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Sword & Skull
Basic Strategy
By Alan Kwan

Sword & Skull is a fun, pirate-themed game. On the surface, it looks as if there is a lot of dice rolling and a lot of luck in the game. There is a fair amount of luck in the game, because a pirate's (or navy officer's!) life is one of dancing with fate. But wits and strategy still count. A stupid pirate may make his day when he is lucky, but a smart one can make his luck any day (well, on most days, at least).

The Goal of the Game

The objective is to win back the Sea Hammer from the Pirate King, either by buying it with Gold or by beating him in combat. The process toward winning can be broken down into three steps:

  1. accumulate Gold and/or Might;
  2. enter the volcano;
  3. defeat the First Mate and the Pirate King.

To understand how to play an effective strategy, it is essential to understand what it takes to accomplish step #3. The entire purpose of step #1 is to facilitate step #3, while step #2 is a question of timing and usually not a difficult process in itself.

Against the Pirate King

There are two ways to beat the Pirate King: either bribe him with Gold or defeat him in combat.

The Gold table printed on the board is handy for resolving the encounter against the Pirate King, but to facilitate one's strategy, it is more useful to get a clear idea of the odds of success, shown in the table here:

Table 1: Odds of Bribing Successfully
(successful occurrences on 1d6 throw)

Number of Players
Gold 2 3 4 5
30 1 0 0 0
35 3 2 1 0
40 5 4 3 2
45 6 6 5 4
50 6 6 6 6

One needs a fair amount of Gold to start to have any chance, but above that amount, every 5 Gold increases the odds by 2 in 6. This is a rather steep curve!

Next is the combat odds table. This all-important table is useful not only against the Pirate King, but also for all combat situations:

Table 2: Combat odds

Attacker's Odds Win Rate
-5 or worse 14%
-4 17%
-3 23%
-2 31%
-1 43%
0 57%
+1 69%
+2 77%
+3 83%
+4 86%

Players who are familiar with a similar, common dice combat system, as in Talisman or Mystic Wood, should notice that the odds here are quite different from the ones you're used to. In S&S's combat system, the underdog has a much better chance of winning than in those other games. Not only can the attacker win on a tie instead of having to reroll (rerolling favors the stronger combatant), but also there is the auto-win against a blank -- a 5-in-35 (1-in-7) chance (rounded off to 14% in the table above). For example, in the common system, an attack at -1 has only a 32% chance of winning -- much less than the 43% here, and not much different from the 31% for attacking at -2 here! In the common system, a strength difference of -2 is almost decisive, leaving only a 19% chance for the weaker side. But in S&S, one has a better chance even defending at -2, for 23%. Not only is combat less of a consistent victory for the stronger side, but the significance of each additional Might point is smaller.

The Penalty for Failure

When you try your luck with the Pirate King and fail (or get unlucky enough to roll a blank against the First Mate), you get tossed back into the Thieves' Den and lose some Gold (the average amount being 5 Gold).

A very important point: if you are relying on your Might to beat the Pirate King, this loss of Gold is unimportant, as long as you have enough to pay. All it takes is two turns for you to return and try again. You can, in fact, repeat the challenge again and again until you get lucky. Of course, you cannot afford to fail so many times that you go Bankrupt and are forced to sell an important weapon or get sent back to the ship. You do need at least a few Might points to reliably get through the First Mate; otherwise you'll most probably go Bankrupt before you succeed.

If you are trying to bribe the Pirate King, the Gold loss will reduce your chances on your next attempt, often significantly because of the steep curve. It may not take too long for you to recover the lost Gold, however, so it may be worth trying even when you have less than a guaranteed success, especially if you are being pressed to stay ahead of the competition. Or you can, even after a failure, just resort to using your Gold to fuel repeated attempts at beating the Pirate King by Might!

Target Build-Up Level

Here is a table of the combined odds for beating both the First Mate and the Pirate King in two consecutive fights:

Table 3: Conclusion by Combat

Might Win Rate
0 2%
1 3%
2 4%
3 6%
4 8%
5 10%
6 13%
7 19%
8 27%
9 37%
10 49%
11 59%
12 66%
13 71%
14+ 73%

We can see that the odds start getting good at 8 Might and become nearly 50% at 10 Might. Building up beyond 11 Might is not necessarily productive. Remember that you can challenge the Pirate King repeatedly, so it usually is better to spend your time fighting the Pirate King than trying to pick up a few more Might! When your Might is low, it is more efficient to build up than to waste time on attempts with only a slim chance for success, but when your Might is high, it is better to spend your time actually fighting the Pirate King (repeating until you get a success) than to hunt for another elusive Might point or two.

Ideally, one wants to get 10 Might, but once the relevant Crew cards have been depleted and/or one already has two weapons for the figure, it is often not easy to get more Might. In such cases, it may be better to start fighting the Pirate King with 8 or even 7 Might than to continue circling the board aimlessly.

One obvious and important point: you typically use only one figure against the Pirate King, so you should focus on building up just one figure or the other and not spreading your efforts evenly between the two. In fact, it is probably better to get more Gold than to get unneeded Might for your other figure. This helps avoid going Bankrupt, and it delays your opponents' winning, if you're getting the Gold from them.

Next up -- Entering the Volcano

About the Author

Alan Kwan is the owner of a board game specialty store in Hong Kong, a long-time gamer, and Yinsh World Champion 2004.

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