SHARK ISLAND is a game for 2-5 players (aged 14+ ) where one of them takes control of the Shark and the others play the Shark Hunters, as such it is marked under the semi-cooperative game genre.
The Shark theme has always been a good one and here it has been very well utilised to bring this game to the table and ensure it is enjoyable for all.
When you see the homage to JAWS on the front cover of the box for the first time it really pulls you towards this game whether you see the box on a shelf or in a magazine or online. Let's face it, who can resist the lure of a Great White Shark, mouth wide open baring its rows of very sharp teeth?
The players take on the roles of mighty Shark Hunters searching the waters around the small but pleasant islands in the calm, warm ocean. These islands have soft white sandy beaches, luxury Hotels and tall, beautiful Palm Trees. Dolphins and Seals frolic in the warm waters while swimmers, sail-boarders, wind-surfers and party-goers on yachts and speed-boats enjoy and soak up the magnificent sunshine and the holiday atmosphere. Unfortunately for these vacationers the waters are also the home to at least one Great White Shark (possibly two if they are really unlucky) but then luckily there are armed Hunters waiting to get the Great White in their sights, tranquilise it and send it on its way back into the ocean far away from the populated sun kissed beaches.
One player has a small shield behind which they arrange the Shark tokens and the Fin tokens prior to placing them face down on the current crop of islands - only the Shark player knows where the real Shark can be found, or you can play it randomly so that even the Shark player doesn't know where the Shark is.I tried this the last time I played and Fran managed to find it first time three out of four times despite it being on the island with at least 3 or 4 Fin tokens. Note: If you as the Shark player does randomly place the Shark token then they cannot give its position away with facial "tells", plus it's as much a surprise to them when it is or isn't found.
The Shark player has a Mission they must complete to succeed. These are on Strategy cards of which one can either be chosen or randomly dealt (only the Shark player knows the task ahead of them) during the game setup. The four Strategy cards have the same back "Welcome to Paradise!" but different winning Missions; RESORTS CLOSE: you have succeeded in collecting 5 Resorts Close Tokens. NATIONAL PRESS: 5 National Press Tokens. MAYOR FIRED!: 5 Mayor Fired Tokens and GHOST TOWN: 12 Tokens in total. Tokens (aka Terror Tokens) are randomly collected after the Shark has terrorised an island successfully - the flip side of the Island board determines the number of Terror Tokens won. Tokens collected are placed face up on the table in view of all players so they can see their defeat slowly approaching.
Each Hunter has a character card that gives them a name, an occupation/profession, a sailing craft, a number of dice for searching, a fight skill a damage track and a specific skill; these ships are represented by card tokens in plastic stands. There is one exception and that is Willy the Pilot who has a Helicopter and an intense Search ability. There are six characters for the players to select from but only four Hunters maximum can be involved in the game at any time.
The Rules took a while to sink in as they were being read out aloud. Our first game was with 4 players, 1 Shark and 3 Hunters, all players being competent board gamers who regularly play all genres of board games. Combat occurs when the Hunters locate the Shark. Hunters that are on the island are Active and Hunters that are on other islands are said to be In Communication. If the Shark defeats the Active Hunters it can terrorise the island and gain Terror Tokens. When the Shark defeats Hunters In Communication (this means they are in contact with the other Hunters by Radio etc) they do not suffer any woulds or boat damage but the Shark player gains one Coin. Coins are used to purchase things to aid the Shark, such as the Hazard Fins, these being extra Fin cards FOG and RAMMED. Shark Hunters that are defeated by the Shark suffer damage and may find their boat in need of repair before they set sail again.
Fighting is easily handled by card play. Players are each dealt two cards, one face up and one face down (as in Blackjack aka 21 aka Pontoon aka Vingt-et-un) which begins their Combat Line, the face up card being the last card in the Line. The players are trying to get as near to, or dead on, 23, without going bust, though if they do bust they do not reveal this until the round of combat is completed. After the initial deal the players are asked if they would like another card, and so on until all players have passed, cards dealt on request are face up. The Combat Lines are then revealed and any Hunters with 23 or less that beat the value of the Shark's total defeat the Shark and cause it damage (marked on the specific Shark card). Players over 23 or with less than the total of the Shark's Combat Line lose and take damage, as long as the Shark's total isn't over 23 of course. Nowhere during the explanation and overview of the Combat process does it say that the players are allowed to look at the card dealt face down to them, however, nowhere does it say they cannot look at them. Commonsense dictates that the owning player should know what their overall card value is but commonsense is not always a game rule. Apart from the initial deal of 2 cards other cards offered may be discarded as they are dealt by using their Hunter's skill.
Amongst the Combat cards are some Special cards. "Shark": If a Shark card is in any Combat Line it doubles the value of the previous card in the line. If a Hunter is defeated and has a Shark card or cards in their Combat Line they suffer damage to their craft. If the Shark players gets 2 Sharks in their Combat Line they immediately win the fight, defeating all Hunters and possibly terrorising the isle. "1" Harpoon: Hunters may use this to discard a face up Shark card in any Hunter's Combat Line. "3" Hazard: A player dealt a "3" must either end their Combat Line immediately by passing or they must immediately draw another card and add it to the Combat Line. It all begins to sound (and read) terribly complicated, and yet in actuality it is all so terribly simple.
The game is played in turns that are made up of phases, beginning with the Calendar Phase which is when the Event for the turn is discovered. Calendar cards are either Green (helps the Hunters) Red (Go Shark Go!) or Yellow (neutral) and offer aid throughout the entire turn. The Shark takes his turn next and prepares the islands for the Hunters to search, placing the Fin and Shark and maybe also the Hazard Tokens; Sharks may also spend Coins to gain Skills, Heal Wounds or launch a night attack. Once the Shark has completed its setup the Hunters take over, in turn they get to roll the special game dice and act upon the results - each die face has a different meaning, one of which gives the Shark a coin. Some Hunters get rerolls but it isn't made clear if when a Hunter rolls a Shark and then decides to reroll that die does the Shark player still get the coin? Again it comes down to commonsense or interpretation.
There are some neat mechanics in SHARK ISLAND which help the game flow along reasonably well. I like the idea that the island cards control the number of Fin Tokens that the Shark Token is mixed with each turn and the way that rolling the Binocular icon on the dice allows Hunters to search for the Shark from a distance. There is very little down time for any player even though the Hunters cannot do anything, other than discuss tactics, whilst the Shark player is preparing for the turn. There is a small possibility that the Shark could be controlled by the game so that all players are Hunters versus the system - as in an electronic PC or Console game. All this would require is for the players to be honest to themselves and the Shark and fin Tokens to be thoroughly mixed face down and added to the islands randomly.
The game basically is about dice rolling and using the results to find and scare off the Great White Shark before the Great White Shark can terrorise the islands and scare off all the tourists. You could almost describe SHARK ISLAND as a sort of JAWS (the movie) meets BLACKJACK (the card game) on the family dining table under the bright light of the Caribbean Sun (strip lighting/200w bulb). There are options for the players but these are either card, or mainly dice, driven which is why I believe it is aimed at families of games players more than families of gamers.
If I were to categorise SHARK ISLAND amidst other games likely to be in the same collection I would stand it between NEW YORK 1901 and TICKET to RIDE as it is about the same complexity as these and just as enjoyable. These are good games to take to boardgame weekends, to play when you have friends round for a casual games evening, to show new players how much fun board games can be or to fill in 60-90 minutes of spare time - or any other reason you can think of to have fun playing good games.
The rules for SHARK ISLAND read like rules for a core gamer's game but the components, pieces and actual game-play belie this - it is definitely very much a Family game masquerading as a gamer's game, though the suggested starter's age of 14+ is quite high for a regular family game. So what I am saying is purchase it if your intentions are to play it with new members of the famed boardgame fraternity or during a family get together such as a Bank Holiday or Christmas etc. SHARK ISLAND would benefit visually from having plastic pieces for the boats and Sharks (like the pieces in Waddington's games "Escape from Atlantis" and "Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs"); the gameplay wouldn't change but it would help to identify the game as the family game it is.
Of all the components the Dice Barrel is probably the least necessary and the most bothersome. Using it to shake and roll the dice is aggravating, turning quickly to very annoying as it is loud, very loud! It also probably adds a few unnecessary bucks to the production which could have been used to pretty it up with the visual pieces I suggested earlier. Do not let the fact that the Dice Barrel is irrelevant put you off as it doesn't affect the game or the play, in fact it is very useful to use to keep pennies in so you can save up to buy your next board game. There, that should make everyone happy.