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Skull King

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Trick-taking games are what I cut my teeth on as a gamer: the classic staple of Whist has  begotten so many variations in the hobby that it makes Dominion (Rio Grande) look barren by comparison. Other than Bridge, the Whist variant I played most of in my youth was Black Maria (aka Hearts), which introduced me to the concept of cards having different values beyond their rank. After that, it's a small jump to cards having individual powers and the entire sub-genre of card games available now that share this royal heritage.

Grandpa Beck's Skull King is designed by Brent Beck and the game sails in the waters of another subdivision of the trick-taking genre: predicting how many tricks you will take. It does this with a swagger that matches the pirate-themed artwork by Apryl Stott and Eckhard Freytag but also takes the time to introduce those finding their sea legs to the basic premise of 'taking tricks' on a very clear and well-illustrated rules sheet. In fact, were there not quite so many extra powers in the game, this could be a perfect 'gateway' to trick-taking games. [That honour probably belongs to Mike Fitzgerald's Diamonds (Stronghold), for now, IMHO.]

Bearing in mind that you will be aiming to take a chosen number of tricks - from 0 to 10, as the rounds increase in hand size from 1-10 -  you'd best be aware of the articles on board ship. Swabbing the decks are three suits of Chests, Maps and Parrots with rank from 1 to 14, in which the highest card of the first suit played wins. Climbing the rigging and adjusting the mainsail is the Jolly Roger suit, which is always trump. Whipping all of these scurvy numeric dogs into shape are the Pirates, who trump trumps and all before them, the first played being first among equals. At the helm, though, is the Skull King himself, who is unbeatable (at least in the base game - oh, yes, there's an expansion included - more on that below decks). Walking the plank are the Escape cards, which let you lose a trick, unless everyone plays one, at which point you're completely keelhauled. Crucially all the 'special' cards can be played at any time, while the four ranked suits follow standard trick-taking rules.

Control in games with a random deal can sometimes be a fleeting thing: predicting how many tricks you will win probably gives more control, though at times it feels like an illusion. As the rounds progress and the hand size increases, greater control to hit your target comes in to redress some of the randomness of the early game; the reward - and penalty - for shooting the moon increases too. There's justifiable gamesmanship to be employed in later rounds, picking targets based more on the meta of the game situation than your hand itself. The 'feel' of the game is genuinely fun, but with depth: hitting or missing your target elicits cheers and cusses in equal measure.

As trick-taking games have been around literally since pirates sailed the high seas, I can't imagine Skull King's play would tire any time soon, but if you do want to mix things up, the edition I played came with the 'Legendary Expansion'. Well, that's a bit of a misnomer, as there are only five new cards, two of which don't suit a two-player game. They add a Kraken to destroy a trick completely, two Mermaids that can defeat the Skull King, and two Loot cards which act like Escape cards but form an alliance between two players. There are variant rules in the expansion, including the wise option to ignore rounds 1-5 and play 6-10 twice, as well as powers for each of the individual Pirates from the base game, though referencing those is a bit of a give-away.

Skull King, like many recent games, riffs off those that came before it to provide an interesting twist on an established genre. It's not sea-spray fresh, but it certainly leaves vanilla Whist and games like Wizard (K Fisher Enterprises) in its wake. We reviewed another predictive trick-taker, Herrlof, on Board's Eye View recently and it has so much more control than Skull King that it would be the obvious choice at two players; Skull King's versatile range of a 2-6 player count gives it a hull of a lot more chance to get to the table, however. Plus, it's easier to talk like a pirate than a Viking.

(Review by David Fox)

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