Michael Elliott and Bill McQuillan are the designer and developer of Sword and Skull. We interviewed them about games, about the game design process, and about Sword & Skull specifically.
AH.com: What sorts of games do you most enjoy playing? What games are your favorites?
MIKE: Currently, I play World of Warcraft online in my spare time. I still enjoy playing Magic even after 10 years. For board games, my current favorites are Ra, Puerto Rico, and Carcassonne.
QUILL: I enjoy all types of games, but board games most of all because they give me an opportunity to interact with people face-to-face in friendly competition. I'm a big fan of the Euro-style games that are gaining popularity in the U.S. My favorites are games like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, RA, Carcassonne, Web of Power, El Grande, Taj Mahal, Alhambra, Memoir 44 . . . the list could keep just going. I'm also a huge fan of many old school board games like Titan, Talisman, Axis & Allies, Firepower, and others, though I don't play them as much any more.
AH.com: Did Sword & Skull start out with a pirate theme? If not, what other themes were considered?
MIKE: It started out with a hero and villain theme. In fact, the playtest name was "Heroes and Villains." I envisioned it with a fantasy theme originally, but I like the pirate theme better.
QUILL: Mike's original theme was pretty standard fantasy fare -- goblins, giants, magic equipment. We wanted a theme that had the potential to reach a wider audience. The pirate theme fit the bill nicely.
AH.com: Was it a challenge to apply the pirate theme to the game?
QUILL: Not at all, actually. Once we settled on the theme, everything fell into place. The "Dragon" became the "Pirate King," "monsters" became "enemies," and so on. It was fun doing the research, too. How often do you get the opportunity to put a "blunderbuss" into a game? It was fun to watch the game develop visually. Our art team, led by Pete Whitley, did a superb job of capturing the cool vibe that permeates the game.
AH.com: Was Sword & Skull built up from a simpler design or winnowed down from a more complex one?
MIKE: A little of both. Some complicated mechanics were taken out, and a couple of other mechanics, such as crew stealing, were added in.
QUILL: During development, we removed some mechanics in an effort to focus on and beef up the parts of the game that were most fun. So, we cut out some complete parts of the game but then added layers to the remaining parts.
AH.com: What got left on the cutting room floor that you miss the most?
QUILL: One of the rules we decided to cut was a "trapdoor" -- pieces that moved to certain spaces could then reappear on other spaces. It was fun and a great way to surprise and ambush other players, but it added too much chaos to a game that already contains a good amount of chance.
AH.com: A central feature of Sword & Skull is the decision that every player faces between building up his two pieces to either buy back the ship or take back the ship. Where did the idea for this tug-of-war come from?
MIKE: It is always good in any game to have alternate victory conditions so that late in the game, when one player is ahead in a certain area, other players who are behind in that area still have a chance to compete by focusing on a different approach. The two-piece system lets players choose which way they want to go and focus on that strategy, but when the situation changes and the game goes against their plan, there's enough flexibility to fall back on another option.
AH.com: Did the game always feature two playing pieces for each character, or did that idea evolve during development?
MIKE: Yes. An early version of the game had players roll two 8-sided dice and assign each die to one of the pieces. Counting out all the possible moves and considering their effects, however, was difficult and time consuming. To speed up the game, this was cut down so that you pick one piece and move it the full total, with only doubles moving both pieces.
AH.com: Which facet of the game are you most pleased with?
MIKE: The dual movement and the shared crew. I like that you need to make a choice when you roll for movement instead of just trudging along the track.
QUILL: I like the overall accessibility of the game. It can be played and enjoyed by anyone, whether you're a gamer or not.
AH.com: What do you consider the most unusual aspect of Sword & Skull?
MIKE: Including player-on-player combat in a classic-style board game. I often describe this game to my friends as Advanced Monopoly with combat. Most track-style board games -- including one of my favorites, Fast Food Franchise -- involve the players moving around and building up a position on the board. The twist here is that instead of building up a position, you build up your actual pieces. With two pieces for each player, you have a lot of fights during the game. This keeps everyone more engaged, because you can be pulled into the action by a combat at any time and not just on your turn.
QUILL: Based on feedback from first-time players, I'd have to say my favorite is Mike's "Treasure Chest" mechanic. It's an interesting and unusual way to introduce a steady flow of money into the game.
AH.com: Do you have any advice for Sword & Skull players?
MIKE: It's hard to make both pieces strong, so focus on one. Even if you plan to go for an economic victory, build up one piece's Might at least a little for protection; weak pieces can be "picked on" in this game more than most. Getting too far ahead in Crew cards can punish you a bit, too. Avoid making yourself too much of a threat until you are in a position to make a run at the ship.
QUILL: To add to Mike's point about getting ahead, don't overlook the Pirate's ability at the Castle. Cashing in some of your less-needed Crew can be a real benefit when trying to avoid being picked on.
Michael Elliott is Director of Design for Wizards of the Coast. He has worked for WotC for almost 10 years, mostly on trading card games (Magic: The Gathering, Duelmasters, The Simpsons, Harry Potter, Neopets) and traditional card games (Earthquke, Instinct). Sword & Skull is his first published board game design.
Bill McQuillan is the lead developer for Avalon Hill games. He's a lifelong player of all types of games, and he's worked at Wizards of the Coast for more than five years. He defines his mission at Avalon Hill as introducing board games to the countless people who might love playing them as much as he does but who haven't discovered them yet.
And no, Mike and Bill are not afflicted with either scurvy or malaria.