|From:ASS Cost: $10 Players: 2 Playing Time: 15-30 minutes Type of game: Card Skill level: 5 Complexity: 3 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.2 (22), January 2000|
So I’m talking with a friend, telling him that I’m enjoying Knizia’s Lost Cities (reviewed elsewhere this issue). He tells me that if I like that, I should check out one of Knizia’s other 2-player card games, which feels similar to Lost Cities but is a better game. I’m skeptical. And having just written a fairly glowing Lost Cities review, a little bit nervous. So I hem and haw and demur and defer. Then a few weeks later I finally get around to trying Schotten-Totten, and my friend was right, damn it. It does feel like Lost Cities, and it is a better game.
In Schotten-Totten players start with a hand of six cards each from a deck of 54 (1-9 in 6 colors). Players compete for the nine stones laid out between them by playing cards on their side of a stone, to a maximum of three cards per player. At the start of your turn, if you can prove your opponent can’t beat your set, you pick up the stone. Sets are evaluated like three-card poker: straight flushes, then three-of-a-kind, then flushes, straights, and finally highest total card value.
Schotten-Totten, like many bachelors, is all about avoiding commitment for as long as possible. If a play an eight next to a stone, my opponent is likely to play a nine on his side. That way if he completes his three-of-a-kind, I’d have to get a straight flush to beat him. If I commit to shooting for three nines somewhere by playing a second nine on a set, you can bet my opponent is going to try for a straight flush on his side of that stone. Consequently there’s much angling to avoid placing the first card by a stone, or to place the second card on a set and therefore commit to a particular type of hand.
The other reason you don’t want to commit early is that you probably won’t have all the cards needed to complete the set yet. Suppose I have the yellow six and the blue seven in my hand and the yellow seven on my side of a stone. I can‘t complete the straight flush or three-of-a-kind yet, and Sarrett‘s Law says that as soon as I commit one way I‘ll draw the final card for the other. So I‘d rather wait and see what I draw. But of course I have to play something, and often playing any of the cards in your hand means committing to something that’s still a gamble.
Later on my opponent plays the yellow eight, and I can see the yellow five already on the table. Now that I know I can never finish the straight flush, I play the green seven. There‘s still a chance I won‘t draw a third seven, but sets lower than three-of-a-kind rarely win, so I might as well take the chance. The exception is in the very late game when all cards have been drawn and neither player got the cards he was looking for. Suddenly players are punting and making the best they can out of their failed sets, which often decide the game.
The game ends when someone picks up five stones, or any three consecutive stones. Either way, he scores five points and his opponent gets a point for each stone he collected. We play a match to fifteen points, which lasts 3-5 games. Each game is about 15 minutes (longer if, like us, you agonize over the early tough choices), and playing enough hands to complete a match should prove to be no problem.
The ability to claim a stone if you can prove (based on what cards have been played) your set is unbeatable is delicious. Suppose I’ve got three fours and my opponent has two fives. Three other fives are on the table, and I’ve got the last five in my hand so I know he can’t beat me. But I can’t prove it unless I play that last five, which as it happens would screw up any set I play it to! A nasty dilemma.
If Lost Cities is like candy (sweet, fast, easy to have again and again), Schotten-Totten is like a rich dessert- full of surprising subtleties, deeply satisfying, and something you might not do again immediately but which you look forward to repeating with great relish.
The rules to Schotten-Totten are available on the net, and you probably have all the material you need to simulate the game already. Sticheln, David & Goliath, or Schnappchen Jagd each contains the necessary card mix. If you’re not already sold, mock up your own set and give it a try. You’ll be hooked.