Schotten Totten is a short and sharp game of battling Scottish clans that rewards intelligent thinking despite its tiny size. It's one of the best two-player board games, and is perfect for rainy afternoons, or taking on a trip.
The game has a rich history: the simplest version of it dates back to 1999, and it was later republished with some additional rules and cards – plus an ancient warfare theme – as Battle Line.
This newer edition brings those extra rules together with the original theme in one box, with fun new slapstick art to enjoy. It looks like a fun and breezy games – and it is – but it's got teeth too, the way that all of the best board games do.
Schotten Totten review: Price and who it's for
As a small box card game, you can pick up a copy of Schotten Totten for about £10/$15/AU$25, which nets you a custom deck of cards and some cardboard tokens. Don’t be confused by Schotten Totten 2, which looks and plays similarly but is very much a different game.
The game is strictly for two players only, and is easy enough to learn for the suggested 8+ age group, but younger players may struggle to grasp the strategic nuance in the game, so it’s probably best for slightly older players and upwards.
Because it’s head to head, it’s a great game for couples. Despite the theme of clashing clans, there’s no fighting depicted in the game so it’s unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities, and isn't the kind of directly competitive game that's likely to cause people to get annoyed with each other.
Schotten Totten review: How it plays
Schotten Totten is based on the same premise as Poker, so if you’re familiar with that classic you’ll pick this up with ease. Rather than the standard playing cards, the deck has cards in six colours, and each colour has cards with values from 1-9. What you’re aiming for is to collect sets of three related cards: three of the same colour, the same numeric value, a sequence of three numbers and so on.
Just like Poker, some of these sequences beat others. A sequence of three numbers in the same colour is best, while a random pile of three cards is worst. Unlike Poker, players must lay their cards one at a time on their side of a line of nine 'stone' tokens. If the three cards on your side of the stone are a better combination than those on the opposing side, you win the stone. Win a majority of stones to claim victory.
The genius of Schotten Totten lies in the fact that you lay a single card at a time, and you have a limited hand of cards. When you start a sequence in front of a stone, you’ll rarely be certain that you’ll draw the cards to finish it. Likewise, until your opponent has committed at least two cards to a stone, you won’t know what sequence they’re aiming for, or whether you can beat it.
Every play thus catches you between two rock-hard uncertainties that you have to try and untangle with probabilities. You know what’s in your hand and what’s been played, so as the game unfolds you can make guesstimates as to how likely you or your opponent are to get the needed cards to win particular stones. The game brilliantly forces you into risk taking, and the strategic decision you make is how much risk to take.
At the same time, every play also cranks the tension handle, escalating the excitement. Sometimes you want to hold cards for as long as possible to avoid giving important information to your opponent. But doing so may force you into suboptimal plays elsewhere. It’s up to you to make the balance and the slow drip-feed of suspense into the game often becomes thrilling. The need to hold critical cards until late into the game results in some fantastic late swings and surprises.
This simple version of the game is fun enough by itself. But the full version of Schotten Totten uses a second deck of Tactics cards. You can choose to draw one of these in place of an ordinary card if you want, which makes it less likely you’ll complete the sequences you’re aiming for. However, Tactics cards can be very powerful.
Some have wildcard-like effects in a sequence, like a fixed number that you can choose to represent any colour. Others are played on stones and mess about with the scoring, such as changing the sequence to four cards rather than three. The final kind are discarded in exchange for a one-shot effect like letting you move one of your other cards between sequences. With tactics cards added, the Schotten Totten becomes a steaming stew of strategic ruses and brilliant bluffing.
Schotten Totten review: Verdict
The fact that Schotten Totten has seen multiple editions and stayed in print for over 20 years is a testament to how good it is. Simple and fast playing, with a great balance of strategy and excitement, it’s about the best quick two-player game around. If you often find yourself in a situation where you want one-on-one gaming, there’s no question that Schotten Totten should be part of your collection.
Schotten Totten review: Also consider
Jaipur is our other favourite tiny board game for two players. It's another game of set collection, but offers very different kind of strategic decisions. In it, you need to collect sets of matching-coloured cards that you can trade for goods tokens, which are worth the points you need at the end of the game. The clever twist is that whoever trades a particular colour first gets more points… but if you trade more cards at the same time, you get bonus points. So do you go in early for high-value tokens, or wait to pick up more cards and get the bonus, but risk your opponent nipping in first to take the best tokens? On top of that, all cards are gained from a shared 'market' in between you, and it's possible to partially control what's there, flooding it with junk you don't want at crucial moments. Here's our full Jaipur review.