Skulk Hollow: A Hulking Masterpiece
Few can forget the tales of Captain Gulliver and his travels around the world, beginning with his travel to the Isle of the Lilliputians. Swift’s story regales us with the battles of the giant and his minute captors, and we visualize a Goliath beset by a thousand tiny Davids. Or, perhaps more germane to American pulp cinema, I can recall the 1988 movie Willow, and the scene where he is trapped by the brownies.
Such is the magnitude of the setting in Skulk Hollow, a giant-versus-many battle game from Pencil First Games. Crafted by Keith Matejka, Eduardo Baraf, and Dustin Foust, Skulk Hollow offers two players an asymmetric battle game suitable for gamers as young as eight.
Players face off as the Foxen clan on one side, and one of four different guardians on the other. This back-and-forth clash takes about 40 minutes to play, but you’ll be hungering for more when you’re done.
Lay the square main board in the middle of the table. One player takes the Foxen Heroes box and play mat, and the other player chooses a Guardian box and matching play mat. Place the matching Guardian board next to the main board on the table.
The hero player selects their leader and places the leader card and one sentinel card next to their player mat. Place the corresponding hero and sentinel meeples on the Keep of the main board.
Place the power cubes, wound tokens, and player meeples in easy reach of both players.
The guardian player places the guardian meeple on the Lair of the main board. Each guardian has some special setup steps, clearly defined in the rules.
Each player shuffles their specific role cards, puts their deck near their player mat, and draws their starting hand (hand size is on their player mat). The hero player goes first. The game begins!
Each Guardian (and the Foxen Clan) has a certain number of actions they can take in a turn, denoted on their player mat. Players take turns performing all of their actions (plus more if they spend power cubes) before cleaning up and ending their turn.
Players can PLAY a card from their hand and perform the actions on it, or PREPARE by discarding a card from their hand to draw two from their deck. If a player has no cards, they can PREPARE without discarding.
In the case of a card with a horizontal line on it, players can use it for either the top action or the bottom, but not both.
At any time during a player’s turn they may spend power cubes from their played hero cards (or the guardian mat) to perform additional actions by that hero. These actions NEVER count against the action count on the player mat, no matter when they’re played.
Once a player has finished their actions, they Clean Up. They allocate any power cubes to cards that have open slots for them, then refill their hand. If they have less than their maximum hand size (again, indicated on the player sheet), they draw to a full hand. If the player already has a full hand, they draw one additional card. Their turn is now over.
Continue play back-and-forth until one player meets a victory condition!
- The Foxen victory condition is eliminating the Guardian by filling all wound spaces on the Guardian board.
- Each Guardian has their own special victory condition, or they can defeat the Foxen leader.
Each of the four Guardians included in the box play differently. In addition, some are simply more difficult to play strategically than the others.
Grak (Difficulty 1)
Grak, the bear guardian, is the most straightforward to play. A guardian of brute force, Grak can swing and stomp on pesky smallfolk. Its special victory condition is the elimination of eight Foxen units.
Apoda (Difficulty 2)
Apoda, the arthropod, is on the hunt for runes, with only the Foxen smallfolk in its way. Apoda’s special victory condition is Burrowing for four runes throughout the region of Skulk Hollow. Apoda is harder to play than Grak, holding only four cards and not being able to distance itself from the smallfolk easily.
Tanthos (Difficulty 3)
A terrifying octopus/tree guardian, Tanthos is looking to spread its roots. Thanthos is rated harder still to play, perhaps because the guardian player must manage its roots. Tanthos seeks to have all six of its roots present on the board for its special victory condition.
Raptra (Difficulty 3)
Bird guardian Raptra has the special ability to actually fly. Rated as difficult as Tanthos, playing Raptra requires managing a “flying” and “grounded” state, and applying abilities accordingly. Raptra wins when only the Foxen leader is left on the board.
Despite my minor quibbles, I love Skulk Hollow. The back-and-forth asymmetric battle between the Foxen and the guardian is a constant push and pull that feels like a real protracted battle. At times the Foxen forces seem overwhelming to the guardian, like someone trying to fend off a swarm of gnats. Other times the overpowered guardians seem unstoppable, hurling Foxen to and fro or lashing out and killing multiple heroes at a time. The trading off of blows bounces between frustrating (will anyone make progress?) and exhilarating (I can’t believe you survived!)
Some more complex mechanics come into play like “banding” (if the Foxen leader shares a space with another Foxen hero, the leader cannot be damaged) as well. You can balance this with a micro-expansion of relic tokens (there are six) that the younger player can take at the beginning of the game. These relic tokens function as universal power cubes to allow for extra actions. Allocate these (or not at all) depending on how much of a power imbalance there is between players.
The game can be a bit slow to start, with both players hesitant to make the first move and expose themselves to attacks from the other side. The Foxen clan benefit from a buildup of more hero units while the guardian’s tactics may drive them to perform many different non-combat tasks (finding runes, tunneling roots).
Generally speaking, the Foxen have an advantage. We strongly recommend, at least for the first few games, the more advanced players take the Guardian role. In your first game, the rulebook recommends using the guardian Grak and the Foxen leader King of War. We agree.
Unsurprisingly, the art and graphic design of Skulk Hollow is stellar. The Foxen artwork reminds me strongly of the classic Disney movie Robin Hood, which is an automatic win. The table presence is fantastic with the multiple game boards as well.
As wonderful as it looks, we can’t recommend Skulk Hollow for pre-readers. The 8+ recommendation on the box is as low as you should go.
Between the ease of setup, the massive amount of replayability with all of the guardians and Foxen leaders, the gorgeous art, and the straightforward game play, Skulk Hollow is an absolute home run for the family crowd. One of my favorite Saturday morning activities is curling up with a cup of coffee and a game of Skulk Hollow with my nine-year-old gaming buddy. You should make it one of your favorite activities, too. Pick up a copy at your local game store or at Amazon today!
The Family Gamers received a copy of Skulk Hollow from Pencil First Games for this review.
This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which do not change your price, but help support The Family Gamers.
Number of Players: 2
Age Range: 8+
Playtime: 40 minutes