Review: Zathura
Publisher: Pressman
Year: 2005
Tagline: Adventure is Waiting

Zathura cover showing old 50's advertising type of art

how we met

This is another game that Bill brought home from a road trip somewhere. I certainly would have picked it up myself if I had found it at thrift. The cover is amazing, which is often all I need to pull the trigger. But I don’t think I had really heard of Zathura, for whatever reason. And I do mean, neither the movie nor the game.

The game itself becomes this intriguing 3-dimensional board with a puzzle that you need to protect, a weird orange die, a ROBOT and a CONSOLE that both serves as a die roll and spits out an order. I will follow that order, Zathura.

how it plays

The object of Zathura is to be the first spaceship to reach Zathura before your HOUSE is blown to bits by Zorgons. To begin play, set up the board, place DEFENSE TOKENS face down on Z spaces, place the ROBOT in the robot space, place the TSOURIS planet in its space, shuffle all cards and place them within the CONSOLE as directed.

An overview of the game board

I think you need to know how cool it looks immediately

Zathura is a spin and move game with parts of the board going 3-dimensional and resembling a roller coaster with a CONSOLE directing your activity. Gameplay is simple, but there are some nice touches to the game parts so let’s take our time here.

Your HOUSE is an 8-piece puzzle. Put the house together before play begins, because the entire object of the game is to land safely on the planet Zathura before your house is gone. Many cards and events that happen in Zathura may cause a piece of your house to be blown away, so do not take the house for granted. When the last piece is gone, you lose.

The house is a small 8 piece puzzle

Pre-game with a handsome little puzzle

The most novel part of the game is the CONSOLE, which plays a huge role in each turn. First of all, you spin the dial on the CONSOLE to determine how many spaces your ship is allowed to move. Second, you turn the key on the console and hit the GO button to receive your orders.

A close up of the purple console with pink details

The key is on the right, the GO button releases your orders and the little dial acts as the die

Orders consist of chance cards and can be a number of things like a Zorgon attack, a navigational attempt or a ROBOT attack.

    1. When getting orders to ATTEMPT TO NAVIGATE then you must throw the orange asteroid die. If it lands on a SAFE side then great, you are done. If not then you must remove a piece of the house. Certain options are available based on the color space you are on when you draw the ATTEMPT TO NAVIGATE card so refer to the rules carefully

An orange die with random shaped sides and a sticker showing SAFE on top

The captivating ATTEMPT TO NAVIGATE die

    2. When being informed of a ZORGON attack you and your fellow spaceships have the option to play a Fire or Astronaut DEFENSE TOKEN in order to defend yourself. If you or your fellow players do not have and/or play one of these DEFENSE TOKENs then a piece of the house is removed.

Defense Tokens which are small round cardboard chips that show Z on one side and various things on the other like Fire, Astronaut and Reprogram

These are those DEFENSE TOKENs we were talking about

    3. When the ROBOT is engaged then it will look for lifeforms to destroy, and if you pulled that card then you are that lucky lifeform. If you or another player uses a reprogram DEFENSE TOKEN then the ROBOT moves back to where it came from. If not then you must move back 5 spaces and the ROBOT stays on your old space. (Note: the ROBOT is not allowed in the last few spaces of the board leading up to Zathura)

As spaceships move around the board they encounter a few potential game changers:

    1. Z spaces have random DEFENSE TOKENS placed at the start of play. If you land on one of these spaces, that DEFENSE TOKEN is yours and can be used in future for yourself or another spaceship.
    2. TSOURIS-3 is the small red planet on the board. If you land on this space by exact count then you are pulled into the planet’s gravitational pull and must sit in the planet until any other player spins an even number. Then you may release your ship on your next turn by spinning the dial and then slamming on the TSOURIS-3 pedal to shoot your spaceship into space and move forward.

A small red planet with a hole in the middle and a pawn inside waiting to be freed

This image shows a small spaceship pawn trapped in TSOURIS-3

    3. SHOOTING STAR spaces let you move your spaceship all the way to the space just in front of the leader. Or, if the leader is in the final space, you can move your spaceship to that same space. These appear mostly near the end of the board and honestly don’t seem to matter that much.

Once a player’s ship lands on the last space of the board, facing the black hole/orb thing, instead of rolling they spin the black orb thing in hopes that the orange part faces them. If it does not, they take a card and continue play and try again next turn. If it does, they escape and win Zathura!

A ship pawn facing a black orb with orange marking the safe passage

This is what the end looks like

how it went

Zathura the game is based on the 2005 movie Zathura: A Space Adventure, so of course Bill and I watched the movie as part of this review. The plot of the movie is basically Jumanji, where some kids play a board game that ends up being all-too-real. At times the boys are unable to fend off their enemies and whole sections of their house get destroyed!

The movie was a little mind boggling. There was one scene where the astronaut character tells the Lisa character to stay with them, and he stares at her far too long – and has a stretch of light going just over his eyes like a daytime soap or something. We honestly could not tell if he hypnotized her or if she just had the hots for him. We rewound to rewatch and were both convinced he hypnotized her. Then she quickly talked about how lovely his hair is or something, so I guess she just had a crush on him. Then later *SPOILER ALERT* we learn that the astronaut is her brother, just older and from another time or dimension. This is never addressed, and it is one of many unexplained parts of the movie.

FUN FACT: if you enjoy bad movies (or as I like to say, movies that are terribly good) and do not already follow Red Letter Media check out their Best of the Worst show on YouTube. You just might love it.

Anyway the game board of the movie appears older and more metal but otherwise matches the board game exactly. It even rings a little bell when providing orders out of the console. I thought the puzzle was a clever way to recreate the house falling apart through misadventure. And the players are the same: the astronaut, the ROBOT, the ZORGONS.

Close up of the little grey robot

Did someone say robot?

I played the game a couple of times with a couple of different groups, but the gameplay was pretty similar both times. It was okay. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it.

The CONSOLE has a lot of issues in a lot of copies, mine included. Mine spits out the cards pretty well, but the spinner does not spin on its own. In one of our games we used dice instead, and in another we just closed our eyes and spun the spinner randomly.

It does not take too long to get around the board, which makes Zathura more tolerable than many other boring kid games. Gameplay is not too easy and not too difficult. I think my biggest complaint is a lack of diverse cards. Cards, or your orders, are the central focal point in both the movie and the game. But for the most part, you either need to ATTEMPT TO NAVIGATE, get chased by the ROBOT, get attacked by ZORGONS, move your ship, move another ship or lose a turn. Very little diversity. It would be cool if the cards were modular little narratives and created a story as you went, so that each game becomes a different story. Kids would not be required to read that part of the card, but anyone interested in storytelling or diversity in gameplay would have that option.

Example order cards showing things like Attempt to Navigate around some moons

A sampling of orders

play or pass

Pass. Zathura was just meh. If you have kiddos that are into space or cool boards then this might be worth picking up; it doesn’t go for a lot of money. I handed my copy off to a cabin where it will hopefully create some really fun memories. But if you are like me and just have an interest in weird, vintage board games, the happiest you will be is looking at the cover and perhaps the initial setup. The play itself borders on tedium – but ends pretty quickly. Which could be a lot worse (I’m looking at you, Detour! And your little gas pump too!).

If you do find a copy you would like to buy, it is best to test out the CONSOLE before purchase. You can work around the CONSOLE entirely if you want – it just acts as a die and a deck of cards you draw from – but it’s a big part of the charm.