|Components & Design
Tichu is a game that likes to defy categorization. It is a shedding game on the one hand (think Uno), but it is a also trick-based with some influence of poker to go along. Whatever category it falls into, it has certainly become a modern classic among card games.
While most available version claims to be a classic Chinese game – and while it illustrates undeniable similarities to card games from the area – in its published form it was created in 1991 by Urs Hostettler, and has become what must be the flagship game of publisher Fata Morgana. It is probably fair to assume that being featured on the Brettspielwelt has been more beneficial to Tichu in terms of popularity than for any other game there, amassing an estimated gazillion rounds there on a daily basis.
Tichu is a card game that is very rich in strategic depth and its nuances take a few thousand rounds – give or take – to master. Still, the basic mechanisms are fairly straightforward and the speed of play (one round takes mere minutes) contributes to making Tichu addictive as well as fascinating on a cognitive level.
In order to get to the fascination of Tichu, a rather extensive dip into the rules is necessary – so thanks for bearing with us while we go through them one by one… err… quickly, I mean!
Rules! We need Rules!
Tichu is, in its basic form, a game for four players divided into two parties sitting in alternating order. The objective of a game of Tichu is for your team to exceed 1000 points, so scoring points is key. Raise your hands if that surprises you… Yeah, yeah… you can lower it again! Anyway, while points and therefore scoring cards are quire relevant, the order in which the players finish (i.e. get rid of their final card) is of major importance, as tricks and hand cards must be surrendered on this basis. Plus, the ever popular bonus points are awarded in certain circumstances – more on that in a (insert time span that reflects your reading speed); for now it is just important to keep in mind that point cards as well as finishing has a bearing on playing Tichu successfully.Let’s look at the basic structure of a standard round of Tichu – one round meaning one hand of cards, with several rounds adding up to a complete game. For orientation, the point values on the cards add up to 100 – but bets and bonus points can and will affect the score on the individual rounds.
First of all, there is the deck: it consists of four suits of thirteen cards each (2-10 plus J Q K A) plus four different, suit-less special cards (to follow); each player receives fourteen cards in instalments of eight and then six cards. As you will imagine and Murphy can attest to – it will always be you with the crappy cards. How often when playing cards did you wish for an opportunity to exchange cards with the other players!?!!
“[Enter deity or super hero of choice here] to the rescue!”
Glory and behold, this is exactly what Tichu allows you to do. Well, to a degree. Each player swaps one card each with every other player in a silent, blind and simultaneous exchange. Logically, the card selection for the exchange among partners is quite different than those selected for the opposition, but while you usually give one of your best cards to your ally, sometimes it can make sense to go a different route.
After this swap phase has concluded, the player holding the Mahjong special card opens the first trick. One player will end up winning the trick (in a fashion which we will enlighten in a second). Anyway, the player to win a trick collects the cards and opens the next trick. Not too tricky, right?!
The first crucial point is reached when the first player gets rid of their final card, for reasons which will become obvious shortly. Still, the game continues after that. If the second player to finish is from the same team, the round is stopped right there with a prestigious and point-friendly team double-victory. If not, the round continues until the third player empties their hand, at which point the remaining player loses everything: all hand cards to the opposition, while all of their tricks go to the first player who finished first – which can be the team mate.
The card values are counted, bonus points evaluated, and after some shuffling the next round starts. And they played happily ever a… What? Too early? Okay.
A few words on combinations, tricks and cards
In every trick, the lead player chooses what to play, after which the other players in sequence decide to pass or play a higher variant of the same combination. Players who passed in one trick can re-enter whenever it is their turn again. This continues until all three other players have passed on one combination, at which point that player receives the trick.
When speaking about combinations in Tichu, the word is used in a pretty liberal sense, as the simplest combination is just a single card. The other legal combinations are pairs, three-of -a-kind, stairs (sequence of pairs, e.g. 10-10-J-J or 2-2-3-3-4-4), straights (five cards or more, with any mix of colours) and a full house; for stairs and straights there are subcategories depending on the number of cards. You might notice there is no four-of-a-kind listed here, as this combination, along with straight flushes, goes under the category bomb which we will get to later.
It is of crucial importance to note that neither suits nor combinations outrank each other: a full house is not higher than a single or a pair, nor is a red seven higher than a green one. Nor can you play a seven-card straight when the trick was opened with a five card straight, as those are considered different combinations as well. This means that in each trick, only one type of combination is present, determined by the player to open the trick. The obvious implications are how important it is to win a trick, as being the lead player allows you to choose freely what combination is played next.
Scoring cards are are quite easy to keep track of, as only three card values actually yield points: The 5s score 5 points, while 10s and Kings each score 10 points, which sums up nicely to 100.
At this juncture, let us have a look at the four special cards, each of which is in the deck once:
- The Dog will allow you to transfer the right to start a new trick to your partner. It is not considered a combination and is played instead of opening a new trick, and cannot be played otherwise.
- The Mahjong is the lone ‘1’ represented in the game. It determines the start player and, when played, allows that player to wish for a card value (anything between 2 and Ace), an the next player in position to fulfil the wish is obliged to do so. It can be played solo, or as part of a street.
- The Dragon represents the highest single card in the game and has a value of 25 points. Since it is a dragon caring about its victims, however, it surrenders its trick to one of the opposing players!
- Finally, the Phoenix is the lone free joker in the game, usable as a single card or as part of any standard combination. Its strength and flexibility comes at a price, though, as it counts minus 25 points!
And then, there are the notorious bombs. These are either four-of-a-kind or a straight flush of five or more (all without wild cards like the Phoenix). Bombs are semi-rare (you get the occasional round with three of them, but normally expect one bomb among all players every second or third hand) and quite special in their abilities. Firstly, the player can play them onto any combination (except even higher bombs), both in or out of regular turn order! After a bomb is played, other players have the opportunity to out-bomb it, afterwards it goes to the bombing player like a regular trick.
What is so powerful about bombs is their potential to shift the complexity of the round and destroy the best-laid plans of your opponents while giving you the opportunity to get into the lead at any moment of choice. For opponents they are so hazardous since you cannot account for bombs the way you can account for the Dragon, aces etc.
Team play and ‘Tichu’ bets
What we have discussed thus far might leave you with the feeling that Tichu is a pretty straightforward trick card game, in which card luck is the determining factor. Yeah, you have to capture points and at the same time have an eye on finishing early, but where is the uniqueness?
First of all, there is the team play aspect, since points are scored as a team, not individually. Even though (obviously) all in-game communication that relates to cards, strategy etc. is forbidden, a well-synchronised Tichu team will never display egoisms. On the basic level, this means supporting your partner during the card swap, but also read their playing behaviour to gauge their hands’ strength or weakness. An experienced team will play in a harmony that is bound to beat a newly-assembled crew of good players with better hands, just on the strength of their interaction.
What may be the most crucial aspect here is to maximise the gains and minimise its losses, depending on the quality of the hands the players are dealt. This means that on a average or bad hand, securing points for the player who is in a position more likely to finish, or finish earlier, and on a good hand to get as many points as possible out of favourable positions. This may not change the winner/loser of the individual rounds, but on a race to 1000 it surely adds up eventually.
The key element here is for one player to announce ‘Tichu’ – which is essentially a bet by the player to be the one who will finish first this round. This bet comes in two varieties and values:
- Standard ‘Tichu’ is worth 100 points (plus or minus, depending on the outcome) can be announced by a player before he or she plays THEIR first card. So in theory all other players can be down to one card at this point – as long as that player still has a full hand, they can still announce Tichu.
- ‘Grand Tichu’ is worth 200 points and has to be called after seeing the first eight cards only during the dealing process. Thus, Grand Tichu is usually a very risky proposition and most teams reserve it for (a) desperate moments or (b) truly outstanding first eight cards.
It is possible for more than one player to call Tichu, and each bet is added or subtracted from the team’s score – which means that a team to be at negative total points is entirely possible. The maximum points to be gained in one round, by the way, is 400 – 200 each from a Grand Tichu and 200 through a double win, in which case the team always receives 200 points flat without looking at the tricks.
As you can imagine, one player announcing Tichu entirely changes the complexion of the round. The partner will relegate themselves to little less than a support cast for the player – until the Tichu is completed or has become impossible to win, while the opponents will be much more keen to keep that player from finishing first. Interaction and team play are decisive here, probably even more than in rounds without a Tichu bet. Here is also where great teams set themselves apart both defending and attacking a Tichu.
The fascination that Tichu apparently has to a huge number of players comes from a variety of sources.
For one, Tichu is a game that requires near to no build-up time and can be played very fast, even though sometimes there may be a short delay for difficult decisions.
Tichu is also a very complex game from a strategic standpoint – especially for a card game – as it involves aspects of risk management and probability. This includes that the game will not get boring fast (or ever, for that matter). Learning to play Tichu is not too hard. Learning to play it well does take some time, so as a rule of thumb, rookies should entirely ignore card scoring for the first hundred rounds or so, and focus on finishing and team interaction.
The team play aspect increases the involvement of the game for each player, even though the personal hand may be abysmal at times. However, and even though of course bad hands remain bad hands in certain circumstances (and all Tichu players have gone through patches of miserable games, days and more), more often than not Tichu offers the chance even for mediocre and sometimes bad hands to make a mark and figure way more prominently in the game than the sheer value of cards might suggest.
After all, even combinations which may be low in card value but rare in occurrence can win tricks – particularly later in games when a number of higher cards has already been played. This highlights one of the strategic delicacies of playing Tichu – timing and an awareness for the cards which are out of the game already are so very important, the lower your cards the more important these get.
And, of course, the best aspect of Tichu may well be that you always have another player on your team to blame if things go wrong. Unless it is the cards. Or the weather. Or this review!