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Posted on Feb 5, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

This Summer, Fishing Season Will Open…on YOU. Upper Deck Games ‘Shark Island’ Board Game Review.

This Summer, Fishing Season Will Open…on YOU. Upper Deck Games ‘Shark Island’ Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Shark Island. Publisher: Upper Deck Games.  Designers: Richard Launius and Pete Shirey. Price $39.99


Passed inspection: Great party game for those with an appreciation of killer shark movies. Quality game components. Engaging game play. Easy to digest rules.

Failed basic: Players that are not fans of killer shark movies may not get some of the references and inside jokes embedded in the game. But just laugh along with the rest of us as we make seemingly random quotes and laugh hysterically.


In 1975, Steve Spielberg’s movie ‘Jaws’ had its theatrical release. I remember it well as a 10-year-old child on vacation to the New Jersey shore. One night all the adults went out to the movies…and for the rest of our vacation, they all refused to go in the water. An enduring classic, ‘Jaws’ made a powerful impression on American culture to the point where parts of the dialog has entered our lexicon of pop culture phrases. Much like it’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber falls of the Nakatomi Plaza building, it’s not the Fourth of July in my house until Chief Brody blows up a killer shark with a well-placed shot from surplus M1 Garand.


Now the terror of another killer shark comes to the tabletop in the form of Upper Deck games ‘Shark Island’. That’s right, it’s a killer Great White Shark lurking off the shore of this unnamed coastal resort island wreaking havoc and ruining local businesses. In Shark Island, one player takes on the role of the killer shark while the other players take the role of the shark hunters determined to protect their island, kill the shark and maybe, just maybe, get their picture in the National Geographic.

The game consists of components ranging from character cards, island terrain tiles, a ‘Shark Screen’, counters, the rules, dice, a dice barrel, a ‘gamemaster’ screen for the shark player, and several sets of cards that include skill cards, calendar cards and combat cards. There’s no formal ‘game board’, but the island terrains mostly fill that role.

The players characters have varying skills and equipment at their disposal. These range from the island Sheriff’s patrol boat through the oceanographer, a dolphin trainer, the grizzled shark hunter, another hunter with a bigger boat and a helicopter pilot. The final character is of course the shark itself.

The character cards do a nice job of presenting the attributes and skills of the characters. The imagery used to convey the character and their craft add depth to the characters and will appeal to a wide cross-section of tabletop gamers.

The terrain tiles depict random scenes of coastal island life. Frolicking beach goers, teenagers in small sailboats, a lone swimmer, a group of water skiers…all these and more populate the island’s landscape. Each card contains data on the possible terror value to the shark, the maximum number of searches that can done each turn by the players.

The dice barrel is really not needed for the play of the game, but from an aesthetic standpoint of setting the mood for the game this might be one of most brilliant decisions in the design. It’s an evocative homage to the tropes common to the shark movie genre and helps pull players that recognize it deeper into the game.

The game has a large number of counters. Most often used will be the ‘fin tokens’. These are emblazoned with the fin of a possible shark on their front, while the backside indicates if it’s the real shark, or a distraction such as a school of fish or dolphins. Other counters represent re-roll opportunities or the abstract capital the shark player may expend to enhance their chances of a successful attack that increases the islanders fear.

The game has multiple decks of cards. Character skill cards impact abilities that aid the hunters in their quest or aid the shark in its reign of terror. Calendar cards influence the amount of seasonal activities in the water as well as provide random events that influence the events game turn. The combat cards are colorful and are reminiscent of a deck of Uno cards.

Game play is straight forward. The player controlling the shark drives the turn. It’s much like having a director (or a dungeon master) who propels the narrative and sets the scene. Once that is accomplished, the shark player then turns the stage over to the hunters to act their parts in searching for and possibly fighting the demon fish.

The shark player must put thought into their decisions here. Where the shark is placed will control the amount of terror that the shark can do with a successful attack. Obviously the ‘high value targets’ give the best return on investment. However, the shark hunters know it’s a high value target and will likely protect it. It’s a lot like the battle of wits from the movie ‘The Princess Bride’ (‘Clearly the shark would go for the best return, it should go there. But you know, that we know, that you know it’s valuable, so clearly it should not go there…”) Yes, he’s a smart fish, and he’ll make the hunters work to find him. Once the shark player makes his choice and sets out all the fin markers, it’s time to begin the search.

Next up, the hunters take their turns preparing for the search. Each hunter will spend a phase that involves rolling the action dice, selecting actions and deciding to either set sail in search of the shark or stay in port to prepare for the next turn. Those who set sail place their vessel token in an island tile area they wish to search.

In the search phase, players look for the shark by rolling action dice equal to their modified skill and hoping for a ‘confirmed sighting’ result. Each such result allows the player to pick one of the fin makers and flip over revealing either a decoy or finding the shark. If the shark is located during the search, play proceeds directly to the combat phase.

Mad Shark, Three-Five-Zero! Once the hunters have found the shark, play shifts into the fight between the hunters and the shark. The game depicts this battle through what is basically a modified version of blackjack. All players are dealt combat cards. The combat cards have number values. Cards are dealt until all players have passed on being dealt cards (i.e., they ‘stand’).  Players sum the value of their cards. The player(s) that come closest to 23 without going over AND exceed the value of the shark’s points, win. Befitting their role as game master and dealer, the shark player wins all ties, because the house always wins – and the ocean is totally the shark’s house.

There are some special cards that influence the card values and players have some ability to discard unwanted cards, which keeps each combat round tense (like a game of blackjack). The outcome of combat is either the hunters defeat the shark, inflicting a number of wounds on the beast, or the shark wins. If the hunters win and the total hits on the shark reach the critical number of hits required, the shark dies and the hunters win. One nice touch is that the robustness of the shark’s damage capacity scales up as the number of players in the game increase. Victory for the hunters is a group effort that requires a degree of teamwork. There’s little room for the rogue hunter to swim alone and hope to beat the shark.

Otherwise the hunters have lost, their craft take damage and they retreat from the area, leaving the shark free to terrorize the islanders. One nice touch is that players not directly in combat still participate in the battle. If they win, they don’t hurt the shark, but they gain resources for use in future turns.

The terror phase allows the shark player to draw terror tokens. These are placed into tracks. At the start of the game the shark player had selected a victory condition for terror (get the mayor fired, close down the resorts, gain national media attention). The victory conditions could have been pulled from any of half a dozen movies that involve some creature threatening the community. When the shark player has accumulated enough of the appropriate types of terror markers, they win!

Shark Island does a nice job of capturing the tension of sharkin’ for a living. The artwork captures the look and feel of the 1970’s and early ‘80’s at the beach. The worn and tattered look of the artwork on the card backers and the rules suggest the effects of the moist salty sea air and the ever-present sand scouring all it touches. The color saturation of the rule book reminds one of a comic book or local island news magazine. The rules are clearly laid out and easy to follow making this a great summer party game whether you are down at the shore or just wishing you were.

If there’s a downside to the game, it can be found in the constant cycle of ready – search – fight. The nature of the game turn can start to feel repetitious and maybe a little tedious. This sounds like weak tea, as it’s like saying ‘I hate doing the same thing every game turn’. But when you’re hunting sharks as the saying goes, ‘if you lose one, you rig another one’. Yes, it can occasionally feel like you’re spending your time pouring chum into the water in the hot sun with little to show for it, but get a few lucky chit draws along with a good hand of skill cards and your fortunes will improve.

That’s not saying that the game is dull. I didn’t find it that way at all. The constantly changing nature of the landscape, the special events of the calendar cards and the guile of the shark players fin deployments combine to help that no two turns will play out the same. Also, it’s plain to see that Shark Island has great potential for expansions in the form of new characters, new island tile locations and ability cards.

In some ways Shark Island is the distant cousin of a game that models anti-submarine warfare. The hunters are a version of the surface ASW patrol. They search areas for the enemy boat and use a combination of search and attacks to protect their ships and ports from U-boat attack. The shark of course is like the skilled U-boat captain who must penetrate the escort screen and strike the convoy. It’s a good analog as the hunters must work together like an ASW group to patrol their area of operations and coordinate their actions to thwart the sharks attempts to terrorize the island.

A lot of gamers are interested in a game’s solitaire suitability. For you, all I have to say is that ‘Shark Island’ is not a hook you should bite on. The game is barely suitable for solitaire play. Don’t get me wrong, you can hot seat and play both the shark and the hunters, but it’s a marginal experience. There are no solitaire rules and no ‘bots.

While you can mitigate the search mechanics by randomizing the deployment of the false fins and the real shark, you cannot get around the fact that the combat system relies on each player being limited in the information they know about the other players ‘hole’ cards.  It can be done, but it’s more of an academic exercise that loses the tension of multi-player game.

Players of Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Big Trouble in Little China or Pandemic should feel right at home playing Shark Island. But for the rest of you standing on the beach debating whether you should jump into the waters of Shark Island, I can only ask the following;

Do you like shark movies? Then go buy this game!

Do you enjoy the challenge of the hunt? Go buy this game!

Can you quote most of the dialog from Jaws? What do I need to do, run an ad in Field and Stream? Go out and buy yourself a copy of Shark Island!

Here’s hoping that Richard and Pete have a sequel or two in development that will make the return to Shark Island a bloody good time for next summer!


Armchair General Score: %93 – A Tiger Shark of a Game!

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  1


Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Manager in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.