SCHOTTEN-TOTTEN (ASS)

2 players, 20-30 minutes
designed by Reiner Knizia
reviewed by Larry Levy

Well, it looks as though all the good game themes have been taken. In case you should doubt this, let me tell you that the theme of this card game involves Scottish clans quarreling over a bunch of stones in a pasture. Perfectly bizarre, and we can't even blame the Y2K bug for it. Fortunately, this veneer is easily ignored, and what is left is yet another interesting game creation from the ever-prolific Reiner Knizia.
Scottentots is played with a 54 card deck consisting of six suits composed of cards numbered 1 through 9. There are also nine boundary-stone cards, which are the objectives of the contest. I'll refer to these henceforth as stones. At the beginning of the game, the nine stones are laid out in a horizontal row between the players. Each player receives six cards to make up his beginning hand.
Players alternate turns. During his turn, a player selects one of his cards and places it face up on his side of one of the stones. He then ends his turn by drawing a card from the deck. When the deck is depleted, players continue taking their turns without drawing any cards. Most likely, the game will end before this occurs.
No more than three cards can be placed on each side of a stone. The object is to win the stones by having the higher three-card hand there. If I may be allowed to use Poker terminology, the ranking of the hands is as follows:
1. Straight Flush
2. Three of a Kind
3. Flush
4. Straight
5. Everything Else
If two hands have the same rank, add up the values of the three cards. The hand with the higher total wins. If this sum is the same, the player who completed his hand first wins.
Before playing a card, a player can claim a stone if he has the higher hand there, or if he can show, using only the cards on the table, that it is impossible for his opponent to beat his hand. Once a stone is claimed, no further cards can be played there. The object of the game is to be the first player to claim three consecutive stones or five of the nine stones.
Scottentots is a pleasant mix of the studious and the chaotic. With only a six card hand and a new card drawn each turn, it's impossible to plan very far ahead. The key is to keep your options open as much as possible and to maintain as much flexibility as you can.
The rules state this is a tactical card game, and that is indeed the main focus of the contest. Much of the strategy revolves around the fact that the first player who commits to a stone is at a considerable disadvantage. If the card is a low one, you've limited how high that hand can be and your opponent can plan accordingly; if the card is a high one, your opponent might give up on the stone and you will have wasted a good card. Committing one card is bad; committing two cards, which basically locks in the type of hand it can be, is worse. Whoever has to commit first on the key stones before he has the cards to ensure victory will probably lose, unless he has overwhelmingly better cards.
But while tactics are important, a player who ignores the strategic aspect of this game cannot win. The problem is that you'll eventually have to commit to a stone sooner or later; knowing where and how to commit is therefore crucial. The center stones give the greatest opportunity for three-in-a-row wins, so they have offensive and defensive importance. Thus if you commit there, you'd better have a very good hand to place there or one which has an excellent chance of being one. (Most stones are won with Straight Flushes or Three of a Kinds; don't count on a mere Flush winning a center stone.) Early plays are often on stones near the ends, both because you may not have sufficiently good cards to play on the center stones and because you don't wish to commit (there's that word again!) yet on the important battleground. Although they usually seem innocuous, the initial plays of a hand set the tone for the contest and are often crucial.
One of the clever design touches is the fact that claiming a stone prevents your opponent from playing any further cards there. At almost all times, your hand will consist of cards you are desperately trying to avoid playing (don't want to commit, trying to maintain flexibility, all that good stuff), as well as cards that you've concluded are worthless, primarily based on which cards have already been played. Thus, you'd like to play the latter cards and hang on to the former. The problem is, where to play them? Whatever stone they are played on will likely be lost. Play such cards on the same stone and your opponent can gain a cheap win (probably by using some of *his* lousy cards). Spread them around and you risk giving up too many stones. The proper tactic is to play them on a stone that your opponent has won anyway. If your opponent can claim this stone, he will deprive you of one or two "waste" plays, plays which let you delay playing the cards you don't want to play. If you can conclude where the lost battles are, you can dump at least one of your waste cards on each of them, which might force your opponent to play a card he'd rather not. Such struggles can often decide the game.
The game is full of such nice touches, which gradually emerge after repeated plays, in the manner for which Knizia games are renowned. The basic feel of the game is similar to Reibach & Co.; each play is important and demands consideration, but not brainbusting analysis. Luck clearly plays a role and, on rare occasions, dominates play; but on most hands, it seems that the player who best takes advantage of the cards he draws will win. The gameplay itself is quite unique; although there's nothing particularly revolutionary about the design, I don't think I've ever played a game quite like it. The end result is quite satisfying, particularly for those who want a game to be involving without being consuming. Knizia scores yet again; now if he can only manage to stay away from those spare rib and sauerkraut meals before retiring at night to dream of new game themes.

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