Emerald Skulls preview – Roll some dice, pick a nose or two, win some money!

Deep in a dingy and dark prison, a group of goblins wastes away and needs something to pass the time. Board with playing Goblin Vaults, a new dice rolling game has been introduced, much to the pleasure of a bunch of bored miscreants. Surrounding a board in the shape of a skull, the goblins roll dice, place their bets, and see who can out maneuver the others to walk away the victor and with a little more currency in the prison.

Emerald Skulls is a brand new roll and bet game from Thunderworks Games and designer Steven Dast. GamingTrend got a preview of the game at the 2024 Origins Game Fair and was able to get an overview of the game in the video above.

In Emerald Skulls, 1-6 players, 7-8 with the expansion, will take turns rolling and placing dice on a board, trying to maximize their output of points, all while the other players bet on how they will place the dice. Rounds will continue until the communal pot of gear tokens is depleted and the player with the most gear tokens is declared the winner.

At the beginning of the game, each player will take two colored betting markers and a supply of gear tokens will be created based on the player count. In the standard version of the game, four betting cards are placed on either side of the skull board. As players get to know the game, more advanced betting cards are available. The player who looks the most like a goblin will take the first turn as the tumbler.

The Tumbler Turn

The Tumbler starts with a pool of three dice to roll and place on the central board. The tumbler can spend gear tokens to raise their pool of dice. After rolling, the tumbler will choose one of the values rolled and places the dice on the corresponding level of the skull board with a few guidelines:

  • The value of the dice placed must be greater than or equal to the highest dice already on the board. For example, if the last value placed was a three, then only a 3/4/5 valued die can be placed. The 1 & 2 levels have been cut off.
  • Dice can only be placed one level at a time.
  • Levels 1/2/3 can hold infinite dice, but level 4 is restricted to two, and level 5 can hold but one die.

A tumbler’s turn will keep going until one of the following happens:

  • Bust Out: the tumbler is unable to place one of their rolled die
  • Chicken Out: the tumble decides to stop rolling and take the points they have on the board, even though they have dice remaining.
  • Gem Out: the tumbler places a gem on the level 5 gem space.
  • Run Out: the tumble places all of their dice.
  • Double Out: the tumbler places a die on the fifth level AND they no longer have any dice left in the pool.

A tumbler does have a few tools in their arsenal to help them achieve their goals. The reroll cube allows tumblers to add a die from the supply to their pool and return to the beginning of the dice roll phase. This allows players to reroll with a bigger pool. The second tool is picking the nose. If a tumbler has placed a three value die on the nose of the skull, they may place one of their betting markers to remove the die from the board, add it to their pool, and reroll. A player can only use this ability twice during a round. The last tool the tumbler has are the skull faces on the dice themselves. These are wild faces and can be used in any combination with other values. Skulls do not, however, score if a player gems out or chickens out of a round and cannot be used in certain scoring situations or during the nose pick.

At the end of a round, the tumbler will score based on the method they ended the round. Bust outs pay nothing. A chicken out and gem out will use the left side of the board, with each die in each level earning the corresponding gear tokens or reroll cubes. If the tumbler runs out or doubles out, they will get to score using the right side of the board, which features higher valued gear payouts. A number of betting cards also give the tumbler an opportunity to score jackpots by placing dice in a certain way. For example, using standard cards, a tumbler can gain extra gears by only placing teeth on the skull or value 1 & 2 dice. Another big scoring jackpot is by placing all seven possible dice with three teeth, one nose, two eyes, and placing the final die on the gem, earning the tumbler 30 gears.<

The Bettor Turn

All other players that are not the tumbler, bet on the outcome of the dice placement described above. Each bettor has two betting tokens and a variety of bets on which to try and score. One of the fun twists of the game is that betting tokens are only allowed to be placed, while the tumbler has the dice in their hand. As soon as the dice are rolled, all betting ceases until the dice are picked back up.

Each betting space has a limited number of tokens it can accept. The quicker someone is to place their marker down, the higher the payout potential at the end of the round. Many of the standard bets rely on how the tumbler ends a round. While others will require the tumbler to place their dice in specific ways, such as the teeth example from above.

As players become more familiar with the game, more advanced betting cards can be added to the game. These advanced cards are divided into Jackpot, Side Bets, and Out betting cards. Many of these cards use multiplication and/or addition based on the other bettors on the card. On some cards, a player’s score may be multiplied by the number of losing bet markers on the card or a player may get a bonus for each bet on another part of the card. These advanced cards are much more entertaining, especially at higher player counts.

In each payout phase, the tumbler will always score first and then each card in numerical order will be scored. Once the communal pot of gears runs out, the player with the most gear tokens is declared the winner!

Solo Mode

The game also includes a solo mode in which a single player faces off against Vrax and Kur. When setting up, players will use the standard betting cards. Vrax and Kur start with 40 gears and a communal 80 gear pot is formed. Each round, the player will act as the Tumbler. A card from Vrax and Tumbler will be flipped and they will place their yellow and red betting markers based on the size of the dice pool for the round. The player will take actions as the tumbler trying to maximize their payouts while avoiding giving their opponents any leeway. At the end of the round, pay outs proceed as normal. When the communal pool of gears is depleted, the player will win if they have more gear tokens than Vrax and Kur. 

Overall Thoughts

While not a finished product, this game is a lot of fun at all player counts and has an integrated theme throughout. While a different experience at a full six players versus a two player game, there was fun found in both iterations. The two player game offered an entertaining back and forth where the bettor could really watch the gameplay of the tumbler to maximize their money output. As you add more players, the interaction really shifts to the other bettors. You start to worry about how quickly you can get to certain spaces and how long you wait to bet to figure out where the tumbler may be headed. The advanced scoring cards are very entertaining and interactive. It led to a more strategic and cutthroat game by trying to make the most out of your two markers. Sometimes, playing markers to the same betting card was more strategic than going out on your own and hoping for the tumbler to make some fancy moves. The wide variety of these cards allows for different combinations of betting conditions each time you play the game. The table talk element was a lot of fun as well. Hell, you’re a goblin in prison and people were definitely trying to make deals across the table in the short time between dice rolls. The game is very thematic and I know my nephews will love the fact that the reroll cubes are essentially emerald booger cubes you pick from the skull. This game is going to be great for large groups of players and already alludes to a 7-8 player expansion pack becoming available. Quick to learn, quick to teach, and quick to play, this game would be a great one for any party.

Emerald Skulls launched on Kickstarter on July 2nd, 2024 and can be found here. Following the Kickstarter campaign, stay tuned to the Thunderworks website for any information on getting your hands on the game.

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Dan is an educator from Colorado. Growing up as an Air Force dependent gained him lots of new perspectives on the world and a love for making new friends, especially over a good board game. When not at school or playing a board game, Dan is probably at the gym, attending a local sporting event, or performing or attending theater. Dan loves heavy euros, deck builders, living card games, and great solo rules.

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