Reviewed by: Dave
Nothing like a game title that gets right to the point.
Skull is a game of deceit for three to six players. Players receive a collection of four coasters with art out of a tattoo shop: three have flowers, one a skull. The game starts with each player choosing one of their coasters and placing it face down. After that, players continue in turn order with the option to either place another coaster face down, creating a pile, or setting forth a challenge.
Challenges work like so: the player says, “I can take (x) discs”, where x is the number she believes she can pick up without flipping over a skull. Other players can either pass or say they can take more discs safely. Once all players have passed to a high bid, or a player has bid the total number of discs on the table, the high bidder starts flipping over discs until they reach the bid number or they find a skull.
The one caveat is that the high bidder must flip all of her own discs first. Thus, if someone tries to be sneaky and bid high with a skull in her pile, and everyone passes, she must flip her own skull and lose the challenge. If the high bidder’s pile is safe, then she may turn over discs in front of any player in any order--it is not necessary to choose a player and flip all his discs at once. A victorious challenge earns a point; two points win the game. A failed challenge requires the removal of one of the player’s discs. This limits the options a player has for each disc placement. Additionally, if a player’s turn comes and she cannot play a disc, she is required to challenge. Which of these drawbacks proves more problematic depends somewhat on the tendencies of the players.
Your humble reviewer calls this a game of deceit rather than a bluffing game for a reason: the bluffing is minimal. Every time a challenge is issued, players must determine if the challenger has a skull and is trying to lure them into taking his discs, but otherwise you’re simply trying to decide when each of your opponents would place their skulls in their piles. As there is no mechanism for gathering information about how their coasters are stacked, Skull effectively revolves around press-your-luck gameplay with a smattering of considerations about what your opponents are thinking.
How does that function in real terms? Much like in poker, the more familiar you are with a given opponent, the more deeply you can contemplate his possible strategy. It’s like a small party game that works best when you tend to party with the same people. This can be quite interesting if you have a group that are fans of this meta thinking. However, because this game is so easy to learn, it comes across as the kind of game you want to show to new people as something relatively quick to play. If this is how the game is used, then it will rarely reach its potential, as everyone is, for the most part, guessing about what everyone else might do.
One other concern--and this is something which would likely affect few people, but is still worth noting--is that it’s a game where people can be enormous jerks to each other. If a player loses a challenge, and a disc, then she’s in a position where she has to pre-emptively challenge or the other players can simply place discs until she has no choice. Being down one disc, that’s not a huge issue. But if you’re down two, it becomes very feasible for other players to game the system in order to run you out of discs and eliminate you completely--in fact, other players almost need to play for this outcome, because not doing so may give you and your one or two discs a chance to steal the game. If you and your fellow players accept this, or even enjoy it, as a potential adverse occurrence if you fail challenges, that’s fine. Maybe it even makes the game more fun. Again, however, for something that looks and feels like a party game, most players will probably not enjoy a situation where they’re actively being pushed out of the game.
The best comparison for this game really might be poker. Everyone has a hand of “cards”, and you’re trying to figure out everyone else’s hand while trying to mask your own. The difference is, poker has mechanics that allow you to calculate odds and decide if a given risk is worth taking. Skull has no objective data to use to help decide on a strategy. Shut Up & Sit Down state that Skull is “a game of poker face and meeting eyes”, and they call it the “best bluffing game ever made”, and the game they’ve played the most. The fact they’ve played it more than anything else is almost certainly why they perceive it as the best bluffing game ever made. Consider how readily you and your friends get sucked into playing one game over and over when deciding how likely it is you’ll end up feeling the same way.