Previous articles about Sword & Skull probably gave you the impression that it's a very simple path game -- "Shake the dice and move your mice," as we sometimes say. On one level, that's certainly true. With only a four-page rulebook -- just over two pages of which are actually rules -- Sword & Skull is mechanically very simple.
Do not, however, let that fool you into thinking that S&S is a game of luck instead of strategy. It's complexity arises from subtle interplay between the board, cards, and victory conditions.
You can win Sword & Skull two ways: defeat the Pirate King in combat and take back the Sea Hammer, or bribe the Pirate King and buy back the ship. You're very unlikely to achieve a position where you can do both. That means that at some point in the game, you need to make a choice -- are you amassing Might to fight the Pirate King or Gold to bribe him?
Because you control two characters, a Navy Officer and a Pirate, the obvious choice is to have one character collect Gold while the other gains Might. That can work, and you'll have uses for both Might and Gold during the game.
The main avenue to gaining either Gold or Might is the Crew Cards. Each time one of your pieces lands on a settlement, you can take one of its Crew cards and assign it to either your Navy Officer or Pirate. The card doesn't need to go to the piece that's on the settlement. Twelve of the board's thirty-two outer spaces are settlements.
Each of the five settlements has something slightly different to offer.
- Clearwater features +1 Might for Officers, or +1 Gold;
- Rum Reef features +1 Might for Pirates, or +1 Gold;
- The Mercenary Camp offers +1 Might for both pieces but no Gold;
- Smuggler's Cove offers +2 Might cards for Pirates, or +2 Gold, and;
- Fort Rock features the best cards of all -- +3 Might for Officers, or +2 Gold AND +1 Might for Officers.
All of your Gold is kept in a common treasury that is shared by both pieces, regardless of who earned it. That Gold is also spent and lost by both characters, regardless of who's doing the spending or losing. You spend Gold to buy Items, which are always good to have. The two most common ways to lose Gold are by landing in the wrong place (e.g., a settlement where other players have holdings) or losing a fight.
If you don't have enough Gold to pay a debt, you go bankrupt. Bankruptcy is a bad thing. It forces you to sell Crew and Item cards until you can pay, and then retreat back to your ship in shame -- which lines you up to run the gauntlet of settlements again, probably incurring more debt.
Focusing on gaining Might at the expense of Gold puts you in a good position to win combats, but it also leaves you vulnerable to frequent bankruptcies. You never get away with not paying your debts. If you don't have the Gold, you must sell Crew cards, which whittles down your Might.
The answer, clearly, is to make sure that you have sufficient Gold income to pay the fees and penalties that constantly erode your finances. But here's an interesting thing about income: it comes from Crew cards, the same as Might. When you fight random Enemies, their strength is based on your total number of Crew cards for both your Navy Officer and your Pirate, regardless of whether those cards give you Might or Gold. So while the Enemies' Might tends to increase slowly, focusing too much on Gold-earning Crew cards can leave you dangerously weak in combat. And losing combats costs you Gold, or even Crew cards if the victor has fewer than you. Focusing too much on Gold income leaves you in the precarious position of being the weak kid who always has plenty of lunch money -- bullies will constantly shake you down for it because you're easy and profitable prey.
So the key to advancing smoothly through the game is finding a balance between Gold and Might. At the same time, remember that the game is a race. The first player to confront the Pirate King with just enough of either Gold or Might wins. To get their first takes a focus on one or the other, but to get there at all takes a judicious balance.
Finding that balance quickly in a game with frequent and sometimes severe swings of fortune is what makes Sword & Skull so challenging. There is no consistent winning formula. Every game will be different because of the mix of random elements. Success requires quick thinking on the fly, adaptability, and a healthy dose of calculated risk-taking.
If you missed the first preview, read it here! Or catch up on the second preview here!