Prospero Hall's take on the classic Disney Parks ride is featherweight fun, but may not please the thrillseekers.
In order to enjoy Jungle Cruise, the new Ravensburger/Prospero Hall jam, you have to be in a particular mindset. And, it’s a mindset that many hardcore “gamers” might not be comfortable with. You’ve got to look at this game almost like it’s 1972 and you are playing one of those old timey family game designs. It’s very much in the vein of how older Disneyland or Walt Disney World-branded games played, with some concessions to modernity. I am pretty sure, given how smart Prospero Hall’s designers are, that this evocation of atavism is 100 percent intentional.
And I adore this aspect of Jungle Cruise. But I also didn’t expect it and I fumbled into the first session not expecting it to hit this very specific kind of nostalgia. In fact, during my first game, I found myself actively disliking it the design because mentally I was holding it against Jaws, Horrified, Villainous, and other Prospero Hall games I love. At first, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t something on par with Villainous, especially as an avowed lover of vintage Disneyana I am an avowed anti-capitalist, anti-corporate socialist to my blood and I understand and largely agree with all of the various complaints lobbied against The Mouse, but I love Disney and of course I’m all in on games based on their theme park rides. Die mad at it.
And “die mad at it” is my message to the hardcore “gamers” that come into Jungle Cruise and fault it for not reaching for the mechanical acrobatics of more complex designs or for acceding to the mechanics-first demands of “serious” gaming. This is fun-first play, a roll-and-move game about bad jokes and riverboats losing passengers to hippo attacks. It’s about groaning when you roll like crap or cheerfully gloating as you steam ahead on the power of a few good turns. It ain’t Terraforming Mars. Again, it’s more like a brightly colored Disney game from ages past than one of today’s hot board games. It’s closer to the kinds of games where the boxes show kids (rather than adult men) playing and having fun.
The concept, hewing closely to the Adventureland spirit and tone of the ride is that the Jungle Cruise Navigation Company is being passed on to one of four families. The players (Skippers), have to ferry members of these four families to the company HQ, charting a course through the improbably globe-hopping pathway that the ride takes. Each skipper’s boat is represented by a placard with slots to place the family member tokens, and just like in the ride, where you sit can determine if you get wet or not.
Each turn a die is rolled and you can move along the path that many spaces. Then, you have to draw four Navigation cards that show the events that happen or wildlife hazards that attack the boat, along with the area of the boat they hit and how hard expressed as 1-3 hazard dice. You have to choose as many cards as you moved to resolve, and this is how folks get knocked off the boat unless you pop your flare to save them. Throughout the game, you will stop at outposts to either pick up disembarked passengers bobbing along the river or one of three cargo types that score in sets at the end while also taking up space on your boat.
Now, the catch is that only one family has been selected to take over the company and this is represented by symbols on each passenger tile. Three of these ID tiles can be viewed at different Clue spots along the river, allowing players a little information as to which passengers can be safely dunked and which should be protected by changing where they sit on the boat, with the middle section being by far the safest. Reaching the three Clue spots requires going the long way around, so there’s a choice to be made to speed ahead and try to get the biggest tip bonus for finishing ahead of your peers or in getting more information.
There’s definitely delight to be had in this game. It’s always a treat to watch someone’s boat get hammered, and it’s delightful when your kids give the wonderfully diverse passengers ad hoc names and identities. Hate-dunking became an actual in-game term for us, and there are always aspersions cast at skippers that choose to lose passengers over cargo. The game is supremely shallow, however, and there really isn’t much on offer for those looking for “meaningful decisions”, which to my mind a life matter that should never occur around a gaming table anyway.
Taking off the mouse ears and putting on the critic’s cap, there are a couple of very valid complaints about this game and I admit that my review here is a heavily qualified fan-ish defense of a game that many “gamers” are likely to dislike. The biggest problem is that the game is just too damn long and it lacks a satisfying development curve. For 20-25 minutes, this is fun stuff and you can just bask in the beautiful production and get lost in the Disney atmosphere of it – Prospero Hall totally nailed the feeling of the ride. But the game tends to run twice that, largely due to variable turn lengths rather than challenging situations or intricate resolutions. At around 30 minutes, the process of drawing and selecting cards starts to grind and the jokes on the cards wear thin, just like they do after a few minutes on the ride when you have a not-so-great cast member for a skipper. The early game, when boats are full and there is no foreknowledge of the passengers’ relative value, is flat out boring and seems to crawl along at least until the first clue spot is reached.
There’s also practically no interaction other than observing which passengers a player who has seen a clue or two is jettisoning, and I stand by my long-held assertion that observation is not a surrogate for interaction. So the turns tend to trundle by until the game outstays its welcome, with too much of the time spent watching rather than engaging. We have the next player deal and read out the cards to the player moving just give them something to do off-turn.
Thing is, I think the design could have supported more game, as it were. I found myself wishing that there were more events than navigation hazards, and that there was more to the extremely superficial pick-up-and-deliver mechanism. I like roll and move, but I could almost see this game being more engaging with an simple auction process to determine boat movement, with skippers bidding against how much danger they want to risk.
But there again, a Disneyland game from 1972 wouldn’t have had that. It would probably have had a spinner or a similar roll-and-move mechanism. So I find that although I’m critical of its pokey pace, sometimes inert arc, and some other distinctly old-timey elements and simplifications, I also kind of like it specifically because it references those old fashioned family games and not, say, the last five years of successful Kickstarter designs. It’s almost rebellious, suggesting that the fun is in the human elements of the game – the setting, the shared play between friends and family, the thoughtful production, and the laughs that can be had rather than in the clockwork mechanisms underneath the ride itself.