It's sobering to think that the Steven Spielberg blockbuster was made way back in 1975, based on the Peter Benchley's novel from the previous year. Though more than 45 years have passed, Jaws still remains one of the most iconic movies ever made. And John Williams' score, and particularly the shark motif - a deceptively simple alternating two-note pattern - has become an instantly recognisable theme; apparently even among people who have never seen the film!
So this new Jaws game from Ravensburger may be coming late to the party but it still benefits from instant recognition. And, designed by Prospero Hall, it's a game that is faithful to its source material. The box lid mimics the classic poster that was used to promote the original movie and the game itself pits the main three characters from Jaws against the shark: so it's one player (the shark) against 1–3 others playing co-operatively.
You certainly get your money's worth here because Jaws is actually two games for the price of one. It's played in what's described as two Acts, and the result of Act 1 affects the set up for Act 2. That said, the play in each game is quite different so this feels like two distinct games; and if you find you happen to like the Act 2 game more than Act 1, you could choose just to play that if the fancy takes you.
Act 1 is played in the coastal waters around Amity Island. For the shark, it's a hidden movement game: the shark player records their starting location and movements on a sheet concealed from the other player(s). Each turn a number of swimmers will enter the water as determined by that turn's Event card. Over the course of the game, the shark will be trying to eat as many swimmers as it can, although it can usually only eat one swimmer per turn. The other player(s) will be trying to locate the shark from the information they are given. The shark will remove a swimmer from the board when they eat them but the other player(s) don't know whether they were eaten at the start of the shark's turn or after the shark has moved. Likewise with the movement indicators on barrels placed out by the other player(s): they'll know an indicator has been triggered but not whether or not that is where the shark currently is. The non-shark player(s) will taking actions to move, place out barrels and rescue swimmers by pulling them out of the sea. The shark is only hit if a barrel is launched into an area where it is currently located; the non-shark player(s) need to hit the shark with two barrels to bring its rampage to an end. Otherwise, Act 1 continues until the shark has munched 9 swimmers.
There's more to Act 1. The sheriff character remains on land throughout and is focused on collecting barrels from the shop and delivering them to a dock where they can be picked up by the other characters. The sheriff can also close off a beach so that the next Event card can be ignored insofar as it requires swimmers to be placed out at that beach. Binoculars and a Fish Finder can require more precise information from the shark player. The shark player also has some tiles that give them special abilities: Evasive Moves means they don't trigger any motion sensors that round; Out of Sight means they are invisible to the binoculars and Fish Finder; Speed Burst allows the shark to move up to three spaces with one move action; and Feeding Frenzy permits the shark to eat all the swimmers at a beach. These tiles are single use and the shark simply has to declare they are using one; playing it face down so that the other player(s) cannot be sure which special ability has been activated.
Act 2 plays very differently. The board is flipped and eight tiles are laid out to create a boat on which the three character meeples are placed. The crew is trying to injure and kill the shark; the shark is trying to kill the crew and/or destroy their boat. Each crew member has two dedicated items of equipment but this is supplemented by additional items that are drawn from a 'Crew Gear' deck. The number of gear items drawn depends on how well the crew did in Act 1. For example, if the shark 'won' and killed as many as 9 swimmers, the crew will get just 3 extra gear cards; if the shark was hit with two barrels having eaten only 4 swimmers, the crew would start Act 2 with 8 extra gear cards. Conversely, the shark will get more Act 2 ability cards the better they did in Act 1.
In Act 2, each turn, three Resurface cards are laid out showing the possible locations where the shark might choose to appear (marked A, B or C). The shark player secretly chooses one of those locations. Once they've done this, the other player(s) get to move their characters on the boat and they place a token where they want to target their weapon (some weapons are ranged so they don't have to be adjacent to the meeple). When a player guesses correctly, they get to roll the custom six-sided dice to show much damage they've done to the shark (0,1,1,1,2,2). And of course the shark player will also be rolling the dice to determine the damage they've inflicted. A single hit against a section of the boat damages it (flip the tile); a triple hit (or a single hit to an already damaged section) destroys that section of the boat (some sections of the boat need two hits before they are damaged and take 4 hits to destroy).
Act 2 starts off as something of a bluffing game; will the players correctly guess the location the shark has chosen to attack? Will the shark player fool the players by hitting the boat where they least expect it? It's fun and wholly consistent with the theme but if you play the Act 2 game as intended, following on from Act 1, then the result will be hugely impacted by how well players did in the Act 1 game. If the shark player did very well in Act 1 then they'll have the huge double bonus of starting Act 2 with a large hand of ability cards while at the same time the crew are starved of weapons. Similarly, if the shark did badly in Act 1, they'll start with very special ability cards while facing an abundance of extra Crew Gear cards. At either extreme, Act 2 can feel like a foregone conclusion. As an alternative, you can try playing Act 2 as a standalone game, starting both the shark and crew with, say, 7 cards each.
If you're a fan of the movie or book, you'll love this game. But you don't need to have seen the film to enjoy playing Jaws. It's great fun playing the shark and it's just as much fun playing the characters trying to hunt the shark. Jaws hits that magic spot of appealing equally as both a family game and a game that can be played and enjoyed by seasoned gamers. Definitely one to consider for your Christmas list!