Photography: Alex Johnson
The tabletop game Skull, also known as Skull and Roses is a simple game of bluffing and pressing your luck. It is not only one of the best games I’ve seen for introducing people into niche tabletop gaming, but one of the most expertly crafted systems of lying, trapping and logical reasoning I’ve seen in gaming.
The rules for Skull fit on four small pages and can be explained in their entirety in a couple minutes. Basically, each player is given four coasters, three of which have flowers on one side, while one has a skull. The first player, places one of their coasters face down, as does the person to their left and so on until it circles back to the first player. From then on, when it’s their turn each player can choose to place another coaster down continuing the rotation, or, and here’s where the game begins, they can bet how many coasters, say three, they can flip over without flipping over a skull. Then the other players can choose to pass or raise the stakes and declare that they can flip, say four, without getting a skull. The person who bets the highest plays that round.
But if they were wrong and flip over a skull, they permanently lose a random coaster from their hand of four. If a player loses all their coasters, they’re out of the game. And that’s it. That’s all rules you need to know to start playing Skull. Simple right?
Here’s where the game gets tricky. Let’s say you bet you could flip five coasters. You start by flipping over the two flowers you placed face down. You now have to pick three more coasters on the field to flip over. You might think that the other players who were competing with you to get the highest bet probably played flowers.
But what if they were bluffing? What if they placed a skull face down and placed a bet hoping that someone would outbid them and end up having to take a riskier bet? Maybe they just wanted to seem innocent when they are actually trying to trick you into flipping over their skull. The person to your right has been playing really defensively, she probably played a skull. The person to your left has lost two cards, he might not have his skull anymore, and would then be a safe bet. The person across from you is laughing to himself, you obviously can’t trust him.
Or, what if you were the one who tried to bluff? What if you placed a skull face down and bet five, thinking someone else would say six, but no one did? You now have to flip over your own skull and lose the round. This is what Skull is at its heart. A very deep logic puzzle based entirely around your ability to read your opponents and successfully bluff.
Everyone at the table put down one coaster before the person to my right started the betting at two. I bet three, another person four, and then that first person bet again saying five.
Without a moment of thinking about all of the reasons I shouldn’t, I made the rash decision and muttered six. I bet that I could flip all of them without getting a skull. I knew I shouldn’t have made that choice, it was a stupid move that would put me down to one remaining coaster. I cursed at myself for basically having just lost the game. Resigned to my fate I, without stopping to worry or draw it out, started unceremoniously flipping up the coasters starting with my own.
I flipped a flower, a flower, a flower, a flower, a flower and a flower. I had just won the game.
In a single moment I went from feeling stupid and defeated, to seeing more flowers than I was expecting, and suddenly becoming very tense and visibly shaking, to screaming in triumph.
Skull is full of moments like these. When someone successfully pulls off a risky bet, everyone cheers for them. When somebody is slowly flipping over the coasters everyone shuts up and becomes as tense as the person who placed the best. And possibly, most importantly, when someone flips over the dreaded skull everyone laughs and pats that person on the shoulder. It might just look like a pile of coasters, but it is an endlessly exciting and intense experience.
The thing about Skull though, is you can hand make a copy of the game pretty much anywhere, and out of pretty much anything. All you really need is four identical items for each player, whether they be playing cards, scraps of paper or even regular coasters. Just mark one of those pieces on one side with a skull, a cat, Nicolas Cage, whatever, and you've got yourself a copy of Skull ready to play.
However, I would still fully recommend purchasing a copy of Skull. The art style and unique designs of each of the six player colors is absolutely gorgeous. The game's box is also pretty eye-catching. Every time I’ve brought it somewhere people are immediately curious about what it is. Plus the game is also fairly affordable at the $20 to $35 range and packs unlimited replayability despite its small size.
Skull is the sort of game you could bring out at a party and have seasoned gamers and non-gamers alike lying, bluffing, screaming and cheering within minutes. It’s visually stunning, easy enough to explain and guarantees a fun 30-45 minutes no matter where you are. It’s a remarkable little game.
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