Version tested: Board Game
Price: £15 / Players: 1-6 (7-12 with expansion) / Time: 30 minutes
Never mind dice. Never mind boards and manuals. Never mind fat stacks of cards, lengthy rule explanations or epic campaigns. Skull & Roses is a deadly little game with a question to ask you: Can you bluff? Can you get inside your friends' heads? Because if you can't, this is going to hurt.
Now, this is a properly tiny card game, so small even its fist-sized box emits a despairing rattle when you shake it. Don't be put off. It's tiny because the game here is quite so refined. You're actually dropping your £15 for nothing more than a set of 30 cardstock coasters and a manual, but don't be put off.
It's worth it. Skull & Roses is essentially poker, that game we all love, but just a bit better. Yes! Heresy. But it has none of the random chance, and better still, none of the statistical gubbins as to the probability of your hand winning. Because in Skull & Roses, everyone has the same hand every turn.
It works like this: Sit down in a group of up to six people, or 12 if you pick up both Skull & Roses and Skull & Roses: Red for all the coasters. Optionally, build up an atmosphere by putting on a record, handing out some bottled beer or pouring measures of Jack Daniels large enough to be smelled at a distance of three feet (if this sounds too expensive, put a saucer of petrol in the corner).
Each player has four cards, three displaying roses, one displaying a skull, and on your turn you select one of these to put face-down in front of you. This continues until everyone's put down one card, whereupon on your turn you can either put down another card or bite the bullet by making a bet.
"I can flip three," declares the friend sat to your right. What he's saying is that he can flip three cards around the table, starting with all of his own, and reveal only roses.
A silence falls over the table, heavy as money. Will anyone outbid him?
"I can flip four," mutters the girl opposite him. The table's gaze shifts to this new character, now the centre of attention. That last guy? He's already forgotten. And as no-one outbids this second player, she has to go through with it.
The second player flips both of her cards... revealing roses. At which point, Skull & Roses becomes a horrible, psychological game of minesweeper. Whose cards can you flip? The girl's hand moves slowly towards the stack of that first player to make a bet. If he bet, presumably he put down roses. Unless it was a trap. A great, rusty bear trap that she's about to disturb with her dainty wrist.
What makes Skull & Roses quite so tense is that the rewards for success and failure are huge. Succeed at your bet, and you flip your player mat over. Flip it twice, you win.
But if you lose? If you flip a coaster to reveal a grinning skull? You lose one of your cards, randomly and permanently. Get down to 1 card, the heels of your feet are off the cliff edge. Lose all your cards, you're out of the game.
That's basically the entire game, with just a couple of other rules hanging like loose threads.
Now, I could tell you that Skull & Roses is simple enough to teach to your grandmother or grandchildren. I could tell you that it's exciting, tense and rich enough to retain even the most hardcore gamer's attention. But I'd rather tell you this: You should buy Skull & Roses because it makes people scream.
Most of this is down to the revealing of cards, the best part of any poker game. In poker, the not knowing is agonising, and the knowing is even worse. It's theatre.
Skull & Roses multiplies and magnifies this reveal. It's one reveal... then another... then another... the tension building every time, the moment stretched out like so much poison taffy. When that player flips the very last card they need, and it's a skull? Everyone at your table will cry out. Or better yet, when somebody's forced to flip a skull from their own stack? You'll hear all of your friends laugh at the poor sucker, forced to drink from their own poisoned cup.
But it's also so much faster than poker. You get one of these reveals every minute. Plus, everyone's involved for the entire duration of every hand, and when you do decide to drop out of the bidding, you'll be playing again in seconds.
You could argue that this pace makes it less tense. That since every round is so quick, there's no time for Skull & Roses to build up any steam (that, with poker, is released in a huge, burning burst). But any tension lost from poker's structure is going to be gained from the fact that in Skull & Roses, every round matters to everyone, because it's not your game to lose. You're invested in stopping everyone else from winning.
A better argument against Skull & Roses might be that you do get so little in the box for the price of the game. And I might see it as a little chintzy were it not for the fact that not only have I brought Skull & Roses to the table more than I can remember, it's been a hit every single time.
It's perfect to open game nights with. It's also great to close them with, as players flip cards and laugh tiredly as a psychological digestif. But best of all, not only is it easy enough to play in a pub, the one time I took it to the pub it drew a crowd. Our game sat there, radiating tension like some star, until it had sucked more than a dozen passers-by into its terrible gravity.
I love Skull & Roses. I love it because, while you or I might call ourselves gamers, we so rarely get down to the earth of this hobby: the 'game' as a taut litany of rules that helps any of us sit, bond, laugh and fight.
This month I've been playing Teleglitch, Dota 2 and DmC: Devil May Cry, breathtaking games all. But what are we breathing, exactly? Something a little polluted, I think. Something far away from the totemic magic inherent in just a few cards and just a few rules.
Maybe you'd prefer a less fey conclusion. If so: I think you should buy Skull & Roses because I believe you, the person reading this, has a secret fantasy. I think you think you're smarter than most people. I think that you think you're a good judge of character, and I think you can be very guarded in your actions. Skull & Roses will let you find out if that's true. Fair warning, though: you might not like the answer.