Hollow Is Right
As much as I appreciate asymmetry, not every game needs its sides to adhere to different rules. But as long as you’re going for it, there are worse pitches than Skulk Hollow. Basically, it’s man versus monster — except the men are foxes and the monsters are ten-story behemoths reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, including the “clamber up their short hairs to stab them in the soft spots” part.
I’ll say this for Skulk Hollow: ambition isn’t its problem.
At least it makes a grand first impression. The kingdom board is chipper, the foxes are adorably diminutive, and the monsters tower above everything else like loosed titans. The game even sorts its own bits for you. Everything is divided into separate tuckboxes, one for its heroes and four more for its guardian beasties. Same goes for the rulebook — this is one of those rare games where cracking open the rules the first time you sit down to play is a minor inconsideration rather than a deadly sin. Skulk Hollow wants you to play, not fiddle with punchboards or exceptions.
The process of that play is… cute. In short, both the Foxen Heroes and whichever guardian they’re battling today are given a deck of cards and maybe a special token or four. Your turn revolves around picking actions from those cards — the foxes get three actions, guardians get two — and honestly, that’s about ninety percent of it.
The interesting stuff is mostly limited to the Foxen Heroes. After all, they’re the ones tasked with bringing down a living being the size of a very small town’s biggest shopping center. Hero cards spill extra units onto the field, while action cards provide one of two actions, stuff like movement, hopping onto the monster’s legs or scrambling up its body, poking with swords, shooting with arrows, or generating energy for your next turn. The guardian does pretty much the same minus the whole “extra units” thing. Unsurprisingly, there’s some degree of planning on the foxes’ turn, and some straightforward lumbering and bellowing for the monster.
There are three wrinkles to all of this. The first is the aforementioned energy. Certain heroes and some guardians can hold energy cubes, which lets them take free actions on a later turn. Of course, this also paints a flashing target on their furry forehead, since “free actions” usually translates to “leaping onto the guardian’s face and stabbing its eyes until it loses its best ability.” That’s the second wrinkle, by the way: when the guardian loses an appendage, it also loses access to the corresponding move. Very cool if you’re the Foxen Heroes, a major bummer if you’re Grak the Bear Guardian and can no longer use your Gaze ability.
Finally, there’s how you get around to winning. For the guardian, victory either entails killing the Foxen Heroes’ king — which isn’t always easy, since heroes grouped with the king will cheerfully step in front of any attack — or meeting a special goal. This goal varies with each guardian. Apoda is trying to gather scattered rune tokens back to its nest, Tanthos wants to tear up the entire map with roots, and Raptra and Grak just want to kill a bunch of foxes.
How do the Foxen Heroes win? Oh, by slaying the guardian. Duh.
Like I said a moment ago, this whole process is cute. The Foxen Heroes spill out of the castle, run up to the guardian, shoot from afar or clamber onto its limbs, and gradually poke it to death. The guardian, by contrast, stomps around, chucks or shocks the heroes clinging to its hide, and chases after its goals or the king. It’s easier done than said, really.
Here’s the positive note: it’s easy to envision doing this with a kid. Not an old kid. Certainly not a teenager. I suspect even at ten they might be too grown up. But an eight-year-old? Yeah, that could be great.
For everyone else, Skulk Hollow is absolutely determined to play a certain way. Consider Apoda, the giant centipede thing. Its goal is to collect four runes that have been scattered across the kingdom. The problem is that its cards with the Burrow action, which let it gather a rune and then immediately return to its lair, are desperately thin. And when I say this is a “problem,” I mean it’s a good problem. That right there is scarcity! The need to hunt for the right cards, and capitalize upon them when they appear!
So here’s the bad problem. Rather than focusing on, say, a strategy, the best way to play Apoda is entirely determined by the appearance of those Burrow actions. Move toward the nearest rune, play Burrow. If you don’t have Burrow, take the Prepare action to discard until you get one. If enemies are clutching onto you, use Sizzle to wound them; if they’ve damaged your legs and you can’t Burrow, use Molt to repair your legs and then Burrow. It’s like a flowchart, except it’s fed directly into your hand. Follow it stringently enough, and you’re nearly guaranteed to gather your runes before the Foxen Heroes can bring you down.
Not every guardian is quite as obvious to play as Apoda. Nor are the Foxen Heroes. But they’re close. In nearly every case, victory is earned by whomever draws their cards in the right order. Everything else comes down to slow, mulching attrition. The guardian takes some hits, it heals the necessary limb right before deploying the corresponding action. The heroes lose some units, they drip-feed more onto the board. Back and forth, decks reshuffling, until somebody draw the proper sequence to inflict enough wounds in sequence and win.
Again, it’s the sort of thing I could see kids liking. Then again, some kids enjoy their chores. Because that’s what Skulk Hollow is, once you pull back the wood paneling. After a couple of plays, its sense of charm has been worn thin by repetitive and conspicuous action. Slaying a giant by climbing its knee-wrinkles is only exciting the first few times. In this case, the thrill barely lasts one play before the answer makes itself plain: cut this one off at the knees.