Skull is an easy to learn but interestingly complex game of bluffing and deception. The game essentially breaks poker down into pieces, discarding the need to analyze mathematical odds and randomness from drawing, but keeping the absolutely fun and hilarious bluffing aspect of it.
Over the holidays I was searching for a games that I could play with my parents or the in-laws… something easy to learn but with some depth.
I hit the target dead on.
Skull not only is a game I would definitely bring to my family, Skull caught my eye because of its appeal to being both an opener to a night of games, and as a fun, easy activity to close out a night.
Skull begins with each player picking a matching set of four discs and a square. The four discs come together to make a hand; three discs have a flower, and one has a skull. The square is used to keep score.
A game of skull consists of several rounds. At the beginning of a round, a player retrieves their hand of discs with the skull and flower side only visible to the holding player.
A round starts with a little bit of seeding where, starting with the first player, each player must place one disc from their hand on their square with the flower or skull side face down.
After the seeding, the starting player now has two choices:
Option 1: Play another disc
The player has the option to play either a flower or skull disc on top of their existing disc(s) (which are on top of their square) with the flower or skull side face down.
Once the disc is played, play continues to the player's left, where that player is now given these two choices (play another disc or start a challenge).
If the player does not have a disc to play, they must start a challenge.
Option 2: Start a challenge
Instead of playing a disc, the player may start a challenge by calling out the number.
The number called may be any number from 1 to the number of discs that have already been played.
The challenge starts a bidding process that continues to the player to the left who now has the option to either pass, or bid higher than the previous person. If a player passes on the bid, they can no longer bid in this round. If the bid reaches the number of discs available, the bidding is over. The bid can start higher than one, can be increased by more than one, and can start at the maximum.
Here comes the exciting part
The player who wins the bid is now considered the challenger… regardless if they actually wanted to win the bid or not.
The challenger will attempt to flip over as many discs as they bid without running into a skull. To make things interesting, the challenger must first start with their entire stack of discs… regardless if they have a skull in there or not, and may only pick the top disc of other player's stacks.
If the challenger only flips over flowers, then they win the challenge. If this is the first successful challenge, they flip over their square to show that. If this is their second successful challenge, they win the game!
If the challenger runs into another player's skull, the challenger loses a disc randomly to the player who owned the skull. The disc that is discarded is not revealed.
If the challenger runs into their own skull (likely to a failed bluff attempt), the challenger picks which disc to discard.
If the challenger loses all of their discs, they are out of the game.
If the game is not over, the challenger is the first player for the next round.
Skull breaks poker down into pieces, discarding the need to analyze mathematical odds and randomness from drawing, but keeping the absolutely fun and hilarious bluffing aspect of it.
Fun, excitement, driving forces, and luck
Skull is a very fun game. The excitement really builds with the bid.
When there is a skull in your stack and it is your turn to bid, you have to decide between passing and risk giving away that you have a skull, and bidding and potentially getting stuck with a bid that will embarrass you. Bid too low and people will read into your bluff, and know to either avoid you or make you eat your skull.
If there are no skulls in your stack when it is your turn to bid, you may decide to bid high to try and win the bid, or try to bid juuusssttttt enough that if you are out bid that whoever won the bid is put into an uncomfortable situation… or bid low for the double bluff!
When you win a bid that is low, you don't know if you should feel good about your chances, or skeptical that everyone has set you up.
If you win a high bid, you suddenly feel like you maybe shouldn't have done that.
You win a bid of five, and have successfully flipped over four discs, with a choice between the last three. You stare the owner of one of the discs straight in the eye and ask,
"Is this a skull?"
"No it isn't."
"Have I lied to you yet?"
"You've been waiting all game to lie to me."
Even more crazy is when someone bids the maximum, not giving anyone a chance to even respond before they start flipping discs. I've won a couple games in two turns, winning a challenge in the first round and the immediately bidding the maximum after the discs are seeded. That only works once for each group though.
After you've won one challenge, you are trying hard to get that second one without losing the battle of attrition. Once you are down to one or two discs, your bluffing power gets reduced to the point where your play is obvious, and it is more about guts. Or perhaps if you are the only one who has won a challenge, you may just sit back for a while and just play skulls, trying to reduce the field.
If you have all your discs and find yourself surrounded by players who have won a round, you may jump on a grenade, reaching outside your comfort zone, just to prevent someone from winning.
Accessibility and Setting
This game is extremely easy to teach. One or two games after someone has learned the game, they should easily be able to teach someone else how to play, regardless of their experience in playing board games. Really all you need to do is play a quick round or two playing random discs, and explaining the options, and then reset the game.
Because of how easy it is to teach, this game has, been a go to when we have new board gamers at the table.
Experienced players will have a tiny advantage because they can play some tricks that they have seen, but they probably won't be able to pull them off as easily from then on.
Skull should be really easy to bring out with coworkers during lunch, with the family, or even at the bar.
Even though Skull is a fast game, I don't think I would play this game ten times in a row, but it is hard to stop at just one game, as everyone suddenly clicks with the game. Skull comes out at my table very often as both an opener to a night of games, or even a closer to finish it off.
Theme and Aesthetics
There is some theming surrounding biker gangs, but for the most part I just ignore that.
The coasters are very beautiful, and the different artwork for each skull is occasionally entertaining for the new player.
Components and Value
The retail version of skull is really an expensive set of circle and square coasters. The value is low if you compare price to components, but very high if you just consider the enjoyment you will be getting from the game, and how often and easy it is to pull out. If you are on the fence about buying the game, you could easily play with a deck of cards, and something to keep score. Even better, if you are in a social situation where all you have is a deck of cards, you could easily start up a game of Skull instead of your usual. The game does feel better with the retail set of coasters, however.
Why do I like Skull?
It is a fast, easy to teach, family friendly, and fun game that can be played in many situations.