Review: Skulls & Roses

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pic966962_md[1]No art to find the mind’s construction in the… skull?

By Strange Prawn

I suspect that, like me, you have many friends (Shut up! I totally do!) who, while happy to play the odd game, are not ‘gamers’ per se. This is normal and fine (right…right?). What may be less so is my insistence on subjecting this group of relatively blameless individuals to gaming situations whenever and wherever possible. One of these situations is the hour or so of downtime we share every week between claiming our table for the weekly pub quiz, and the commencement of said quiz. ‘Tis a dry time, the wait for trivia. I’ve thrown a few of my smaller boxed beauties at this situation. Citadels, Condottiere and Hey, That’s my Fish have all acquitted themselves well, but all  have drawbacks. Smallness of bits being the chief issue in the crepuscular surroundings of licensed premises. What I needed was something quick and easy to set up, something with large, sturdy components, something we could play at least once in an hour and obviously, above all else, something increasingly fun to play as intoxication enfolds us in her woozy embrace. One way or another these criteria led me to Skull and Roses.

DSC_0631Skull and Roses comes in a small wee box, and what you get is essentially a set of coasters. Hang on, make that six sets of coasters. Actually, it’s seven sets of coasters. And a heck-ton of intrigue. And they’re not coasters, they’re totally beer mats. Beer mats fits much better with the game’s waffer-theen conceit of being themed around a game purportedly played by biker gangs to determine their new captain, boss, or mugwump. Or whatever they call them.

Okay, so now I’ve completely martyred coherence on the cross of accuracy, what’s going on here? Well, this is one of those games that’s simultaneously devilishly simple and diabolically complex. The simplicity you get from the contents of the box. The complexity, on the other hand, lies behind the eyes of your opponents, in their lying, lying brains.

Each player has one square beer mat  placed in front of them skull-side up. By scoring a point a player can flip this to the roses face on the other side. By scoring another point, they then win the game. Two points. That’s all you need. It’s so simple. As I’m all but certain you’ll have surmised by this this point, between you and these goals lies the playing of the game, and it is no such thing as simple.

DSC_0632[1]Everyone also takes possession of one of the sets of round beer mats. On one side these four cards display the Hells-Angels-esque motif of your chosen gang. On the reverse three of them depict roses, but one shows the dreaded skull. At the start of each round everyone pops one of their beer mats skull-or-roses side down onto their square. Then, taking it in turns, the  players can either add another face-down card, or issue a challenge. Oooh, I know, very Sons of Anarchy. A challenge is purely a bid of how many coasters the challenger reckons they can turn over without revealing a skull, and the next player can either pass, and let them go for it, or raise the bid. When all but one have passed that player must try to fulfil their bid, starting with all of their own pile of mats, and then from any of the other players piles as they wish, in a top-down fashion. If the challenger is successful, they get one of those all important points.

If they fail however, the person who’s skull defeated them gets to pick one of the poor, broken, defeated player’s cards at random and discard it. Small consolation indeed that the nature of the discarded card is not revealed, for they who lose all their cards can no longer play the game.

DSC_06362[1]Skull and Roses, and it’s sister-version/doppelganger Skull and Roses Red (the iteration I happen to own) is an game that has been whittled down to the quick. The game is the bluff and the bluff is the game. You are paying for some very nice (and they are very nice indeed) tokens to play with, but you could easily recreate the game with regular playing cards. What’s really in the box is the idea, the challenge the designers of the game have set on the table between you and your friends, one which will do it’s best to rend friendships asunder for a half-hour or so. How well can you read each other, how likely are the people you know to risk it all goading you into certain  failure? Making you reveal all of your own roses, or indeed skulls first is the rule that catalyses the whole process. You know full well you’ve got a skull in there, but if you don’t continue the bid, so will everyone else. Do you pass, and let whoever has to turn cards know they should avoid your pile, or do you bid, and put yourself in jeopardy should everyone else pass? And you know what you’ve got in front of you, what the hell are those guys up to!?

DSC_0639[1]I really enjoy a quick bout of Skull and Roses, it appeals to the same part of my brain that likes playing poker heads-up, when the cards become all but immaterial and all that counts is how well you can read your opponent and who blinks first at the wrong moment. The purity of the thing is something I find beguiling, and while a quick game or two won’t keep your gaming hunger locked up till lunch, it is a delicious mouthful that should take the edge off your cardboard craving.

It should be said though that that is all there is here. It may be too rarefied for some. My associate Go Tim finds it hard to see the point in playing, and I can kind of understand what he’s getting at, though I ultimately disagree with him. You’re not trying to outbluff your opponents to achieve some ultimate end, you’re just doing it because you can.

Just because you can.

Sounds like the kinda credo a rag-tag gang of leather-clad rebels living by their own rules might adhere to… dang, this is a bikers’ game…


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