Review: Schotten Totten
|Release Date||October 2016|
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Category: Two-Player, Filler Game
Player Count: 2
BoardGameGeek Rating: 7.2 (3100 votes)
In 2009, a friend brought over Settlers of Catan and I was immediately hooked. I was eager to discover all that board gaming had to offer once I knew there was life beyond Monopoly. I quickly found BoardGameGeek and went on a board-game-buying rampage. Knowing where to begin at that time was the hardest part of the journey.
There are far more games out there than I had ever realized, and BoardGameGeek’s ratings were not kind to me. Those ratings tend to lean towards heavier, complex games, and since ratings are static, outdated games climb very slowly down the rankings. Truly great games like Ticket to Ride and Dominion are still thriving many years after publication, and lend themselves to a reasonable rule of thumb: if a game is out of print, maybe that’s for a reason. Conversely, when a classic game is reprinted, I pay attention.
Schotten Totten has existed in several editions, including one with an alternate theme called Battle Line. In 2016, IELLO has reprinted the game again, 17 years (!) after its first release. There are lots of newfangled innovations in board gaming these days—destructible games, app integration, and more. Can a classic game inspired by Poker and Rummy hold up? Let’s find out.
Players are simulating combat between two caricatured, Scottish clans. There’s no blood or actual violence in the game (or text, for that matter).
Schotten Totten has a lot going for it right off the bat. It’s small, inexpensive, portable, and it has beautiful, goofy artwork. It’s also very easy to learn. In this game, each player represents a Scottish clan vying for control of an area, represented by a line of nine stones. Players take turns playing a single card in front of a single stone. Once you’ve played three cards in front of a stone, no more can be added. To win a stone, your set of three cards must be better than your opponent’s. The game ends when one player wins by controlling five stones or three adjacent stones.
The heart of the gameplay is winning those stones. The common deck consists of 1-9 in six suits. The sets of three cards are evaluated in a manner similar to Poker, where the best possible set is a sequence of three cards in the same color. Then there’s a hierarchy between sets of the same color, sequences of three numbers, and so on. Ties are broken by highest overall sum. You have to be very careful not to overcommit to a particular stone, as your opponent can simply avoid committing resources to that stone and beat you elsewhere. The game is largely a balance between spreading yourself too thin and making sure that your sets actually win you some stones.
The game does have some awkward “mathiness,” and that comes from making sure you win the stones. First, the game does involve a bit of card-counting, since you are drawing from a common deck and can deduce what kind of sets are impossible for your opponent late in the game. Second, there’s a strange but important rule: if you can prove your set is unbeatable, you can go ahead and claim the stone. For example, let’s say you have three 5s on a stone and your opponent has two 4s there. If the other six 4s are already in play elsewhere, you can point that out and claim the stone. Otherwise, your opponent could delay the game and even steal victory by never finishing their side of that stone. This could be especially awkward if you can logically deduce that a stone is yours, but you can’t reasonably explain it to your opponent. (Fortunately, that has not happened to me yet.)
To be clear, my complaints about the game’s analytical aspects are a matter of taste. As someone who finds great joy in mathematics and logic, I happily embrace that aspect of the game. And none of those puzzle-y moments slow the game down much; it’s still over in 15-20 minutes, ready to be played again. And if you do find yourself eventually tired of the challenge Schotten Totten offers, there are a set of “Tactics” cards that add rule-breaking abilities to the game. I personally prefer the purity of the standard game, but I can’t complain about being offered some extra stuff.
The last point to make about Schotten Totten is that it’s fairly confrontational, as you might expect from the theme. However, it’s more of a passive aggression rather than an outright attack on the other player. As such, it makes a great game for couples, or for lunch time with a friend or coworker. This game is such a minimal investment (both in time and money), and such a great payoff, that I easily recommend it to just about anyone.
Thank you to IELLO for providing a review copy of Schotten Totten.
The Bottom Line
Some games are good enough to stay in print indefinitely, and Schotten-Totten is one of them. This is a quick, strategic, great game for beginners and experts alike.