Jumanji - The greatest board game ever?

So it turns out that Netflix has Jumanji on it, which of course makes the service even better than it already is, but it also offers up the opportunity to reexperience a movie I really loved as kid.

This blog post turned out to be a bit longer than I intended, I think I got carried away, but I think it is worth sticking with it and reading through the whole thing. If you want to skip below to the bottom I think the last section mostly makes sense on its own.

My brother was watching Jumanji on Friday when he pointed out that no one in the film actually dies, even if you ignore that the game resets time back to the 60s, no one dies even up until the reset point. Now as a child I don't remember noticing this and I doubt my brother did either when he saw it at the time of release but as an adult I now have the amazing ability to be overly critical, a feature I lacked as a child. So let's look at Jumanji as an overly critical and analytical adult.

Just looking at Jumanji with a bitter angle is hardly in the spirit of being overly analytic, an issue I have with many a critic - they just like to talk about the bad aspects plus I really like the film... So let's take a look at Jumanji, or rather let's look at the board game Jumanji inside of Jumanji itself. 

So I posit that Jumanji is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, game ever created. It creates and presents a brilliant survival adventurous gaming experience in a perfectly safe manner, all without having to go to an actual dangerous jungle.

To get started let's talk a little bit about what a game is so that we are all on the same page. A board game, like almost every game, is trying to create an enjoyable experience for you as the player, to make you feel powerful or wise or brave or any number of different feelings and moments - these are the experience that a game tries to capture and recreate when you play it. Many board games, like almost every computer game, is thematic. Thematic games create a tailored experience around a theme, so the game experience might be to make you feel wise or powerful but it does so by making you a brave warrior, or wizened old man, or a survivor of the apocalypse. These themes are often cliché but they do help a lot at creating an experience.

Jumanji is clearly a thematic game, you play a terrified and helpless person trapped in a wild and dangerous jungle that grows out of your very world. Jumanji wants to turn your dull everyday world into an adrenaline filled jungle survival adventure. You want to feel challenged and scared, but you ultimately want to overcome the challenges and be the one to defeat the dangerous jungle!

Ok so now we know what Jumanji wants let's talk about how the game actually plays, it is a remarkably simple game, a standard path based dice game such as Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. The rules are:

  • Roll the two dice to see how far along the path you move
  • Rolling doubles gives you an additional turn (no idea if this has a limit)
  • At the end of your turn play moves to the next player
  • After each turn the game creates a special event that affects all players
  • First player to reach the centre and call out Jumanji wins

Now the first thing here is we don't know if the additional turn for rolling a double has a limit, like in monopoly, or can be done infinitely assuming you can keep rolling doubles so some errata here would be nice. The second thing (and the quite literal magic of the game) is in the special events the game creates at the end of each turn. A special event at the end of a turn is a very common pattern in games; Battlestar Galactica and Zombicide are two games that immediately spring to mind that have this pattern. Unlike BSG or Zombicide though which use cards to control the events Jumanji uses a large sphere in the board centre to show the special event and then changes the world to make the event come true. As the special events are what really makes the game, pretty much the rest of the blog is gonna be about them.

The games special events

So with the special events the obvious issue with them is it would make localising the game tricky, they rhyme and use cultural knowledge, so that is a lot of text that would have to be very carefully translated should the game ever hope to have a market outside of the anglosphere. The next issue is that the special events are really dangerous, or at least when I watched the show as a kid years ago they seem very dangerous. Even ignoring the fact that the game can control the world around it, it is the illusion of danger that is the real magic of Jumanji.

The events at first glance seem very dangerous, giant mosquitos, stampedes, monsoons, and psychopathic hunters aren't really high on my List Of Things To Get Killed By but as the game progresses in the film it is made clear that the danger is never real, even if the events themselves are. The game perfectly curates and controls the events to make sure that no one is in any real danger even with a crazy hunter or giant lion running around. Let's take a look at the dangers and events in the film as the game progresses:

So the first roll we get bats, now bats can be dangerous but aren't really a huge threat and all these bats do is chase Sarah away from the game and then do NOTHING ELSE FOR THE NEXT 26 YEARS! Real dangerous there Jumanji!

Second roll we have Alan getting sucked into the game, ok so at first glance this looks pretty bloody dangerous, he's a kid in a dangerous jungle. Maybe I'm wrong.

Third roll we have gigantic mosquitoes, now these put up a bit of a fight but soon leave to cause havoc elsewhere.

Forth roll is monkeys, which promptly leave the players alone to go annoy the general public, yep super scary!

Fifth roll gets Alan out of the jungle, presumably killed by all the horrific things that lurk within, oh no he is physically fine and well fed despite 26 years in a very hostile environment, ok... sure... We also get a large and dangerous lion who is soon locked inside a bedroom behind a door that he can easily bash down as we see him smash part way through it. But that is clearly too much effort, just give up lion and go to sleep.

By now I think you can start to see a pattern emerging, the game creates an illusion of danger with the events it creates but always manages to not quite hurt anyone. Let's keep going though and we'll see if this hold.

So Alan and the kids go outside to find the first player Sarah and we see our first case of actual damage, Mrs Thomas the realtor has been bitten by the mosquito and is in some sort of coma. 15 other people are also affected. Ok so maybe my theory is wrong but when we look closer the realtor seems ok other than the coma and far more importantly none of the players got hurt meaning they can keep playing.

Next roll we get killer bamboo with poison barbs that we don't get to see fire and a giant child eating pod, that shows itself in the room that has a cavalry sword right nearby to chop up the plant, nice spawn protection there Jumanji!

Ok next Alan rolls and out pops Van Pelt. I love Van Pelt because he is such a silly character, he is incredibly over the top with his outfit, his guns and his insults but he doesn't seem to be much of a hunter. His first shot is from a short distance and he misses, we'll forgive him though after all he did just get summoned into existence.

Second shot misses

Third shot misses

Forth shot misses

Fifth shot misses

Sixth shot misses

Seventh shot misses

He then proceeds to shoot at Carls car but doesn't hit him, Van Pelt then takes up aim and has the perfect shot at Alan only to be out of ammo, bugger.

Next roll gets us a Stampede that deals no damage to anyone but does mess up the house quite a bit.

We then have another instance of non-roll danger, Van Pelt has a near perfect shot of Alan when Carl is arresting him but he misses, again!

Next roll has Peter cheating and turned into a monkey thing, which while embarrassing doesn't appear to have caused any real harm.

We then see the monkeys start tearing apart an electronics store, but the owner runs out completely unharmed by the pesky little things.

Out of no where we have a stampeding elephant crush a car with Peter inside it, luckily he is perfectly unhurt.

Now inside a supermarket Van Pelt is firing madly at Sarah, three times he misses!

Van Pelt then manages the amazing, he shoots a tiny chain that was holding a bunch of tires in place, this traps three of the players, so the guy can shoot! He even tells Sarah, Peter, and Judy that he has been missing them simply because it was Alan he needs to kill. So I wonder why he's been missing him so much...

We then get a little more info on the mosquitoes, 98 people have been hospitalised some with violent seizures... ok this doesn't sound great but again no fatalities, it is almost like something is stopping anyone from dying.

Then Carl's car gets crushed by a vine, a vine that fails to grab him letting him escape unharmed.

Back to the rolls we get a monsoon with some crocodiles tossed in for good measure. Alan actually gets taken underwater by one and it starts its death roll, which it then stops and surfaces to let Alan get his breath back before starting this again. Silly crocodile!

After the water is flooded away Alan rolls quicksand which looks like it might kill him by smooshing his head under the floor boards...

Luckily Judy manages to freeze the quicksand with her next roll, which while trapping Alan and Sarah does stop them dying.

Oh no our next roll gets giant killer spiders, a mainstay of fantasy adventure! Killer giant spiders that don't take a bit out of Sarah's leg when they get the chance but instead all charge at Peter swinging an axe at them. The spiders ignore the helpless people stuck in wood to go after the only person with a weapon. Silly spiders!

Judy then gets hit by one of the poison barbs on the vines, Peter drops his axe to go to his sister freeing up the spiders to go for Alan and Sarah, things are looking bleak.

Luckily the next roll is an earthquake, freeing Sarah and Alan from the wood and making the spiders flee, geez that was awfully close.

Final roll

Ok so we are now at what will become the final roll of the game, Alan is so close he only needs a 3 to win!

Oh no!

Van Pelt shows up and is standing close enough that even he couldn't miss!

I actually really like this moment because Jonathan Hyde does a brilliant job of seeming both charming and menacing, and even has a dash of a father figure if he weren't about to shoot someone in the face...

So Van Pelt is standing there ready to shoot, first thing he does is get Alan to drop whatever it is in his hand, starts berating him before congratulating Alan on finally facing his fears while he lines up the perfect shot.

What was it that Alan dropped? Oh only the dice, which rolls enough to end the game, hooray everything is good and to make it better it was Van Pelt which helped to bring about the final roll!

Jumanji undoes everything it did, even rolling back time to the 60's, hooray happy ending!

Jumanji as a brilliant game

Ok so Jumanji is a movie about a game that is either impossible to exist or at the very likely years away from us being able to play it, so why do I think it is such a brilliant game?

Jumanji is a brilliant game because it truly captures the experience of being a survivalist adventurer in an unbelievably dangerous world, but it does this without putting people in danger. It is the ultimate thematic game, it creates the theme for real, there are psychopathic hunters, giant spiders and huge man eating vines, but you as the player are always safe.

The events the game chooses are carefully controlled and selected to make sure that they either prevent you getting hurt by an earlier event, such as the earthquake scaring away the spiders, or will not hurt you, such as Van Pelt missing his first seven shots at Alan or the stampede running past the players and not into them. You are never told this though, the game keeps you safe while making it seem dangerous. Playing Jumanji would be a brilliant adrenaline rush as you are constantly on the edge surrounded by danger yet perfectly safe, when it is doing its job properly you won't even realise it is doing anything at all.

Now you might be saying "woah Tim, people got hurt!" and yes they did, but no one died, the game kept everyone alive because it is a game, people play dangerous games all the time but no one wants to play a game that kills and Jumanji is no different. I would argue Jumanji has been shown to be safer than most contact sports, we saw 26 years of Jumanji and not a single person died because of the game.

I also am certain that Jumanji doesn't kill anyone even though it can reverse time simply because it is a game, as a player of the game you might be ok with the game being dangerous to you, even maybe causing a little bit of havoc outside of the game itself, but I don't think you as a player would be ok with a person dying. Even if Jumanji can undo the death at the end of the game, I cannot imagine how much damage that would do to the players, knowing they were temporarily responsible for people dying, let alone what it would do to you over repeated plays.

Jumanji also does something even more subtle than I think people realise, it ramped up the danger when it knew the game was ending, two rolls shy of the end it poisoned Judy knowing that either Sarah, Alan, or Peter would get to roll and either end the game or it would be able to create an event to get her back - we've already seen it undo moves such as quicksand.

The final tricky thing Jumanji does is optimise the danger away from the players, people did get hurt, damage was dealt, but not to the players, it kept them safe so that they could keep playing the game to eventually finish it. This explains how Alan survived so long in the jungle without help or training. Jumanji has to keep them safe so that they can finish it.

I think I'll end this with one final little note, if the game was actually dangerous why do people not destroy it? I think deep down inside people play it and realise it is safe, why else let someone else be put in its way if not to enjoy the thrill Jumanji has to offer?

Jumanji is a great game because the experience it offers is brilliantly presented, while we cannot play games like Jumanji yet we can try as game developers to make sure the experience of our games are as clearly presented. Jumanji might be impossible, but it makes a nice goal to reach for.