Sword & Skull
written by Alan Kwan
This article was written for the official website, but due to the website's policies, it never got fully published. I am now posting this here at BGG. Note that I retain the copyright; duplication is allowed only for non-commercial purposes, and only with proper attribution.
Sword & Skull is a fun, pirate game. On the surface, it looks like that there is a lot of dice rolling, and there is lots of luck in the game. Actually, there is a fair amount of luck in the game, for a pirate's (or a Navy Officer's!) life is one of dancing with fate. But this is not to say that wits and strategy do not 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 towards winning can be broken down into 3 steps:
1. accumulate Gold and/or Might
2. enter the volcano
3. beat the First Mate and the Pirate King
To properly understand how to play an effective strategy, it is most 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 (unit: 1/6)
# players | 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 1/3. 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 or better 86%
Players who are familiar with the 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 merely favors the stronger combatant), but also there is the auto-win against a blank - a 5/35 or 1/7 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 than 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 also the significance of each additional Might point is smaller.
The Penalty of 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. But of course, you cannot afford to fail so many times as to go Bankrupt and be forced to sell an important weapon or get sent back to the ship. And 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 of your next attempt, often significantly because of the steep curve. But it may not take too long for you to recover the lost Gold, so sometimes it may be worth it to try even when you have less than a guaranteed success, especially if you need to do it just 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
We can see that, the chance starts to get good at 8 Might, and becomes nearly 50% at 10 Might. Building up beyond 11 Might is not necessarily productive: remember that you can easily challenge the Pirate King repeatedly, so it is usually better to spend your time actually fighting the Pirate King than to try to pick up a few more Might! The point is that, when your Might is low, it is more efficient to build up than to waste time on remote attempts with only a slim chance of success; but when your Might is high, it is better to spend your time actually fighting the Pirate King (and repeat 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 case, 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 either figure, 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. It helps avoid going Bankrupt, and it delays your opponents' winning, if you're getting the Gold from them.
Timing for Entering the Volcano
Choosing when to enter the volcano for the final challenge is often an important decision which affects who wins the game more than many smaller choices and happenings in the build-up process. For example, say you have only 9 Might against your opponent's 11. From table 3, we see that your odds in the final challenge are 37% against your opponet's 59% - quite a disadvantage. But just by getting to the volcano before him, you turn it into a 50-50 game: if you beat the Pirate King, your opponent doesn't get a chance, so his 59% chance will be reduced by 37%, to just 37%.
59% x (100% - 37%) = 37%
However, if you trade the preemption for another Might point, you give your opponent an overwhelming advantage. This is because you will have a chance only if he loses the combat. Your 49% odds will be redued by 59% to just 20%. It is now a 75-25 game, against your favor.
In Sword & Skull, being behind in the building-up doesn't put one out of the game: not being there for the final challenge does! Even if an opponent is fully armed for a near-certain win, you can still steal the win from him with some luck in the final challenge - but only if you reach the Pirate King before him! Your opponent has 60 Gold and 12 Might? You still have a 27% chance of winning, if you have 8 Might and go for it before him. You have been so unlucky, that all you have is 4 Might? You still have a 8% chance, nearly doubled to 16% if you get there soon enough to repeat the challenge a second time before he arrives!
The whole point is to get there before the opponent! The higher the players' respective chances of success, the more important it is to be there first. In the end-game, you need to be watching your own and your opponents' holdings (Gold and Might), and also the positions of the figures (and watch out for the Fortune cards!), in order to determine the best timing to enter the volcano. Once someone has built up for a reasonable chance of success, you need to be alert, ready to preempt him any time. But only if he does have a reasonable chance of success - if someone is going for it with 4 Might and 12 Gold, the best
reaction is to ignore him: he is more likely to Bankrupt himself for his folly than to succeed.
Conversely, if you are the leading player, you need to watch out for whether the other players are ready to preempt you. If they are not, you may try to build up a bit more (especially if you are trying to win by Gold, because you get really set back when you fail). But if someone else has got 7 or 8 Might (and enough Gold to pay the Thieves' Den several times), you should be wary of passing by the volcano entrance: your opponent may make a 19% or 27% attempt for every two turns you spend dallying around. In fact, many games have been lost by the leading player, because he couldn't get to the Pirate King in time! You can count on the "Local Guide" and the "Hotfoot It" Fortune cards if you have one, but don't foolishly rely on rolling double blanks!
Sometimes it happens that your Mighty figure is near the volcano, but you feel that you just need a few more Gold, or an extra Might point or two. Instead of making one more circuit, you may let your Mighty figure wait where he is, while your other figure continues to circle the board for more building-up. Depending on circumstances this may be good, but keep in mind the drawbacks. By playing with only one figure, your movement choices are greatly restricted, and by playing with your weaker figure, you fight unfavorably.
Re: The long lost strategy article for S&S (part 2)
Building Up: the Process
After investigating the final challenge, now let us go back and look at the process of building-up, by which one improves his chances in the final challenge.
In S&S, one's holdings consist of: Gold, Crew, Items, and Fortune cards.
< Crew >
Your Crew constitute the bulk of your holdings, usually. They give you Might and Gold income. With Gold symbols on Crew cards, you get money not only from other players when they land on the settlement, but also from the Bank when your Officer passes the Castle.
The "basic" Crew cards are those of Clearwater, Rum Reef, and the Mercenary Camp. These have one symbol on them. The Smugglers' Cove and the Fort Rock cards are the "advanced" cards, with two or three symbols on them respectively. Needless to say, the advanced Crew are much more valuable (especially since they give you greater benefits, but count only as 1 Crew towards the "Crew count").
With the benefits of Crew cards come some drawbacks. The total number of Crew cards in a player's possession (the "Crew count") handicaps a player in the following instances:
1. A larger Crew count increases the Might of Enemies (though with increased rewards too).
2. When fighting against another player, the player whose Crew count is larger is subject to having a Crew taken away, if he loses the fight. In particular, since the opponent chooses which Crew to take, excess basic Crew may render one's advanced Crew vulnerable. Thus when you have important advanced Crew, you should be wary of picking up unneeded basic Crew.
3. When a Pirate lands on the Bridge of Tears, a player with the highest Crew count will have a Crew taken away. Again, excess basic Crew may render one's advanced Crew vulnerable.
4. When one lands on the Royal Tax Collector, he pays 1 Gold for each Crew.
5. When the "Mercenary Recruit" Fortune card is drawn, a player with the smallest Crew count can get a Mercenary.
Because the Crew count handicaps you, losing a Crew is not always as horrible as it sounds (provided that it's you, not an opponent, who gets to pick which Crew to lose). Sometimes it is even a good thing to lose an unneeded basic Crew (one which gives you Might for your weaker figure, or one which gives you Gold when you're going for Might). Thus, it is usually advantageous to sell a Crew when your Pirate passes the Castle. And also, you don't need to avoid the Quicksand or the Geyser, if you have an expendable Crew. This is especially true when you have advanced Crew; by losing unneeded basic crew, you lower your Crew count and protect your advanced Crew from potential loss. A lower Crew count also gives you opportunities to snatch important Crew cards from your opponents, in instances #2 and #3 above.
< Gold >
In contrast to Crew cards, there are fewer handicaps for having lots of Gold:
3. When an Officer lands on the Bridge of Tears, he takes 3 Gold from a player with the most Gold.
5. When the "Queen's Mercy" Fortune card is drawn, the player(s) with the least Gold receives 3 or 5 Gold.
6. The "Queen's Pardon" Fortune card works only against opponents who have more Gold than you.
Although Gold is more volatile (gained or lost more easily) than Crew, gains and losses should not be looked at too lightly, because you don't get handicapped as much for having more of it. If you lose a Crew, that may be compensated somewhere down the road because of your reduced Crew count; but if you lose some Gold, this will probably not be compensated that way, meaning that you will always have fewer Gold than if you had avoided the loss.
< Items >
Of the 20 Item cards, 14 are weapons: 7 swords and 7 guns. Weapons are very helpful, as they increase your Might without increasing your Crew count. However, you are limited to 2 weapons for each figure, so you can't rely on them alone; you'll probably need some Crew.
The opportunities for getting Items are limited, so you should value them, at least until you have got the 2 weapons you need. Unlike Crew which are more easily stolen (especially when one has a high Crew count), Items are rarely lost unless one goes Bankrupt. Even then (or when an opponent buys it with the "Bandit's Bargain" Fortune card), you at least get your money back, so Items are generally good investments.
The 20 Item cards have a total cost of 72 Gold, averaging to 3.6 Gold per card.
< Fortune Cards >
Of the 33 Fortune cards in the deck, 3 are permanent improvements, 20 are cards held and played later, and 10 are "play immediately" cards. Even the "play immediately" cards are helpful or at worst neutral; none of them specifies the player who draws the card to be punished explicitly (such as "you lose $10"), unlike in many older-style games. (Though sometimes a usually neutral effect can be inconvenient if you get it at the wrong moment.) Thus it is usually desirable to land on a Church, Tavern or Idol space.
Fortune cards in your hand are never subject to loss, until you play them. And there is no maximum hand limit. But, duplicates of the same card tend to be less useful. For example, "Bandit's Bargain" gets you the most critical Item, but a second "Bandit's Bargain" gets you the second most critical Item (and might drain your Gold too much). Thus, when you already have a large handful of Fortune cards, it is probably more efficient to try to earn other holdings, than to draw yet more Fortune cards.
Certain Fortune cards are quite crucial for the endgame; they will be discussed in detail in a later section.