Schotten Totten (AKA Battle Line): A four-sided game review

Schotten Totten* is a classic small box two-player card game from celebrated designer Reiner Knizia. A game takes around 20 minutes and the age suggestion of 8+ feels about right: the rules themselves are very simple, but the game offers both tactical and strategic depth.

It was released in 1999, had an English edition (Battle Line) in 2000, but has been republished under its original title since 2016. The current version has lovely cartoon artwork and is overall a solid version (66 cards, nine cardboard tiles, and available for less than £15).

This is a traditional card game hybrid, using familiar mechanisms in a clever and original way (pretty much the designer’s MO). Anyone familiar with hand management and set collection games such as rummy, poker or brag will feel immediately at home. If you can manage to immerse yourself in the pasted-on Scottish clansmen theme while you’re at it, then more power to your elbow…

Teaching Schotten Totten

The basic game is the kind of thing you can just as easily teach your granny as a gamer. The ‘tactic variant’ adds a little complexity, but not much – and I’ll cover that at the end. In the basic game, you shuffle the deck of 54 clan cards and deal six to each player (these cards are numbered one to nine in six different colours – that’s it). You then lay the nine ‘stone’ tiles out between the two players, and you’re ready to go.

Your goal is to claim five of these nine stones (or three if they’re adjacent to each other) by playing an unbeatable set of three cards on your side of each of them. Winning sets will be familiar: a running flush is best, followed by three-of-a-kind, a flush, a run, then the highest sum of three cards (handy player aids remind you of the order).

The game also flows extremely simply: you play a card from your hand in front of one of the stones, then you draw a new card – then it is your opponent’s turn. Also, at any time on your turn, you can claim any stone that you’ve won. You continue in this way until one of you declares themselves the winner; which gets us onto one of the cleverer parts of the game.

Often you don’t have to wait for both sides to have three cards in front of a stone before you claim it: as long as you can show your three cards can’t be beaten, you can claim. For example, if you have a three-card running flush in front of a stone and your opponent has a pair, you can claim that stone on your turn: as they have a pair, they can’t equal your running flush – even if they made it three of a kind, they’d lose.

For the tactical variant, the game’s 10 tactic cards are shuffled and put next to the usual draw deck. Players draw an initial hand of seven clan cards rather than six, then when you draw a card you can choose to take either a tactic or clan card. Tactic cards are wrinkles to the standard rules: they could be wild cards or may let you move or discard an already played clan card. The limitation is you can only have played one more tactic card than your opponent, so if you draw too many and your opponent doesn’t play any they just clog up your hand.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Knizia’s genius has always been his ability to find the small details that take a simple game from average to special. It tends to be something in the way his games score, and that is the case with Schotten Totten: having to keep an eye on the chance of your opponent winning three adjacent stones to win is key to your strategic thinking. Just adding that second possible route to victory makes a real difference, while not detracting from the game’s elegance and simplicity.
  • The thinker: A great game, if very random. The tactic cards feel as if they muddy the waters, giving various ‘get out of jail free’ opportunities – but also add choice; and you don’t have to take them – which limits your opponent’s opportunity to exploit them. What I don’t understand is the additional ‘expert’ variant, where you can only claim a stone at the beginning of your turn. rather than being for experts, it feels more like you’re just giving more opportunity for your opponent to scupper your good play with a lucky tactic card.
  • The trasher: As well as having poker hands for scoring, Schotten Totten manages to illicit that same tension across the table that the best betting and bluffing games do. This is heightened by the fact you’ll see way more cards in play than in a poker game, and the game lasts longer, ebbing and flowing. Personally I like the tactic cards as they can really spice things up. They’re powerful enough to make a big impact, but limited enough to make you think twice about drawing too many or making things stupid – but they are swingy.
  • The dabbler: While the artwork is cute and the rules are simple, I found this one a bit dry. I’m quite happy playing a traditional card game like rummy or whist, because there’s always banter and a bunch of people having a laugh. This one is much tenser and more serious, and only for two, so is far less satisfying as a social game – way more ‘chess’ than something more fun, such as even Patchwork, where you can have a bit more banter. If you want to sit around looking moody though, this is the game for you!

Key observations

Schotten Totten has been around for nearly 20 years, so has its fair share of fans and detractors – but it ranks just outside the Board Game Geek top 50 for family games and in the top 500 overall.

It also has an average rating above seven, which is impressive for a small card game – so any criticisms should be seen in this context.

Randomness, in terms of ‘luck of the draw’, is a common complaint. This makes the game too tactical for some, as your lovingly set up set never happens. But while luck is a factor, it can usually be mitigated with good play – waiting for a single card is bad play in any game, surely? That said, it’s true that higher cards are generally better than lower ones here – but that’s a feature of games based on this kind of system, so if you don’t like that it’s your call.

So if we accept there’s a certain level of randomness in the game, the next question is: is there enough ‘fun’ to compensate for it? some argue that, while random, the game is also very dry. Well, it is an abstract card game so sure, it’s dry. But I love the ebb and flow as the cards are laid, and the feeling you get when you simply don’t want to play any of your cards because you’re either waiting for your opponent to jump; or a particular card to show up.

There is a lot to take in and keep abreast of – meaning analysis paralysis is a possibility. This is more of an issue when adding the tactic cards, which make the game less mathy but more swingy. Worse still, some are way better than others: a wild is always super powerful, for example, while a card that lets you move one of your cards to another of your spaces ranges from situational to useless. Criticism of these cards I would agree with – I can’t help thinking there was a much cleverer way they could have been introduced – but at least they’re very much optional. I just ignore them.

Conclusion

Schotten Totten would probably make my Top Five Reiner Knizia designs; and definitely the Top 10. It is simple and elegant, yet clever and deep – just what you expect from his better games.

If you’re someone who ends up playing a lot of two-player games, especially if you’re introducing games to someone who has largely played traditional card games, this is a no-brainer for your collection. It has the added benefits of being cheap and small, making it easy to transport (but don’t be fooled – it’s quite the table hog!). After admiring it for some time, I’m glad to finally have it in my collection.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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