Border Battle in Brigadoon
Boundary disputes with neighbors are never pleasant, but they are especially unpleasant when your neighbors are a bellicose brood like the ones who occupy the highlands next to yours. They’re always forming ranks and bullying you to move the boundary stones in their favor.
But you’ve had it. And today, it’s time to get back what’s yours. Any loss for them is a gain for you.
As the tagline says, it’s “kill or be kilt.”
How It Works
Schotten-Totten is a two-player hand management game. Players are rival clans fighting over territory boundaries in Scotland. The first player to claim five boundary stones or three in a row wins.
To begin, players place the nine boundary stones in a line in the center of the table. Then they shuffle the deck and receive six cards. Cards are in six colored suits, numbered 1-9.
On each turn, players will play one card from their hand on their side of the table in front of one of the nine boundary stones and then draw a card. Each stone can hold three cards on each side, and players are trying to create the strongest formations on their side of the stone to claim it. The strongest formation is a color run, three cards in a row of the same color, then three of a kind, then three of the same color, then three cards in a row, and finally, highest sum. If at the end of a turn, a player can prove using only the cards on the table that the opponent cannot win the stone, the player may claim the stone.
The game ends immediately once one player claims three stones in a row or five stones. That player wins.
The game also includes a “tactics” variant, which introduces a separate deck of ten tactics cards. Players are allowed seven cards in hand, and when they draw, they may draw instead from the tactics deck. Tactics cards alter the rules in some way–they can be wild cards, steal cards from an unclaimed stone on the opponent’s side of the table, move a player’s own cards once played, and make the battle four cards instead of three. A player may only ever play one more tactics card than the opponent has played. The winning conditions are the same.
Braveheart, or Knave of Hearts?
When I wrote my Top Ten Games by Reiner Knizia list, the comment I got more than any other was, “Where’s Battle Line?” Or, more specifically, “Why did you choose Lost Cities over Battle Line?” (Lost Cities occupies #9 on my list.) When I got comment after comment on this point, I decided I had better hunt down a copy and give the game some more plays to see what I was missing (I had limited experience at the time). And the Schotten-Totten reprint seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. (Brief note: Battle Line is a descendant of Schotten-Totten. Schotten-Totten uses numbers 1-9 instead of 1-10.)
Now that I’ve played Schotten-Totten many more times, I’m not certain I would call it better than Lost Cities, but it’s certainly not worse. It is one of the tensest and best two-player card games I’ve played.
Schotten-Totten is one of those concepts that is so refined, it feels more discovered than designed. The game is so simple, anyone can play it: draw 1 card, play 1 card. But this simple framework gives rise to grueling decisions.
At any given time, you can see six or seven cards in your hand. You can see everything that has been played on the table already, and you have to guess at what your opponent is holding and what’s in the deck. Unfortunately, you don’t have the luxury to wait and see which cards you’ll draw: you have to play before you are ready.
Schotten-Totten, similar to Lost Cities, uses the play 1, then draw 1 mechanism, which while very similar to draw 1, play 1 in theory is quite different in practice. There are many times when I’ve abandoned my plans, giving up and playing the card I’ve been saving, only to draw the very card I needed when my faith wavered. Forcing players to play and then have one more option is one of the master strokes in this design.
Schotten-Totten is, more than anything, a hand management game. You’re trying to manage the cards in your hand into formations that can beat whatever your opponent puts down. But unless you’re very lucky, you will have to cede territory to your opponent. The trick is knowing which border stones you can forfeit (and, ideally, slough off cards you can’t use at) and which ones you must win at all costs, and play to those. And you also don’t want to let your opponent know which stones are which. This is trickier than it sounds, because the opponent is doing the same, and you’re often having to begin formations before you know what’s coming.
There are nine different stones at which to place cards, so the beginning of the game can feel open ended. I can go anywhere! you think, and you begin to place down cards you don’t know what to do with, but sooner or later, you realize that you have to play a second card on these areas, and then a third. And if you play cards sooner, you give your opponent the best gift you can in this game: the ability to react. (If you play a card first to a stone, you signal to the opponent what he or she might have to play in order to win there.) So you’re tempted to hedge your bets and play cards widely, spreading your influence across all the boundary stones, but you also want to play on as few boundary stones as possible so as not to signal to the opponent how to beat you. This being pulled in two ways ratchets up the tension in the game another few notches.
And Schotten-Totten is already an incredibly tense game because it is so confrontational. Every boundary stone represents a tug of war, and if you don’t win, your opponent will. There is some sense in which every two player game is confrontational. Even in Lost Cities, where each player is completing their own expeditions, there’s a keen awareness that whatever cards you discard might end up helping your opponent. But while Lost Cities is tense, Schotten-Totten has almost ulcer-inducing levels of tension. You know that with one false move, it could all be over.
I do like that Schotten-Totten has a place for clever tactics beyond just the luck of whoever is holding the best cards will win. Yes, there is luck in the game, but usually the better player will win (and that player is usually not me). There are some interesting things you can do in the game, like playing cards boldly, luring your opponent to just slough off cards at a boundary stone because obviously you must have the other cards in your hand to back up the lead. There is also the rule about proving a boundary stone is yours through logic. By closing a border stone before your opponent is done playing, you restrict the places your opponent can play the next card. And the rule about claiming three stones in a row can give you hope even when you seem hopelessly behind. So even though probabilities are important, the game seems beyond mathing out the best possible moves. It is very much a game played in close interaction with your opponent.
Schotten-Totten includes a few advanced variants, including tactics cards. I’m usually not in favor of special power cards and in general prefer Knizia’s games undiluted. However, with Schotten-Totten, I’m not sure I have much of a preference for playing with tactics cards or playing without. Without tactics cards, you know every card that will come your way, and there are exactly enough spaces on the board to have cards assigned to them (without taking into account claiming stones early). This makes for a tenser game, because you know you will be losing some battles and winning others. It also can feel a little more lucky at times. If your opponent is drawing all the cards you need, it’s hard not to be bitter about it. (Of course, mitigating this luck and making plans in spite of it is part of the game.) The tactics cards can give a little bit of an edge to players, but they can also be seen as lucky. They make the game more exciting, but I’m not sure the game is better for that. In any case, I will play with or without them and enjoy the game. (I’ve tended to win my games with tactics cards and lose my games without them, for whatever that’s worth.)
I will say, however, that I love the way tactics cards are implemented in Schotten-Totten. Essentially, if one player wants to ignore tactics cards altogether, that is allowed: the other player, then, is limited to playing one tactics card. This is a great system to rein in over-the-top tactics play, and it makes players consider whether they should reach over to the tactics pile to draw. If the other player isn’t taking tactics cards, they can become dead in the hand, and each space in your hand is precious in a hand management game. Essentially, players can control the tempo of the game by whether they draw and play tactics cards.
The components of the Iello edition of Schotten-Totten are excellent. The boundary stones are thick cardboard, and the cards’ cardstock is nice. The art is colorful and clear and evocative, which is all you can ask for in a game where the theme is more window dressing than anything else. The colors can be a bit hard to tell apart, however, and I imagine it won’t be easy for players who are color blind. Each card has a symbol on it if you need to tell the color apart, but the symbol is in the center-top of the card, which while making it easy to see in line formation by the boundary stones can be difficult to sort in the hand. I also wish the player aid, instead of including the same information on both sides, would have included a small crib sheet for the tactics cards. The cards are language independent, and the tactics card symbology isn’t the most intuitive. It’s easy to forget what the cards do and annoying to pass the rulebook back and forth. The cards and stones slip and slide in the box for the game (which is a little larger than the contents require, and I would have preferred a smaller, more standard box size (why does every company have a different standard for their small card games?!), but this isn’t a huge deal. It’s still easy to stow in your backpack or purse, although be advised that because the contents are loose in the box, the game makes a lot of noise while you walk.
This year has seen many of Knizia’s older games return to print. Schotten-Totten is now more than fifteen years old, and it still holds its own against modern games. Beyond being a classic–a game that serves as a milestone in game design history–it is an evergreen, a game as good today as when it was first released, a game that has not been superseded. While I think I still give the edge to Lost Cities as the game I prefer to play (it’s less confrontational and almost as tense, a good trade off in my book), I can see why so many people came out in favor of Battle Line/Schotten-Totten. It is an excellent game, and one I expect to keep in my collection as long as I have a collection to keep.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Iello for providing us with a copy of Schotten-Totten for review.
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Simple rules get out of the way for rich, deep gameplay
Tense and interactive
Beautiful illustrations provide nice window dressings for one of the best two-player games there is
It is TENSE
The box is a little bigger than it needs to be
Tactics cards use symbols only, and there isn't a key readily available
Great review as always!
Schotten-Totten was one of my favorites when I started with the hobby. For some reason, it has fallen off the radar for me. I still regard highly though.
It nearly made the cut to our online platform (Happy Meeple where you can play 2-player board games online. I remember feeling that it was a little bit too technical and not enough random for what we wanted (meaning the best player wins very very often if not always if the difference in skill is significant). It is not a problem with the game itself really. It is a great game. It is just that it did not fit perfectly into the criteria of the platform. But maybe one day? Who knows?
We have Lost Cities and a few other Knizia games though. So if you want to see if Lost Cities is better than Schotten-Totten or not, head to Happy Meeple and start the tutorial.