Can you hear it? Across the distance comes the rumble of giant foot falls. Then you see it: a great beast rises across the plain, drawing in and building itself from the very earth around it. Or perhaps you are this conjured terror, the ancient guardian, come to seek justice from the king? The fate of the land is at stake. Who will prevail? Find out, in “Skulk Hollow.”
Designed by Eduardo Baraf, Seth Johnson, Keith Matejka
Art by Dustin Foust, Sebastián Koziner, Keith Matejka, Helen Zhu
Published by Pencil 1st Games
Review copy provided by Pencil 1st Games
“Skulk Hollow” begins with two players each selecting one of two opposing factions: the Foxen or the Guardians. Each faction in turn features an extra level of player choice: the Foxen player is able to choose one of four different leaders; while the Guardian player will select from one of four different Guardians. The Foxen player wins if they are able to assign enough damage to defeat the Guardian. Part of what makes this so interesting is that the Guardian body itself is represented by a second game board, allowing Foxen to jump on and attack the Guardian directly. Damage to the Guardian is assigned to specific spots on the board, and as each location fills fills with damage, the Guardian will lose an ability. Instead of a straightforward approach like the Foxen, the Guardian has two paths to victory: kill the Foxen leader, or accomplish a character specific game ending condition.
Each turn, players will play two or three cards from a hand of four. Almost everthing you do in this game is controlled by these cards- movement, attacks, summons, etc. With the Foxen, a given warrior must be capable of a given action (such as a melee attack) in order to take it. The other part of this equation is the power mechanic. When power is earned, players add it to their ‘pool’ space. At the end of a turn, power stored in the pool can be assigned to characters, which can then be spent during subsequent turns to provide a player with a free action with that character.
“Skulk Hollow” is an interesting mixture of mechanisms- each guardian provides a wholly different flavor to the game play. That, layered over area control mixed with card driven asymmetrical combat, leads to a game that’s strategic and highly tactical- while still remaining fun. Card play has a staccato feel to it, with moments of pondering actions followed by an “I’ve got you now” flurry of card drops. This in turn is often followed by the realization that your master move is not quite as potent as you thought it would be.
I think the biggest struggle “Skulk Hollow” faces is one that tends to plague all games with a significant amount of asymmetry- it really has to be learned. There’s a lot of depth to this title, which might feel a little stymied by the blink and you’ll miss it card play, and the short duration of each game as a whole. Every play through will teach you something new, and as such you’ll have to invest some time into learning all the ins and outs of the system at play. All of this can lead to a difficult sell for a lot of folks who might not be hooked after their first game. That said, for strategy focused gamers looking for a filler title, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Finally, I’d like to address something: A lot has been made of the game balance in “Skulk Hollow;” specifically that the Foxen are much stronger than the Guardians. I’ve played this game a fair amount at this point, and I am not convinced that this is true. I believe that a lot of this perception can be attributed to two things:
First, I believe player focus might carry the majority of the blame. The Foxen player should be primarily focused on doing damage, attacking the Guardian; and I think that it’s natural for the Guardian player to follow suit. Instead, the Guardian player needs to be focused on their specific game end condition; combat is a distraction, not the goal. But this can be a bit difficult because-
Second, when one is playing as the Guardian, the Foxen can feel overwhelming. On the first turn there are two, and a little while later they are everywhere. As the guardian, victory can feel impossible… And for what it’s worth, I think this provides an amazing flavor to the game play. It’s a shame that the Foxen player doesn’t face a similar sensation.
There’s a fair amount of complexity to “Skulk Island,” and as a result, the rulebook has a lot to communicate. It’s solid, if a little busy. Rules are presented in a logical flow, with examples provided. There are some clarifications in the back for character abilities, which is always appreciated. That said, I think this section could have used a little more work, as a large portion is dedicated to repeating text from the cards and player boards.
The production quality of “Skulk Hollow” is exactly what it should be; bridging the gap between looking good on the table, while still remaining affordable. I have a really tough history with two player games, as I’ve found that by and large they’re inexplicably more difficult to get to the table than titles that support a greater number of players. As a result, I prefer less expensive two player games. “Skulk Hollow” scratches this itch perfectly.
Also, hats off to Pencil 1st for sticking with wood for the miniatures. Yes, I get it, it can be awesome to sit down to a table full of highly detailed miniatures. Unfortunately, something is lost in this transition. For me, simpler wooden game pieces spark the imagination more; and frankly, they possess a greater level of charm on the table than the increasingly common plastic miniatures.
Also, I mentioned ‘charm’ just now, and that’s the best way to describe the art. The Saturday morning cartoon art style brings this world to life in a way that a more detailed art style would not. It reminds me of those adventure cartoons from the early 90’s, which appealed to me- call me sentimental.
Score – 8/10
If you’re looking for a quick, thought provoking asymmetrical two player game, this is the one. While this title might not appeal to all players, for those who really enjoy this style of game “Skulk Hollow” is going to pay back in dividends. The production quality is perfect, the game play is engaging, and the cost of entry won’t break the bank. If you’re evenly mildly interested in “Skulk Hollow,” I highly recommend giving it a shot.