Monday, August 30, 2010

Got More Tichu Questions? I Have Answers!

In addition to the information that I posted earlier, I've compiled a FAQ page which can be found on the Tichu support website. Here's a direct link:

This should be the first place you go to find answers to your questions about Tichu for the iPhone family of devices.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Tichu Answers

I've seen quite a few questions about Tichu (for the iPhone) lately that I thought would be best answered in a public forum. I posted most of this message elsewhere but I thought I'd also share it here where hopefully more people will see it.

First, performance:

The target platform was the 3G S. It also will run reasonably well on the later generation iPod touch. Older models will, of course, work just fine but be a little slower. There's a lot more going on here than there was in Mü and that takes a LOT more cycles. (You should expect that on a first generation iPod touch this will be VERY slow.)

Network play:

As with Mü, local network over Bluetooth is supported (and it's much more stable than Mü's network play is). When Apple releases their matchmaking service here in a few months I plan to look at supporting it but I can't promise that it will happen.

Finally, about the AI:

With Tichu having so many more plays possible on a given turn, the decision tree is HUGE and as a direct result, the AI is not as strong as Mü's. Also problematic is the fact that I've discovered that people feel VERY strongly about their style of Tichu game and styles vary WIDELY between players. Some folks think that certain play decisions are set in stone. Others feel very differently. The fact that the AI is usually playing as a human's partner doesn't help. :) You'll enjoy my game best if you treat it casually and just try to enjoy the game. Don't think this is going to replace playing a game with four expert players who are familiar with your style of play. I wish it could but it probably won't.

Here's a little bit about the three difficulty levels that matter (the easier ones are not as interesting).

The "Normal" setting plays a reasonably competent game. The AI will ocassionally make a poor decision but it's good enough to enjoy (at least for me). This is the level that will probably feel the most "human-like" to most people. The AI tends to make slightly safer plays at this setting.

The "Better" setting plays slightly stronger. It thinks farther ahead which will cause perf problems for folks with older model devices, but may also cause it to make moves that you might think are a little risky sometimes. The thing to remember is that the AI has a perfect memory of all cards played so if it does something you think is odd, it's probably because it thinks that the odds are high that it will pay off. If you trust your partner a bit then usually it will work out.

The "Best" setting is the one that I fear might throw people off the most. At this level the game is allowed to peek into other players' hands when deciding what to play. (This only applies when the AI is deciding what to play on a trick; never when deciding to call Tichu or deciding what cards to pass.) Because of this, you really need to trust what your partner is doing if it's playing at this setting. For instance, if you gave it the Dog and it leads something else, it's probably because it thinks it's going to be able to set itself up for the double victory by taking a few tricks and then dogging to you later. You may think that's a horrible play but if you could see all the cards then perhaps you might not.

I am continuing to improve the AI so you can expect to see a few updates in the future that (hopefully) improve it some. If you would like to provide me with feedback or (gentle please) criticism then please feel free to send me email. I'd love to hear from you. (I would prefer that bugs or criticism be reported via email rather than in a public forum.)

Hopefully that helped answer some of your questions!

I've had a blast with Tichu so far. It's been wildly successful in the few days since its release and I hope to keep on improving it. This has easily been one of the most challenging pieces of code I've ever worked on. Hopefully you'll enjoy it too.


email: steve-at-housefullofgames-dot-com

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bringing Tichu to the iPhone Family

This article describes the creation of Tichu for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Tichu is available right now in the iTunes App Store.

About six months ago I wrote an article about bringing a great card game to the iPhone: Mü. Now, six months later, I'm back only this time I'm writing about another great card game: Tichu.

When I released Mü, I was almost immediately inundated with requests to do Tichu. That didn't surprise me too much, since my two favorite card games are Mü and Tichu and my experience with the hobby gaming community would lead me to believe that I'm in no way unique in that regard. These two games are often mentioned in the same breath. It's not hard to understand why. Mü is one of the best games in the traditional trick-taking genre, and Tichu is the king of the climbing games and the most popular card game of all time on BoardGameGeek.

In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a climbing game is similar to a trick-taking game but instead of each player playing just a single card to a trick, players take turns playing sets of cards in an effort to be the first to get rid of all of their cards and capture points. In a climbing game, players usually can play multiple times on the same trick so long as they are able to keep playing higher sets of cards. Other games in this genre include The Great Dalmuti, Gang of Four, Frank's Zoo, and a host of traditional Chinese card games from which Tichu was derived.

In my earlier article I discussed securing licensing rights, setting up a development environment, the importance of researching the platform, dealing with the smaller screen size, creating a workable AI and other similar issues. Most of those issues also applied to Tichu but I won't repeat myself by going into them here. Instead I'd like to focus on a couple of ways that I took the things I learned while doing Mü and improved upon them.

Specifically, I want to focus on two areas that I felt were vital to the game's success: network play, and beta testing.

Designing For Networked Play

Let's get this straight right up front. While there are Tichu variants that allow for different numbers of players, anyone who knows the game can attest to the fact that Tichu is really meant to be a four player partnership game. If you play with any other configuration of players, you may be playing a game called Tichu, you may be playing a game that looks like Tichu, you may be playing a game that shares some rules with Tichu, but you aren't really playing Tichu. What you are playing is a far inferior counterfeit of this superb game. No self-respecting Tichu player would ever deign to play Tichu with any number of players other than four.

Accepting that to be gospel, how is a Tichu addict to feed his addiction when there are fewer than four players present? That was one of the primary problems that Tichu for the iPhone was designed to address from the start. Right from the beginning I knew that I wanted to create an excellent way for players to enjoy the game when they were short a player or two (or even three).

When I designed Mü, I had a similar goal but my focus on linked play wasn't quite as strong as it has been on Tichu. Mü suffered from that lack of focus and the linked play experience has never been as glitch free as I would like. From the start, I set out to do Tichu the way that, in hindsight, I wished I had done Mü. I wanted a linked play experience that was bullet-proof from start to finish and I think that I've largely succeeded. Here are some of the ways that I did it.

First, before I ever wrote a line of code, I decided that I wanted to carefully compartmentalize all aspects of the game so that essential information could be shared across all linked devices as a single binary blob of data, identical in every way on each and every device. That way, any change to the game state could be reflected across all connected devices simply by copying that blob of data. With this architecture, it becomes impossible for external influences to put the game in an invalid state. As each device changes its local copy of the state, the state is broadcast as a single atomic unit to all of the other devices. Should two devices try to simultaneously change the same data, the last one wins and the first change may perhaps be lost, but at least the game state is legal and the game can continue uninterrupted.

Here is a diagram showing the high-level structure of Tichu:
You can see that the game is structured around four high-level components, three of which are nested one within the other like the layers of an onion.

The User Interface (UI) is completely divorced from the game state and can only interact with the game through a well defined interface at the Local State level. Any changes in the game state result in a single update method being called on the UI engine and the UI must be prepared to correctly render the game elements regardless of whatever state the game might have been in previously. The idea is that no matter what crazy, unexpected thing might have happened to the game state, the UI should always be able to "just do the right thing". It has no knowledge of how it got into its current state. It only knows what must be shown and how the user is expected to interact with the game at that precise moment in time.

The Common State contains the heart of the game. This state object is replicated across all connected devices. Change this state on one device and bit-for-bit that change is replicated across all of them. This level has no knowledge of where the four players are seated, only that there are four numbered players. This level knows which players are human, it knows what their names are, and it knows how to communicate with them. It knows in which order the players take their turns. It also knows which of the linked devices is responsible for playing for the computer players.

Inside the Common State is a tiny nucleus of data called the Core State. This contains the minimal amount of information necessary to describe the current state of play to the Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine. Whenever the AI explores the possible outcomes of various moves, it makes a copy of this state so that when it's done looking ahead, it can put the state back exactly the way it found it. In fact, whenever the AI engine is run at all, it operates on a copy of this state, so if any of the humans in the game should make a change, it won't immediately affect the AI and vice versa.

The Local State is unique to each connected device. Among other things, it tells the UI which seat each player occupies around the virtual table shown on the screen. This is how the game knows which of the hands belongs to you. Because each human player in the game has their own unique Local State, each player can independently choose if they want play to progress clockwise (common for most card games in the United States) or counterclockwise (the direction officially sanctioned by the rules). This also allows each player to have their own preferences as to which card art to use, which input style to use, and so on.

All of this careful structuring has resulted in a linked play experience far superior to the one I created for Mü. The game plays reliably with any number of players with very minimal chance of state corruption. In fact, I am so happy with the way this turned out that I am seriously considering re-engineering Mü to incorporate elements of this same system.

Building a Solid Beta Program

As soon as I had a playable game it was time to bring in some beta testers. Building on the core group of testers who helped me with Mü, I also reached out to some people in the gaming community at large who I knew might be interested. I was very lucky to get some very dedicated testers who are passionate about their Tichu game. If you're a board game enthusiast, I suspect that there might be a few names listed in the credits that will be familiar to you.

Early on, I set up a private web site dedicated to the beta program. I also set up a private Yahoo group so testers could communicate with one another and receive notifications about beta drops. Having active lines of communications with my beta testers was instrumental in the evolution of the game.

As I had done with Mü, I built in some special functionality that was available only during the beta test but I went far beyond what I had done for Mü. Beta builds kept an internal log of all important events in the game, as well as binary dumps of the core state before every play. If a tester ever encountered a situation that they felt needed to be reported, they could hit a button in the game and email that log to me, along with a short comment describing the issue. I could then take that binary blob and use it to put my game into exactly the same state as theirs for debugging and further testing. The several days I spent writing that debug-only code paid huge dividends as I made use of those features every single day.

The most difficult aspect of the beta program, from my point of view, was insulating myself from all of the well-meaning criticism and suggestions that I received from my testers. Tichu proved to be a very difficult game to program and early iterations of the AI were buggy and truly awful in some respects. My testers were very direct with their criticisms whenever they found something they thought to be wrong. Many times I had to bite my tongue and swallow my pride. Most of the time, after I let my emotions cool down, I had to admit that they were right. Having someone pick apart your work day after day can be very demoralizing but I had to remind myself that this was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. I can't tell you how many aspects of the final game were the direct result of feedback from the testers. They were immensely valuable. The fact that they were all unpaid volunteers who were doing it solely for the sake of their love of the game makes it all that much more impressive.


When I set out to write Tichu for the iPhone I was very nervous. I suspected that coming up with a successful AI for Tichu, particularly on this device, would be far more difficult than anything I had done for Mü. I was right. I'm still not completely satisfied with how well the computer plays the game and I will probably continue to tinker with it for many months to come but, despite that, I am so proud of how it has turned out. I can't tell you what a thrill it is for me to be able to link up with one or two friends and play a good game of Tichu. The computer may not play a perfect game but it can give me a decent run for my money. The interface is clean and well polished. It's attractive to look at and very fun to play. All in all, I couldn't be more pleased.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tichu Has Been Submitted!

Tichu for the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch has just been submitted to the App Store. Assuming the approval process goes smoothly, it should be available for purchase in the next few days.

Visit for details on the game.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lightning in a Bottle

Now, this is how to end a Tichu game! (And no, I didn't cheat to get those cards. They're all natural, baby!)

So the question everyone seems to be asking is, "When? When will Tichu be released to the App Store?"

Patience, Grasshopper. It won't be long now. We're just chasing down the last few AI issues and making sure we've squished all the bugs. Hopefully I'll be able to give you good news in a few days.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Check out the new Tichu promo video.

Estimated release date: late summer 2010.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Another Tichu Milestone

No screen shot this time (since it would look just like the ones I posted yesterday) but I thought this was worth mentioning.

Last night at game night, Adam (on his iPad) and Kai (on my iPhone) teamed up against me (on my iPad) and Becky, an AI player. Becky and I won 1075 to 625! Yet another encouraging sign for the AI! Becky still made a few questionable plays but she's getting better. We'll whip her into shape yet.

The three-way link worked flawlessly. No dropped connections. No state corruption. Just perfect! I was very pleased.