|Schotten Totten (1999)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.70]
Schotten-Totten (Gaelic for Shootin’ Tootin’) is a surprisingly lovely game that combines genuinely affectionate Scottish stereotyping with interesting card play. If I had to describe the gameplay, and I do because that’s part of what a review has to be, I’d say it was like a one-versus-many chess match that was really one-versus-one with poker. Then I’d start rolling that back because that’s a terrible explanation. What on Earth is wrong with me?
But still, the comparison will become clear as we go on. Or get more muddled. The situation will resolve into clarity. Or it will recede into shadows. It’ll move somewhere, and that’s the key thing. This is also perhaps the largest feature this description shares with Schotten-Totten as a game because this is all about the flow of knowledge as it modulates from permeable to impermeable and back again. Schotten-Totten manages to pack all the stress and uncertainty of a war game into a deck scarcely larger than a standard pack of cards. While the core mechanic is drawn heavily from poker, the momentum of play feels more like someone stripped down Twilight Struggle and then gave it a hefty Caledonian twist of comedy. Schotten-Totten is Braveheart as it might have been narrated by Rikki Fulton.
Schotten-Totten is also a game that Mrs Meeple and I played on a Swiss steamboat as it gently sailed us around Lake Geneva – I’d say that might have skewed the score unfairly upwards if we hadn’t also played it the night before on the uncomfortable bed of the Ibis budget hotel in which we were staying. This is a game that has sustained its charm through the best of times and the worst of times. That’s good, because it comes in a tiny box and slips so conveniently into a spare slot in your luggage that it’s an important boon for it to travel well.
But enough of that! You take the deck of cards and the stack of nine ‘stones’ that come in the box. You lay the stones out in a line, and you deal six or seven (depending on variant) cards to each of the two players. Then both of you take turns laying out, a card at a time, the diminished poker hands that are going to win you each of the stones. Each stone gets three cards played out to it, and the player with the best three cards at the stone conquers it. If you conquer three adjacent stones, you win. If you conquer five random stones, you win. At the end of each turn, you draw another card from the deck and you keep going until the fate of each stone is determined.
That literally is all you need to know about playing the standard version of Schotten-Totten, but even with this you get a stupendous amount of value out of the mechanics. To the rather staid and austere stylings of poker this adds elements of hand conservation and misdirection. The bluffing in poker is obviously one of its most significant aspects, but Schotten-Totten takes that bluffing and gives it a rich and resonant spatial element. You’re not bluffing about the contents of your hand but rather the strength of the nine hands you’re going to be juggling. More than that, Schotten-Totten adds an element of temporality and complicity to the bluffing – you’re not just convincing someone that you know when to hold them, you’re also trying to goad them. Poker is a game about playing cards, but Schotten-Totten is about playing the people that play cards.
My problem with poker, which is a game I do like on occasion, is that I don’t enjoy it without money being involved. That’s a significant flaw because my shelves are full of games where money just doesn’t come into it. Money changes the way a game works in an important way – it moves it out of the magic circle of play and into the grubby complexity of real world social dynamics. It’s been a long time since we had a poker night, but our rule was always ‘you buy your chips at the start and you can’t buy more’. I’ve seen too many occasions where people have otherwise thrown away more money than they had intended in the futile search for a win they’re sure must be coming. The societal representation of poker – the lie we’ve all told ourselves about why poker is cool – is that it’s a game for keen eyed mavericks watching for tells and ever edging the odds in their favour by careful reading of the people around them. The truth is there isn’t a lot of that in poker – it’s a game of probability, not a game of intuition. A weak hand won’t win in poker regardless of how well you can read the people around you, and anyone that knows poker will be banking on the raw odds, largely immune from bluffing except in the edge cases of experience.
Schotten-Totten though is the game that I wish poker was – a game where you can enjoy it without a financial incentive, and where a wise and insightful player can manipulate events in such a way as to turn a weak hand into a dominant hand. It does this not in terms of the showy flourish of a denouement but instead by a slow, patient drumbeat marked out in a rhythm of forced errors. All of this comes from the fact that you’re not trying to win a hand – you’re trying to win a war. As such, a weak hand isn’t a liability – it’s a resource to be utilised. You can feint for one flank with a force you know can’t win in the hope you draw a response that weakens the defense in another. You can lay a trap, making a strong hand look weak until it’s too late. You can make a weak hand look strong, despite being aware that you can’t really do anything with it. You can encourage your enemy to over commit to a battle they could easily win, or under-commit to a battle that you’re not sure they couldn’t. You’re only laying one card down at a time, and you’ve got nine stones to battle over – someone calling your bluff here doesn’t bring down the whole game around you. It just brings a little temporary clarity to a situation of ever shifting complexity and even that can be wielded in your favour.
It’s even better than though that because you’re only working with a small set of information and your opponent has another set. Both of you know a portion of the story, and the rest is hidden away in the undrawn deck. You might lay down two of a three of a kind, hoping you’ll draw the third that will win you the stone. Your opponent might have all the other remaining cards in hand, knowing you can’t complete your formation. They might be kind and let you know. They might keep that secret until the very last draw of the deck. What kind of monster would do that? The kind of monster into which Schotten-Totten will turn you. This game encourages an almost military discipline when it comes to information leakage. You don’t want to let your opponent know anything more than they have to because you’re fighting a war on other fronts and you don’t want them to know how badly it’s going for them. Once a card is played down, it’s fixed in place – the resource is expended, the opportunity seized. It’s very much in their interest to make you play cards where they do you the least benefit.
On the other hand, maybe it’s you playing the propaganda game. Maybe you’ve got that third card in your hand but you’re not playing it. Instead you’re roving elsewhere over the stones, probing the defences for weaknesses. You’re just waiting really for them to think the chances are good you’ve overplayed your hand. You’re waiting for them to make a claim on the stone just for you to plop down the winning card and shift the stone over to your side. You should play Schotten-Totten with a copy of the Art of War by your side – if your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate them. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. All warfare is based on deception.
But hang on – hang on a minute. If a card is played down and it stays there, where are the opportunities for real strategy and misdirection? After all, there’s no point playing down a heavy hand on a stone you can’t win because you’ve committed the troops and you can’t draw them back when the situation clarifies – there’s no rally and regroup in that.
The version of Schotten-Totten I’ve described above is good, but it’s not great. What makes it great is the tactics deck that you’ll be incorporating once the core mechanics have become second nature. The tactics cards add not just new choices, but new emergent strategies that add a layer of abstraction. They permit players to mess around with the core game systems. They also add new opportunities for bluffing, because these cards are drawn from a different deck and while your opponent will know you have access to tactics they won’t know what tactics they are. And vice versa. These cards range from situationally useful to potential game changing, and the mere fact of their presence has a powerful impact on the way everyone approaches the puzzle of poker play.
The tactics deck contains jokers that can have a suit and value that’s decided when they’re played. There are spies that act as a seven of any colour you like. There are shield bearers that can be a one, two or three of any colour you find useful. They’re the ‘elite troops’ and they add a little spice of uncertainty to those relying on card counting to direct their strategy. Sure, all the 7s might have been played but your opponent has a tactics card and it could be a joker or a spy… best play it safe. Or not?
Those cards are useful, but they’re not particularly interesting. Some tactics though will be ruses and they’re played and discarded. The recruiter lets you cycle three cards into your hand while you get rid of your chaff. The strategist lets you move one of your cards from one unclaimed stone to another unclaimed stone – genuinely with this you can feint at one stone full in the knowledge you can reassign the card later and your opponent can’t. The banshee (primarily an Irish thing rather than Scottish but never mind) lets you grab an opponent’s played card and discard it. You can turn their impenetrable formation into an easily smashed soufflé, and don’t think they don’t know it’s a possibility. And then there’s my absolute favourite, both in effect and in art:
The traitor lets you pick a clan card that your opponent played and then play it on your side of the border instead. Maybe they played the blue six that you needed, smugly assuming it ruined your plans. Imagine their face when you play down the traitor card and slip it neatly into your partial set to claim a stone. There’s a lot going on in that card, both in terms of its impact on strategy and in the jokes that are neatly layered into the art. There’s the Scottish stereotype of waggling your tackle at an opponent as a taunt. What’s worse than a hairy Scottish willy being flapped your way? Well, a pair of English underpants being flapped your way is a strong contender, especially given the historical tensions between England and Scotland. A bowler hat under the bonnet too – what a ghastly affront, what!
I mentioned right at the start of the review that this is a game of stereotyping, and normally that would warrant a bored eye-roll. Here though the art is so comic and charming that I can’t help but give it a pass – in my view, funny excuses a lot and this is a very funny game. All of the art is marvelously evocative and manages to make even the rather tedious conventions of ‘shortbread tin Scotland’ worth a grin.
But enough of that – there are two other cards in the tactics deck and man, they’re fun. These are the combat modes, and they don’t change the winner of a stone, they change how the winner is decided. Imagine someone playing down their coloured run of one, two and three only for someone to play down the blind man’s bluff that makes the winner based on a sum of face values. Or imagine this:
Look at you, ye smug wee sassanach. Three fives – that’s a pretty hand and no mistake. Would take a lot of effort for me to take that away from you, eh? You’re probably already counting it into your score. But if I play down a mudfight card…
Then we play to four cards rather than three on that one stone. Minter, eh? Well – now what? Do you have another five? I hope you do because you don’t have any other options for turning that into something worth your time. Did you have something else planned for that five in your hand? Dear me, never mind. I’m just going to leave my side of the border empty for now too – I’ll get to it later. Don’t worry, you’re probably still fine. Probably!
The tactics cards add so much to this game that it’s a shame you can’t necessarily bank on having them in the box – later versions of Schotten-Totten have them, but earlier versions might not. There’s a somewhat complex evolution of this game model which goes from the original Schotten-Totten in 1999, through to a GMT reissue called Battle-line (and that;’s where the tactics cards came from) and the new Iello small box version. Remember, Schotten-Totten is good without them but the tactics cards elevate this game to genuine greatness.
The clan cards at the core of Schotten-Totten are a treat because of how many options they give for play. The two different win conditions add a tension too because if someone goes all out for three stones, they’re also simultaneously making it easier for you to get the other six. The fact that you construct your hands piecemeal means that over time even the weakest cards will become useful. You could immerse yourself in this and have a tremendously fun time engaging in what is essentially a massively parallel tug-of-war. But while that model is satisfying, its options flex and expand before contracting tightly into rather boring inevitability. It takes the tactics cards, with their malleability of consequence, to really bring out the full flavour of the box. The clan cards imply rigidity. The tactics cards permit for a permanence that is situationally impermanent. This is better than allowing players to shift cards too freely because it finds the perfect pivot point between flexible play and meaningful weight to decisions. Even the rules surrounding tactics permits for players to find their own balance between use and overuse – nobody can choose to dominate tactical play without the complicity of their opponent. ‘You cannot play more than one card more than your opponent has played’, the rules say. The implication of that is significant for the rhythm and consensus of the experience. Playing with the additional complexity of tactics requires consent.
Schotten-Totten wasn’t quite an impulse buy – it’s been on my ‘to get’ list for a while but it’s been on that part of list reserved for BGG Top 500 games for which I’m not overly enthused. I spend a certain budget a month on board games for this project, and I had a Schotten-Totten shaped hole in the allocation I had put aside for the month’s order. Reasoning that I was heading to Geneva and a small box game would be easy to pack and play, I threw it into the basket and thought little more about it. It has certainly justified the money I spent on it – the BGG top 500 is occasionally a bit like a themed Spotify playlist. A lot of it won’t grab your interest, but every so often you might find yourself with a genuine keeper.