The publisher gifted me a copy of this game; however, I always strive to provide fair, honest opinions.
Game at a Glance:
- Grandpa Beck’s Games
- Players: 2-8
- Ages: 8-99
- Length: 30-45
- Mechanics: Trick Taking, Bidding
- Availability (at time of publication): Online, or check your friendly local game store
Skull King is a trick-taking card game in which players state how many tricks they think they’ll win each round, similar to Euchre or Spades. Bidding takes place simultaneously which often leads to over- and under-bid rounds (which leads to chaos – the fun kind).
In the deck you’ll find four numbered suits, escape cards, and a variety of powerful “face” cards in the form of pirates, mermaids, and leviathans (such as the trick-destroying Kraken). The new edition of the game debuts a second nautical beast: the White Whale. Rather than destroying a trick, the whale completely capsizes everyone’s plans by essentially making the powerful face cards useless and forcing the highest number card to win, regardless of suit.
- Gameplay: Good. The mechanics aren’t innovative but it takes a classic card game (Oh Hell, a.k.a. Oh Heck) and adds some twists and turns to make it more exciting. The length feels appropriate and I would say it scales pretty well in general. The new edition comes with a 2p variant, although I believe this is a game that shines at 4+ players due to the fun group dynamic.
- Art & Style: Excellent. The beautiful illustrations by Apryl Stott set a lighthearted tone for this pirate-themed game which feels appropriate. The artwork is fun and has a personal touch featuring family and friends of Grandpa Beck himself. Trick taking games generally aren’t known for their thematic integration, but Skull King does a decent job of injecting some pirate flavor into the game, e.g., the Kraken pulls all the tricks to the bottom of the ocean and the Skull King has a weakness for mermaids.
- Accessibility: Good (with the caveat that understanding the core mechanic of trick-taking helps). Scoring tends to be a hurdle for new players. It’s not difficult but some of the scoring can feel a bit convoluted when you are starting out and many people struggle with the power hierarchy of mermaids, pirates and the Skull King. Fortunately this edition of the game comes with reference cards that take the guesswork out of bonus point scoring, and advanced rule variants such as pirate abilities and loot cards.
- Components: Good. Grandpa Beck’s Games puts effort into ensuring their cards hold up and that is evident when the deck is shuffled. If you tend to play outside or with children just understand that the cards may show wear faster. The box is small yet stores the cards, score sheets, and rules nicely.
- Replay-ability: High. There is a lot in this small box. You can customize the game experience by adding in cards, or additional rules (like variable pirate powers). My group tends not to add Loot cards and pirate powers to the game – it’s something we can do when the game starts feeling stale but after several years of consistent play, that has not yet happened.
Tabletop Mom’s Opinion
Skull King is a huge favorite in our family. This game has been introduced to several friends, all of whom have purchased their own copies. We recently introduced it to my 9 year old son and he now lists it as one of his top 5 games.
I am a fan of the new White Whale card. It adds a wonderful dose of unpredictability and tension to the game. My favorite strategy in any trick taking game is to go for zero tricks because I love card-sloughing. Knowing the White Whale is lurking somewhere in the deck makes that strategy much less comfortable for me, especially since bidding zero is already so risky in this game. This is a good thing – nobody should ever feel completely safe in a game of Skull King.
Is this game perfect? Probably not (I doubt there’s such a thing). What is most important to me is this: is it fun? And Skull King has delivered fun to my family and friends in spades! Games often erupt in good-natured yelling and maniacal laughter when a seemingly perfectly-bid hand gets sunk due to an unexpected mermaid mucking up the Skull King’s plans. This game is full of table-moment potential. I have memories of plans going sideways from years ago that still make me smile.
I mentioned above that this copy was gifted to us, but I wanted to point out that this is our 4th copy of this game (the previous 3 were purchased on our own). One was eaten by the dog, one got pretty disgusting on a camping trip… I’d like to say this is the last copy of Skull King we will need but the truth of the matter is, we play it so often that we will likely need to replace it for a fresh, clean copy in a few years. And at it’s fair price point, that is ok with me.
Tabletop Mom Recommends this for families (8+), groups that enjoy trick taking card games, and anybody that enjoys a light-hearted game with some chaotic elements. This is a game that favors those who can make quick tactical decisions and pivot their strategy when plans go sideways. Not recommended for those who do not like any unpredictability in games.