Tichu

Urs Hostettler

Publisher: Fata Morgana / Abacusspiele

Tichu pocket edition. The art is mediocre but yet it feels….right.

The origins of Tichu is intriguing and very well-laid out in an article by Chris Wray and Mary Prasad. If you are a fan of the card game, it is worth the read. The story describes how Tichu was introduced to the Western world through the efforts of Urs Hostettler and his friends during a trip to China. Of course, the Tichu we know has gone through cycles of play testing and looks different from its precursor, but the roots of the game probably lies in some small village in China. The true origins of the game will be tough to trace but the game probably grew rapidly and spread throughout the Asia-Pacific countries. Not surprisingly, these community-centric games often have various house rules and just like Mahjong, they are different rule sets in each region.

Fast forward some 20 years and I was introduced to trick-taking and ladder climbing games. The first trick-taking game I played was Mu and I had such a lousy experience that it set me back another 10 years before I played another trick taking game. Since then, I have come to accept and even enjoy trick-taking and ladder climbing as a mechanism. This is probably due to Tichu and The Crew, two of the most popular trick taking games out there. Looking back, there are several reasons why I waited so long to pick up Tichu. Apart from the lousy experience with Mu, there are several other barriers of entry for Tichu. One can argue that these restrictions are self-imposed and not suited for my playing style, or so I assumed. First, Tichu requires exactly 4 people to play. Two players per team and two teams in each table. That’s it. No more no less. That exact player count is already a huge turn-off for many folks with diverse gaming groups. Next, Tichu always felt like it is a game played with good friends and not exactly a convention type of game. To play well, you kind of need a partner who you work well with; or at least good friends who you know well and play games with. At least for me, a random partner just wouldn’t be as satisfying. Third, Tichu is a game of skill and again, you need a balanced partnership to be competitive. A skilled player paired with a novice could be frustrating. Similarly, a skilled team playing a group of newbies would be non-competitive. These unbalanced pairings would just hurt overall enjoyment of the game. I already mentioned that my philosophy of gaming leans toward breadth rather than depth. Tichu like many other trick-taking games, favor players with extensive experience and ability to count cards. I would hate playing against someone of that skill level as I don’t really care to master the game. I want to be competitive every time I play, I just don’t want to become so skilled that my pool of opponents shrink. Perhaps I have never found a game that I am THAT passionate about and these restrictions alone made me subconsciously avoid playing Tichu. To a certain degree, the same issues crop up when I play Mahjong. I love playing Mahjong but also hate playing Mahjong at the same time.

There is no reason to rehash the rules for Tichu. If you want to find out more on how to play the game, visit here. Suffice to say, Tichu is a ladder climbing and trick-taking card game with special cards: Dog, Phoenix, Dragon and Mahjong that allow players to manipulate their hands with the goal of shedding all your cards to exit the round. If you exit the game first, you get to score points based on the cards collected from the tricks you have won and also from the tricks captured by the loser (last one out). Since Tichu is a partnership game, if you and your partner exit #1 and #2, then you score 200 points straight. No additional scoring needed. This makes a 1-2 exit one of the strongest point scoring strategies in Tichu. It also forces you to occasionally sacrifice your own hand to help your partner, especially if your partner calls Tichu or Grand Tichu for bonus points (100 pts and 200 pts respectively). This is why the partnership aspect of Tichu is so noteworthy. If players in a team do not exit back-to-back, then the 100 points available each round is split between both teams depending on the cards won in each trick. While the rules aren’t particularly hard to remember, the nuances in the game are plentiful. Going out first is the goal but being able to play the right cards at the right time to take the lead is everything. The rules really just give you an outline of how to play the game but the emergent properties doesn’t really come through until your play your first trick on the table. Then all the variables, possibilities come alive and you will be hooked….or be repulsed.

In Tichu, the partnership aspect of the game is the highlight for me. Without partnership, Tichu is probably just another trick-taking game among the hundreds already out there. Sure, some of the designs out there are supposedly quite excellent and unique with their own novel twists in scoring. However, none I have played thus far are partnerships and that is what makes Tichu great: you win or lose as a team. Winning as I said, requires one to be attuned to the partner’s needs. Since no direct communication is allowed, you can only judge the subtle needs by paying careful attention to the cards being played, or not played by your partner as well as your opponents. This is where playing together in a close knit group benefits Tichu players. If you are familiar with your partner’s play style, you are also like familiar with how your opponents will counteract. Then it just becomes a mind game.

More recently, my gaming group discovered playing Tichu online. Since we don’t exactly have a choice of meeting face to face during the pandemic, we had to migrate to playing Tichu online. Previously, we had played face-to-face Tichu sparingly. However, I think playing Tichu online is ideal. You can certainly play faster and the book keeping is negligible since the computer does it all for you. I think card games such as Tichu is prefect for online play so long as the there is some audio or video interaction between players. With so many portals around, it is probably not to tough these days.

I am not an expert in Tichu, but I can clearly see how this game can draw you in like no other. Unlike complex games, you can pull out Tichu and play within minutes. There is virtually no setup or tear down time even though there is some book keeping at the end of each round. I am glad that our friends convinced me to give this another try and to reintroduce me to trick-taking. While I lost many years in between, I can now safely take trick-taking out of my “to avoid” column.

Initial impressions: Great!

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