Full disclosure: A preview copy of Skulls of Sedlec was provided by Button Shy. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Ah, one of my favorite companies to do Kickstarter previews for is coming back around. Button Shy is delightful. Easy to work with, the games are simple to play and they play quickly, and they’re always just … fun. It’s nice to see a company that really just … gets their schtick as well as Button Shy does. We talked about consistent publishers on Twitter a while back, and I’d pretty solidly stand by Button Shy being on that list. So, I mean, when they say they’ve got another game to check out, I’m excited to do that. Let’s see what’s going on with their latest, Skulls of Sedlec!
Well, it’s not a great time right now, but it’s certainly the 16th century and you’re an assistant to the Bone Collector in the Sedlec Ossuary. Weirdly, that was his name before he got into gravedigging. It’s sort of like how people with the last name Judge are more likely to get into the legal profession. You’re at least thirty percent sure that’s correct, but also, you don’t know how to read, or what the legal profession is. You might know how to read, actually. Who can say. This is getting away from me. Help The Bone Collector by creating fanciful arrangements of skulls in what you’re calling “a respectful acknowledgment of their last wishes” but what is almost certainly more aptly called “a crime”. Will you be able to respect the deceased?
Delightfully, almost none. Just shuffle up the cards:
Put them in a 2 x 3 arrangement that we’ll call the Graveyard (we call it this because the rulebook also calls it this). And you’re ready to start!
Game’s pretty simple. On your turn, you can do one of three things:
Dig: Choose up to two piles in the Graveyard (you must choose two if two are available); flip the top card of each pile face-up. From the card(s) you flipped, choose one card and add it to your hand. If there are no face-down cards or you have two cards in your hand, you cannot Dig. You have a hand limit of two cards.
Collect: Take one face-up card and add it to your hand. If there are no face-up cards or you have two cards in your hand, you cannot Collect. You, again, have a hand limit of two cards.
Stack: Place one card from your hand onto your stack, following placement rules. Essentially, you’re building a stack of cards up, and you can place any card on the next level as long as there are two adjacent cards below it, sort of like Animal Inc. If you start your turn with two cards in your hand, you must take the Stack action; you cannot do anything else.
Play continues until all players have built a stack (9 cards at two players; 6 cards at three players). Then, score! An important conceit here is the concept of levels. Each card is split horizontally in half; each half is a level. So a card has a bottom level and a top level. In that way, each row of cards is two levels tall. From there, score the various cards based on their type:
- Royals: Royals are worth 1 point for every Royal and every Peasant on a level below them. Snooty royals.
- Peasants: Peasants are always worth 1 point.
- Romantics: Romantics wish to be buried by their lover. If a Romantic is placed adjacent to another Romantic, both are worth 3 points each. This particular graveyard is a bit Too Traditional, so each Romantic can only be paired with one other Romantic card, at most. If they are not paired, they are worth 0 points.
- Priests: Priests are hierarchical by nature. The first Priest on each level in your stack scores 2 points. Any additional Priests on that level score 0. Watch out for that!
- Criminals: Criminals dream of redemption in the afterlife. If a Criminal is placed adjacent to a Priest, they score 2 points. Otherwise, they score 0 points.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
I mean, you get a ton fewer cards at three, since you’re splitting your cards with a third player. This not only lowers everyone’s score threshold, but it means you need to be a lot more careful about things. For one, if you see a card, you’re now significantly less likely to get it, as there’s another player who gets a turn before you do. I think this makes Romantics particularly dangerous, since you can split them with another player (to your detriment) if you’re not careful and counting cards. You also get fewer turns, so, you’d be best off maximizing the cards you can play. Personally, I’ve got no problems with this game at three, but I really like maximizing my stack at two, so I’d probably break this one out for two players a bit more frequently.
- Don’t take cards if you’re just planning to save them for later. You really can only store two cards in your hand, and pretty much as soon as you grab one you’re going to see another one that you really want for some far-off strategy. Joke’s on you; that’s your entire hand, and now you have to play a card long before you wanted to do so. And that kind of sucks. You can really hold on to one card, but you need to keep the other space flexible.
- Don’t forget: Dig is not just a better Collect. You do have to take one of the two cards you reveal. You don’t get to just flip two cards and then take the card you actually wanted, which was neither of those. You have to make a tougher decision than that; that’s business.
- Dig also provides your opponent with a bit of information. They can see the card you didn’t take and decide whether or not they want to claim it for themselves. It may be worth it! You might get an awesome card. But you also might not get an awesome card.
- Don’t let your opponent get all the Royals. They can really increase in value, especially if they’re also grabbing Peasants at the same time. You need to be mindful of what they’re taking and take things that similarly benefit you so that you don’t get steamrolled.
- Keep an eye on how many cards your opponent has in hand, as well. If you see them holding on to two cards, you know they’re not going to be collecting cards this turn. This should incentivize you to Dig, rather than take the card you only kind of want; this way, you’ll be able to potentially take that card next turn after they’re forced to play to their stack instead of taking a card that you revealed via your Dig action.
- Remember where cards are unhelpful to be placed. You don’t want Royals on the bottom level and you don’t want Priests to share levels with each other. Following those placement recommendations will ultimately help you get a lot more points than placing haphazardly would, as you might suspect from a game specifically about placing cards.
- If you’re playing a three-player game, really try your hardest to force your opponents to split a Romantic pair between them. If you can do that, you’ve stuck them both with a card that will be worth 0, guaranteed, which absolutely rules for you. Is it kind of a jerk move? Absolutely. But you’re not here to make friends; you’re here to bury them.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I appreciate how all the placements and scoring fit nicely with the game’s narrative. Royals want to look down on Peasants and other Royals, so they want to be higher up. Priests like being unique within their hierarchy. Criminals seek redemption and forgiveness. Romantics crave physical proximity. It’s all a bit on the nose, but it definitely works well. I have to respect it.
- As with all Button Shy games, very portable. I love wallet games, honestly. I literally just throw all the ones I like into a bag when I travel and they take up zero space, so it’s fine. This will likely make the cut for “things Eric adds to travel bag” from now on.
- Super easy to learn. As I mentioned earlier, the scoring conditions flow nicely from the narrative elements of the game, so, it flows pretty well. Beyond that, the only thing that’s weird about this game is that you don’t have a single card at the top of your stack in two-player games. Button Shy games tend to not be particularly complicated, and I always appreciate that.
- Plays quickly. I kind of wish it had a bit more meat at three players, but that’s a talk for the Cons section. It’s only got 18 cards, so it can really only take so long to play. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is nice; it knows what it’s here to do and it finishes its game quickly.
- The art is simple and minimal, but nice. As nice as skulls can be. It’s artsy, though. Where’s Daniel Newman?
- I do like the variation on the “place cards next to each other and score points” that’s a large part of the Button Shy line. This one’s more about pyramids! Or stacks, as they’re called, here. It contrasts nicely with Circle the Wagons, Sprawlopolis, and Seasons of Rice; they all handle similar placement puzzles with different aplomb, which I respect.
- The luck-of-the-draw element can be minorly frustrating. It happens, but the game is only, like, 10 minutes long, so, I’m disinclined to say that’s anything more than a Meh.
- You’d be surprised how often the two-card hand limit trips you up. You’d think it would be super easy to remember, since, two cards isn’t that many cards, but here we are. On one hand, I actually like it a lot? Keeps the game moving. On the other, every time I clown myself with it I’m so mad.
- A bit short at three players. I’d like there to still be the potential for a larger stack; it feels like the split isn’t quite the best (and the games are occasionally a bit underwhelming as a result). Honestly, what I would love is a Between Two Cities style variant that lets you dig graves with other players, but that seems very complicated (and like it would require more cards).
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I quite like Skulls of Sedlec! I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of graveyard-themed games (see my review of Gloomy Graves), but this game opted for a more artsy approach to its particular undertaking (har har), and I think that worked to its benefit. It, fundamentally, is somewhat of an increasing commonality in the Button Shy line; as I mentioned earlier in the review, you’re seeing a lot more games that are light spatial reasoning games with that 18 card feel, where they also have fun scoring conditions that change the game in some way. The thing is, I think Button Shy is proving again and again that 1) there’s a market for those, and 2) that they’re responsibly not saturating the market with those types of titles. There’s a very easy world where Sprawlopolis, Circle the Wagons, Seasons of Rice, Skulls of Sedlec, and even non-Button Shy wallet titles like Squire for Hire and A Wizard’s Shelf can comfortably exist. Plus, Button Shy is pushing the envelope with a particularly keen understanding of the space, and they’re releasing great titles pretty consistently, to boot. Hierarchy? Great. Antinomy? Great. I think, ironically, this may start to hurt them a bit in the long term (in a purely cynical way). They’re just consistently releasing games that I think are quite good, so it may start to seem less special, which is unfortunate. That said, it definitely hasn’t happened yet, so, I’m still pretty excited about Skulls of Sedlec. If you’re into another solid game for two that’s got spatial puzzling, some luck, and a lot of skulls, I’d recommend taking it for a spin!