Sword & Skull
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by Mike Elliott
Developed by Bill McQuillan
Cover art by William O'Connor
Cartography by Todd Gamble
Game board, four-page rules booklet, plastic figures (5 Officers, 5 Pirates), 110 game cards, 80 plastic coins, and dice
I received the opportunity to review Sword & Skull after I'd read
other reviews of the product. In my book, that's a big no-no. I much
prefer to review a game without being tainted by other's opinions. But,
since my memory stinks, I felt relatively secure in my ability to give
the game a fair shake.
So imagine my surprise when the first two words that came to mind when I
opened the box were the same two words that many others before me had
used to describe Sword & Skull. Was I channeling other reviewers
viewpoints, or was this game so transparently derivative of other games?
Guess what? You get to be the judge. Oh, and by the way: I'm never going
to be directly using those two words/games to describe this game in this
review. After all, the Ogre strives to deliver unique content.
Pieces of Crate
When you open the Sword & Skull box, you're greeted with what seems to
be the new Avalon Hill format for packaging games. Pop out a couple
cardboard cross braces, flip the inner shell, slot the pieces together,
and you've got a six-section cardboard tray for holding your components.
You will, however, need to provide your own baggies.
There's also a quad-folded game board, a single pack of shrinkwrapped
cards, and a bunch of cheap plastic doubloons in 1s, 5s, and 10s. The
two best components happened to be the 10 plastic figures - five
different colored pairs of identical officers and pirates - and the
three very interesting pipped six-sided dice, which look
like someone tried to carve out the pips with a rock and chisel.
The gratingly text-heavy board has a rectangular outer track with eight
segments (includes corners) to a side. The center square of each side is
identical. Each of the four sides has 2-4 like-colored segments that
fall into a single category, such as two yellow Port Rum spaces or three
green Smuggler's Cove spaces.
The center of the board has a trail leading from one of the outer
segments to meet the Pirate King or, if your nerves fail you, branching
to an outer segment on the opposite side of the board.
Git Goon, Ye Scurvey Dawgs!
Gameplay is mind-numbingly simple, jarringly ambiguous, and
Each player receives a like-colored pair of officer and pirate figures.
They begin "off" the board, two spaces apart, and always move a number
of spaces clockwise around the board as dictated by the dice. They run
around the outer track, following instructions on the spaces until they
collect enough gold to pay off the Pirate King, or enough combat
strength to defeat him. Apparently he's got some fancy ship you must
Landing on spaces results in fighting stuff, gaining/losing gold and/or
gaining/losing support cards. You always fight (opposed dice rolls) when the opportunity provides itself. If you land on other players, you fight them. Fighting random
enemies out of the deck provides variable rewards. Fighting a player
results in an exchange of two gold or a support card.
Support cards come in two flavors: cards you hold in your hand for
emergencies (Fortune), and Items or Crew you have in front of you to
build up your combat or crew influence. Icons on cards indicate additions
to pirate combat (pistols), officer combat (swords) or influence (gold
coins). Anyone recruiting Crew from a given color must pay (rent to)
anyone who has influence (gold icons) in that color.
So, as parallels to this review's unspeakable two words, we've got:
Enemy = Adventure
Fortune = Chance/Community Chest
Items = Items
Crew = Properties
Volcano Trail = Inner Path
Outer Ring = Outer Path
Pirate King = Dragon Lord
Paying Doubloons = Paying Rent
Moving one of two characters clockwise = Moving one character clockwise
There's derivative, and then there's Sword & Skull.
Polly Got a Sucker?
You get to play two characters (officer and pirate) at the same time.
Tactical considerations are limited to determining which character gives
you the best outcome based on the movement roll you just made. Rarely is
there ever any real selection dilemma. Strategy is virtually nonexistent
since you can't really plan for a particular character to become
stronger - even with two choices for movement. You're simply too much
at the mercy of the dice rolls.
I claimed earlier that the game was "off-theme." Here's why: it doesn't
seem to matter which character you use, except when you fight and have
to add up swords or pistols. The pirate, who can only use guns from
items and pirate crew, can wander around and collect cutlass items and
officer crew, which your officer can then magically access. Yick. At
least other games with multiple characters have you maintaining those
When playing the game for review purposes, we misplayed the game in a
way that greatly speeded up gameplay. (For the morbidly curious, we
misread the Treasure Chest spaces as "For every other treasure chest
with fewer than five gold coins, place one coin on this space." No harm
done, since the game would otherwise have taken twice as long.
While it was immediately apparent which Crew contributed combat strength
to the pirate or officer, we couldn't figure out whether all the game
rules referring to Crew for other reasons were intended to be character
specific (officer crew or pirate crew), or player specific (all crew
held by a single player). This is where the ambiguity
kicked in. We imposed a houserule to avoid insanity and rickets.
On the other pegleg, it's an excellent kids' version of Talismanopoly.
Run around, collect gold and strength, try to avoid getting beat up by
and/or paying off other players and enemies. Ultimately head up the
inner path to defeat/pay off the Pirate King. Even for kids, however,
the thrill won't last. There's just not enough rules clarity,
variability, physical attraction or replayability in the game. At least,
not for the price.
Bottom hook, line, and stinker
As soon as you play Sword & Skull, you'll realize you were duped into spending a
lot of money for some neato dice you'll absorb into your other games,
and some keeno character figures that your pets/kids will chew up. Heave
this one overboard and set sail for better gaming elsewhere.