Shark Island Review

The game reaches its conclusion when either the shark achieves its pre-set terror goals, or the hunters settle down for some Great White stew. A far cry to be fair from watching the beast explode into a thousand little pieces of sushi like the original Jaws film, but we can’t have everything.

Who doesn’t love a good bit of shark action in their entertainment? I mean, obviously, if your entertainment happens to involve dipping a toe or ten in the ocean then perhaps less shark infested is preferable, but, on the page, from the screen and in our games a little fin fest is always welcomed with open arms and chewed fingernails.

With that in mind I approached Shark Island emitting a heavy aura of optimism, excitement and curiosity, safe in the knowledge that, done well, a one vs many game involving a beast from the depths and a bunch of gnarly fishermen would be the recipe for some sort of glorious board gaming fish pie, with added bite.

The only question now is whether Shark Island had enough to get our teeth into or left us feeling something fishy was going on? I also solemnly promise, that’s the last fish based word play I shall stoop to during this review.

Is it Fintastic?

Shark Island, designed by Richard Launius and Pete Shirey, and published by Upper Deck, seems such a brilliant and obvious idea, that it is incredible no-one has made a game of this ilk previously. Place one player into the huge and terrifying body of the Great White, and pop the other players into the roles of hunter, then cast them to sea in a tense and dramatic game of cat and mouse…or in this case, shark and fisherman. A genius idea, and a surefire solid gold hit of a board game could be the only possible outcome! Couldn’t it?

Well…

 

As we are all too aware in the gaming realm, even the best ideas on paper can flail and drown when brought to life. And sadly, this is definitely the case for Shark Island.

First things first though, let us look at the guts of the game. Shark Island offers the chance for two to five players to step straight into the film set of Jaws. The story tells us a whale carcass has been found washed up on one of the beaches with a huge bite attack mark, a local diver declares the bite to have been from a Great White shark. Following this first discovery, a local woman who is known to swim alone in the evenings, a foolish pastime at all times, is reported missing. Her arm is later found washed up on the beach. And finally, a deserted diving boat is found adrift around a mile out to sea with no crew, and it’s up to Chief Brodie…I mean, and it’s up to the various townsfolk to head out in pursuit of the beast.

As a fan of the old shark movie the game offers some tantalising potential. So the question is how did it manage to fall down? A look at the rules of engagement might shed some light.

The Basics of Play

One player takes on the role of the shark, that sounds like a dream position in gaming terms! There job is to try to avoid detection as they attempt to terrorise the various coastal regions of the island.

The other players fill the role of hunters, these range from the island sheriff to a salvage diver, and from an oceanographer to a gnarly fisherman. Weirdly there’s also a dolphin trainer out for the kill, but I guess finding a wide enough range of potential shark killers for a game, is fairly tricky. Each role offers a slight variation in terms of their ability to search for the Great White, and then to fight the thing. This is highlighted by differing ratios of dice rolled, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The hunter players have other slight differences to tell them apart, and to aid some shallow variety in strategic approach. They have their own vessel that has a set amount of damage it can take before needing repair, however, only one of the vessels is actually capable of taking slightly more damage, meaning that although we get a mix in terms of artwork, the actual mode of transport, be it a police boat, a helicopter, or a speed boat, all play exactly the same as one another. Each hunter also has different levels of skill in the two key actions during play; searching, and fighting. These are the core actions that run through the game. For example, the dolphin trainer can throw three dice during a search action, where the sheriff can only throw one, but when it’s fight time, the sheriff can play more skill cards than the dolphin trainer. These little variations between characters adds a small amount of variety to play, but not enough that one feels particularly unique from the other.

Play commences by placing island tiles on the table. These tiles depict locations the shark can terrorise. They also hold information such as how many searches may be carried out by the hunters, and how much terror is raised should the shark evade detection.

The number of tiles played is determined by the number of players. Four players including the shark for example, means four tiles are laid out. Each tile is also marked by a number stating how many fin tokens the shark player can take this round. These tokens are made up of a mix of false fins depicting things that might be mistaken for the shark, such as seals, dolphins and even a kid wearing a fake fin, hazard fins that can do damage to the hunter’s boats, and the actual shark fin itself.

The shark player then draws a shark card that might aid them in their dastardly people eating endeavours, spends shark coins, bit odd I know, and finally proceeds to place the fins face down on the tiles keeping its actual location a secret from the hunters.

Said hunters then begin the search. They roll the number of dice depicted on their own hunter card and determine from the results which actions are available. The dice are marked with icons showing such possibilities as searching for the shark, repairing their craft, or maybe drawing a skill card from a small individual deck associated with their character choice. A combination of three icons often reaps reward or punishment, and can see damage inflicted upon shark or hunter depending on the icon rolled even before the combat phase of play rears its head.

Hunter Seeks Shark

During the search phase of the action, in turn each hunter flips over one of the tiles placed by the shark player. If it is a false sighting or hazard the search phase continues, however, if the shark tile is flipped, play moves to the combat phase, and it’s here that things get really weird.

Combat in Shark Island is played out in some strange stick or twist card dealing game that resembles a slightly more detailed version of pontoon. The shark player acts as dealer as they and the hunters attempt to get as close to a score of 23 without going over from a hand of numbered cards. Some cards have little side effects. There is a ‘shark’ card for example that proves very powerful for the shark player, should they draw two they immediately defeat all opponents (slightly irritating), elsewhere, if a hunter has a shark card at the end of combat they take damage to their craft. There are harpoon cards that can eliminate a shark card from the draw, and hazard cards that demand a player immediately take another card. By and large though most cards are numbered one to eleven. After every player has chosen to stick, the totals are added up and the one closest to 23 wins the battle. If it’s a hunter the shark takes damage, if it’s the shark the terror level rises.

The game reaches its conclusion when either the shark achieves its pre-set terror goals, or the hunters settle down for some Great White stew. A far cry to be fair from watching the beast explode into a thousand little pieces of sushi like the original Jaws film, but we can’t have everything.

Hey Good Looking

Shark Island looks fantastic! This is a real plus point for the game. There is a cartoon aesthetic that actually helps the game stand out on the table. The components from player cards to tokens are all solid and easy to use, and the dice roller cast in the shape of a buoy is just superb.

 

However, for all its good looks and interesting ideas, sadly, Shark Island falls pretty flat as a playing experience.

If a game about hunting a Great White fails to ignite any real spark of tension or excitement, it is destined to fail. And in this game even the most ardent lover of shark infested entertainment will find little to smile about.

The game plays out as a random, strategy free, luck-based affair, where at no point do you as a player ever feel like you’re out in the open ocean tackling the mother of all deep sea nightmares. Instead it all ends up a little bit odd, with the shark spending coins for additional abilities and the hunters being fairly indistinguishable from one another save for the artwork, before it then descends into the strangest game of pontoon I’ve ever encountered, completely eliminating any of the thrill or danger I would hope for when in the act of fighting a Great White shark.

Shark Island plays in around an hour, and to be honest, by the time the hour is up you’ll likely be more than ready to move on. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, it just fails to make it particularly memorable.

That’s a lot of negatives in the fundamentals of a game I had high hopes for. To be fair, playing Shark Island isn’t a horrible experience, it moves along at a decent pace, is simple to understand, and offers some fun moments, but, a thrilling hidden movement game it certainly is not. And I think this is critical in how much enjoyment people will get from a trip to Shark Island, and the likelihood of many return visits.

One for the Kids?

Kids seem to like animals that have teeth and are a little scary. Dinosaurs, tigers, and of course, sharks. The cartoon art direction means there is nothing here to scare the little ones. The action is pretty light and easy to follow, however, the biggest problem might well be maintaining interest in the game once the initial reaction to the shark tiles and cool dice roller dissolves. I found my own children adopted that slightly bored expression every gamer dreads among their players after a couple of actions.

Dylan, 17, said,It wasn’t great, I didn’t think it flowed that well. I like the idea of the theme but the game didn’t make you feel as though you were in a life or death situation.”

Conclusion

Shark Island is worth a look if the theme pulls at you and you want something lightweight to bring out from time to time whilst not worrying about style over substance, just don’t expect too much. The tension that should have been a paramount priority here simply never materialises, and the game is dragged down to the depths because of that. Couple this with the odd choice of combat resolution, and an overriding randomness to the action throughout, and the game ends up missing the target by some serious margin.

Shark Island is much like the Jaws films from further down the line, Jaws 3D and Jaws The Revenge, the movies that still feature a big toothy fish as the main draw, but completely fail to deliver even a morsel of tense, fraught action. Such a shame.

Go fishing for Shark Island at your local game store here

Shark Island

£37.99
Shark Island
5

Overall

5.0/10

Pros

  • Looks superb
  • Love the theme idea
  • Simple to play
  • There is fun here, just not as expected

Cons

  • Fails to capture the theme
  • Combat is dull
  • Lacks any tension or excitement
  • Little desire to replay
  • Random and luck-based action rules the day

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