Killer Shark Do Do Do-Do-Do-Do
I tend to be exacting when it comes to licensing properties for board games. If you’re going to be granted a license, use it. Don’t just slap a deck-builder over the top and call it good.
In that regard, Jaws doesn’t smell of fresh spackle and cheap paint. That’s brine with undertones of chum. Jaws takes the essence of the film’s two halves — the grumbling tension of the beaches, the snarling tension of the open ocean — and writes them in ink and cardboard. It’s suspense incarnate, lurking under the surface with three tons of muscle and a razor-filled mouth as wide as a sharking boat.
In other words, the board game adaptation of Jaws does right by its source material. There isn’t much more to say than that.
For the sake of the unconvinced, I’ll say it anyway.
Designed by the mysterious collective of Prospero Hall, who also designed the terrible Black Mirror: Nosedive and the popular-for-a-reason Disney Villainous, Jaws is divided into two acts that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Steven Spielberg’s 1975 progenitor of the summer blockbuster. In the first act, three humans are pitted against one shark on the beaches of Amity Island, racing to track the man-eater before it chows down on too many swimmers. In the second, the board flips over to reveal the open ocean, where our heroes pursue the shark aboard the Orca, only to wind up capsizing as the shark bites chunks out of the hull — and them.
For the time being, let’s stick with the first act.
Right away, Jaws pegs the interplay between its three shark-hunters and the Great White that eludes them. In part this is because of the game’s event cards, which pepper Amity Island’s four beaches with swimmers and offer vignettes from the film. One turn opens with a cardboard fin hoax, sending everyone scurrying to the same beach; the next features Mayor Vaughn insisting that all of the island’s beaches remain open for the Fourth of July; later, the carcass of the wrong shark is hauled in, convincing everyone that the water is safe once more.
But while event cards are nice, they only matter insofar as they generate moments that impact the players. Thankfully, that’s exactly what they do here, setting the scene and then stepping back to watch the carnage. With a fresh batch of swimmers unsettling the shallow water, the shark gets to move, jotting down their destination and announcing where any swimmers went missing and whether they used any ability tiles. These tiles may be small, but don’t mistake them for minor. One lets the shark move three spaces for a single action. Another lets it conduct a feeding frenzy at an overstocked beach. A third lets it slip past its pursuers.
Speaking of pursuit, the three human players take their turn after the shark has moved, each contributing their own expertise to the hunt. Salty seadog Quint initially seems like the most indispensable, launching tracker barrels that remain in the water to announce when the shark has moved past that sector. Or, if Quint is lucky enough to land two direct hits, they’re the same barrels that will force the game into its second act.
The other characters soon prove every bit as important. Chief Brody is terrified of water and therefore landlocked, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering tracker barrels to the pier, investigating beaches for shark-signs with his binoculars, ushering swimmers out of the water one by one, or persuading the mayor to shut down a single beach — and saving everyone there in one executive action. Hooper, meanwhile, uses his fancy-pants motorboat to jet from place to place and deploy its fish-sonar to get a sense for where the Great White is or isn’t.
This game of shark-and-ship soon reveals unexpected nuances. As the shark, you may be the apex carnivore of the open ocean, but it pays to preempt your pursuers with all the otherworldly prescience displayed by your cinematic counterpart. For example, you’re required to announce when you jiggle a floating barrel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve moved past it; just that you occupied that space. It’s entirely possible that you’re lurking below, waiting for Hooper to go motoring off in the other direction before you turn tail and munch on the snacks he left paddling on the beach behind him. The same goes for other expectations. Did you eat those swimmers and flee? Or are you still lurking in shallow water, waiting for your breakfast to come frolicking back?
As the humans, your time is split between closing the net on the shark and coping with the uneasy sensation that it knows your movements better than you know yourself, like some sort of aquatic devil or perhaps the Nixon administration. At times it will seem like there isn’t a nautical mile for your prey to escape to. Your barrel network is firm, a nearby beach is closed, and everyone is in the proper place to triangulate and then isolate the shark. Yet those are the moments that provide maximum infuriation when body parts wash ashore on the other side of the island and your fish finder returns not a single blip.
Whether by blood or barrel, this first act will conclude eventually. And as the board is flipped to the other side, both the shark and the humans receive rewards — abilities or gear — based on how well they performed. The more bodies in the shark’s belly, the more numerous its abilities. The faster the humans tracked it, the more gear they packed onto the Orca. Either way, you’ll need them like a bigger boat.
Where the first act was about evading conflict, whether between shark and swimmer or between shark and pursuer, the second act is about realizing conflict, usually by smacking the shark with a machete or by having the shark take a chunk out of the Orca.
The process is somewhat more programmed than that of the first act. Each round reveals three spots where the shark is permitted to surface, with these options also providing sharky with a few picks of defense value and attack opportunities. Of the three, the shark picks one. The humans then move around and try to preempt where the shark will appear. Somehow the shark will pop up in the only location not targeted by human weapons. The humans say something like “Shit!” The shark says something indiscernible. Mommy shark always said it was impolite to talk around a mouthful of boat.
There are two highlights to this process. The first is that it presents a definite arc that begins wide-open and narrows over multiple encounters. Early on, when the Orca is intact, targeting the shark is frustratingly difficult. Expect the Orca to disintegrate around you with only minor injuries inflicted upon the Great White. As the shark, however, these opening minutes are empowering, letting you dart between sections of the boat and nip holes in your pursuers. Then, over time, the shark’s options narrow. Portions of the boat become waterlogged, and maybe a human embraces the briny deep. So you appear in more obvious locations, trading wounds as you strive to finish off the beleaguered crew. This mirrors the film almost perfectly: the shark is malevolent and seemingly omniscient, but it’s also an evil that can be shot, stabbed, dragged at with nets and hooks, and burnt by flares. By the last few rounds, it feels as though the contest between man and nature could go either way.
The other highlight is that, depending on your conduct in the first act, you may begin the battle with extra abilities and gear. The shark’s abilities range from the expected (make a second attack!) to the terrifying (move to an adjacent space and ram with bonus dice!). The humans, on the other hand, can toss buckets of chum into the drink to further isolate where the shark will appear, shoot or stab or bludgeon, or use special gear like shark cages, high-tension fishing poles, and even — wink wink — a canister of pressurized air. The most interesting of these will “attach” to the shark, hampering its behavior until it can appear in a location that lets it “shake off” that gear. One more consideration in a string of them.
In both cases, the humans and shark are playing two games simultaneously. There’s the predictive game, with everyone attempting to anticipate their enemy’s appearances, and the resource game, where your abilities and gear and even your health are currency to be traded as you whittle down your foe. As the shark, it’s tempting to play it safe by sticking to far-flung locations, but that only gives the humans more time to rally together. As a puny human, it’s always tempting to clamber back aboard the Orca as soon as you tumble into the water. But at times your best chance of hitting the shark will put you in danger. It’s up to you whether that’s worth the risk.
That oppressive sense of danger imbues this second act with breathless immediacy, capturing the terror and exhaustion of the film’s second half. Which is why I’m inclined to forgive its fishier bits.
To understand what I mean, consider the differences between acts: in the first, the shark’s location is largely deduced by its previous position — where tracking barrels raised the alarm, where swimmers were eaten — whereas in the second act these snippets of foreknowledge are present but in far slimmer fashion. The task of tracking the shark, or the task of picking which segment of the Orca to bite, is more of a crapshoot. Sometimes even literally, seeing as how the effectiveness of your attacks are determined by rolling dice. Raising your rifle only for the shark to thunder from the ocean is galling, but appropriately so — it’s fair play, your intentions outperformed by a thinking mind. By contrast, setting up the perfect ambush only to roll misses hews closer to irritation than excitement.
This is my one caveat with an otherwise impeccable package, and should be taken as an errant note of disappointment rather than outright criticism. Although the second act is slightly weaker than the first, it still builds to a resounding climax, one that capitalizes on your performance during the hunt while still requiring you to measure out your abilities and gear. This merger is a pleasant surprise, both unexpectedly innovative and totally appropriate.
And really, the entire thing is a wonderful adaptation. Jaws (the cardboard version) takes Jaws (the cinematic version) and provides a faithful retelling without insisting that you hit all the same beats in the same order. It tells a tale of heroism and terror with exceptional assurance — and stands out as an exemplar of adaptation by emphasizing the essence of the film rather than stridently adhering to every scene. Jaws is Jaws, and it feels perfect.