Preface: this review comes after playing several evenings with a group of highly competitive adults. Skull King can be played on a much lighter scale with younger players on a “play to have fun” instead of “play to kill” basis. =-)
Skull King is so simple in construct: bid on how many tricks you plan to take each round; the closer you are, the more points you receive. Yet the nuances are many. In a nutshell, players have a number of cards in their hand that correspond to the round number (5 cards in round 5, 8 in round 8, etc.). Over 10 rounds, players bid on how many tricks they will take on each round. The starting card is the lead color and must be played by following players. If a player doesn’t have a lead color, she may “sluff off” with a different color or trump it with a black flag card. At any point, a player may play an escape card to get the heck out of there, a pirate card to trump all trumps, or the Skull King card to trump everything. There’s even a pirate who can play as a pirate or as an escape (a very valuable card to have!).
Scoring is fantastic. You get 20 points per trick taken if you guessed correctly. You lose 10 points for each number away from your bid if you guess incorrectly. If you capture a pirate (or more) with the Skull King, score 30 each. There are also two treasure cards thrown in there for more points. Here’s the kicker: if you guess zero bids and get zero tricks, score 10x the round number (e.g., 40 points on round 4). At first we didn’t think much of it, but near the end of each game, you can score big points pulling off a zero bid round! It forces players not in the lead to take an “all or nothing” approach in a high risk, high return scenario.
This is a game of epic moments. One of our most epic Skull King moments happened in round 10. I was in 3rd place. I had the perfect hand to sluff off all 10 cards. If I scored 100 points, and both players ahead of me missed their bids by even one trick, I would take the game. I bid for zero and calmly threw away my cards one by one as the others vied for tricks. The two ahead of me both took one more trick than they wanted. It came down to the very last card of the last round of the game. The starting player (my own wife!) played a 2 of a non-trump color…which happened to be the exact color of the last remaining card in my hand: a 3! I played my 3 and watched with sickening dread as each of the other 4 players played other non-trump colors.
For you football fans out there, this was the come-from-behind, David vs. Goliath, receiver is wide open in the end zone on the last play of the game moment. The ball is in the air, it’s in the receiver’s hands…and he drops it. No flags, the game’s over…leaving a whole lot of fans with a gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of their stomachs after an exhilarating come-from-behind high. But it was great for the other guys! =-) And yes, we woke up the kids upstairs after that last card was played.
There are few games I’ve played that ebb and flow as much as Skull King. A player thinks he’s in control of the round only to be undermined or one-upped at the last moment. This is now one of my very favorite card or party games out there.
Tip: Yes! Card counting is perfectly legal and encouraged in Skull King! =-) I would strongly recommend it. Start small (just remember the number of pirates played) then go for more. It will help immensely.
Skull King Legendary Expansion
This expansion adds some epic cards including, my very favorite card of the entire game: the Kraken! This massive beast wipes out a hand altogether. It doesn’t matter how many other cards there are or how many pirates are played, they’re gone, lost to the deep, dark depths of the sea.
The two Mermaids are sneaky powerful cards, bent on capturing the famous Skull King! Loot cards add a cool alliance dimension to the game wherein the player who won the trick and the player who played the loot card both get 20 bonus points if they both get their bid correct.
Legendary also adds a fun dynamic of advanced abilities. If you win a trick with a pirate, you unlock that Pirate’s special ability for the rest of the game! My favorite is Harry the Giant’s ability which allows you to change your bid by one (up or down). This can come in very handy throughout the game and has been a game-changer for me.
While I think the cards are really cool, playing with all of the new cards is a little heavy for me. I have a harder time strategizing trying to keep track of the many cards which can trump other cards. My preference is to always play with the Kraken and add one of the other sets (e.g., Mermaids, Loot, or special abilities).
Disclaimer: I received this game for free in exchange for my review, but believe me, I post authentic reviews every time and will be brazenly blunt if needs be.