In the run-up to Christmas I'll be banging out reviews of board games old and new, to flush every last penny out of your battered old wallet or purse. I am going to be reaching into your coat pocket, giving you a Fagin smile, and singing “gotta buy a board game or two, boyyyyyy-ho-ho-hoyyyy”. And you know what? I think you're going to like it. This week, I finally get around to SKULL.
Skull was recommended to me as a great game for when you have friends around and you're all drunk. So that's a Monday. And a Tuesday. Okay, for the sake of swiftness, let's just say it's NOT a Sunday. Unless there's wrestling on.
Usually, when someone says a game is good for drunken parties, it means that the game is a very simple one. It's going to be something very easily explained, nice and chunky, and not too long. The alcohol-addled mind can't retain information for very long. Board game rules will struggle for space alongside “WHERE IS TOILET?” and “WHERE IS FOOD?” and “WHEN IS SEX?” in the mind of a drunk person. So the best games for a party of inebriated wastrels are little, tight things with an attractive look.
SKULL's most recent printing is a really nice one. It looks like a set of coasters you might buy from some theme bar in New York City. It looks like a PREMIUM product. It's actually just a stack of round cards, but it feels like you've bought something of some value. This is why GOOD ARTWORK AND STRONG PRODUCTION are important.
And it's just as well that the production is nice, because this is really a game you could make on your own. Seriously, you could play this with stuff you find around your home, like a bunch of identical shoehorns.
So, as a player, if that's what you really want to be, you get a set of 4 coasters with your faction's image on one side. On the other side of your 4 cards you find 3 roses and 1 skull. Every player antes up one card at the start of the game, placed face down. This can either be a rose or a skull. Then play carries on around the table, with players choosing to either place a new card on top of their stack or “bid”. A bid is when a player declares how many cards they feel they can start flipping off everyone's stacks before they turn up a skull. So let's say I bid 2. That means I have to flip the top one of mine, then move onto the next player and flip the top one of his. If I turn up a skull, I lose one of my cards. If I turn up roses, I win the round and gain a point, with only two points to win it.
That is the whole game. And it might seem like a pure guessing game. But no – this is a lovely little game of bluffing and brinkmanship, and it's perfect for a drinking crowd in more ways than one. It's not just that the game is short and sweet and simple to understand. It's also that it's a game that encourages a little bit of bravado, a little bit of bluster and bullshit. It says on the box that this was a game played by Bikers, and I don't know how true that is. But it kinda feels right, because you can imagine these big drunk biker guys hooting and hollering as they raise the stakes on each other despite each bid bringing them closer to the inevitable skull.
Indeed, it's hugely exciting when someone makes a ballsy bid and manages to flip six or seven roses without breaking a sweat. It feels good to be that guy, and it's not always purely macho BS that carries you there. You can make some real headway in this little game by just watching what other people do and trying to read how they play their cards. Considering how little actual design space there is across this game, there are plenty of little holes for you to wiggle your head into. Was that large opening bid just a bluff? Is it likely that the player to your left opened with a skull when they really need a point this round? Once the game clicks with you, there's enough interesting stuff to think about without it turning into a grind. It remains a good, casual drinking game but you can feel yourself improve despite the fact that the booze is probably destroying brain cells. Bear in mind though that this is a little game you fling out for ten minutes of light fun. Don't expect the world, you silly sausage.
There's something to talk about in the fact that you could make this game yourself. I've pretty much told you the rules, so if you have some cards lying around you could easily mock this one up and give it a try. But the genuine printed edition of the game is a lovely thing, and inexpensive. With such a reasonable price, I'd happily recommend you just fling some cash at it and give it a try with the full easy-on-the-eye experience, instead of doing some cheapo mock-up on your own. Try before you buy is a good thing, sure, but the reason why I'm here is to save you doing that. I think the looks actually matter in this one, because it's nice to play with nice stuff.
Hey! You could even laminate it and serve drinks on them! Or be sick on them!
Another excellent game to add to your Christmas list will be coming at you next week. I think this one is something pretty special, so remember to check back to see what I'm hurting your pocket with this time.
“YOU GOTTA BUY A BOARD GAME OR TWO!”