Skull is a 10-30-minute bluffing card game by designer Hervé Marly. The artwork might suggest tattoos and Hell’s Angels biker gangs, but you don’t need to wear a sleeveless leather jacket to play. Happily, the rules are really simple, and the gameplay has an abundance of interactivity. Skull is a perfect party game, or the kind of ‘filler’ card game you might play to start or end a game night.
Between three and six players can play Skull (I’d recommend four players and up). Think of it like a game of poker – it will thrive best at a higher player count. So, are you wearing your best poker face? Ready to read your opponents’ minds in a game of raising antes? Let’s learn how to play Skull…
It's rather quick and easy to set-up a game of Skull:
- Inside the box you’ll find what appear to be a bunch of beer mats. Do not mistake these as coasters! These are the playing cards, themselves. There are six square mats, and 24 circular mats.
- Deal each player one of the square mats, so the colourful side is facing up. Each colour has four associated circular mats to go with it – these consist of three flower cards, and one skull card. Deal these out, too.
- Pick a start player using your preferred method – I like using the smartphone app, Chwazi.
Easy! Remember to explain to players at this point what they should be doing to try and win Skull: The winner will be the first player to win two rounds. How does a player win a round? Let’s move onto the rules…
Each player starts with four cards that they keep secret: three of them are flowers; one is a skull. Everyone simultaneously picks one of their cards and places it face-down onto their square mat. Let’s imagine a five-player game is taking place. There will now be five cards sitting face-down around the table. The start player now has a choice. They can either:
- Play another card face-down on top of their first card, or…
- Open the bidding, by vocally stating how many flower cards they think they can turn over in a row among those that have been collectively played so far (as in, uninterrupted, without revealing a skull card).
In the case of option one, play resumes to the player to their left, who now has the same choices: play another card face-down, or start the bidding. Once a player decides to open the bidding, no more cards can be added face-down – now the players’ only option is option two.
In the case of option two, the player has opened the bidding. Play resumes to the player on their left, who now has two options. They can either:
- Raise the bid, if they think they can turn over more flower cards without seeing a skull, or…
- Pass, in which case they sit out the remainder of the round.
Play resumes in a clockwise nature, where the ante is constantly raised until all other players but one has passed, which leaves one player – now known as The Challenger – with the highest bid.
Now comes the fun part! Whenever a player has outbid everyone with a number, it’s now time for them to start turning over cards they think are flowers. As soon as this Challenger turns over a skull in this process, they have failed and the round ends. No more cards are revealed.
If the Challenger reveals a skull, they fail. They’ll probably shake their fist at the person that played that skull, and that person will then, blindly, remove one of the Challenger’s cards. It’s returned to the box and not revealed to anyone. Everyone takes back their cards and play repeats (go back to Step 1). The Challenger that just failed with their attempt is now the start player.
It’s worth noting that a player can be eliminated from the game if they lose their fourth and final card.
If, however, the Challenger manages to turn over their stated number of cards and they’re all flowers, they win the round. They turn their square mat over (it’s got black borders and darker patterns to show the difference) as a visual reminder that they are now 50% of the way to winning! Everyone takes back their cards and play repeats (go back to Step one). The Challenger that just won the round with their attempt is now the start player.
Therefore, the first player to achieve the above twice is the winner.
However! There is a wonderful twist in this tale. In Step 6, the Challenger with the highest bid has to turn over x number of flowers (x being their bid). They can decide which order they wish to turn over cards, but they must always start by turning over their own cards, first. If one of these was a skull (because they might have been bluffing/baiting another player into bidding higher), they instantly fail. Cue bashful face as their own skull card is reluctantly flipped over!
Once the Challenger has (successfully) revealed their own cards, they can then start turning over the other players’ cards, hoping to reveal flowers. In the occurrence that other players have played more than one card face-down, if the Challenger wants to turn over one of their cards, they have to turn over the top-placed card first, before those played underneath it. They can opt to only turn over the top card and leave the rest if they wish, perhaps returning to them later.
There is one final thing to remember, but it’s not always likely to occur in games of Skull. In rare occasions, no player is able to triumph by winning two rounds, due to copious numbers of skulls thwarting attempts. It is possible to instead win by being the last player standing, because everyone else has lost their cards… But like we say, this is rare!
In some circumstances, a player might find themselves with only one card left. If it is a skull, then if they later become the Challenger, they have no choice but to turn it over and eliminate themselves. The only way they can win in this situation is via the rare point made above, in which they are the last player standing. It’s extremely unlikely they would make it this far without getting caught out, but it’s worth noting, should it arise!
So, in a nutshell: players try to bluff each other by secretly playing cards – a skull or one of their flowers. They’ll then bet on how many flowers they think they can turn over. The winner is the first player to successfully win two rounds, in which they indeed reveal their predicted number of flowers.
Skull Tips and Tricks
The first rule of Skull (don’t worry, this isn’t like Fight Club) is trust no one (so, it’s more like The X-Files). Every single person at the table is a mischievous little so-and-so! People will play skulls a fair amount, with the intent of tripping up other players. It’s a huge part of the game, and why it’s such a lot of fun!
Therefore, much like poker where you’re gambling on the hidden information that only you know, Skull is about reading your opponents. Some players may start to show patterns in the way they play, particularly when it’s their turn to either bid or fold, which could give you some insight into what cards they’ve played. Also, like in poker, sometimes it's worth turning over a player’s card, to see if they were bluffing or not so you can read them better, later on in the game. Remember, once a skull is revealed, players take back their remaining cards without having to show them, meaning you’ll never know what card they played.
The more cards you play face-down in front of you, the more of an advantage you’ll have. Why? Because you’re that little bit more in control of knowing how many flowers there are, when applying a successful bid! If you’ve played, say, two flower cards and challenged with a bid total of five, you know you only have to find three more. A player that has only played one flower card and bid five, on the other hand, must find four. Therefore, the first player and those in sequential turn order have an edge, because they have the first option as to whether to add another card or to open with a bid.
The skull card in your hand is the most powerful one. You can, however, by (one in four) chance lose it early on if you fail a challenge. Real skill comes in convincing everyone else at the table you still have a skull card! Perhaps you could sacrifice a round at some point and ‘fold’ in an easy bidding situation, to convince people you’ve played a skull (because you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot and turn it over yourself).
On a similar note, once you are down to two cards, you might not want to place both of them in a round. Why? The reason is that if both of them are revealed, then everyone else at the table will now know your entire hand – and this puts you at a severe bluffing disadvantage, especially if you are left with only flowers.
Finally, Skull is a game that really comes to life when people around the table chat a bit. There is nothing like a bit of friendly banter or egging players on to raise their bid to create buckets of laughter. This isn’t the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas where people play in hushed silence. This is a fun card game you’ll play at the pub with your pals – just don’t put your pint down on the wrong beer mat…