Much like Backgammon and Chess, Trick Taking games have been around for hundreds of years and has weaved its way into various cultures around the world. The simple idea of a numbered deck of cards and playing a single card each turn can somehow turn a simple easy to learn game into a cutthroat paper arena as demonstrated in classic trick-taking games like Euchre and Bridge. Grandpa Beck’s is a company well-known for its family games and Skull King is their take on the classic card game Wizards.
If you are reading this, chances are you know what a bidding trick-taking game is, so we will skip the basic details and go straight to the deck itself. You have your three basic numbered suits from 1 to 14 and the fourth Jolly Roger black suit which is the game’s trump suit. Every 14 card is worth bonus points that are only added to your score if you hit your bid contract. Like most trick-taking games, you must follow suit if you can unless you play a special card.
Your special cards, all of them non-numbered, can be played in a trick even if you can follow suit. You have the red Pirates that will win the trick for you automatically and will beat the Jolly Roger suit. The blue Escape cards allow you to bow out of a trick and the Tigress card provides the delightful option of making it a red Pirate card or blue Escape card when played. The big boy himself, the Skull King, will trump anything on the table, including the Pirates. To make the Skull King a bigger problem for the table, he gets a bonus for each pirate that he captured in the trick he was played in.
A Variant Worth Plundering
For some of you, you’ll notice are a few similarities to Wizards with some twists here and there. Let’s get to the major differences.
Like Wizards, each round denotes the number of cards in your hand. Round 1 is 1 card in your hand and Round 8 is 8 cards in your hand. However, this game will end at 10 rounds and there is no decline from 10 cards down to 1. In short, this game ends at a reasonable timeframe instead of feeling trapped in a painted cardboard purgatory.
Perhaps the most noticeable change is the bidding itself and it is a welcome change. For each successful bid, you will get 20 points per trick while missing your bid means you will be losing 10 points per trick that you missed. This encourages the players to bid aggressively but rewards accuracy far more than the Wizards’ original 10 points per successful trick. To make this enigma more difficult to unravel, the bidding is simultaneous instead of clockwise order. You and the rest of the crew will pound your fists on the table three times saying “Yo-Ho-Ho” with the third-pound extending your fingers to signify how many tricks you are bidding.
This cocktail of changes brews Skull King into a game that transforms the most well-adjusted human beings into selfish incompetent fools. You want to grab as many bids as you want because those 20 points are nice, and you want to maximize those potential points for capturing pirates and the 14 cards. You can also bid 0 tricks and if you manage to pull it off, you 10 times the round number (e.g. Round 7 is 70 points). Throw in the simultaneous decision making on the number of bids and you’ll find out that having the bids equal to the number of tricks played in that round is as eventful as a solar eclipse.
It’s a shame that this isn’t considered a “gateway game” by the board game community because it does so much right. It’s easy to teach, not intimidating, and offers meaningful choices. Since Grandpa Beck is run by competent people, they also have reference cards to explain the game’s bonus points and card hierarchy. The only criticisms I have for this game is the two-player count simply doesn’t work and the card layout caters to right handed players. Outside of those complaints, the game is perfectly fine as is, but I do have some words of caution.
Luck Leads The Way
As you can probably tell, this game can be very swingy. Bonus points on top of the number of tricks mean players can crawl back from the bottom of the point ladder at sloop speeds getting three-digit points in a single round, but it also means the person in the lead might be a lot farther ahead if they get those bonus points as well. This game does not know the difference between winners and losers while having no catch-up mechanism. Since this is based on an old school trick-taking game, there is a fair bit of luck involved and moments of frustration. If you are the type of player who enjoys the structured bureaucratic nature of a Euro game, you’ll quickly toss this tiny box into Davey Jones’ locker and never look at it again.
The latest edition of Skull King comes pre-packed with the Legendary expansion. I haven’t played it myself, but it does add complexity to the mix. You have the Mermaids that add another level of trump to the system, the Kraken card that destroys the entire trick by itself, Loot cards that spread points around, and having each red Pirate card have their own rule-breaking ability. You can also adjust the number of cards per round and the included scoresheets will accommodate for this. There are also reference cards for these changes as well.
Unless you despise trick-taking or you’re too high brow for these types of games, I don’t see any reason not to try this game out. Everything from the card hierarchy to the simultaneous bidding patches up the numerous problems with the original game. It is Wizards perfected and accessible for anyone to enjoy. Highly recommended for classic card game lovers.
You can purchase this game at Amazon US