23 December 2017

Board Game Review: Skull

I recently played a fun game. It's called Skull (though from what I understand, it was originally called Skull and Roses), and it's super simple, but super fun. You can buy the set from Asmodee Games, or you could make your own with some pieces of cardboard and a marker.

Let's get started!

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 2
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful*
Average Length of Game Play: 20 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: High
  Fantasy: Low

An Overview of Skull

The box, decorated with a colourful stylized skull, with three sets of cards. Each set (one green, one red, and one purple) displays two cards face down on the score mat and two cards face up. The score mat is square, and is as wide as the cards, which are round. The back of each card has an intricate pattern. The two face up cards in each set show one flower and one skull. The green cards flower is a thistle, the red cards have a lotus, and the purple cards have an orchid. The green cards' skull is horned like a stereotypical Viking, the red cards' skull is wearing a samurai helmet, and the purple skull has a geometric design on the forehead and the jawbone painted black.

Each player has five coasters cards. One is square: this is the score mat. It starts with the flower side up. The other side is the skull side, and it is turned face up when the player scores a point. The other coasters cards are round with an intricate pattern on the back. One of these coasters cards has a skull, the rest have a flower. Players take turns placing their coasters cards face down on their scoring mat until somebody decides to start bidding. Then it becomes a game of bluffing, perception, and perhaps a little bit of luck. Each player announces how many coasters cards can be turned over without revealing a skull. The highest bidding player must then turn over the number bid. If that player turns over a skull, that player loses a coaster card. If not, the player gains a point (indicated by turning the score mat over to the skull side). If the player gains a second point, that player is declared the winner. If a player loses all the coasters cards as a result of revealing skulls, that player is out of the game. If a player is the last one in the game, then that player is declared the winner.

Turns in Skull

First, let me just say that the cards in this game very strongly resemble coasters. It was a running joke throughout the games that we played. The cards are of solid cardboard construction. They do strongly remind me of the disposable coasters used in bars.

Anyway. So each player chooses a card and places it face down on their scoring mat. Once everyone has at least one card on their mats, players may choose to either:
  1. Place another card face down on their mat, increasing the size of the stack, or
  2. Start bidding.
Once a player has started bidding, no one may place any more cards on their stack. They must either bid a higher number, or pass. The highest bidder must turn over a number of cards equal to the number bid.

The rules state that the highest bidder must first turn over all the cards in that player's own score mat before turning over any other cards. Once that player's cards have all been revealed, that player may then turn over cards on any other player's stack, one at a time, until either a skull has been revealed or the bid has been met.

If that player turns over cards equal to the bid without revealing a skull, that player is awarded a point. If a skull is revealed, however, a card is discarded from that player's hand.

However, in the first few games that I played, we did not enforce the 'turn over your own cards first' rule. Players were allowed to turn over any cards they wanted, their own or others'. This made for a slightly different dynamic. I recommend it as an optional rule variant.

End of the Game

If, as a result of revealing skulls, a player no longer has any cards in hand, that player is eliminated from the game. If only one player remains, that player is declared the winner. Otherwise, the first player to score two points (that is, scoring a point when the scoring mat is already turned over to the skull side as a result of scoring a point earlier in the game) is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Skull

This game is surprisingly dynamic. It involves a lot of bluffing. In essence, you are trying to accomplish two simultaneous feats: outbid other players without revealing a skull, and trick other players into revealing your skull.

If I were to be completely honest, the vast majority of my enjoyment of this game came from baiting the other players into turning over my skull card. There was one player in particular (I'll call him George) who allowed himself to be baited so often, and so very easily. In fact, the first time I started the bidding, I did it with my skull card on top of my stack of two. I did this intentionally knowing that George would think it was safe to turn over my top card. Sure enough, he outbid me, and immediately turned over my skull card. He was absolutely astounded to find my skull card on top. My schadenfreude was palpable. His mouth hung agape for several seconds. It was glorious.

Anyway. I really enjoyed this game. I expect I will play it again soon. It's quick, easy, and a lot of fun. But more to the point, it involves a surprising amount of thought: do I trust the other player? Can I trick the other players into trusting me? Do I risk bidding a higher number and losing one of my cards? Can I afford to lose a card by outbidding someone knowing that I'm going to turn over a skull in order to prevent another player from getting a second point?

And, we'll look as always at the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's quite simple
  • It ends decisively.
  • It relies on player agency.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It does have player elimination.
Five out of six: that's not bad! So, not perfect, but pretty darn good. Also, given how short a game tends to last, the player elimination is not as big a deal as it would be in other games.

The four blue cards fanned out in a player's hand. The box, with it's Mexican folk art style artwork, is visible in the background. The design of the score mat is partially visible. The skull card, on the right in the player's hand, is covered with black lines and swirls. The flower cards are partially obscured, but you can see enough to tell that it's a white five-petaled flower.

* The artwork in this game deserves a special mention. For one, the artwork varies between versions: there's an English/Spanish version and an English/French version. The art is different in these two. I played with the English/French edition. The art on the box cover made it look like it would have more in common with Latin American tradition, as the skull on the box resembled something from a Día de los muertos celebration. The art on the cards, however, appeared to be more in keeping with a stereotypical American biker gang, and so was not in a style that I personally found appealing.

The artwork in the other version looks more like a biker tattoo. In that sense, it is more thematically appropriate, although I find it less enjoyable overall than in the version I played. It does have a nice nod to the industry, however; one of the biker gangs in this version is the Werewolves, and the back of the Werewolves' cards incorporates the logo from The Werewolves of Miller's Hollow.

Now, given that art is very subjective, I fully admit that someone else might rate the Attractiveness of this game as 'Ideal.' The artwork is very well done. I just can't bring myself to give it a higher rating, due to its lack of aesthetic appeal to me personally. But don't let that sway your opinion too much! It's a fun game regardless of the artwork!

Anyway. I think that's quite enough for such a small and simple game. I'll stop for now. I'll see you back here next time, as long as you promise to

Game on!

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