Have you ever tried to trick a pirate? Have you ever had a pirate try to trick you? Both of those scenarios are probably going to end very poorly for the non-pirate. If you’ve ever seen me in person at a gaming convention you might have thought, “wow, Bob could totally pass for a pirate,” or you may have actually seen me masquerade as a pirate. If you have seen the latter, congratulations, I do make an excellent pirate. I have never tricked anyone as a pirate (I am a jolly pirate), but I do enjoy using pirates to trick other people. This is why I love to play Skull King from Grandpa Becks, a wonderfully marvelous game of trick-taking.
Risk on the High Seas
I did not grow up playing trick-taking games such as Spades or Oh Hell, but I was introduced to these types of games as an adult. That’s when I fell in love with the trick-taking mechanic. I loved the idea of being dealt cards with another player setting the suit and having to follow or set the suit myself based off what I thought others were going to play. It’s a wonderful puzzle of risk, process of elimination, and reading people’s actions. Skull King has captured that classic mechanic of trick-taking and put it in a box with some really thematic art and a few edge-of-your-seat twists.
In Skull King, you will be dealt cards for each round based off which round it is currently. For example, one card for round one, two cards in round two, three cards in round three, and it will continue like that all the way up to round ten. Each round, you will look at your dealt hand and then must make a bid for how many books you are going to win. This is very reminiscent of Spades, if you are familiar. The difference in Skull King, however, is that everyone will be making their bid simultaneously instead of one at a time in clockwise order from the lead player.
You won’t be able to use the knowledge of bids made by players to your right as with some trick-taking games. This makes for some hilariously tense and exciting over bids and under bids, and some interesting “How did we do that?!” moments when the bid comes up exact. This is all done by extending your fist onto the table and using a “one, two, go” manner. Then, everyone reveals the number of books they think they would win by displaying it with their fingers. The game, staying true to its theme, calls for a “Yo, Ho, Ho” mantra and revealing your bid on the third “Ho”, but sometimes it can be difficult getting people to yell that in public.
Make ’em Walk the Plank
Skull King is chock full of trump cards. These are cards that sometimes allow you to break the rules of following suit in the trick. There are three colored suits in the game: purple, yellow, and green. There is also the jolly roger suit, which is black, a trump suit that always wins over the colored suits. You can lead with these cards as the first player in a trick or you can play them off suit when you are meant to follow in a trick. The game is also full of pirates! Five of them to be exact. However, there is one card that lets you trump the pirates. You guessed it: the Skull King! You need to be strategic with this card because if you play it after someone has played a pirate, you could obtain some bonus points.
The Legendary expansion adds even more fun craziness to this already exciting game. Great news though, this expansion is included in the box. It will add a few more things such as the Kraken which when played will cancel the entire trick, this card is particularly evil yet fun to play. It also adds Mermaid cards which do not trump pirates, but will put the Skull King to sleep if the Mermaid is played after the Skull King in the same trick.
There are loot cards you can play to try and get bonuses with another player if you both guessed your books exact. You can also use these to escape a trick as well as with the white flags which are included in the base game. The expansion also lets you play the game with the pirates as trump cards to all suits or you can ramp up the strategy and play them with their newly included special abilities.
The special abilities are only enacted if you win the book with the pirate you played. You can then enact some really cool abilities like allowing you to change your number of bids for the round, letting you choose who leads next instead of the winner of the book leading, and letting you look through the deck with a couple other abilities as well. This can make the game extremely exciting as things can be changing constantly and new information becomes available.
A Pirate’s Life for Me
Another great thing about this game is it’s just cards, so it has a very small footprint and table presence. This allows for travel and play almost anywhere. I introduced this to co-workers that I game with on lunchtime at work and we played it for a year straight, every day at lunch time. It most likely would have been even longer had working onsite restrictions not come into play because of the current world health situation.
As we played, more and more people would gather and watch us. Then they would eventually ask to play and join in, to the point where we were bringing in two copies every day to support 11 people playing Skull King in a work cafeteria.
I absolutely love this game if you have not been able to tell while reading this review. In my honest opinion, it is the standard for trick-taking games. It is the game upon which I judge all others that use the trick-taking mechanic. After 200+ plays of the game, it never fails to keep me on the edge of my seat.
The latest edition of Skull King was released in Spring 2021 with new cards, updated artwork, refined rules and a 2-player variant. You can purchase Skull King at your local game store or online through Amazon today.
The variety of cards add loads of strategy
Gameplay is engaging each and every turn
Big scores in late rounds keep the game competitive
The best trick-taking game on the market
Can take a couple games to gain a good bidding strategy