#319 – Skull King

Box

Base price: $15.
2 – 6 players.
Play time: 30 – 45 minutes.
BGG Link

Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 4 

Full disclosure: A review copy of Skull King was provided by Grandpa Beck’s Games.

The year’s winding down, now, so I’m trying to hustle and get my last few games reviewed before I head back to {FAMILY HOME LOCATION REDACTED} for a brief respite before the year actually ends. We’ve got the family tradition of watching Die Hard on Christmas Day to look forward to, as well, which is nice. Anyways, before I do that, let’s talk about another new game coming down the pipe, a reprint of Skull King!

Skull King is a trick-taking game similar to the classics, but this time with a twist — you’ll only score if you can correctly guess how many tricks you’ll take before playing any cards! It’ll take a bold player, a strategic player, and a guileful player to pull that one off, especially as the hands get larger; I suppose you can only hope that all three of those players are you. Will you be able to gain a fortune of pirate’s treasure? Or will you lose everything to the dreaded Skull King?

Contents

Setup

So, shuffle the cards:

Cards

Also set out the bid cards:

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They’re double-sided; the odd side is higher than the even side (0/1, 2/3, etc). Have one player be the scorekeeper:

Scorepad

You’re all ready to start! Deal each player one card.

Setup

Gameplay

Gameplay 1

At its core, Skull King bears a lot of similarities to Pikoko. But Skull King is primarily a trick-taking game. If you’re not familiar with trick-taking games, I explain it in my review of The Fox and the Forest, so I’m going to just point to that and assume you’re familiar with the concept.

There are some differences between Skull King and your standard trick-taking game:

The Pirates

  • The trump suit is its own suit. The Jolly Roger is one of four suits (along with green, yellow, and purple cards) and the Jolly Roger suit is always trump. It does not change. You must still follow suit in order to play it.
  • Pirate Cards. Pirate Cards will almost always* win and can be played at any time (you do not need to follow suit). If Pirate Card is played, the next player to play a green / yellow / purple / Jolly Roger card establishes that as the led suit. If only Pirate Cards are played, the player who played the first Escape Card wins the trick.
  • Escape Cards. Escape Cards will always* lose and can be played at any time (you do not need to follow suit). If an Escape Card is played, the next player to play a green / yellow / purple / Jolly Roger card establishes that as the led suit. If only Escape Cards are played, the player who played the first Escape Card wins the trick.
  • The Tigress. The Tigress can be played at any time, like the other cards, but is an Escape or a Pirate; your choice. That’s always fun.
  • The Skull King. The Skull King can be played at any time and will always win the trick. Nothing in the base game can beat the Skull King, so be careful! He will always win.
  • Bonus Cards. Some cards give you bonus points for capturing them. I’ll talk about points later, but here’s the breakdown.
    • Green / Yellow / Purple 14: + 10 points
    • Jolly Roger 14: +20 points
    • Pirates: +30 points if captured by the Skull King.

Gameplay 2

So those are the major differences to the trick-taking component. Now, what makes it like Pikoko (for those of you who have played it) is that you’re not just trick-taking; you’re betting on how many tricks you can take in a round. Once every player has been dealt their card(s), look at your hand and determine how many tricks you can take. All players must then do a rock-paper-scissors sort of motion and say “Yo-Ho-Ho!” simultaneously (hey, it’s thematic) and reveal a number of fingers indicating how many tricks they plan to take this round (in later rounds you may need to use both hands; you can just add the second hand when you reveal). Take the bet card equal to that number, and the player to the left of the dealer begins the first trick. All subsequent tricks are started by the player who won the previous trick.

Pirate + Escape Cards

At the end of the round, score!

  • If you bid 0: You thought you could lose every trick. Noble. If you’re correct, score 10 points * the starting hand size. This means in a 1-card round you score 10, but if you start with more cards in hand you’ll score more points. If you take any tricks, however, you lose that many points instead! Bummer; try to avoid that.
  • If you bid non-0: If you’re correct, score 20 points per trick you took. If you’re incorrect, score -10 points per trick you were off by. This means if you bet 3 and took 4 or 2, you would score -10 for the round.

Note that this means you only gain points if your bid is correct. This also means that if you scored bonus points, then you only get to count them if you made a correct bid. Otherwise they’re just worthless.

Gameplay 3

For each subsequent round, increase the starting hand size by 1. This means round 4 will be played with 4-card hands, and the final round (10) will be played with 10-card hands. Exciting! The player to the left of the previous dealer is the new dealer, and the player to their left will start the next round’s first trick.

At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

It gets a bit silly at low player counts — at two, a bet of 0 is essentially betting you have more Escape Cards than your opponent does, and if you both bet 5 in the final round then the player who has more points just wins the game, basically no matter what (barring some very skillful bonus card plays). At higher player counts, it’s exceedingly chaotic; who will be the spoiler? Is it possible to successfully make sure that all players hit their bids? Do you even want to? It’s hard to say. Also, more cards are in play so you have a better sense of what’s possible, whereas at lower player counts even in the final round you still have 46 cards out of play (twice as many as the number in play) so it’s hard to make good calls.

I prefer 4+.

Strategy

  • Fortune favors the bold. Now I say this with a caveat; that’s also a great tagline for a tombstone, so be somewhat practical about your betting. If you’re only confident you can take 1 trick in round 10, you’re gonna have to do better than that (unless you’re already winning by a substantial margin); other players who make their bids will end up gaining far more points than you (and you run the risk of being outstripped). It may not pay off, but sometimes you have to take the risk if you think you can win. That said, again, betting 0 tricks in a two-player game isn’t just bold; it’s also kind of a bad idea unless all the cards in your hand are Escape cards; you can get forced into winning a trick by following suit if you’re not careful, and your opponents know that.
  • Try and figure out the table’s preferences. Do they tend to save their best cards for the end? Can you make predictions about what cards they might be holding onto? These are all questions you should try to answer if you ultimately want to win.
  • Also, watch the table. What cards have already been played? When I played a yellow card, who played off-suit (meaning they have no yellow cards)? If you know that data decently well, you might be able to force other players to lose tricks by playing cards of a color they have to follow suit for. Just be careful! You might provoke a Pirate or the dread Skull King.
  • Speaking of the Skull King, be careful with your Pirates. There’s a very strong incentive to play a Pirate when you are starting a trick, but that’s just bait for the Skull King. Let someone else draw him out while you wait, and then play your Pirate later.
  • Sometimes the round is somewhat cooperative. There are times when the bids sum to the round number, so everyone wants to take the correct number of tricks. The only thing to watch there is that someone has the highest score, currently, and they probably benefit from scoring even more points. That’s never a great situation, but someone’s gotta take them down, so be careful for spoilers or people who will just sow chaos.
  • If you really want to be a monster, try to help the player who bid 0 win a trick. This means that they lose between 10 and 100 points depending on what round it is. It’s messed up, but, it can be a great way to knock someone out of contention with only one trick.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The art is really nice! It’s very pirate-y and also super colorful and fun. It really looks nice on the table.
  • I think it’s the good kind of stressful? There’s so many variables you can try and predict but the game is probably my favorite trick-taking game I’ve played, thus far? It’s wild. The betting in advance and the aggressive scoring mechanics encourage big bets and huge losses, both of which can make a quick card game more exciting for players.
  • Very portable. I think this lives in my Quiver, now. It’s up there with Coloretto on small, great card games.
  • Comes with its own little expansion! I might cover it later, or not; I haven’t had much time to play with it yet. It adds some mermaids which can defeat the Skull King and some other really interesting cards; I’m pretty enthused about it, so I’d definitely call it a value add.
  • So many interesting moving parts. The scoring and the card interactions make everything so fascinating. The bonus cards incentivize certain plays and the existence of the Skull King can intimidate other players and Pirate ordering matters but can also draw out the Skull King and it’s all very interesting. There’s a lot of good stuff here; I wish I had found this game sooner.

Mehs

  • You might want to sleeve these cards. You have to shuffle the deck minimum 10 times per game; it’s going to start taking some damage long-term. I haven’t decided how much I care (I think it might be about the same in terms of cost / time to just buy a new one of this one craps out).

Cons

  • The two-player game isn’t terribly interesting. I’d thought they’d have a variant or something, but it’s really just “play normally”. Having a dummy player occasionally flip in a card would add some chaos that might make the game a bit more interesting (or some variant to add a bit more entropy than two players can provide).
  • The scoresheet is rough. Whenever you need a guide as to how to fill out your scoresheet, you’ve got a rough scoresheet. Thankfully it’s not bad after the first game but the first game is pretty tough. Subsequent games, the only annoying thing is having to flip the scoresheet a bunch on the sixth round to keep the scores updated.

Overall: 8.75 / 10

In Progress

but who won the trick???

Overall, Skull King is a very fun, interesting game! I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said it might be my favorite trick-taking game; I’m normally not a very competitive person but I get invested when I play this one; it’s rough. Not in a bad way, though! It’s just a very solid trick-taking game that’s familiar enough to entice fans of Hearts or Spades but has enough interesting mechanics that fans of more recent releases will also be into it. I think I’m going to try and bring it home and teach my family over the holidays, even though my family is notoriously resistant to playing any board games with me in what can only be called Exceedingly Ironic. Oh well. Back to Skull King, it’s a smart design with solid art, good gameplay, and a lot of tense strategy. I have to say that I’m a fan and I had trouble putting it down. If you’re looking for a mix of the new and the familiar and you’re a fan of trick-taking, I’d highly recommend getting in a few plays of Skull King! I’ve really enjoyed it.


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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