Act One: ‘Amity Island’ feels like is Pandemic with its turnover of Swimmers which will appear at beaches again and again as Event cards are drawn.

Act Two: ‘The Orca’ is more focused and fraught, taking aboard Quint’s boat as it withstands attack after attack by the Shark, as seen in the finale of the film. It is played on the reverse of the game’s board, the players flipping it over after completing Act One: ‘Amity Island’ and laying out the eight tiles which depict the deck plan of the Orca. Each of these tiles is also double-sided. On one is the undamaged section of the Orca’s deck plan, on the other the section after it has been damaged by the Shark. The Shark can further damage each section of the deck plan to actually destroy it and dump any of the Crew into the water. The aim of the Shark is to chew the Orca into splinters and eat the Crew, whilst they must accurately determine where the Shark will attack again and again and kill it.

In comparison to Act One: ‘Amity Island’ in which each Round has three phases, Act Two: ‘The Orca’ each Round has six phases and is consequently more complex. These phases are Resurface Options, Shark Chooses, Crew Prepares, Shark Reveals, Crew Attacks, and Shark Attacks. In Resurface Options, the Shark player draws three Resurface cards which give him the three Resurface Zones where he can attack the Orca on that Round. In addition, each Resurface Card will determine how many dice the Shark player will roll to attack that Round, how many hits the Shark can absorb that Round before it takes damage, and whether or not it can shake free of a hook, such as that from a fishing pole or the gas canister, that one of the hunters may have attached from it. All three of these factors will influence the Shark player’s decision as to where he will attack, as will how much damage the boat may have taken in those Resurface Zones. Then in the Shark Chooses, the Shark player decides which Resurface Zone to attack from the three Resurface cards and whether or not he will play a Shark Ability card, which for example, enable to completely destroy a section of the Orca if it attacks it or even take a second attack. Both of the choice of Resurface card and Shark Ability card are kept secret.

In Crew Prepares, each Crew Member decides which of the three Resurface Zones he will move to and which weapon he will use. Melee weapons have to be used in the same Resurface Zone where the Shark attacks, whilst ranged weapons can be used at a distance. Some melee weapons can be attached to the Shark which will hinder the marauder. Accessories like Ammo enable firearms to be used again, Chum can be thrown into the water to attract the Shark to a particular Resurface Zone, and the Shark Cage will protect one of the crew members. Every Crew member has his own weapons and items of equipment and will have access to more, the amount depending on the number of Swimmers the Shark ate in Act One: ‘Amity Island’. 

In Shark Reveals, the Shark player reveals which Resurface Zone the Shark is attacking followed by the Crew Attacks phase, and lastly, the Shark Attacks phase. In the former, the players take it in turns to roll the dice and inflict as much damage on the Shark as possible, or if they can, automatically attach a weapon to the Shark. In the Shark Attacks phase, the Shark player will attack the boat and if the Shark damages or destroys a section, then it is flipped or removed and any Crew Member on that section of the Orca is knocked into the water. They will have to spend their movement on the next round getting back onto the boat. The Shark can also attack a Crew Member who is in the water  and may get a bonus attack against them as well. Play continues like this until the Shark is killed and the Crew Member players win, or the Shark either destroys all of the boat or kills all three Crew Members, in which case, the Shark player wins.

Just like Act One: ‘Amity Island’, Act Two: ‘The Orca’ feels a little like another game and that is Forbidden Island with its sinking tiles. In Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense it is the parts of the Orca which are being attacked and damaged and then forced to sink, reducing the size of the boat and thus the play area. That said, the use of the Resurface Cards to determine where Shark comes to the surface and attacks the boat does feel new. LikeAct One: ‘Amity Island’, this has the effect of narrowing the choices in terms of where the Shark will go next, but this is fairly fraught it also increases the likelihood of the boat and potentially the Crew Members in that area being attacked.

Act One: ‘Amity Island’ and Act Two: ‘The Orca’ do feel different to each other. The first is more strategic with more planning involved as the hunters search for the Shark and the primary way of knowing where it is, is from the number of disappearing Swimmers. The second is more immediate, more tactical, the Crew Members reacting because the Shark is all but on top of them. Which is very much like the film.

Physically, Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense has excellent productions. The look of the game and the graphics draw very much from the look of the film and its famous poster. Where possible, stills from the film are used on the Event Cards in Act One: ‘Amity Island’, but the artwork is excellent throughout. The Meeples for Brody, Hooper, and Quint are what you would expect, but a nice touch is that the boats for both Hooper and Quint are also of wood, as is the piece for the Shark. Lastly, it should be noted that the rule is also well presented with every effort made to make it possible to learn and play the game as the players read through the rulebook on opening the box. It is not wholly perfect, but is nevertheless, very well done.

Now if you have wide experience of playing board games, then with Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense it is possible to spot some of the mechanics seen in other games, but this does not mean that the game is immatitive, just as it means that the game is neither radical or groundbreaking. Indeed, the mechanics have been adjusted where necessary to match both the source material and the game play. What you have in Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense then, is a well oiled, well tooled, design, one that really does take the source material and build a good game around it whilst being true to the source material. In fact, as a design, it transcends any novelty factor that the game might have had for being based on as famous a thriller as Jaws. Put that all together and it should be noted that the game is surprisingly inexpensive for a design of its nature and the quality of its components.

Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense is not absolutely perfect. It may well be too good an emulation of its source material to play more than a few times, because it does not offer a lot of variety in terms of game play. This is not to say that game is not fun—it is, how much after a few plays is another matter. In addition, you need to have seen Jaws to get the most out of the game and since Jaws is a somewhat gruesome thriller, neither film nor game may necessarily be suitable for its younger suggested age limit of twelve. 

Yet beyond those issues, Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense delivers exactly what you would want in a game based on Jaws the film. It is fraught and it is frantic, you do feel desperate as more and more Swimmers are eaten in Act One: ‘Amity Island’ and then the Shark comes after you in Act Two: ‘The Orca’, but that feeling can turn around as you close in on the Shark… Plus if you are a fan, you get to play out the film and see what you would have done in their place and you get to roleplay the characters, quoting all of the famous lines, and so on. If you are a Jaws fan, then Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense is a game you will definitely want, and if you are a board game player, then it offers semi-co-operative, heavily themed play in well-presented, solidly designed, and inexpensive package.

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