Strategy for Skip-Bo or Spite and Malice
It has often been said that "When I win it is a game of skill. When I lose, it is a game of luck." Skip-Bo or Spite and Malice does require strategy, skill, and finesse to consistently win. However, there is enough of an element of luck that occasionally the novice or ingenue will win against a long-time expert. This keeps Skip-Bo an exciting game to play, but also makes a study of the game a worthwhile endeavor. (Before reading this page you should be familiar with the rules of Skip-Bo or Spite and Malice.)
Managing Discard Piles
Employing strategies in skip-Bo is a matter of first learning a few basic tactics. To begin, the discard piles can become a random mess if discarding is not carefully managed. Piles should be built first with the higher cards in the hand. Generally, it is best to make discard piles all the same number card if possible. Inevitably, the cards available for discard make this problematic. The next best thing to do is to stack them in runs in descending order, with the highest cards on the bottom. (Runs are not as good as all of the same kind because the building pile only needs to be equal to the top card on the discard pile to make all the other cards in the discard pile inaccessible.)
The discard piles are a way for a player to prepare an arsenal to help get to cards in the stock pile. Without the cards in the discard pile it is impossible to make the long runs necessary to reach some unusually distant cards in the stack. It would then seem to be an advantage to have very large discard piles. But generally, large discard stacks become cluttered and frustrating, making it tough to use cards needed for efficient play.
When choosing the card for the discard pile, it is well to remember that you will be revealing to your opponent something about your position. But this goes both ways. Watch the opponent's discard piles to help determine your own play.
Playing from the Hand
In the course of play, if there is a choice between playing from the hand or playing from the discard stack, unless it is necessary to reach a deeper card on the discard pile, it is almost always preferable to play a card from the hand. This has the effect of emptying the hand. Which, on the next turn will be replenished, bringing more new cards into the hand and increasing the chances that the cards needed to get to the turned up card in the stock pile will be available.
One of the reasons this game was originally called "Spite and Malice" was because a player could not only choose to advance his own hand, but also block his opponent's ability to play from his or her stock pile. This is accomplished by adding cards to the building pile nearest in number to an opponent's top stock pile card and placing that same number card on the stack, so that particular stack will be eleven sequenced cards away from the opponent's stock pile card.
When saving cards in the hand it is often best to save the cards in a sequence that approaches the current top stock pile card. In this way it may be possible to run out the hand to get five more cards, and it also hides from the opponent what cards you need to get to the stock pile card.
When to use Skip-Bo (wild) cards: It is best to only use wild cards when they will actually allow a player to use a stock pile card or there is an absolute need to block an opponent's play. Because they are so flexible, wild cards are a valuable tool. If a player can empty his hand to get five new cards and get within one card of playing a stock pile card, it may also be worth playing a wild card. Spend them wisely!
Styles of Play in Skip-Bo
Generally, a Skip-Bo player will take on one of two styles of play. In the first, the strategy is to get as many cards to flow through the hand as possible. This means playing up the building piles even when this will not lead directly to playing a stock pile card. The advantage of this strategy is that it ensures the building piles increase more rapidly toward the stock pile card. It also usually makes it easier for an opponent to play her own stock pile cards. This strategy has the further disadvantage that opponents will often be able to push the building piles past the player's stock pile card and prevent its being played.
The second strategy involves hording cards and only playing them when a stock pile card can be played or an opponent can be blocked. Of the two strategies, this one is often more successful. However, it can lead to stagnant play, and because fewer cards flow through the hand, there are also fewer opportunities.
The best Skip-Bo players balance these two styles. Good strategy dictates that cards be played from the hand when the building a pile does not accrue to an opponent's advantage (for example: when there are other building stacks available with the same card on top as is to be played). This increases opportunity and helps decrease clutter in the discard stacks.
Ultimately, card play reveals and reflects personality. Choosing a flamboyant strategy in Skip-Bo can be fun. Nevertheless, if your object is winning, try playing conservatively in the early going and taking risks only when your stock pile is looking far deeper than the opponent's pile. Toward the end of the game, the player who is behind has far less to lose by attempting to make opportunities. Play to the situation.
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