Trick taking isn’t something we were overly familiar with. Rounds? Variable points? Bluffing? All different elements which we understood, but not simultaneously. It seemed alien as a concept but made sense in practice, and had a surprising amount of emphasis on how you presented something. Both in its presentation and though your own communication. Having a poker face, if you will. Skull King by Grandpa Beck Games was the first game modern game we’ve ever played which declared itself as trick taking. It’s fast, action packed, and near nerve wracking!
To start off, the cards are shuffled and betting cards are placed within reach of all players. Everyone is dealt cards equal to the current round. One card for round one, two for two, etc. Players look at their cards, establish how many tricks they think they’ll win this round, and declare their bet simultaneously. They then take the associated betting card as a reminder. Points are are awarded based on how accurately you guessed your won tricks. A perfect bet earns points, and being incorrect loses you points based on the difference.
Players take turns to be the first player, and the person to the right of whoever won the last trick plays the next first card. All players play a card in turn, and then the trick is won by whomever had the greatest value. Cards run on a system of suits, ascending in values from 1-14. Some cards have no suit and are pirate cards, and some have specific characters on them. In short, suits have no value over one another but must be played to corresponding suits to count to the trick. A Parrot suit of 4 beats a Parrot suit of 2.
When a suit is played, you can only play that suit, and playing a suit other than that in play (because you can’t replicate it) counts as a loss. The Jolly Roger suit trumps all other suits and wins based (higher Jolly Rogers trump lower ones), Pirates trump all suits, and the Captain and Tigress trump all pirates. (This also earns bonus points at the end of the round!) The final card, the merchant ship, always loses. After 10 rounds, whoever had the greatest number or points wins!
How It Feels to Play!
Skull King is a game that brings in lots of elements, but that’s down to its trick taking mechanic. Bluffing, presentation, timing all come into how the competition interprets your cards before being played. It’s new to us, but only when combined! It’s not a game that’s revolutionary – nothing new is added to the world of board gaming – but it’s a cracking game to play. Not every game needs to turn the world of tabletop upside down, and quite often, it’s the games that don’t that we go back to time and again. Grandpa Beck Games’ Skull King is one of those games. Hear us out…
Feeling the Theme?
There’s a theme of piracy and treasure across the cards and terms. The designer could have chosen any theme, but pirates was what they chose. And I have no doubts you’ll be “yo-ho-ho”ing as much as we did throughout play! Everything runs on bluff, bluster and mental competition. Pirates were commonly known for trusting no one, and this game resembles this mentality greatly! Your demeanour, positioning, speed of play. These all make the difference in how confident you’ll seem in your bet, and a tentative four trick bet may cause a whole different kettle of fish than a boisterously claimed four.
Have you ever wondered how much body language matters in a game? Me neither until I played this. You’d assume it’s a trivial thing really, as from an outsiders perspective you’re simply matching suits or trumping cards. But no! There are choices available which can determine how the round plays out! Losing a trick intentionally can have multiples of effects, including causing an opposition’s bet to be wrong, or to let you gauge their calibre of their cards. Now I think about it, it’s prominent in many other games… but Skull King made me conscious of how I played a card, and to what effect. It became a part of my grand plan, and often made it so I could coax the opposition to use their higher cards or reveal which suits they didn’t have confidence in.
But Do You Actually Take Tricks?
As we said, trick taking is a newer mechanic for us. We have undoubtedly played some trick taking games beforehand, however we weren’t necessarily focussed on the grand scheme of things. We just played it round to round. Skull King encourages a more staggered play. Because every round increases players’ hand sizes, it also increases the confidence in their claimed tricks. Your hands are never on show, but your bet is there in card form as a constant reminder to both you and the opposition… and that’s where some next level tactics might rock up!
You’d be surprised at how intense a feeling it is to have such a piece of vital information visible. Everyone sees it. Getting it right is the only way to score big… They aren’t going to let that happen! But, don’t digress, round to round it changes based on your confidence with the cards dealt. If you have a bad round, it can be turned around!
Skull King requires you to have the exact number of tricks claimed. No more, no less. And it’s the same for the opposition too! That said, the difference in points gained against lost is tremendous. A correct claim of five bags you 100 points, whereas being one off loses you 10 points multiplied by the difference… Now, rules aside, this is where you can get vicious. You see someone’s managed that claim of seven tricks. 140 points! (And that’s without bonuses!) Of course, you don’t want them to win… and even one trick off would hinder them, greatly. Taking the fall and playing the alternative card to make them win again would be diabolically evil. And entirely encouraged! It is, of course, a game for pirates!
Grandpa Beck’s Games’ Skull King includes the legendary expansions for Skull King. This includes new cards and optional mechanics. As far as new cards go, they come in three flavours. Sticking to the theme of piracy and the seven seas, this expansion introduces mermaids that not even the pirate king can resist. It also throws in a whole tonne of booty – pirate lingo for treasure and loot for those of us more sophisticated. And, of course, the cause of death to many a legendary pirate; the Kraken.
The optional mechanics added here give more purpose to the pirate cards in the base game. Interestingly, every pirate card is unique but has the same purpose: trump the current suit. The optional rules in here make it so they fit into their personalised theme, and give players a slight advantage when used! It’s all about timing though, as cards used on the last turn may not result in favourable bonuses!
Personally, we think the expansion is wonderful. It adds more to the game and alters the standard play enough to refresh it. We don’t feel the game needed refreshing, but it gives that option of some extras. Since playing with the expansion cards, we haven’t taken them out! They add something extra, but we don’t feel they’re essential for all players. The altered mechanics however are usually added about two games in. They spice up play for when it’s getting more competitive, but not so much that it stops being that fun, light, filler game we love!
Skull King is a top notch family game. Fast paced, accessible, and fun. Having something fast paced means you can, and no doubt will, get multiple games in. Having accessibility means its for the whole family. The fun element is what we love, and not just because “fun” is a hot word to use in a review. Skull King is genuinely, unequivocally fun. There’s an intensity to betting, and a gut wrenching nervousness to being on your bet mid round… but there’s never a staleness to play. We’ve never had someone sigh or pass on a game!
Pushing your luck is something that we love, and there’s some take that in there too. But with it being trick taking, there’s no sourness across rounds. You run a round, finalise it, run another. Only when the game’s over is there a clear winner, until then its literally anyone’s game! This is one we’ll be taking with us to family and friends, and one that will hit the table between larger games for a great unwind. It’s not ground breaking, but it’s undeniably fantastic!