There and back again: my journey with the trick-taking mechanism

The mighty Phoenix in the pocket edition of Tichu

I started off this article hoping to write my impressions on Tichu but ended up with a brief history of my journey with trick-taking games. I have split up the article and you can visit my thoughts on Tichu here. My relationship with trick-taking games has gone through extremes: It starts with ignorance, morphs into indifference, then evolves into contempt and finally coming full circle to the warm and fuzzy. How’s that for a change of heart?

My exposure to trick-taking games started when I was young. Growing up in Malaysia, I heard of the game “Chor Dai Di” which is known as “Big 2” in the Western world. Much later, I learned that Chor Dai Di is a cousin of Tichu and the game is a precursor for many trick-taking games that came after. While I knew the existence of Chor Dai Di, for some reason, it was not very popular among my circle of friends or family. Sure, I knew some of my classmates gambled with Chor Dai Di, but Mahjong still remained the game of choice for gamblers. While gambling is part and parcel of Asian communities, my family was never big on gambling (thankfully). Except for Chinese New Year, we never really picked up the habit and as such, I never learned how to play Chor Dai Di. However, I wish to remedy that missed opportunity when I visit my hometown friends.

When I started board gaming in graduate school, I was introduced to the trick-taking genre. However, the explosion of Euro-designed board games brought over to the US by Rio Grande Games quickly sidelined many of these “tired and old” card games. I admitted I was biased and conditioned to dislike the trick-taking genre because of my initial excitement for Euros and also a lack of exposure to these classics. I mean, what could possibly be better than shipping indigo and corn, swapping wool for wheat or snatching a sudden victory by laying down four consecutive street tiles (bonus points for guessing the game)? I was preoccupied with worker placement, variable action selection that I ignored trick-taking. Truth is, one very lousy incident did most of the damage and soured me on trick taking. After the incident, it wouldn’t be for another decade plus before I ventured to play trick-taking again.

During my early days, I didn’t own many games and I played mainly with a group of regular friends. We were comfortable and rarely ventured out. Occasionally though, I would join a gaming session hosted by distant friends. On one of these occasions, we played Dragon’s Gold which I enjoyed. The group was pretty large and we broke off into smaller groups. In our group, one person in particular really wanted to play Mu, the crown jewel of the trick-taking back then. I recall being somewhat hesitant to join, but relented since the groups were already assembled. Right off the bat, the person declared that Mu was the best game he ever played and that he was extremely experienced and good at the game. I do not remember if everyone in the group was experienced, I certainly wasn’t. The game started and the guy kept on bragging how good he was and that it was important to count cards to win. Suffice to say, he won handily and beat all of us down to pulp. He also constantly pointed out how we should have played in order to prevent him from winning. It was annoying and a hellish experience. I do not recall how many hands I played before fleeing the table, but this experience further dented my enthusiasm for trick-taking. While I was indifferent before, I now actively avoided trick-taking. In retrospect, I wasn’t exactly a newbie to gaming yet this episode impacted much more than I anticipated. I think I was convinced that just like Chess or GO, trick-taking is all about skill and likely required card counting to play well. To be clear, trick-taking is a game of skill and counting cards can give you an advantage. That said, I knew my play style probably wouldn’t accommodate trick taking and I actively avoided the genre for more than a decade, without touching a single trick-taking game during this period. Still, I had plenty of alternatives out there to choose from, so I wasn’t lacking for games to play.

Years later, I had to relocate for work and found friends who were much more into trick-taking than I was. I was reluctant at first, but we started delving into Bottle Imp, Bargain Hunter, Chimera, Haggis, The Crew, The Fox in the Forest and of course Tichu. I had positive experiences with almost all these games and slowly warmed up to the mechanism. I was still hesitant though and made attempts to derail playing trick-taking as much as I could. There was always something new and shiny in my collection to try. The recent global pandemic has really forced most of us indoors and play games remotely with others. While I have played several games through online portals such as boardgamearena and remain ambivalent about digital board games, I have loved my experience with playing Tichu online. The book keeping is kept to the minimum and one can play much quicker online. I have also discovered the delights of partnership games which to me, is superior to co-op games.

Through my friends, I have also played a handful of older classics including Dutch Blitz and Rummikub, games that I would normally overlook. I have to admit, both games are actually quite good and feels different from the countless Euros I have played. Granted, Tichu isn’t quite as old, but it has made me read up on some older games including cribbage, backgammon and even hearts or bridge. I haven’t played a single one of these games and I certainly would like the opportunity to do so. This includes the original game of Chor Dai Di which inspired Tichu. I hope to head home some day and pick up this Tichu precursor. I am sure to lose money in the process, but what better way to learn!

Looking back, I think my initial reaction to trick-taking was really colored by the incident. This is doubly true for newcomers to board gaming. One negative interaction can really dampen their enthusiasm and I think we ought to be careful and sensitive to how we introduce games to casual gamers. In a way, it’s our responsibility to ensure that the learning curve is not too steep and is appropriate for the casual gamer. While you may no longer enjoy gateway games, it is still a gateway game for a reason. There are people who may feel high and mighty about their knowledge in a specific game and lord over others at every opportunity. Just don’t do it with casual gamers and NEVER gloat. It also reminded me of how important to find the right gaming group that fits your play style and that you enjoy their company outside of playing games. We have been really lucky in that sense and very grateful to have found good friends in the process.

(Photo credits: Jesus A. Perez, Andreo and Big Woo@BGG)

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