Tien Zi Que (天子雀)

Ta-Te Wu

Publisher: Z-man Games

There is such a thing as a royal sparrow?

Tien Zi Que or TZQ was one of the earliest publication by Z-man Games. I still remember a slew of card games by Z-Man which flooded the market including Magical Athlete, Inferno Mountain, Master or Rules, Gumball Rally, Escalation, Masquerade and many more. Unfortunately, some of these games quickly ended up in the bargain bin while one game, Magical Athlete gained cult status. TZQ probably fell in the former category and quietly faded away…. which is really too bad since I think it is a really fun two player card game.

TZQ was branded as a Mahjong card game and it is quite apt. Yes, the game is mechanically far away from the actual tile version of Mahjong, but the elements and the spirit of the game is definitely embodied in TZQ. It helps that the symbols and iconography also matches Mahjong tiles. So, while I think it can be branded as a Mahjong spin-off, it cannot be called “a very popular card game in China” as some reviewers would have us believe. I highly doubt many people in China even know what TZQ is.

In TZQ, 2 players take turns drawing cards from a common deck in hopes of collecting 5 sets to win the round and score points. Sets are 3 cards of the same type (i.e. 3 similar numbers) or 3 cards that form a sequence (i.e. 1,2,3). Each card also has a corresponding color which has nothing to do with forming a set, but more with scoring points. Players then draw cards to form sets (pung) or form sets from cards discarded by opponents (chow). Again, the set collection and terminology borrows heavily from Mahjong. The scoring is where TZQ deviates from Mahjong, but it is also where the designer came up with a clever way to retain the scoring variety and diversity that has come to define Mahjong. As eluded, players form 5 sets of 3-cards each to win the round. However, with each set, players need to set aside only a single card to represent scoring. Therefore, only a total of 5 cards are kept for final scoring each round. From these 5 cards, player score points based on specific combinations that is very reminiscent of poker hands and also Mahjong combos. For example, the 5 cards could form a flush, a straight, four of a kind, 2 pairs, etc. Mahjong combos include collecting wind tiles, red dragons, same colored-suits ,etc. On top of these combos, single Word tiles (the winds or red dragons) also score individual points. These scoring categories are all borrowed from Mahjong, yet players familiar with poker or rummy will feel at home with TZQ. This is really a clever and also novel scoring methodology by the designer. Since each round is a race to collect 5 sets, only one victor will emerge each round to score points. Players then play 4 rounds per game and the totals are tallied to find the overall winner.

There is no other way of saying it: For us, the game is fun, just plain fun. I suspect it is fun for me and my spouse precisely because of the Mahjong theme. We are both Mahjong players and love the tile game. I have written a piece on Mahjong and the timelessness of the game. It is the connection with Mahjong that contributes a large part to our enjoyment. I know that because the designer Ta-Te Wu reimplemented TZQ under a different company and name: Battle of the Red Cliffs. The new game supports up to 9 players and spots a brand new design and tweaked game play. Yet, I don’t have any desire to purchase that game. TZQ fills a gap because it is Mahjong for 2 players. If I have 3-4 players, then I would just play Mahjong. Most of the fun in Mahjong is trying to form these spectacular high scoring combos. You fail most of the time, but when it happens, the rush is unmistakable. I think Red Cliffs made an error by ignoring its Mahjong roots and instead tried to blend Euro set collection concepts with an Eastern theme which satisfied no one in the end. It also introduced “event cards” and “special powers”, all of which are Euro game mechanisms that added unnecessary complexity. I lament the fact that Z-Man Games won’t publish TZQ with the remaining suits or decks. Rumor has it that Z-Man had plans to publish other versions of TZQ with different suits, which would make the game even closer in spirit to Mahjong (Green Dragons!).

It is quite ironic that the theme matters so much to us in TZQ. I don’t know any other game in my collection where we have such a strong nostalgic link to the theme. Theme is good and nice but I don’t always need to connect with a theme. Deep down, TZQ is a fun game even though you can argue the mechanics aren’t exactly elegant (the picking up of cards discarded from previously formed sets still bugs me). I think the game was marred by poor production quality (the cards are too shiny and the box feels a bit… too rigid and shiny), non-existent marketing by Z-Man Games when it first came out and a sub-par rulebook. I think the rulebook was written with additional TZQ add-ons in mind. There is some confusing terminology which would only make sense when combined with other sets (what is a suit?). Still, if you are a Mahjong fan and willing to get past the flaws, TZQ tries really hard to live up to the spirit of Mahjong, and I think it partially succeeds in doing so. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

Initial impressions: Great!

02/2020: I enjoyed the game enough that it prompted us to create a few additional house rules and tweaked scoring to suit our tastes. As of 02/2020, we have play tested it maybe a dozen times. These modifications work FOR US. Send me feedback if you find this useful.

  • We used the Gormeghast Scoring originally proposed by Wilcox in a BoardGameGeek thread. We also tweaked the base scoring to adjust for our perceived level of difficulty. See image below for our updated scoring system.
  • We play with poker chips: 20 points each (2×5 and 10×1). Winner is whoever depletes opponents chips or has the most points after 5 rounds.
  • Variant scoring where you need at least “5 points” to claim victory. Otherwise, if you cannot win, play continues and you try to play for a draw.
  • All discards are visible, splayed on individual tableau. The first discard is at the center of the table.

05/2020: We have increased the pts for words because the risk-reward is too low. Right now 1 word:1 pts; 2 words: 5 pts; 3 words: 10 pts and 4 words: 15 pts. House of weak and strong requires at least 1 word to go along with the weak/strong pairing. Full winds and Honor are 20 pts and Chasing Sparrow and Supreme Honor are instant wins.

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