I've been meaning to write a review of Tichu for a long time now. That time has finally come.
When I first heard of Tichu I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, it's just a card game, right? It doesn't even use a clever, art-laden non-standard deck. There's no flash here. And yet I kept hearing phrases like "this is the best four player game ever". Naturally not everyone will agree with that statement but still, the fact that some people felt that way was an indication that perhaps there was something in this game that merited a closer look.
Last spring, after reading a similar glowing endorsement, I took a copy of Tichu to one of my son's baseball games with the goal of learning the rules. I pulled out the rule sheet (a single sheet of paper with several language versions printed in very small print) and began my attempt to figure out what all the fuss was about. The rules were short enough but I confess that after reading them two or three times I still didn't get it. It looked like a good enough game but the rules were relatively complicated and totally unfamiliar to someone who had been raised on traditional trick taking games like Rook, Hearts and Bridge. They also didn't really strike me as being well written. Three times through the rules and I still didn't feel I had a command for how the game worked and I certainly didn't understand why some were calling it the world's best partnership card game.
That's where things stayed for several months. After my first readings of the rules I wasn't impressed enough to find table time for Tichu. I would occasionally suggest it to my weekly game night group but there were always other games that interested us more and I could never find four players willing to give it a go.
On one occasion I, my wife, my son and a friend found a few moments to give it a quick try. I did my best to explain the rules and we played a hand or two … incorrectly. My imperfect understanding of the rules lead to many mistakes and resulted in an experience that left everyone rather unimpressed. Afterward I re-read the rules at a more careful pace and realized how many rules we'd gotten wrong. I was eager to try it again with the proper rules but it would be some time before the opportunity would present itself.
Then one day I decided to try it out with some friends from work over our lunch hour. By then I'd finally grasped the rules. This time, we played it correctly. And the rest, as they say, is history. We are addicted and we now play Tichu at least three times a week over lunch.
So what's all the fuss about? Well that's a little hard to explain. Tichu is a partnership trick taking game but it's a very different trick taking game from those you might be used to. It's kind of a strange cross between Hearts and Poker and another game called The Great Dalmuti (which in turn is based upon an old card game known by some as "Scum" and by many others by a more colorful name which I won't repeat here).
Players attempt to rid their hands of cards by playing sets of cards that resemble poker hands: straights, pairs, triples, full houses, etc. The player who leads the trick determines what type of set the other players must play. If he leads a pair then each other player must try and play a higher pair in turn. Whoever plays the highest ranking pair takes the trick. Unlike other trick taking games, players may choose to pass but if they play they MUST play a higher ranking set. There is no "ducking" in Tichu. Also unlike other trick taking games, play continues on a trick until three players pass in succession. This means that players may end up playing several times on the same trick. Players may even choose to play after passing if their turn comes up again.
In addition to the normal 52 cards of a standard deck of playing cards, there are four special cards in a Tichu deck: the dog, the phoenix, the mah jong, and the dragon. Each has special abilities and special rules for when and how they can be played.
Players score points in several ways: captured 5's, 10's and kings are worth points as is the dragon. The phoenix is a powerful card but it costs points to take it. Players also earn points by correctly predicting that they will be the first to "go out". And if both players in a partnership go out before anyone in the other partnership it's called a "double win" and they immediately score big points. The game is played over several hands to a predetermined score, usually 1000 points. If you are interested in all of the details then I suggest you read my rules summary.
On the box, Tichu is advertised for three to ten players but the game is really best for four and that is how I recommend it be played. Play with any other number of players and you're not really playing Tichu; you're just playing another game that happens to use the same rules.
Tichu is a deceptively deep game. There is luck involved to be sure, this is a card game after all, but the strategy far outweighs the luck. Clever play and a good understanding of the rules will almost always be rewarded. The more I play, the more appreciation I have for what an elegant and addictive game this is. I'll allow that Tichu might not be "the best four player game ever" but it's a strong contender for that title and in my opinion it is definitely worthy of the title: "the best four player partnership card game ever".