Once upon a time, the story goes, biker gangs elected new leaders by stringing candidates to the backs of motorbikes and seeing who could hold on longest. But more liberal-minded biker gangs thought that stringing people to the backs of motorbikes was maybe a bit draconian. So they created Skulls & Roses, the humane and less-chafing alternative to biker gang leadership elections. Plus, you could drink while playing. Today, Skulls & Roses is called Skull, and it comes packaged in a small, portable, rectangular box with colourful cards. But it’s still the same game.
But hold on a moment. It turns out that this is just one of Skull’s possible origins. It’s equally possible that Skull was imported from undefined foreign lands to San Francisco in the 1920s, and appropriated there by those aforementioned biker gangs.
It’s no coincidence that Skull’s story has at least two variants. Board games are defined by their themes; it might be a fantasy realm or a distant galaxy, it might be the historical past or an imagined future. Whatever the case, games are usually set somewhere. But Skull is unique, and it’s unique precisely because it’s not set anywhere but where it’s played. Skull feels somehow intimate. It feels human. It feels personal. The story of Skull wraps the game in a folk game tradition that players get to own and become part of. Imagine: playing Skull makes you and your friends part of Skull’s tradition. You become part of the game’s mythology. The story becomes yours to pass on and keep alive.
And then you look at the game’s components, and you feel even more that you’re in the realm of folk games. Skull’s cards are the same shape, size and texture as beer mats. This is not a coincidence: Skull’s cards really are beer mats. In fact, you can play the game with only a pen and an understanding barman. You can play Skull with a deck of playing cards. But you’ll want to buy Lui-Même’s new edition: it’s not cheap for a box of beer mats, but it looks gorgeous and the components are luxurious and sturdy and feel really good to hold. On top of that, there are two editions to buy. The current Mexican Day of the Dead theme is very pretty and colourful, but the biker-themed “Skulls & Roses” version feels more appropriate for the pub and is possibly even prettier and, though limited, copies are still kicking around online:
But let’s talk about the game itself. And Skull really is a very simple game. Everybody has a hand of four cards, three illustrated with a ‘rose’ and one illustrated with a skull. Going clockwise, players in turn put a card face-down on their player mat. Everybody soon has a card in front of them. The game continues, clockwise round the table; players continue putting down cards. But now you have a choice: you don’t have to put down a card; you can, if you feel brave, issue a challenge. A challenge is the number of face-down cards you think you can turn over without turning over a skull.
When a challenge is issued, Skull enters its most Poker-esque stage. Going clockwise round the table, players choose to increase the number of the challenge or pass and sit out the bidding. If players are feeling bold, the bid will get higher and higher. Intimidatingly high. Eventually all but one player will pass. That player becomes the challenger. More precisely, the winning bidder becomes a very nervous challenger. Nervous, because she has to make good on her bid and start turning over cards. If she flips over a skull she loses the challenge, and losing a challenge means she loses, at random, one of her own cards. But if the challenger turns over her stated number of cards without hitting a skull she wins a point. Winning a point is halfway to winning the game. That’s right: Skull players need only two points to win the game.
Suffice to say this is nerve-wracking and fraught. The ratio of risk to reward is so high. But it’s not everything Skull has to offer. Until now I’ve omitted the game’s best rule; its pièce-de-résistance; the thing that elevates it from a simple game of luck into a fiendishly tense game of bluffing and gamesmanship. You see, when you start flipping cards, you always flip your own cards first. The dilemma this causes! Do you dare issue a challenge when you have a skull in front of you? Do you dare call a player’s bluff, knowing that you have to flip your own skull if the bluff fails? And what if another player issues a challenge? Are his cards safe? Are you going to call his bluff or risk him winning a point? This is all high-stakes stuff.
So Skull is really very simple and very elegant, but be warned that this simplicity comes with a problem. There’s a chance that the first time you play Skull you’ll wonder where the game is. You’ll wonder how it’s supposed to work. Skull is so pared down it offers its players nothing to work with. The cards have the same values; every player the same hand. So how do you work out the odds? How do you work out the value of your cards compared to those of other players? How do you calculate the chances of turning over a skull versus the chances of winning a point? The truth is you don’t. You can’t. And so your first games of Skull might feel random and confused and pointless. Winning or losing might feel as strategic as saying a number, rolling a die and winning if your number comes up.
If this happens to your group, I urge you to stick with Skull. Eventually it will reveal its dark heart. Eventually you’ll get it. And once you do you’ll be hooked. But if it still doesn’t happen, allow me to recommend you go back and read the manual. But don’t read the rules; you know the rules. Skip instead to the game tips at the back of the manual. This is where you learn how Skull really works:
To destabilize your opponents, comment your actions and that of other players, especially those of the Challenger. For example, by saying “There, I’m warning you, I’m playing a Skull!”, or “Nooo — don’t flip one of his disks, he played a skull!”
When you read this, a funny thing happens. You realise that you were playing Skull the wrong way. You were playing Skull the way you play Poker, with impenetrable poker faces, sat largely in silence because you were busy working out odds and values that don’t exist. Suffice to say this is a mistake. Poker encourages you to think, to quietly work out the value of cards and hands, to compute odds and statistics. Poker encourages you not to give anything away, to be impassive and impenetrable. But Skull wants you to give everything away. Skull wants you to be expressive and expansive and it really, really, really wants you to talk. it wants you to constantly bluff, to constantly bullshit.
You start to understand that Skull does not reside in its rules, that the rules are only the framework around which you create the game. You realise that the odds and systems you were looking for in Skull’s cards are actually in your fellow players. You were trying to play Skull when you should have been playing your friends. So you start talking. You put down a card and you confidently say “This is a skull. I promise you, it’s a skull.” Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. When your friend issues a challenge, you look her in the eye and tap your stack of cards and say “These cards are safe. You can flip these cards.” Maybe you’ll wave the cards in what you imagine is a really tempting manner. And maybe she can flip your cards. The point is that she’s not trying to work out the cards, she’s trying to work out you.
Suddenly Skull opens up. You start to see all of its dimensions. You start to see that losing a card is not only a handicap but an opportunity for further bullshit. You’ll tell the table you’ve lost your Skull. Maybe you have, but only you know; and now you watch your friends try to work it out while you sit feeling like you’ve pull some Derren Brown mind trick. Beyond this you’ll start to see your friends in different ways. You’ll understand them better. That one aggressively-minded guy who always wants an early point? You can play him. Now you know how he thinks; you know how he acts. You’ll work out what he’s going to play. You can bluff him.
Despite all this, there are still a lot of people who won’t enjoy Skull. Some people won’t get it. Or they’ll get it and still not enjoy it. Some people will find it too light, too vague, too insubstantial. A lot of people will prefer games that offer concrete, defined systems; games that clearly set out the terms ahead of time. Some people aren’t comfortable bluffing or don’t like doing it. So we highly recommend Skull, but the recommendation comes with a caveat: before you spend £18, consider very carefully if Skull is a game your friends will enjoy. Consider very carefully if your friends will embrace its spirit, if they’ll play it the way it’s intended. And if you’re still not sure, try it for free. Grab a pen, adopt your best apologetic smile and make your way to the bar!
Number of players: 3-6
Playing time: 15-45 minutes
Designer: Harvé Marly
Recommended soundtrack: Anything by Tom Waits