How to Play Skull King (Rules and Instructions)

Yo-ho-ho! If you feel like sailing the roughest seas with the toughest pirates, Skull King invites you on board. Learn how to play this card game with this comprehensive guide to the Skull King rules and gameplay. 

Skull King is a creative take on classic trick-taking card games from Grandpa Beck’s Games, the creators of games like Cover Your Assets, Cover Your Kingdom, and Gnoming A Round.

The dynamic family-friendly game invites you to develop your game strategy, but in the end, it is also about luck and your ability to take advantage of what you’re given. 

Like Coup, Dragonwood, and other modern card games (we have covered Coup card game rules and Dragonwood rules, too!), Skull King immediately catches your eye with its beautiful colorful illustrations. So let’s find out if it is as entertaining as it seems to be.

This Skull King rules guide will cover the following: 

  • What is Skull King?
  • What you’ll need to play Skull King
  • Skull King rules
  • How to play Skull King (video tutorial)
  • FAQs
  • Other similar games to Skull King (our guides)

Continue reading and learn how to play Skull King from the initial card deal to final scoring.

What is Skull King?

Skull King Card Game Info Image

Skull King brings classic trick-taking card game principles into an attractive universe of pirates, mermaids, and loots. The game involves bidding, trumps, and a complex scoring scheme, ensuring you won’t get bored for many hours.

Number of Players: 2 – 8

Ages: 8+

Difficulty: Medium 

Length of Play: 30 – 90 minutes

Category: Trick-taking family card game

Similar to: Cover Your AssetsCoup

Main Objective: Place accurate bids and collect more points than your opponents. 

Why We Love It: Skull King is a different game every time you play it, so it never bores you. Moreover, adults and kids love it equally, so it’s easy to settle on this game during your family game nights.

What You’ll Need to Play Skull King

This game can only be played with the original Skull King cards.

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The set contains:

  • 66 cards with different rankings and powers (see all the details below)
  • 1 Set of Instructions

Note: Skull King game was recently updated, so some artworks or names of cards in the newly purchased box can differ from the content of an older Skull King game.

Skull King Rules and Gameplay

Skull King is, in general, a simple and easy-to-learn card game. If you already have some experience with trick-taking games, the fundamental principles of Skull King will seem familiar.

However, some aspects of the game are more complex (e.g., scoring). Since the game is intended for smaller kids, too, you can first take advantage of the simplified version of rules for first-timers

Starting the Game 

If you or any of your opponents are new to Skull King, first sort out the following types of cards to make the game easier:

  • Blank cards
  • Mermaids
  • Loot cards
  • Kraken
  • White Whale 

Each player receives two bid cards (0 – 4 and 5 – 9; we’ll get to that shortly) and two player’s aid cards (with practical hints on scoring/features of the card).

Shuffle the deck and prepare for the battle.

How to Play Skull King

In Skull King, players take turns in a clockwise direction, playing one card at a time and trying to take as many tricks as they bid on at the beginning. The highest card takes a trick, and the whole game is stretched over ten rounds

This is how you proceed with the game:

  • In each round, players get as many cards as the number of the current round(e.g., in round No. 1, each player receives one card; in round No. 3, each player gets three cards, and so on)
  • Once all players have their cards, they look at them and evaluate how many tricks they believe to be able to take in the current round. This will be their bid!
  • Players announce their bids simultaneously by calling “Yo-ho-ho!” and showing the number of fingers corresponding to their expected tricks. Closed fist stands for zero. 
  • To remind everyone of your bet, place one of the bid cards over the other to reveal the correct number of tricks you bid on.

Obviously, your goal is not only to take as many tricks as possible but also, more importantly, to win your bid. Your strategy should adapt to this goal whenever you decide on your next step.

Pro tip: In small groups, you can overbid since you should be able to estimate your chances pretty accurately. In large groups, underbidding is always smarter. 

When the bets are completed, the player sitting on the left of the dealer (Player 1) leads the round:

  • Player 1 places any of his cards on the table, opening the trick.
  • Moving clockwise, the opponents also play one card each.
  • Whoever placed the highest-ranking card wins the trick. The winner takes the cards from the table and stacks them in front of him.
  • The winner now leads a new trick, and the whole procedure is repeated. 

The round ends when all the tricks are played. In the new round, the player to the dealer’s left becomes a new dealer. All the cards are reshuffled before every new round. 

Cards & Interactions

As you’ll quickly notice, Skull King cards are different from standard poker-style playing cards. Here’s a brief explanation of their meaning and various interactions:

Skull King card deck contains four suits of cards numbered 1 to 14:

  • Green parrots
  • Purple maps
  • Yellow treasures
  • Black skulls

The first three are standard suits, whereas black sculls act as trumps in this game.

In each trick, players try to stick to the leading suit (the suit of the first played card). If they don’t possess such a card, they can play any card, including the trump. 

When it is different from the leading suit, the standard suit always loses regardless of the ranking. Trump, on the other hand, always wins the trick, beating the classic suits.

Besides that, Skull King also has several special cards:

  • Escape cards (white flags) are the lowest ranking cards, losing most of the tricks. If multiple escape cards are played, the first one wins the trick. 
  • Pirates (crossed swords) beat any numbered card. They all have an equal ranking, so if multiple pirates meet in one trick, the first one wins.
  • Tigress/Scary Mary (half-flag/half-sword) can be either an escape or a pirate card – whichever you need, the choice is yours.
  • Skull King (golden skull) beats all pirates and all numbered cards.

Special cards for the advanced game include:

 When you’re ready, add these cards to your gameplay:

  • Mermaids are the only cards that can beat Skull King. They also beat all the numbered cards but lose with all the normal pirates (unless Skull King is present).
  • Kraken cuts the current trick short: all the cards are discarded, and nobody wins.
  • Loot cards are special types of escape cards. The player forms an alliance with the opponent who wins the trick, and if both win, each gets 20 points (see scoring below).
  • White Whale changes all special cards to escape cards, taking away their powers.

You will also get some blank cards with the set for creating your unique cards and characters or replacing any lost cards.

Skull King Scoring 

The Skull King game set includes handy score pads that allow players to log their scores neatly. There are two ways how to score this game:

Skull King Type of Scoring

  • If you bid on at least one trick and win the exact number of tricks, you score 20 points per trick. BUT, if you don’t achieve the exact number of wins, you won’t get any points. Instead, you lose 10 points per trick won over or under your bid.
  • If you bid on 0 and win 0, multiply the current round by ten – that’s the score you win. BUT, if you bid on 0 and eventually win some tricks, multiply the current round by ten and deduct that from your score.


If you win the exact number of tricks as you bid, you can score:

  • 10 points per each card number 14
  • 20 points for the black skull card number 14 
  • 30 points per each pirate taken by the Skull King

After ten rounds, the player with the highest score becomes the Captain of the Seven Seas and wins the whole game.

Rascal Type of Scoring

According to this optional scoring scheme, players have the same potential number of points regardless of their bids in each round. 

For each card, they can potentially earn 10 points. If they bid accurately, they will earn all the points they can. 

If they’re off by a single number, they get half of their potential points, but if their bid is at least two numbers off, they will not get any points.

The same logic applies to bonus points under this scheme.

How to Play Skull King – Video Tutorial

Skull King Frequently Asked Questions

How many pirates are in the Skull King?

There are five Pirate cards and five Escape cards in the game. You also get two Mermaid cards, one Skull King, one Kraken, one Tigress, and other special cards.

Do you have to follow suit in Skull King?

Yes, if you can follow the suit of the leading card, you should. If you don’t have such a card, you can play any other card, including the trump. 

Can two players play Skull King?

Yes, but the dynamics of the game change according to the number of players, so it might be a bit different game than you’re used to with more players.

Other Similar Games to Skull King (Our Guides) 

If you like Skull King, check out our guides to the following alternatives:

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