Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Dorien Boekhorst and Bärbel Skarabelo
Publisher: Pro Ludo
For a 2 player game, Schotten Totten ranks up there as one of the best. I like it more than Knizia’s popular Lost Cities, though both card games scratches a slightly different itch. I have played a lot more Schotten Totten in the past but plays have been fewer and further apart more recently. Typical of Knizia, the game is stripped from all chrome and it’s really down to numbers, timing and some luck. Typically, games last for 15-20 minutes give or take and you shuffle the cards and you play the next hand. In doing some researc for this write up, I could not help but noticed that apart from the new IELLO edition, the previous edition came from Pro Ludo and were German or English/Spanish edition. This made me realize that Schotten Totten might not be widely available in markets outside of Europe. Given how popular the game is among Knizia fans, I was surprised this wasn’t marketed alongside Lost Cities globally. From that perspective, I am glad IELLO decided to pick up the rights for the game.
As with other Knizia card games, the rules for Schotten Totten is short. At the start of the game, 9 boundary stone cards are placed between the two players. A deck of cards is shuffled and 6 cards given to each player. During play, each player will take turn playing a card and drawing a card to replenish their hand and play continues until the victory conditions are met. In the deck, cards have values ranging from 1 to 9 in 6 suits identified mainly by color.
The goal of the game is to capture the boundary stones in the middle of the table. If a player captures either 5 stones in total or 3 stones adjacent to each other, the game ends immediately with a victor. In fact, the game will always end in one player winning because if the entire deck of cards is depleted, then every card would be on the table and all 9 stones would have to be distributed. To capture the boundary stones, players play cards to their own side of the tableau, right below the boundary stones. Only 3 cards can be placed below each stone and to win the stone, your formation of cards must be higher ranking than your opponent’s.
Ranking the 3-card set shares some similarity with poker hands. The highest ranking set is a “color-run” which is somewhat similar to a straight flush where a sequence of cards have to be in the same color. The next highest rank is “same strength” or triples, followed by “same color” or flush, “run” or straight and finally “sum” which is just the total value of all the cards. The colors themselves are not ranked, only the numerical strength, so to beat a similar ranking set, one has to play cards with higher values. For example, a “red 4-5-6” can be beaten by a “blue 6-7-8” but not by triple 7s. If both sets have the same value, then ties are broken by the player who completed their set first. The rules are easy peasy, but the game has depth beyond just the formation of these sets.
Like many Knizia games, timing matters – a lot in the case of Schotten Totten. A player tries to form a higher ranking sets and if both sets of 3 cards are completed, the stone is resolved and awarded to the winner. However, at the start of each turn, players can also justify winning a stone if they can show that their set of 3 cards is unbeatable by any possible card combination. This occurs often and is an important criteria for winning. For example, if you have triple 5s’ and your opponent is trying to form a straight flush of “red 7-8-9” to beat your triples, but only has a 7 and 9 played to their tableau while you hold a “red 8” in your hand, if you play that “red 8” in your tableau at any position, in the subsequent turn, you can claim that since “red 8” is out, there is no possible combination that can beat your triple 5s since the best your opponent can do is to make a flush which still loses to triples. Identifying this victory condition allows you to take a step closer to victory and is an important aspect of the game.
Identifying the winning condition is important not only because it gets you the boundary stone, but it also matters because the timing of playing that “red 8” is critical and impacts the competition of other stones. Say for example, your opponent has just played a “red 7” may intend to build a “red 7-8-9” to beat your hand, but if you reveal your “red 8 card” too early before your opponent is trapped into playing the 7-9 combination, then they may decide to go for a different winning combination such as triple 7s’ or perhaps “red 5-6-7”. Those are all possible scenarios. The optimal scenario is to force your opponent to commit before mounting an offensive to form a more dominant hand. That is what you aim to do. However, how long you can play this cat and mouse game also matters. Early in the game when most cards are still in the deck, you have more flexibility. As the game progresses and cards are played, your options will be limited and a weak combination such as a run or straight might be enough to wrest the stone. If you wait too long to catch your opponent, you yourself might instead be left with a weak hand. That is what makes Schotten Totten tick and why the game is great.
The premise for Schotten Totten very simple, yet the game is deeply engaging and tactical. As I mentioned, the game is way deeper than Lost Cities which is shorter and also more impacted by luck of the draw. There is no denying luck still matters here, but how you make the best of your hand will always be true for both players and the player that can best take advantage of that fact will always win.
The adjacency victory conditions also provides an additional spatial angle for winning the game. You may want to concentrate your focus on a set of 3 stones by playing your best hand of cards for those stones, but bear in mind, your opponent will also be doing the same. The way the game is designed, there will always be winner after all 54 cards are played. That means if the game is evenly matched, the last few cards will be crucial for victory. This also means that a weak combination in the end is better than no combination and a simple straight might be enough to win over a random collection of cards. So, waiting for a better hand is not always a good option, especially late in the game.
Schotten Totten is a fantastic 2 player card game that showcases how a simple set collection mechanism can offer so much depth and replayability. There are optional “tactics cards” in the box that give more variability to the game, but these cards introduce more chaos and randomness to the game. In all my years playing Schotten Totten, I have never touched those cards and I might never have to try it as I am more than happy with the base game.
I am surprised after reading the entry in BoardGameGeek that Schotten Totten was probably never widely available until IELLO reprinted the game. Why companies like Rio Grande Games never picked it up in the early 2000s’ for the North American market is somewhat surprising given Knizia’s pedigree and the quality of the game. I know Schotten Totten was reimplemented as Battleline, but the war theme of Battleline by GMT is very niche and not really suited for the mass market. For that, I am grateful that IELLO made the plunge even though I admit I love the original artwork over the vibrant and way-too-colorful illustrations in the newer version. That said, I wish IELLO and Knizia considered altering the title for the game in the reprint. I am not a fan of title change or reskins, but in this instance, the origins of the title sounds a little dubious and perhaps outdated in 2021. One interpretation of the title can be found here in this link and also here. Schotten Totten may rhyme but it has negligible meaning to the general public.
Regardless of the different versions, Schotten Totten is a quality game, period. Whatever copy you may have, it really doesn’t matter. The game is good and will remain a premier 2 player game in my collection.
Additional note: This review is meant as a companion piece to Schotten Totten 2, a retweak of the original game by Knizia. You can find the write up here.