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SWORD & SKULL

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Avalon Hill, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, about 60 minutes; $45)

 

The resurrected Avalon Hill has come up with several engaging titles in its relatively brief life. These include older classics such as Acquire (Spring 2000 GA REPORT) and new fare such as Battle Cry (Summer 2000 GA REPORT). In the first of the latest burst of releases, Avalon Hill opts for something approaching a mixture of the two: a new game with an older “flavor” as we return to the days of pirates and pieces of eight in Sword & Skull.

Sword & Skull is a Mike Elliott design and within its square box are a host of components: a mounted mapboard, 10 plastic figures (half pirates, half officers), several decks of cards (Crew, Enemy, Fortune and Item), gold tokens, 5 player cards, dice and, surprisingly for an Avalon Hill game, only 4 pages of rules (actually 3 as the first page is an introduction). The premise of the game is straightforward: the Pirate King has stolen the Sea Hammer, the pride of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Players, commanding both a Royal Navy officer AND a nefarious pirate, have got to get the ship back, either through bribery of the Pirate King or by defeating him in a duel. The first player to succeed in this task wins the game!

The mapboard consists of a track around the perimeter and an inner track called the Volcano Path. Players choose a Navy officer and pirate (of the same color) and all of these pieces are positioned on the Navy or Pirate Ship spaces off the track. Each player begins with 10 gold. The various card decks are separated and shuffled. (Crew cards numbered higher than the number of players in the game are removed.) Now, the game is ready for action.

The turn starts with the active player rolling the dice. The six-sided dice are numbered 1 through 5 with one blank side. On the roll, a player may move either his Officer or Pirate and do whatever the space landed on requires. Should doubles be rolled, BOTH figures must be moved the rolled total. If double blanks come up, you may “teleport” either of your pieces to any unoccupied space (inner or outer paths) on the board.

The board is littered with spaces that offer choices and challenges including but not limited to the Trading Post, Treasure Chest and Settlements.

The Trading Post allows players to gather valuable items to help in their quest. The active player turns over the top item card and, starting with the player to his left, conducts a 1 bid auction for it. The active player has the final bid with high bidder paying the winning amount to the bank.

Four of the spaces are labeled Treasure Chest (if you know where the railroads are in your Monopoly game, you know where these spaces are located) and these are seeded with one gold coin each.

Five settlements are on the board. Each settlement has different crew cards available which will be claimed as the game progresses. If a crew card IS available, the player may claim it for free – but also has to pay 1 gold to each player who already has a card from that settlement marked by one or more gold coin icons. Officers and Pirates start with a “might” of 0 and are not a formidable threat to the Pirate King. Crew cards add might to either the Pirate or the Officer and are cumulative in their effects. And, then, of course, there is combat.

Combat is conducted in the same manner whether fighting an enemy (drawn from the enemy card deck) or another player. Each combatant rolls a die and adds to the rolled number, the number of his “might”. The player with the highest total wins. (Should you roll a blank, you automatically lose! Should both combatants rolls blanks, you reroll.)swordskull2

Winning a combat is a good thing. Defeat an enemy and, as stated on the enemy card, you will get gold and/or useful items. Defeat another player and you may take 2 gold OR a crew card (if that player has more crew cards than you) from that player. Gold is an important resource but if you cannot pay your debts, you are not disqualified. Such a state of bankruptcy forces you to lose all of your accumulated items and your figure is moved back to the starting place on the Pirate or Navy ship.

As the game progresses and players beef up their gold and might, they will, sooner or later, enter the Volcano Path to face the Pirate King.

The Volcano Path is like the career paths in Parker Brother’s venerable game, Careers. You roll the dice and do what the space you land on says, be it picking up an item card or gaining or losing some gold. When you feel ready, you advance to the Lake of Fire. This space forces you to fight the Pirate King’s First Mate (who has a might of 4). Defeat him, and you can advance to the showdown with the Pirate King himself!

There are two ways to handle the Pirate King: bribery and combat. Based upon the number of players (and a roll of the dice), it will take anywhere from 30 to 50 Gold to wrest the Sea Hammer from his treacherous grasp. Without the necessary Gold, you have no choice but to defeat him in battle. The Pirate King has a might of 10 + a die roll. If your might + your die roll equals or exceeds the Pirate King’s might value, victory is yours!

The game operates in turns and you might think this would create a downtime problem but it didn’t work out that way. Before you know it, it’s your turn to roll the dice and adventure onward. The truth of the matter is that this game moves (a good thing), partly accountable to the limited decision-making involved (a not-so-good thing).

Sword & Skull is a cross between a traditional “dungeon crawl”, Talisman (Summer 1988 GA REPORT) and Careers! The biggest problem of the game is the imprint. This is NOT an Avalon Hill game in the traditional sense of that term nor a “gamer’s game” in any sense of that term. Gamers picking up this item will be shocked at the complexity. It’s NOT complex! Sword & Skull is a throwback to an earlier time, a game that would fit comfortably into the Parker Brothers line of games in the 1960s!

Sword & Skull is family fare. It doesn’t blaze new trails in either subject matter or game design. But it doesn’t really matter because it’s all beside the point. Sword & Skull is an “experience” game with the target being families or a group of teen players where arming your forces with might and gold to go head to head against the Pirate King keeps everyone involved in an enjoyable evening of entertainment. – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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