Jaws Board Game Review

(Welcome to Cardboard Cinema, a feature that explores the intersection between movies and tabletop gaming. This column is sponsored by Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy in Austin, Texas.)

In 1975, Axron released the first tabletop adaptation of Jaws, a dexterity game that saw you trying to hook bone pieces from the open jaws of a mechanical shark. While the 1975 Jaws was a fine repurposing of Operation, it was not exactly a faithful creation of the movie itself. Those who wanted to replay the doomed adventures of Brody, Hooper, and Quint would have to wait more than four decades until 2019, when European game developer Ravensburger would release Jaws into Targets across America. And thankfully, everyone’s favorite killer shark has finally found a tabletop adaptation worth his dorsal fin.

This is actually the second time Ravensburger has tackled a beloved Steven Spielberg property. The developer had previously released Jurassic Park: Danger!, an adaptation of the original film that features Alan Grant and other characters scrambling to restore power and escape the island. Like Jaws, the players take on the role of either the dinosaurs or the humans, and what follows is a game of expensively themed checkers. Humans move to tiles, dinosaurs chase them, and the only real strategy in the game comes when you have to decide when to let a dinosaur eat your character. It’s a fine party game – and, as an in-store Target exclusive, will probably help hook a new generation of tabletop players – but it’s also an example of how developers can connect on a theme but miss on mechanics. Recreating Jurassic Park with friends is underwhelming when you make Jurassic Park a much dumber narrative in the process.

Given the lackluster mechanics of Jurassic Park: Danger!, I went into Jaws with many of the same worries. As I popped the cardboard out of its sheet, I had to admit that the game looked nice. The production design of Spielberg’s is translated well across every little piece; from the handwritten ‘No Swimming’ signs you use to close beaches to the broken pieces of The Orca you reveal in the game’s second act, a great deal of care went into picking which elements of the movie should be brought into the film. Even the inside of the box – the cardboard cutout that holds the various cards and pieces – references the anchor pattern on one of Mayor Vaughn’s suits. Jaws also throws in a few nods to the aesthetic of ‘70s board games in general; instead of detailed character pieces or interactive character boards, we’re treated to little wooden men and plastic paper clips. As a collectible, Jaws certainly lived up to the hype.

Then it’s time to play. In the first act, players control a trio of characters – Brody, Hooper, and Quint – as they travel around Amity Island and attempt to save beachgoers from becoming the Shark’s latest snack. Each character has a combination of basic and unique abilities that tie back to the events of the film. Brody can prevent new swimmers from entering the board by closing beaches; Hooper can use his fish finder to learn if the Shark is nearby; Quint can launch barrels at the Shark in an attempt to bring him to the surface. One player also controls the Shark, writing down his movements in secret and only announcing the number and location of deaths on the board after each turn (“Two swimmers were eaten at the North Beach”). The humans use this information to try and track the Shark while the Shark moves undetected around the board. Once either side accomplishes their Act 1 goal – tagging the Shark with two barrels or eating nine swimmers, respectively – the game board is flipped and the humans and Shark battle it out at sea.

In Act 2, the Shark repeatedly surfaces and attacks The Orca, wounding Brody, Hooper, and Quint while tearing off chunks of the boat in the process. The Shark player is given three ‘resurface’ locations every turn, each with a unique combination of attack and defense ratings. Once the Shark player has quietly picked their resurface tile, the humans line up their defenses, choosing to target different resurface locations outside the boat with various weapons from the film. Every time the Shark resurfaces, the humans who targeted the right tile get to take a whack at it, then the Shark gets to attack either the boat or any players current caught in the water. Each successful attack progressively changes sections of the boat – from damaged to destroyed – and the Shark player wins if she is able to either kill all three of the humans or chew The Orca into a fine pulp. The human side wins if they are able to kill the Shark, even if the only tools available to them are a baseball bat and a hammer.

In both of my playthroughs, I stuck with the humans, sending Hooper and Quint scurrying across the ocean in an effort to locate the Shark. In the first game, the Shark was able to gorge himself on swimmers in Act 1 before losing on a series of lucky combat rolls in Act 2. I dominated Act 1 in my second playthrough – using the tragic death of three West Beach swimmers to locate the Shark almost immediately – but things changed considerably once the board was flipped. My opponent, so determined to attack my spaces with characters in our first playthrough, pivoted to a form of underwater guerrilla warfare the second time around. He would ignore the humans and weaken sections of the boat, only to attack my characters head-on in later turns when Brody, Hooper, and Quint were preoccupied with defending their now-damaged spaces. In the end, with Shark and humans all knocking on death’s door, I was able to win by having Brody launch himself into the water with two hit points and a hammer. One final swing to the Shark’s skull – and, less thematically, one lucky roll by me – and Quint would finally live long enough to be featured in the sequels.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the biggest hook for Jaws is its two-act structure. It’s also the feature I was most skeptical about prior to my first playthrough. It’s rare to find a tabletop game that entirely reinvents itself at the halfway mark. While this switch does map well to the movie itself – Jaws’s runtime is pretty equally split between the island scenes and Quint’s fatal hunting expedition – my hunch was that it would work better as an adaptation concept than an actual board game mechanic. The designers even seemed to hedge their bets a little by offering alternative gameplay rules in the manual: players can choose to play only Act 1 or Act 2 with slightly randomized starting positions, making each act a singular victory for humans or Shark. If the rules are already offering ways around the design elements, how good can they be?

So imagine my surprise when I discovered the two-act structure was the game’s biggest triumph. While the events of Act 1 will provide either the Shark or the humans with marginally more options in Act 2, the fight between humans and Shark offers a valuable reset for both sets of players. As a result, Jaws feels like two well-designed minigames welded together with a dynamite theme. It takes 62 minutes for the shark to appear in Spielberg’s Jaws, so clearly, a combat-heavy game where you roll dice to shoot at the Shark would have missed part of the movie’s appeal. Then again, take out the big finale – with Hooper in the shark cage and Brody shooting wildly from a half-submerged Orca – and you’d forgo the big action sequences that make Jaws an enduring classic. Rather than water down either set of mechanics, the designers’ gambled on blending these two mechanics into one seamless board game.

There’s also a great deal of fun to be had in taking on the role of a killer shark. Hidden movement games are a staple of the board game community; titles like Fury of Dracula and Letters from Whitehall allow one player to control a monster moving silently across the board as the rest of the group tries to pick up its trail. There’s probably a solid version of Jaws where humans team up against a board-controlled shark but letting a rational mind take over the monster only serves to underscore the supernatural elements of Spielberg’s film. Quint is always mumbling about the shark’s uncanny ability to avoid danger; knowing that you’re facing something with human intelligence highlights the uncanny nature of the shark itself. Random card flipping may serve to have the Shark do interesting things in the board game, but it doesn’t really help sell the metaphor.

All in all, with a little hidden movement and a whole bunch of combat, Jaws excels at recreating the tension and the spectacle of the film. By adding a human player as the shark, the game also allows you to enjoy countless hours of head-to-head gameplay against your favorite opponent(s). Ravensburger has created a board game that movie fans will want to own but board game fans will want to play; as far as victories go, I’d say this one ranks right up there with shooting a tank of compressed air in the mouth of a charging Great White.

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