Today I want to talk to you about an old board game called Jumanji. It’s long out of print, and quite difficult to find these days, but it’s a game that delivers a unique experience. The game fell out of favour in some quarters because of its supernatural qualities, but I’ve never let the destruction of a family home get in the way of a good board game experience.
On the Jumanji board itself it says “A GAME FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO FIND A WAY TO LEAVE THEIR WORLD BEHIND”. And this is what all games are, really. They’re an escape, a brilliant trip to another place. We’re all very lucky to have them.
Jumanji is a game for 1-4 players. It is, at heart, a roll and move game. Each player is represented by a high-quality wood playing piece carved in the shape of a monkey. The playing time of the game is hugely variable, so be aware of that before you start a game with your family. Interestingly, once players have begun the game there is no alternative but to play it through to a finish. No declaring a winner and wrapping up early for this one.
On a turn, a player rolls two dice and watches his or her playing piece as it moves along one of the board’s trails. It seems as if there might be some magnetic mechanism moving the playing piece, but Jumanji instead leans on the influence of magical forces. It’s a really nice addition to the game, and leads to a real sense of occasion at the table.
Once your playing piece has moved, the huge black glass piece in the middle of the board forms spiritual lettering to explain what event you have introduced into your home, and by extension, your universe. As an example, one message reads: “This will not be an easy mission, monkeys slow the expedition.” This is followed by the appearance of wild monkeys in some room of your house. You can expect these monkeys to throw objects, scream, and pretty much wreck everything in sight.
We talk often on these pages about games that manage to come “off the table”, elevating themselves to more than just the manipulation of components on a board. Jumanji runs with this notion to an extreme, filling your house and streets with giant biting insects, wild animals and the occasional deadly torrent of water.
The game continues in this way, with you trying to survive the onslaught of supernatural and magical forces, until one player reaches the middle of the board and manages to shout the word “JUMANJI!” Neatly, the game then “puts itself away” to some extent, pulling all its otherworldy components back inside by way of a whirlwind.
Now, Jumanji is a wild and incomparable experience, but it’s not a game I can easily recommend. First of all – the game is very messy. It has a very short set-up time, sure. And I just told you how easily it all gets put away. But during play it can be extremely untidy. To put it simply, if you’re not the type of person who can abide an elephant running through the wall of your living room, I wouldn’t recommend you even place this game on your table. It’s also a very noisy game. Be sure to let your neighbours know that you’re planning a game, so that they can make all their necessary arrangements – such as going on holiday for a few months until all the houses in the street are repaired.
In fact – I’d maybe even consider consulting the local police before you settle down to a game of Jumanji, if only to make sure that they are capable of bringing down a giant man-eating lion should it make a public nuisance of itself.
Okay, so much for the negatives. What are the positives?
My experience with Jumanji was made special by the appearance of a wild, funny man who had been trapped inside the game for decades. This man (and I’m unsure if he comes with every copy of the game, or if he was just a lucky encounter in mine) had the most expressive and kind face, and a beautiful twinkle in his eye. His appearance happened just as the game was starting to feel rather difficult and scary, and his power was to regularly lighten the mood of the whole affair by cracking jokes and filling the world with his crackling energy. He was brilliant – a real one-of-a-kind.
I speak about the man in the past tense because that game session is over, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see him (or anyone like him) ever again. I’ll keep playing the game in the hope that I someday will.
Jumanji, the board game, is much like life itself. It starts quietly and finishes in much the same way. But between these two stages it is loud and messy and dark and wild and often frightening. The game just wouldn’t be bearable at all if it didn’t have people like that strange wild man, that force of joy and light, bursting forth every so often to provide us with the life-saving distraction of laughter.