One of the main jobs of a publisher is to take a completed game design and package it for sale. What this means is that the publisher takes a look at the theme (if there is one), possibly tweaks it, and then hires a graphic artist and/or illustrator to work on art in the game. The artists work with the publisher and (maybe) the game designer to get the feel of the art just right for the overall game concept and mechanisms.
A relatively new publisher, Pencil First Games, has just released a game that certainly makes more demands of a publisher than is typical. The reason being is that it’s a two-player, asymmetric tactical fighting game of anthropomorphic fox heroes battling kaiju-esque monsters for the survival of the kingdom.
Skulk Hollow is the game, and it takes about 30 minutes to play. It was a hit on Kickstarter and is just now entering the retail market.
Like other asymmetric games, Skulk Hollow’s opposing sides work partially differently. One player takes the role of a huge monster called a Guardian with a single figure on the game board. The other player corrals a horde mini-fox-heroes known as the Foxen. Both players have their own decks of cards that provide actions to be played.
The main twist to this is that the Guardian player can choose between 4 different monster archetypes before play: Grak the stony beast, Raptra the bird of doom, Tanthos the many-tentacled land-octopus, and Apoda the OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT?! All of these have a separate deck, a unique win condition, and a common win condition which is to eliminate the Foxen player’s leader character. The Foxen player starts with two figures (a leader and a tough hero) and should deploy more figures throughout the game.
The main objective for the Foxen player is to take down the Guardian by attacking various locations on the Guardian’s map. Each Guardian comes with a separate map that is used by the Foxen player when climbing onto the creature. Once on the Guardian map, Foxen heroes will be aiming to attack the different locations such as a wing or arm. If they do enough damage in certain locations, that removes the ability for the Guardian player to take certain actions. If they manage to take out all locations, the Foxen player wins.
Actions in the game are resolved through action cards, usually depicting two action possibilities. The Foxen player gets 3 actions a turn while the Guardian player gets 2. Players also have the option of hand management by discarding a card to draw 2 cards. Some cards also allow the player to gain power points which can be allocated to heroes or the Guardian for extra free actions.
Rather than go deep into negatives and positives, this review will focus on choices in game design that “could” be good, but is a mixed bag depending on player perspective. On the whole, Skulk Hollow responds more to players who are willing to make allowances for the design. These challenges don’t mean the game is bad, they’re more things to consider when choosing whether to add this to a collection.
The first thing that players must accept is that the Foxen and Guardian are not equally enjoyable sides. The Foxen play often feels the same from game to game with slight differences in tactical goals. On the whole, the Foxen player needs to have a slightly different strategy to deal with each different Guardian, but in play, the tactics feel the same. If a player is the type to prefer to hone play with a single side, they’ll be more comfortable playing the Foxen. However, players who own a copy and are introducing the game to new players will probably end up playing the Foxen to let their friend play the Guardian, the more juicy side in the game.
The next hurdle for gamers is the art. Approaching this game means players will need to check their design sensibilities for 80s animation bias. The imagery for the Foxen and Guardian is reminiscent of Don Bluth, an animator who worked for Disney once upon a time. His art style is prominent in the animated version of Robin Hood (1973) where the main character is a fox, an appropriate furry doppelganger. If players don’t dwell on art in a game, they will not need to deal with affection or, in this reviewer’s case, aversion, for the Foxen characters.
The biggest mechanical issue that the game presents as a hurdle is the core game timer and action mechanism with regards to the win condition. Here, both players must take a certain amount of risk and build up a hand of cards to mitigate counters from the opponent. An ideal path to victory is to have several combinations of actions and quickly accomplish objectives before the opponent has a chance to draw cards to respond. That being said, players can easily play defensively and prolong the game in a stalemate of fear. The game does nothing to prevent this.
What makes the above design approach sting all the more is that players will often take an action only to be countered repeatedly on the opponent’s turn. This is intended to feel like a duel, but often, players will simply be taking hand management turns to build up a perfect hand without making progress. There is no external timer to force engagement or punish complacency.
So, if players can agree on which sides to play on, ignore art they might not like, and play towards the goals without getting trapped in turns of preparatory card draws, they might like the game’s tactical play. Skulk Hollow is fun when it works. When a fox manages to get up onto the Guardian, goes for the eyes, and then gets thrown by the Guardian to the other side of the map, it’s fun. But the negatives, especially the first and last points above will definitely show on each play.
As a tactical card throwdown experience for two cutthroat players who love “cute” creature art, Skulk Hollow delivers. There are some pitfalls in game design that slow the fun and demand an agreement between players to get the most out of the experience, but once committed, this title does offer a fair amount of replayability and tactics. The resulting package created by the publisher shines with respect to quality and approachability, but if it’s too difficult to even choose sides, this one likely gets left on the shelf.
Final Score: 3 Stars – When playing the Guardian and trying to accomplish a unique win condition, Skulk Hollow is fun. When playing the Foxen, be prepared for the same experience game after game.
• Asymmetric play structure rewards replay
• Cool meeples and components
• Lots of tactical choices
• One side feels repetitive play to play
• No game timer leading to stagnant play
Disclosure: An employee for Pencil First Games also writes for Board Game Quest. She did not influence the opinions expressed in this review.