Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Games for Programmers: Schotten Totten/Battle Line

The next in an irregular series of board game (or, in this case, card game) recommendations for programmers. Of course, you don't have to be a programmer to enjoy these games, but if you are a programmer, then I think there's a pretty good chance that you'll like them.

In programming, the specifications you thought you were implementing are practically guaranteed to change by the time you're done. Unless you have the power to “just say no” to the changes, the best approach is often to stay flexible by delaying commitments for as long as possible. You try to keep your options open by putting off irreversible decisions to the last possble moment. Schotten Totten (by noted game designer Reiner Knizia) elegantly captures this feeling in a short, two-player card game.

box cover

Schotten Totten is nominally about two Scottish clans squabbling over territory. Nine boundary stones are placed between you and your opponent, in a line from left to right. You win by being the first to claim either three adjacent stones or five stones altogether. To claim a stone, you must play a better three-card group on your side of the stone than your opponent does.

game in progress
(photo by Scott Alden)

There are a total of 54 cards, numbered 1-9 in six different colors. Three-card groups are ranked as follows, from best to worst: straight flush (three consecutive numbers of the same color), three-of-a-kind (three of the same number), flush (three of the same color), straight (three consecutive numbers), “wild rabble” (anything else). If both players play the same kind of group, then each player adds their cards together and the player with the higher sum wins. If there is still a tie, the player who completed their group first wins.

You start the game with six cards. Each turn you play a single card on your side of one of the stones, and then draw a replacement card. (For beginners, the play-then-draw order can be a little confusing because most players are more accustomed to draw-then-play.) Towards the end of the game, if there are no more cards to draw, then you simply skip that step.

Once you have played a card on a stone, you're stuck with it. There is no way to take it back or replace it or cover it up. Most of the time you will not have all the cards that you want when you start playing a particular three-card group. The tension in the game comes from trying to avoid commiting to a particular kind of group for as long as possible. For example, suppose you've played the blue 6 on a stone, and now you have the blue 5 and the red 6 in your hand. If you play the blue 5 next, then you are commiting to trying for a straight flush. If you play the red 6 next, then you are commiting to trying for three-of-a-kind. The straight flush is stronger, but there are only two other cards in the deck that will complete the straight flush (the blue 4 or the blue 7). On the other hand, there are four other 6's in the deck, so you have a better chance of completing the three-of-a-kind. What you will probably do is delay playing on this stone by playing somewhere else, but that just means making a commitment there instead of here. If you do play on this stone, be prepared for the frustration of drawing exactly the card you needed for the group that you just ruled out!

(Technically, if you play the blue 5 on the blue 6, you are not commiting to trying for a straight flush. Any other blue will complete a flush, and any 4 or 7 will complete a straight. However, you almost never want a plain flush or a plain straight until close to the end of the game, because they are just too easy to beat.)

Each stone is awarded when both three-card groups are complete. However, there is a twist here that may appeal to programmers, who tend to excel at logical thinking. You can also claim a stone early if you can prove that your opponent can't beat your hand. For example, suppose you have three 7's on your side of a stone, and your opponent has the green 1 and the green 2 on his side. If the green 3 has already been played somewhere else, then there is no way your opponent can complete the straight flush. The best he could do would be a plain flush, which would lose to your 7's. Therefore, you can claim the stone without waiting for him to complete his group.

Note that the proof must be accomplished with cards that have already been played. In the above example, if you were holding the green 3, you could not claim the stone until you played it. Sometimes this means that you will play a card in a place where you would prefer not to, just to be able to claim a stone elsewhere.

Claiming stones early is important for two reasons. First, there are situations where both players can fulfill the victory conditions, so it is just a matter of who claims the stones first. For example, both players might be able to get three adjacent stones, or one might be able to get three adjacent stones while the other can get five stones altogether.

Second, and getting back to the theme of this recommendation, claiming a stone early helps you keep the pressure on your opponent. Once a stone has been claimed, neither player can play cards on that stone anymore, even if they have room to do so. You never want to give your opponent an easy place to dump a card. Not only does that let them rid themselves of a useless card—when you can only hold six cards at a time, freeing up an otherwise useless slot is huge—but more importantly it lets them avoid making a commitment someplace else.

How to get it

Schotten Totten can be hard to find in stores. Fortunately, its sister game, Battle Line is much more widely available. Battle Line is almost the same game, but with different artwork, with cards numbered 1-10 instead of 1-9, and with 7 cards per hand instead of 6. Also, Battle Line adds a separate mini-deck of so-called tactics cards, which let you change the rules in various ways. For example, one tactics card forces you to play 4 cards on each side of a particular stone instead of 3. (Actually, newer editions of Schotten Totten include the tactics cards as well.)

Personally, I like Schotten Totten better. I prefer the smaller, more claustrophobic scale. Also, I prefer the game without the tactices cards, which make the game too chaotic. Fortunately, if you get Battle Line you can experiment with or without the tactics cards, with our without the 10's, and with 7-card or 6-card hands, to see which way you like it better.

A good place to look for both games is BoardGamePrices.com, which summarizes prices and availability at a host of on-line game retailers.

If you want to try the game out before buying it, there are excellent implementations of Schotten Totten at both flexgames and Yucata.de. (The latter site defaults to German but can be set to English by clicking on the flag.)

1 comment:

swaits said...

Hey Chris,

I posted a standard-deck variant here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/1990396#1990396 So perhaps this is another way folks can sample the gameplay before buying either ST or BL.

I've played with it a bit, and as I say in the post, it does have the same "feel" as regular BL.