Scho K. O.

Review: Minimalist but chocolate-y

Scho K.O. is the latest two-player abstract release from small publisher Steffen-Spiele, newly available at the 2010 Essen Fair. Unlike most of the other Steffen Spiele games, noted for their chunky wooden or plastic pieces, Scho K.O. is a more minimal production with the only components being a set of square cardboard tiles, each portrating four chocolate squares in a mixture of dark and light.The object for each player is to have the largest orthogonally connected area of chocolate at the end of the game. Player decide who plays light and dark at the start of the game. Each turn they lay down one of the tiles from their hand of 4 into the growing chocolate block on the table and then draw a replacement tile. The game ends when all tiles have been laid.Tile placement has few restrictions: Each tile must be laid directly on the table and touch already laid tiles with at least two chocolate squares. Tiles can be laid offset from one another to create gaps in the block. Each placement of a new tile must place at least one square of chocolate adjacent to an existing square of the same colour. Since all three types of tile contain squares of both light and dark chocolate, it's possible to help your opponent with every placement. Even a blocked-off square might be used in a second-layer connection later.A third of the tiles also contain a red smartie in the middle of the tile, and these can either be played normally or laid as a second layer of chocolate on top of existing tiles provided they lie on top of 2 or more tiles. The tiles with smarties cannot be covered, so they can provide a way of defensive blocking as well as a means of attack.

A game of Scho K.O., despite consisting of only 32 tile lays, breaks into several phases. There’s the initial probing at defences for the first few tiles, followed by a quick buildup of your own strong areas, then probing attacks to block or break up large regions owned by the other player. The small number of smartie-bearing tiles that can be laid over other tiles makes for agonising decisions over when to block, or defend your own position, whether to make a break to connect up your own region or bide your time until you cannot be countered so easily.

I don't think I've seen a game without various sudden reversals in the last few moves, usually when a player leaves it too late to build on the second level, or rejoin some of their separated regions. There are strong timing elements for such a short game, which add to the interest and tension.

Scho K.O. is a very fast-playing game, I’ve seen games mostly take about 5-10 minutes, which helps reduce the impact of very unlucky tile draws by encouraging you to play a follow-up game. If you have a particularly bad hand, it’s very difficult to win, even when you can free choose from your hand of 4 tiles. I spoke to one of the designers, Steffen Mühlhäuser, about this randomness in the game, which is a little unusual in abstracts. During development of they game, they’d tried various fixes such as separate smartie and non-smartie draw decks, but that all of their attempts yielded too much fiddliness for too little benefit. Eventually, they went back to simpler rules and left the randomness in the game.

I really like Scho K.O., I was particularly delighted that it was kept simple without extraneous rules or parts. The interest to time ratio is far ahead of many abstract tile laying games, and I have a couple in mind which manage to be less fun because of many extra fiddly rules or more complex pieces. Abstract games again show their strengths in presenting distilled game ideas.