|Name||Schotten Totten (1999)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [1.73]|
|BGG Rank||378 [7.31]|
|Artist(s)||Dorien Boekhorst, Jean-Baptiste Reynaud and Bärbel Skarabelo|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Schotten Totten is a fine game with a lot going for it – it’s four stars of a game if you trust our review. It’s quick to learn and intuitive to play. Within that it is full of deep and interesting strategy, bluffs, and counterbluffs – the relatively mundane poker mechanics take on the characteristics of a rich and resonant war-game because of how cleverly they’re leveraged. We like it a lot, but that’s not enough to warrant the fullest praise from Meeple Like Us – we also need to talk about its accessibility. This is a task of some analytical precision, so I’ll use the smaller of my claymores to make the first incisions.
Oh god. Nurse, it happened again.
Colour is a key channel of information since there are six suits of cards and that’s how they’re primarily differentiated. Icons are provided to go along with each number but these icons are quite small and difficult to make out at a distance. Up close, it’s mostly okay but a degree of squinting might be required.
Were the icons larger, there would be an uncontroversial recommendation in this category – the problem is that you’ll be looking at these in bulk and often across a table. The structure of Shotten Totten has a line of stones with cards arrayed on each side of them. Close inspection of icons will certainly reveal which card is which, but that has the potential to leak gameplay intention. This is a game where deception, or at least conservation of information, is key – it’s not ideal that close inspection should be needed.
For example, consider this Protanopic view of an example layout. It’s possible to discriminate between the six and the five and the four and the five – but which of these is the winning hand?
There’s reason to believe that given the variation in environmental and light conditions, and the distance at which you’ll likely be viewing your opponent’s cards, that colour blindness is likely to have a significant impact. The icons too may not be clearly visible when the cards are played – a certain neatness of order is necessary here. As such, while it’s open state information you’re sending a gameplay signal if you start looking through a formation to see what colours belong to a set – especially if you then need to go looking across other formations to see if another card of that set has been played.
As I say, close up it’s absolutely fine – there is a way to differentiate regardless of category or severity of colour blindness. It’s just one that isn’t particularly useful at the distances you’ll need – all of the different cards use the same art too, just coloured differently depending on the suit.
With that in mind, we only tentatively recommend Schotten-Totten in this category. It certainly is playable – it’s just not playable without gameplay impact unless your eyesight is very good. Some categories of colour blindness won’t have an issue at all, but those that do might struggle to pull of the really good feints and bluffs that are core to play. With bigger, more distinctive icons we could have been more enthusiastically supportive.
The cards have no tactile indicators to go with them so the only way to extract important game information is visually. The number of cards in a formation, and the current ownership of a stone, have spatial layout that can help explore the game state – the cards in hand, and the composition of any given formation, are all represented in visual form only. For formations you could inquire as to their composition from your opponent – the cost of holding a model of that across nine stones and six cards per stone is sufficiently high that I’d be uneasy about recommending it. In any case, your own hand is held secret. For those with total blindness, this is going to be an all but completely inaccessible game without very serious investment in supporting tools.
For those with less severe visual impairments, the story is more positive. Cards have numbers in all corners, which greatly simplifies the awkwardness that goes into finding the suit and value of a card. The numbers are all well contrasted, although the icons are very small and visually inaccessible. If some ability to discriminate colour is present this need not be a serious deal breaker. Coupled to this, each card number has its own unique and distinctive art and familiarity will permit this to be used to identify face value if necessary.
Close inspection of the battle line is going to be necessary on a regular basis. The cards you play depend on what you have in your hand, what cards are mentally allocated to which formations, which formations your opponent is constructing, and often which cards have been removed from contention. There’s no point aiming for a three, four, five coloured run if the four is gone. Or rather, there’s no point unless you still potentially have access to a joker – whether that’s true will depend both on your own tactics cards and what tactics card an opponent has played. You can ask ‘Has the blue four been played?’, assuming a sighted opponent. However, in the process you’re either indicating at your plans or potentially dropping an obvious bluff of your own. It’s not that this can’t be done in your favour, but it does change the information symmetry in the game.
Beyond this, there are no game components and no other mechanisms other than play a card and draw from a deck. There is a lot of game information though. It doesn’t change much on a turn by turn basis. It rapidly accumulates considerable complexity as players hedge their bets and play or withhold cards with the intention of misleading an opponent.
We’ll tentatively recommend Schotten-Totten here for players with some degree of ability to differentiate visual information. There’s a lot of game state to process, but it’s likely playable with support if you’re willing to make the effort.
Schotten-Totten permits a degree of structuring with regards to cognitive complexity – the tactics cards are optional and the game is still fun without them. The tactics cards act as an accelerant on the strategic complexity, and if accessibility in this category is a consideration we’d advise that you play without them.
That still leaves a considerable amount of complexity that comes from the clan cards alone, There is an element of exponenting possibility space that comes from nine hands that are being manipulated in competition with nine of your opponent. That’s a lot you need to track, including which hands have become impossible to win because of other played cards. If you’re banking on a run and the card you need is gone, you need to factor that into how you play the other hands. A good part of Schotten-Totten is the need to constantly evaluate a shifting state of play, committing your resources where it’s sensible and holding them back when it’s not. A fluency in probability is needed here – much like poker, those that understand the stats, even if not explicitly, will find everything much easier. It’s not strictly speaking necessary to play, but it’s necessary to win if the game is being played as intended.
Calculation of wins too depends on a degree of numeracy, but it’s not high – counting is sufficient for most conditions, and summing of card face values is used only in cases where a more powerful kind of hand hasn’t been completed. Knowing the order of numbers is about as far as it goes, although obviously being able to engineer a solid hand that can win a stone is cognitively demanding in and of itself.
This probability calculation of card play is also driven by memory. It’s necessary to cross-reference your hand against the played cards versus the size of your draw deck and the hand of your opponent. There’s an ongoing re-evaluation of probability. Again, this is probably intuitive but it depends on players being able to hold a model of card availability in mind. To know that you can’t make the three of a kind you want depends on remembering what you’re planning, what each card in your hand was supposed to do, and whether or not the card you need is available. You can scan the game state to determine this, but that’s not ideal if you have to do it on a turn by turn basis. Plans need to change on the basis of information most efficiently processed with reference to memory. It’s not necessarily enough to make the game completely inaccessible, but enough to have a substantial impact.
There is another option you have here, and that is to reduce the amount of work required in all of these faculties by simply reducing the number of stones. There is a combinatorial explosion effect that comes from using nine stones – removing one of them has a non-linear impact on the cognitive cost. Removing two more so, and so on. This does dramatically alter the balance of the game, but it does so uniformly for both players. The more stones you’re dealing with the more complex the calculations become, but also the more fun the game will be. There is likely a balancing point though where the cognitive complexity can be managed while retaining a significant amount of the play payload. The playload.
With that in mind, if players are willing to remove tactics cards and perhaps if necessary prune the number of stones, we’d be prepared to tentatively recommend Schotten-Totten in both categories of cognitive accessibility.
This is a game of direct, uncomplicated competition. You’re competing over stones, and the person that plays best will win. The only randomness is in the draw of the cards, but that can be potentially definitive – if you consistently draw poor cards, there’s only so far bluffing can take you. Similarly with tactics cards – if someone draws the best cards and plays them well you might find an otherwise flawless strategy undermined through no fault of your own.
Bluffing is an important part of the game, but it can be done entirely through card play without needing someone to back up a bluff with convincing acting. Simply playing a card is a data point for the other player, and you don’t need to talk them into believing it means what you want them to believe. This then is, unusually, a game of heavy bluffing and misdirection that need not be a problem for those unable to convincingly mislead. It’s also a game where there’s no such thing as a lie – you’re not telling someone you’re something you’re not, or not something you are. You’re just doing a thing and letting them draw their own conclusion.
Score disparities can be significant, especially when playing the round variant that allows players to accumulate points per round based on claimed stones. Within an individual game it’s entirely possible to lose every hand (I’ve almost done that, because of course I have). While you technically can only lose at most five nil, you can be in a position that you know that really you lost nine nil because the only thing that stopped it was that the stones never got completed. It’s also possible to be winning handily in six stones, but if your opponent scores three adjacent stones you lose anyway.
The tactics cards introduce numerous take that mechanisms, including stealing or removing cards you’ve played. The combat modes (mud fight and blind man’s bluff) also have the feature of permitting a player to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and it’s not necessarily fun to be on the opposite side of that. You can’t flourish one of these to prevent someone claiming a stone, but you can play it just before it would be scored to the same effect.
That said, the tactics cards are optional and the luck tends to even out over a number of rounds. The game itself manages to inject so much good natured charm into everything that it’s hard to take it too seriously. Points disparities can be high, but more often tend to be relatively small and even within the scoring of individual stones it might be very tight. We’ll recommend Schotten-Totten in this category.
There’s a need to hold a hand of cards, or at least store them in a card holder. Card churn is not especially high – one in and one out every round. The only exception to this is the recruiter tactics card which results in three in and two out. There’s only one of those though and the use of the card is optional. The only other physical activities are playing a card out to a stone, or moving a stone from contention into ownership.
One possible issue is that the game sprawls a little, both along the line of stones and also outwards in piles of cards. It’s sometimes necessary to crane your neck a little to see cards at the peripheries, and neatness of layout is a key element in how easily the game state can be browsed. It’s not a major problem in most cases since at most the game will be nine cards wide and eight cards lengthwise. In some edge cases this might be an issue though especially if, for other reasons, the spacing between cards must be generous. That might be important for example when issues of fine grained motor control must be considered – the game permits the layout to be as tight or as generous as you like.
Verbalisation here is relatively straightforward – ‘play card three to stone four’ as an example. Everything else proceeds with stately inevitability.
Overall there’s relatively little physical activity required of players in Schotten-Totten, so we’ll strongly recommend it in this category.
Yes, it’s a game of Scottish stereotypes. Yes, it is a little bit annoying in most cases to see a complex modern country represented as a backwards land of brawling, kilted hillbillies. No, it’s not a problem here because funny excuses a lot and the portrayals here are genuinely affectionate and well executed. This isn’t a game where the stereotypes are lazy – they’re very knowing. I’m not saying that the art was done by someone with deep experience of Scottish culture, but certainly by someone that understood enough for the jokes to be effective. The art doesn’t take advantage of any opportunity to broaden an ethnic roster, which is disappointing. Scotland genuinely does skew incredibly white, even now, but this is a game and there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect more. It is though absolutely full of really interesting and body positive representations of men and women:
The great thing here is the characters run the gamut of ages, and the character that could potentially be an offensive stereotype of elderly infirmity is instead a thoroughly Caledonian bad-ass. He very much evokes the spirit of Mad Hamish in the Discworld books – not weak as a result of age, but dangerous as a result of experience. This is disability as characterisation, although I don’t get to unilaterally say whether it works in that context. I think it’s very positive though and a welcome antidote to comedy portrayals of older people where they are marked primarily by inability.
Other characters too – an old, powerful druid (I guess?) of the clan. A large woman throwing a caber. A ‘Brave’ style warrior woman shooting multiple arrows at oncoming enemies. A bagpiper that cannot be easily slotted into ‘traditional’ gender categories. Women in short, revealing skirts, but also men in equally short, revealing skirts. That’s the great thing about a kilt – it’s something of an equaliser in terms of the amount of skin it tends to show.
And in terms of cost, it’s an absolute steal – £12 RRP for a game that is properly good. It only supports two players, which is a little disappointing, but if you need a small box game you can take anywhere and play easily in a range of situations it’s hard to beat. I bought it essentially to ‘make up the balance’ on a larger order – while it’s not going to be a staple of game nights due to its restrictive player count I can see it getting a lot of table time when it’s just myself and Mrs Meeple.
We strongly recommend Schotten-Totten in this category.
There is no reading level associated with play, although learning what the tactics cards do is possible only with the use of the manual. There’s only ten of these cards though and their impact is not especially complicated. Otherwise there’s no formal need for communication although I recommend occasionally yelling ‘Crivvens, bigjobs’ if you can.
We strongly recommend Schotten-Totten in this category.
Our tentative recommendations for visual accessibility and colour blindness would be nudged downwards if these intersected – you either use colour or the icons here for ease of play. If you can’t make use of either, play becomes much more difficult.
Similarly for an intersection of visual accessibility and physical accessibility – being able to get up close to the cards is useful for investigating game state, and if that weren’t convenient it would have a considerable impact on the fluidity of the experience.
Should cognitive impairments intersect with visual impairments too, we think that the additional stresses put on memory and processing would likely be sufficiently onerous as to cause our recommendation to dip sharply downwards. We’d recommend you avoid the game in that case.
Since this is a two player game, there is a certain mathematics of risk that needs to be taken into account. The more players that can be involved in a game session the more likely it is that someone will be able to offer assistance to the table in any given category. With two players, anyone with an accessibility requirement is dependent wholly on the other unless there are non-participating parties available to assist. This needn’t be a reason to avoid the game, but one to bear in mind – you need to consider with whom you’ll be playing and whether there will be support available if it’s required.
Schotten-Totten plays out in about 20 minutes per round, and the number of rounds you play is up to you – it could be one, it could be one hundred. As such, it’s easy to scaffold your time investment around conditions of modulating severity. The manual does say you should decide in advance how many rounds you’re going to play, but simply going for the standard ‘best of three. No five. NO SEVEN. GOD, NINE THEN’ progression will permit for additional investment of time to be decided on a case by case basis. This builds natural break points into the game session too – being a two player game, Schotten-Totten doesn’t otherwise support players dropping out.
Tentative though some of these recommendations may be, we’ve given them across the board here. As usual, some of the issues we outlined are due to the game design but there are some easy fixes in there should a later edition of this be developed. Larger icons would be my key recommendation – it would impact on grades in several of these categories.
There’s a lot to like here too – I’d like to see a bit more ethnic variety in the character set (yes I know how white Scotland is – I live here. It’s just a game shut up) but it’s hard to fault it in terms of age and gender representation. Actually, I guess it’s not hard at all if you really want to, but I think it’s a lesson in inclusive art that is well worth emulating.
We gave Schotten-Totten four stars in our review because it’s genuinely a great game. While I wouldn’t be comfortable saying ‘Get it, you can play it!’ I think there’s reason to believe that if I talked you into picking it up you’d have a better than average chance of being able to meaningfully enjoy it.
I know that’s not the world’s most ringing endorsement.
A word about teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.