A game of Lords of Scotland is played over a number of skirmishes, in which every player can potentially score points. The ultimate goal is to reach 40pts. A skirmish consists of 5 rounds, i.e. everyone has only 5 actions. An action is playing a card or drawing a card. At the end of the skirmish, you total the strength of the cards played to determine the order of claiming the spoils available for the skirmish. Normally you always pick the highest valued spoils card available.
This is how a new skirmish is set up. Four cards (corresponding to the number of players) are drawn to become the spoils for the skirmish. That means these cards are effectively out of the game and will no longer be in the card pool. The 5 face-down cards form the card row from which players can draw cards. At the start of every round, one of them is turned face-up. That means by looking at how many cards are face-up, you can tell which round you are in. If you decide to take the draw card action, and you take a face-up card, you replenish the card row with a new face-up card. You can of course pick a face-down card if none of the face-up cards fancy you.
Taking a face-up card is good because you know exactly what you are getting, but the downside is others know it too and can prepare for what you may do with it. Picking the draw card action means you are forgoing the play card action. This is one important aspect of the game - you need to balance between drawing cards and playing cards. Draw too many, and you'll lose out in the skirmishes. Play too many, and you'll deplete your resources for the next skirmish. You need to know when to fight and when to gather strength to fight another day.
When you play a card, you can play it face-up or face-down. Playing face-down means others do not know what colour or number you have played. If you play a card face-up, you can potentially use its special power. Every card has a special power depending on its colour (i.e. suit). When you play a card face-up, you trigger its power if (a) it is the only card of that colour visible on the table, or (b) it has a smaller number than all other cards of that colour. This makes small numbers more powerful - they have a higher likelihood to having their powers triggered, and they also help neuter larger numbers in their respective colours. This is quite a clever mechanism.
After 5 rounds are played, the skirmish ends and all face-down cards are turned face-up. You sum up the strength of your cards to determine precedence in picking spoils. One twist here is if you have played cards of only one colour, your total strength is doubled. This is yet another interesting mechanism. The card powers in the game are strong, and you tend to want to use as many of them as possible to hinder your opponents or to help yourself, so it can be torturous trying to stay pure. And sometimes when you decide to go single-colour, one nasty card play by an opponent can quickly mess up your plan. Yet, the doubling factor is very tempting. To be or not to be, that is the question. Also, because of this doubling rule, playing cards face-down has another value - your opponents will have to guess whether you are going for single-colour or not. Maybe you are just bluffing.
With this kind of hand, you'd probably want to go for the single-colour bonus.
The card powers are the most prominent aspect of the game. They are strong. One colour lets you draw a card, effectively saving you one precious action. One colour lets you discard a played card, which can be very frustrating to your opponent when you discard his high card. One colour lets you swap with a played card, which is the ideal pollutant to break single-colour sets. One colour lets you modify the spoils of the current skirmish, which can greatly affect the players' motivations. One colour lets you claim two spoils cards instead of one. One colour stays in play for the next skirmish, unlike other colours which are all discarded at the end of a skirmish. One colour simply copies any other face-up card on the table. There is great variety.
The biggest impression I have of Lords of Scotland is that the tables can turn very quickly. The outcome of a skirmish is often decided only in the last round, sometimes even by the last card play. Turn order has a large impact. The later you go, the less opportunities your opponents have in spoiling your plan. You can always save a strong play till the last round. The card powers can create unexpected twists. You always need to watch out for killer moves. The winner of a skirmish (i.e. highest strength and first to pick spoils) becomes the start player for the next skirmish, which is the least favourable position. This helps to balance things out somewhat. But you have to pity the guy sitting on his left, who is stuck with being 2nd player (still a bad place to be in) despite possibly having not gained much in the previous skirmish.
The various card powers can create interesting situations. Let's say the spoils cards are two high cards and two low. If one player plays a card which allows him to claim two spoils cards, all the other players will be working hard to stop him from coming first, because if he does, he'll be claiming both the high cards, leaving peanuts for the rest. Every single card in the game has a special power, so you feel like you are holding a hand of bombs, and your are often spoilt for choice on how to use them.
There is tactics in playing cards - identifying good uses for specific cards and playing them for maximum effect; and there is strategy in saving cards for big plays - like what Heng did in our game. He was leading in points, and when a new skirmish started, the lowest valued spoil card was a 5, which was already sufficient for him to win. The other three of us were not within range of hitting 40pts, so we had to work together to hold him back and deny him any spoils card. One of us played the double spoils card. If we could then force Heng into the last position, he would not be able to claim any spoils card. Everything went according to plan, and even among the three of us we could afford to jostle against one another trying to fight for a better position. Then in the 5th round Heng played a card to discard that double spoils card, and we couldn't do anything to stop him after that. He still came last in strength, but the smallest spoils card was already enough for him to win the game.
In this skirmish, the spoils cards were 7, 6, 6, 1. That meant no one wanted to be last. There is not much difference going first, second or third. Just not last please.
This is an older version of the game. Functional, but not exactly sexy. The latest version has nicer artwork.
Lords of Scotland is a game with dramatic twists of fate and powerful plays. What stands out most is the card powers, but there are two other more subtle features which also make the game very interesting - the balance and timing consideration between drawing cards (gathering strength) and playing cards (deploying strength), and the dilemma of whether to attempt to deploy a single-colour army. I like the fact that high cards are not necessarily the strongest, and low cards are not necessarily the weakest. It is more often about how you make the best use of your cards.
The many card powers can be slightly overwhelming to casual players. This game does not feel like a traditional card game. It may not be an easy transition for traditional card game players.
What I remember most about the game is the anxiety of never knowing who the ultimate winner of a skirmish will be until the last moment. Not to say that card plays in the first four rounds are pointless. They are part of positioning yourself for victory. It is just that cards are powerful and when used well can turn the tables at the last minute. You never know what your opponents have up their sleeves and whether they have just the right card to undo your long-planned epic play.
You can say there are many "take that" cards in this game, cards which deal a nasty blow to an opponent that he can do nothing about. I see it this way - everyone will draw such cards, so it is more about what moments you save such cards for, as opposed to who is luckier and draws more such cards to play on his opponents. There is also a psychology element. You want to appear weak and divert attention to other players. It is best to make powerful moves late in a skirmish, when it is (hopefully) too late for others to respond. That's easier said than done. Lords of Scotland has character. It is a well-crafted, balanced (despite the seemingly crazy powers) and well-integrated system. Some people may complain "overpowered!", but when you get lots of that particular colour and still lose, then maybe it is not so overpowered after all.