I’ve wanted a Shadow of the Colossus game for years. Skulk Hollow isn’t quite that, but it’s in the ballpark. One player is a rampaging Guardian, a spiritual demi-god titan that’s returned to smash and tear at the earth. The other is a swarm of Foxen, a king and their cadre of warriors intent on climbing atop the beast and hacking at it soft spots. Tie it all together and with wonderful graphic design and delightful meeples of various shapes and you have something to behold.
This is a two player design from Pencil First Games that looks to hit fast and hard. It’s a 30 minute affair that holds asymmetry in high regard, offering multiple of those colossal guardians to explore. Each has their own side board for the minuscule foxes to scurry upon, poking at joints and orifices.
Each guardian also features a unique deck. This is a card driven game where your actions are restricted to your draw. Each titan has their own abilities such as Grak’s stomp, Raptra’s flight, and Apoda’s sizzle. You can literally throw attackers off your back or melt them with your fiery gaze. This is powerful and evocative stuff that provides for a smirk-inducing narrative and enough flavor to anchor the half-hour event.
From the fox perspective you’re deploying new warriors to the board and dashing about. There’s a neat energy mechanism which allows you to effectively save actions for later, unleashing powerful turns with stronger agency. Energy is the sole resource to manage in the game beyond your hand, and it’s necessary to wield intelligently if you wish to win.
Skulk Hollow, above all else, is charming. It’s a title that seeks accessibility in which you can easily sit down and thwomp your child (or perhaps get thwomped). This unfortunately leads to the most significant deficiency.
While in the thick of it, you do feel as though you are buzzing around a goliath, jabbing pointy objects into its eyes and biting at its heel. As a Guardian you have weight, causing spikes of massive damage and dictating the flow of battle. At times this feels wonderful, at others it feels somewhat diminished.
The challenge is the CDG underbelly. There’s a nagging feeling off-and-on that actions are obvious. So much so that the game offers a mechanism to dig for cards, trying to unearth that alpha move that you clearly need. This card draw mechanism seems to undercut the game’s own hand management, emphasizing that you’re beholden to draw. There’s not a great deal of creativity in problem-solving. If a leash of foxes is on your hide, you really need to get that throw card and hurl one or two across the valley. If the king’s protected by a strong cohort of warriors, you really need to flush him out or shift gears and go for your Guardian’s alternate win condition.
You could also lose a little faith due to the emphasis on attrition. There’s a core loop of fishing out cards, smashing the enemy, and fighting their push back. This traditional model is usually broken up through dynamic maneuvering or clever resource management, but that simplistic tactical core fails to obfuscate the grinding nature occasionally. More often than not, the end of a session will consist of multiple rounds with combatants standing still and hacking at each other. Eventually someone falls in hopefully a dramatic fashion and the participants leave with a sense of satisfaction.
Some of this weakness in tactical variability is made-up for with tension. The short play time and rapid cascade of damage means you can start feeling the pressure quickly. As a Guardian, you will lose access to your special powers if entire limbs are damaged, pushing you towards a limited set of options. This heightens the race aspect of play where you’re rushing to accomplish your goal before the enemy can bring you down. This pressure is great and lends itself to the strong atmosphere of play, even if your strategic options aren’t always varied or nuanced.
The soft spots of Skulk Hollow can be overlooked due to the game’s enticing variability and strong sense of tension. How well you assimilate these elements will dictate the lifespan, as some will fall off rather quickly and others will find prolonged pleasure in experiencing all the game has to offer. For me and mine, this is a unique experience that I can find meaningful action and thrills within the scope of play. Skulk Hollow may not offer enough depth and breadth to solidify a position in my top games of 2019, but it does achieve sufficient accomplishment to maintain a warm presence on my table.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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