Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review: Sword & Skull

Sword & Skull is one of the newer titles to come out of Avalon Hill. It's got an interesting pirate theme and it's received a fair bit of press exposure, even garnering a front-page ad at but is it any good? Read on.

One of my goals with House Full of Games is to stock only the best titles. I would like my customers to be able to pick pretty much any game in our inventory and know that if the game description resonates with them, they can be pretty sure they're going to like the game. I'll be frank here. In the case of Sword & Skull, I'm not sure I've succeeded. Generally before I add a game to the inventory I like to play it or at least do some research on it but occasionally a new game will come out from a respected line and I'll be forced to make a decision purely based upon the pre-release hype. Sword & Skull was one of those.

Lately, Avalon Hill has been branching out a bit from their standard American style strategy games (think Axis & Allies and Diplomacy) and trying to broaden their appeal a bit. Sword & Skull seems to be one of their attempts to appeal more to the family market. It's a roll and move style game that at first glance looks a fair amount like a Pirate version of Monopoly. It has a square board surrounded by a pawn track. The spaces around the board are even color coded, making them look a little bit like the property groups in Monopoly. Cutting across the center of the board is a diagonal track which represent the caves leading to the lair of the pirate king (who you must defeat to win the game). If all of this sounds a bit to you like something Parker Brothers might have produced a few decades ago … well you're not alone.

The components are nice enough but Avalon Hill continues to do things a little bit on the cheap. There are several decks of uncoated paper cards, some plastic figures (which are nice but the plastic feels kind of cheap), some plastic coins, and a paper-coated board with the typical "American valley" that we're used to seeing from American manufacturers. It's all serviceable but nothing nearly as nice as the sturdy cards and linen-finished boards that we've come to expect from the finer German manufacturers. In other words: it's typical Avalon Hill quality. And if the game were very good then I wouldn't care.

Play involves rolling dice and moving one of your two pawns (a pirate and an officer in the British navy) around the board. Each space you land on gives you an opportunity to recruit crew members, gather equipment, or fight other players in an attempt to steal their crew members or equipment. The chief decision in the game is which of your two figures to move and, on some spaces, which card from a set you should chose. Unfortunately, most of the time, the choice is obvious and so really the game basically just comes down to rolling the dice and making the obvious choice.

Eventually you'll gather enough gold or firepower to feel confident enough to take on the pirate king. You then need to travel into the pirate's lair, beating all the bad-guys you meet along the way, and either have enough gold to ransom the ship he's stolen or have enough firepower to beat him in a fair fight. Either way, it all depends on a roll of the dice.

There are some things to like about this game. The rules are short, clear and colorful. There is no player elimination. There is a relatively high amount of player interaction (even if it does largely consist of rolling dice and stealing things from one another). There is a lot of theme. And the game is relatively short, playing in around 60 minutes. Unfortunately, there wasn't nearly enough strategy and not nearly enough interesting decisions to be made to hold my interest for very long.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some players will enjoy this game. My 13 year old son liked it. But I have to admit that I was unimpressed and had I played it first I probably wouldn't have stocked it.

If anyone out there would like to offer a dissenting opinion I would love to hear it! Just post a reply to this review and tell me what I'm missing. Please!


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