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Skull: The Game Blob Review

Skull: The Game Blob Review

I remember being a teenager, sitting in my cousin's basement with our other friends fumbling our way through the classic game of Poker. It's such a cinematic game: smoke-filled rooms, moody overhead lighting, sarcastic quips and one-liners. We wanted to experience that, but as we sat around a foldable table trying to figure out what a good hand was, I remember being bored. It wasn't as cool as the movies made it out to be anyway. I eventually learned that poker is really a game of probability.For a couple of kids, the game was most exciting when we all just pretended to have good hands and bet recklessly because it felt cool to say, " I'm all in," as we pushed cheap poker chips into the pot.

After playing Skull; boy, do I wish we were playing Skull back then.

Skull is a game that boils down poker into a sticky, viscous, concentrate of bluffing and mind games. It's a game that makes you look your friend in the eye and ask, "Are you feeling lucky?" 

Within the rule book you'll find an excerpt from the journal of the designer's great-grandfather:

August 12th, 1921: we’ve finally reached the port of San-Francisco, the last leg of our trip around the world, our souls enriched by the encounters we’ve had and our hold filled with the wonderful gifts offered y the people who have welcomed us. Among these relics is a surprising collection of flowers with a heady perfume, accompanied by beautifully decorated skulls, used for the worship of ancestors. During our travels, their fascinating presence has opened my mind, which is sometimes overly rational, to the rules of a captivating traditional game: “The game of skulls.” A surprising mix of bluff and strategy in which it is said that: “whoever disturbs the rest of the ancestors by revealing their skulls will immediately lose one of their lives...” Impelled by a mysterious force, I’ve immediately represented these skulls and flowers on a series of cardboard cards, then transcribed the rules. 

 According to the rule book, the game "spread like wildfire among all the adventurers on the West Coast...[and] was rediscovered by some biker gangs and renamed Skull and Roses." Whether or not any of this is true, Skull is as beautifully simple as any traditional folk game like Mancala, or Go Fish, except so much better. However, after opening the box, you might wonder why you paid $25 for 24 illustrated bar coasters. This realization may be one of my favorite things about the game; Skull is so brutally simple you could play it for free and almost anywhere. Do you have a deck of cards?

Everyone starts the game with four discs. Three of those have roses and the fourth has the titular skull. You go around the table, clockwise, placing one of your four discs. Once everyone has placed a disc, the person who started has two choices. They can put another disc down and start a stack or they can call a number. Imagine it's a five player game and we've all placed a disc. I decide to call out a number; let's say "three." This means that I think I can flip three of the five discs from around the table without revealing a skull. The catch is that I have to flip over all of my own discs first, before flipping over anyone else's. I call out "three", look around the table, and no one wants to raise the bet. So now I have to flip over my disc first, revealing the skull that I had laid as a trap, hoping to goad someone into flipping if they raised the bet. Whenever someone reveals a skull, they have to permanently lose one of their discs. If you flip your own skull, you get to choose which disc you lose. If you flip over another player's skull, they randomly choose one of your discs to lose. 

The discs aren't that weathered out of the box. I've worn them down after playing several games and lots of nervous shuffling. 

The discs aren't that weathered out of the box. I've worn them down after playing several games and lots of nervous shuffling. 

If you've lose your skull in the early game, you spend the rest of the game pretending to choose which disc to play! It's a hilarious ruse to keep up because if your friends are paying close attention they might just notice you don't have your skull. You're defenseless. If you lose all your discs, you're eliminated. 

Now let's say you've successfully flipped over as many discs as you bet you could. You're halfway to victory. It only takes two successful bets to win the game. The first couple of times you play this game might only take five or ten minutes. You might wonder where the "game" is. But once it clicks, once everyone playing understands what they should be doing or pretend to be doing, the game takes off. It's the most pure game of bluffing I've ever played and it creates the most exhilarating moments of uncertainty and second-guessing.

Flipping over nine discs without hitting a skull in a five player game was a tremendously satisfying feat to accomplish and you won't really understand how lucky and rewarding that must feel until you've played Skull. But believe me, this game is clever, simple, fun.

The best thing about Skull, that may not be clear when you're learning the game, is the way you can bet knowing you have a skull in front of you. Like the earlier example, let's say it's gone around twice now. You have a rose on top of your skull. You bet "three." If you're lucky, someone will bet higher, flipping their own discs and then flipping yours because they guessed you were comfortable flipping your own. They would then reveal your skull and you'd feel like an evil genius and everyone would laugh at how your friend got duped. It's great fun! But, this strategy doesn't last forever. You try it again next round. You wait for someone to raise the bet. But no one does. They look at you and say, "Go on." And now everyone's laughing at you. 

Skull's simple bluffing and bidding mechanics have so much depth to them simply because a significant part of the experience comes from the people you're playing with and the way you all learn each other's tricks and tells when all other information is so difficult to discern. It's pretty similar to what makes social deduction games so much fun. But throw's all finger pointing and arguing out the window, creating tidy little box of wits and wagers for you and your friends to enjoy. 

This game is so good and I enjoy it so much that I wouldn't even recommend you buy the retail version (at first, anyway). Get a deck of cards, which you probably already own, give everyone 3 clubs and a face card. Now you can play Skull. You can play it at a bar, on a camping trip, or in line at a convention. The box is small enough to travel but being able to play it out of a pack of cards opens up the potential to play it almost anywhere.If you like it enough, buy the game to support the designer and the publisher and get the wonderfully illustrated discs. I'd encourage almost anyone to at least try this game. It's fantastic and would stand comfortably next to other traditional card games like Go Fish, Spoons, or even Poker. It's exciting, tense, and makes for a lot of laughs. I definitely, absolutely, recommend Skull.

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