Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Jean-Baptiste Reynaud
Schotten Totten is arguably one of the best 2 player card games from Knizia. Note that I didn’t say most popular, because Schotten Totten has never received the same commercial success as Lost Cities. Though I don’t have the numbers, I am quite sure based on personal observation. In a way, this is disappointing from a gamer’s perspective since Schotten Totten has way more depth and is also way less dependent on luck of the draw than Lost Cities, though to be fair, luck still matters in any card game. Schotten Totten the original version has been reimplemented by GMT as Battle Line and that game is also very well received. Obviously, it goes without saying that I just had to try Schotten Totten 2 and compare that with the original. If you want to know what I think about the original Schotten Totten, visit this link.
In Schotten Totten 2, players play either a defender or an invader over a stretch of castle walls, 7 tiles across. The goal is for the invader to breach 4 of the total 7 wall segments once or one segment twice. If either of those conditions are met, the game is won by the invader, else the defender wins.
To breach or defend the wall, cards in 5 different suits with values ranging from 0 to 11 are played to form poker like hands with certain hands ranked higher than others. Your job is to play these cards on your side of the wall, forming the best hand possible making sure you beat your opponent’s hand in the opposing side of the wall. If the defender has a higher ranking hand, nothing happens and the invader is repulsed for now. If the invader has the stronger hand, the wall is first damaged and the tile is flipped over. If invader wins again on a damaged wall segment, that wall is breached and the game is won.
The number of cards allowed on each wall segment ranges from 2-4 and is inscribed on the wall tile. In general, a color-run (straight flush) is the strongest hand, followed by same strength (doubles, triples, quadruples), color (flush), run (straight) and sum total. As soon as a player has played the number of required cards and can show it is unbeatable, they flip the wall tile over. Cards played for that wall segment are then set aside and the game continues until the victory conditions are met. Note that sides of the wall tile have different card limits and also different restrictions for scoring. More on the scoring later.
Now, I love Schotten Totten 1 and the new version is quite a surprising innovation. I am stunned at how similar the game looks and feels and yet how different the game plays. In another words, if you approach the game like Schotten Totten, I believe the defender will win most of the time. The tweaks to the game are minor but numerous. For starters, the card values in the original goes from 1-9 while that range is larger (0-12) in the sequel. Also, there are 6 suits in the original while Schotten Totten 2 has only 5. There 9 boundary stones in the original which are all similar with no special properties and require 3 cards to complete a hand. Meanwhile there are 7 wall segments in the sequel with each wall segment having its own maximum number of cards per hand and a potential scoring restriction. For example, some wall tiles only permit scoring of same strength or color-run with sum total being the tie breaker. The victory conditions have also changed. While the original is won when someone claims 5 stones in total or 3 adjacent, here the victory conditions apply only to the attacker. The defender only wins if they thwart the invader. Finally, in Schotten Totten 2, invaders are allowed to retreat and replay a new set of cards to their tableau, something that is forbidden in the original. To offset the withdrawal advantage for invaders, defenders have 3 oil cauldrons they can use to discard their opponent’s first card in a particular wall segment.
These changes while numerous, still makes Schotten Totten 2 feel very much like the original game, yet the tweaks have resulted in an entirely different game which requires a completely different approach. For starters, the game has morphed into an asymmetric game with both players having different goals. The invader is playing to win while the defender wins by playing not to lose. The defender wants to string along the invader by holding on to certain cards to keep the invaders at bay or from retreating too early while neutralizing the threat. It is subtle, but an invader can potentially observe how the defender builds up a hand of cards and figure out if they are holding on to cards the invader needs to win the wall. There are many subtle strategies, tell tale signs and other elements to the game that we have yet to fully explore but thus far, Schotten Totten 2 really feels familiar yet distinct at the same time. The mechanism might be the same, but with the asymmetric conditions makes the game play differently.
There are elements of the original Schotten Totten that I enjoy more than the sequel. First, I like the simplicity of the original. It has no bells and whistles and every card is meant to be played on the field of 9 stones, assuming of course, victory is not achieved until the very end. There will be an outright winner at the end of each game and all the cards are front and center for both players to see. Unlike Schotten Totten 2, cards are not discarded from the play area. This may be a minor point, but I like having all the cards in the middle and being able to assess victory conditions by looking at the shared space. In Schotten Totten 2, discards are placed to the side and while it sounds trivial, having to look back and forth between the discards and the play area is tedious. In Schotten Totten, timing the cards is important for winning. In the sequel, timing is still very important but new variables require new strategies. The oil cauldron for example, allows the defender to remove one card closest to the wall. This variable alone forces the invader to rethink card play. It is crucial for the invader to deplete the il cauldrons as it can seriously thwart any attempts to take a wall segment. Personally, I dislike the oil cauldron as it introduces another element that requires the invader’s attention. It makes the game more complex and perhaps more strategic but not in a way I enjoy because I feel there are enough variables at play already. Besides the oil cauldron, there is at least one more rule that brings “chaos” into play and that is the ability of the “0” and “11” cards of the same suit to cancel out each other. I am not a fan of either of those new tweaks, but given the asymmetric nature of the game, I have to believe that they are necessary for balance.
My partner and I have played both Schotten Tottens in several back to back sessions to get a feel for the game. Even with half a dozen plays, I am not sure I fully grasp the intricacies of Schotten Totten 2. The game is much harder to read. I do know that if you play Schotten Totten 2 as an invader, you must be more aggressive than you normally would in regular Schotten Totten. The defender has enough room to cripple the invader by slowing down play and using the oil cauldrons selectively. I suspect that we did not use the retreat option frequently enough and as an invader, one has to be more aggressive to force the defender’s hand. As it stands, right this moment, I think the original Schotten Totten is still the preferred game for us. I think part of our preference is due to familiarity and love for the original as much as our inability to wrap our head around the sequel. I fully admit that Schotten Totten 2 is probably a decent standalone game, but since this is an initial impression, more plays are required for Schotten Totten 2 before we can get a full picture of the game.
I do think it’s incredible that the same game feels so different by upending the goal post. Perhaps its not surprising that an asymmetric game feels more unbalanced at the onset. After all, that’s the whole idea of asymmetry. I know Knizia will probably have playtested the game for balance and he and the publishers will have the quality controls in place. So, I am not worried about that aspect. The main decision here is whether the game replaces the original and I don’t think it will at this moment. However, Schotten Totten 2 does make Schotten Totten feel…simple. It is the plain vanilla as opposed to the red velvet and while some may prefer red velvet, by no means is vanilla obsolete. In playing the game and conducting a post-mortem, we still enjoy the simplicity of Schotten Totten which is laid bare after playing the sequel. Schotten Totten 2 throws in a whole lot of new variables that can be viewed as good and bad both. Folks who have mastered the original after 500 plays may enjoy the new challenges in the sequel while folks who enjoy the first version sporadically may be turned off by the sudden influx of decisions from what seems to be a simple card game. I think this is where we at: being turned off by the sudden surge of complexity as compared to the original. I suspect this disparity will subside with more plays. This is a Knizia design and I am a Knizia fan which means I will give it a longer rope. We will continue to explore both games but if this were a game from any other designer, I am not sure I would put in the effort. Ahh, the luxury we have in the modern age of board gaming: spoiled for choice.
A final word on personal preference for artwork and theme. The Celtic theme is retained from Pro Ludo’s Schotten Totten to IELLO’s reprints. That’s great. The decision to switch from humans to chickens as the main protagonist is probably sound given the slightly dubious nature of the title. I think in this case, the publishers should have taken a step further and changed the title. I don’t normally recommend that, but the title is obscure, and most people don’t know what it means. Plus, is the origin of the title even acceptable by modern day standards? Title aside, I think the IELLO colors are way too vibrant and too much for me. It is a bewildering array of colors superimposed on a busy illustration. I wonder if my preference for a muted palette correlates with my age? That said, the castle siege theme for Schotten Totten 2 is brilliant and really captures the mechanism perfectly. I think GMT ought to pick this up and do a Battleline: The Seige of Camelot.