Thursday, April 27, 2006

Invitation to Tuesday Game Night

It's been a while since I've posted a general invitation to our game night. If you're close enough to Redmond on Tuesday evenings and you'd like to join us for some gaming, please feel free! We meet every Tuesday evening at 5:00 pm and we play until we're tired (usually around 10 or 11).

We meet in the Microsoft building 50 cafeteria. If you need access to the building, go to the courtyard on the north side of the building and knock on the cafeteria doors.

Building 50 is right off of the NE 40th exit of 520. Here's a map:

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Last Night's Games

Last night was Tuesday night and that means games. This week we had an excellent turnout with several newcomers attending and most of the old-timers there as well. It's always nice to see more people there for the first time and it's even nicer to see new faces return.

A lot of games were played so I'm sure that I'm going to miss some but here are the ones I remember.

I played Celtica as an opener. I was all set to play a three player game and then two more showed up just as we were getting started. Adam had misinterpreted a rule last week (understandable given the way it was written) and so this time the group got to play with the correct rules. Playing with the correct rules makes the game slightly more strategic than the way we played it last week but it's still an extremely luck-heavy, light game. That's forgivable because the length is so short but it's going to be a turn-off for some, particularly those expecting a typical Kramer & Keisling game. I'll post a review soon and you'll see what I mean. I had a nasty bout of luck at the end and came in dead last with no amulet pieces at all. Ben won easily with two completed amulets and one more nearly completed one.

By then we were pretty much at full strength for the evening. I had the good fortune to teach Caylus to Jason, Peter and Birch. It was kind of an odd game, with few production buildings being built early and no way to build residences or prestige buildings until very late in the game. I had a moment where I was afraid I'd allowed myself to fall too far behind while I was setting myself up to build the cathedral. For a while I was convinced that I'd allowed Jason to get too far ahead and given him the game. But in the end, I was able to build the cathedral (having advanced all the way down the construction favor track) and leave myself set up for a good solid finish in the next couple of turns, putting myself up by 10 or so. Scores were pretty tight though with Peter and Jason finishing with only a point difference. It was an unusually long game, what with three players new to the game thinking things through for the first time, and with my having to explain the rules at the beginning, but I think everyone enjoyed it. My opinion of the game just keeps getting better.

Meanwhile, Christopher and three others played another of his prototype games. This card game will actually eventually make it to people outside of our group since it's been commissioned for a local game conference. I can't remember the title of the game.

Nexus Ops was also played this evening. I remember Adam telling me that Oren won by just barely reaching the victory point goal one turn before Adam was poised to shatter it by a huge margin. Too bad Adam.

Also played: Die Sieben Siegal (affectionately known as Die Steven Segal), a very nice trick taking game which I personally have never been terribly fond of. It's a good game and I can totally see while people like it; it just doesn't work for me. You have to correctly predict not only how many tricks you will take but how many suits you'll take them with and the penalties for getting it wrong are pretty harsh. I'm just not good enough at playing with that kind of precision and the stress overwhelms the fun for me. But that's just me. Plenty of people love this game and it's easy to see why.

Adam, Michael, Oren and I finished up with a couple of late games of Tichu and for once Oren's luck went in his favor. He and I won two out of two full games despite the fact that I was more than a little sleepy. Awesome game. I never get tired of it.

I'm sure there were other games played as well but I couldn't tell you what they were. Come join us next week and make it even harder for me to keep track of everything we play!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Game Night

The Chinese President visited Microsoft on Tuesday so getting to building 50 was a bit of a chore. The driveway entrance I normally use (off of 40th street) was blocked off with cones so I had to drive around the block and use the other one. I was lucky. Some of our guys got caught in traffic when the cops blocked off 40th to let the Chinese motorcade through. Needless to say, we were a little late getting started.

Oren and I were the first to arrive (and I was at least twenty minutes late) so we played a game of Deflexion (which I won). This is a really cool abstract strategy game where players move mirrored pieces around the board in an effort to shoot their opponent's pieces with lasers. Let me repeat that: LASERS! REAL HONEST TO FRICKIN' GOODNESS LASERS! How cool is that? :)

When the Seattle crew arrived most of them settled in to a lovely little game of "Magic Bunnies". Never heard of that game? Not surprising since it's one of Christopher's inventions. I have no idea if the game is any good or not but it was impossible to keep from chuckling as I overheard them talking about bunnies and lollipops and rainbows.

Mike K. and I played Hey! That's My Fish! while we waited for more to arrive and Oren and Wade played a seemingly never-ending game of Deflexion which Oren eventually won by attrition.

Finally we had enough people to bring out the big guns. Jose, Christopher and I played a wonderful three player game of Caylus. (Wonderful because I won.) This game gets better each time I play it. Hopefully we'll get some more in stock soon. Rio Grande Games is saying early May now. How frustrating.

Several of the others played Nexus Ops. (At least I think that's what they played. I was kind of absorbed in my Caylus game.)

At some point Christopher, Oren, Jose and I played a few hands of Tichu. I think I've probably said enough about that game recently.

The new game of the night was Celtica. This is a new game by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer. They're the duo who did Java, Mexica, and Tikal. If you're expecting this to be anything like those three games (all very deep, satisfying gamer's games) then you're going to be quite disappointed. This is an extremely light, extremely random family game. But if you come into this expecting a light random closer then you might be pleasantly surprised. I played it a couple of times tonight and I rather liked it. The artwork is absolutely stunning. The theme is entertaining (if a bit pasted on). The game is very, very random but there's a little more to it than you might think at first. As long as you go into it with the attitude that you're just going to have a good time and not get overly wrapped up into winning or losing, there's a pretty decent little game here. It's quick and easy and not bad as far as family games go. Just don't expect another Tikal.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Tichu Part 2: Strategy

This is part 2 of my two-part article on Tichu. My earlier article explained the rules of the game and just barely hinted at strategy. In this article I plan to focus on strategy and the nuances of the game.

Let me start by saying that while I have played hundreds of Tichu games, I don't consider myself to be the ultimate authority on the game. I'm quite certain that there are others who are better players than I am and with any luck, someone out there will read this article and have some ideas on how to improve upon what I've written here. Please feel free to post comments!

Some of these ideas were borrowed from others (Aaron Fuegi has a particularly excellent set of Tichu resources which can be found at and some of them are just observations that have come from my experience. If you are already a Tichu player then hopefully you'll find something here that helps your game. If you haven't played Tichu before then perhaps this will spark an interest.

Overall Strategy
(It's called Tichu for a reason.)

To win at Tichu you need to accumulate 1000 points faster than the opposing team. That should be obvious but the question is: how best to get there? Where will your points come from? Consider that there are 100 points distributed among the 56 cards that make up a Tichu deck. The Dragon is worth 25 points and the Phoenix is worth -25 points. That means that if you play a regular hand where no one calls Tichu and no one scores a double win, the most you can hope for is 125 points. It's much more likely that you will score between 20 and 80 points on a normal hand. It should be obvious that calling (and making) Tichu is a much more efficient way to score points.

Since a Small Tichu is worth 100 points and (the much rarer) Large Tichu is worth 200 points, your primary goal should always be setting up either yourself or your partner for a Tichu call and then making it (or the inverse: spoiling your opponent's Tichu call).

Of secondary importance is setting up (or preventing) the double win.

Scoring points for tricks, while important, is far less consequential and should take a back seat to the other two.

With experienced players, you should expect that someone will call Small Tichu roughly two out of three hands.

Since calling and making Tichu is so important (and also since the winner of the hand scores the points taken by the loser) everything comes down to controlling the lead. If you can control the lead then you can go out first and if you can go out first, then you stand a good chance to score the most points.

In short: It's all about calling Tichu at the right time and controlling the lead.

When Should I Call Small Tichu?

Calling Tichu requires a reasonable certainty that you will be able to play all of your cards first. Because the consequences of a failed Tichu call are so disastrous, many novice players are understandably timid when it comes to calling Tichu. But consider that it's better to make two out of three Tichu calls than to have never made any at all. If you think that you have a better than even chance of going out first then you should make the call.

After you've exchanged cards, take stock of your hand. This is where you need to develop a strategy for how you will play your cards. If you have the Mah Jong, then you'll get the first lead. Do you think you can keep the lead? If you think you'll lose the lead at some point then you need to ask yourself how likely will it be that you'll be able to get it back. You'll probably have some low singletons in your hand. Can you unload those early and still retain the lead? I'll discuss card play later but the basic idea here is that you need a strategy for going out and if you think that your strategy has a good chance of success then you should plan on calling Tichu.

So let's say you've decided to call Tichu. Now the question is when should you call it? Calling Tichu before the pass (called "the push" in the official rules but I like this term better) will have two effects: first, it will guarantee that your opponents pass you garbage (there's a two out of three chance you'll get passed the Dog if you call Tichu before the pass, assuming you don't already have it) and it will signal to your partner that you need support. You can count on getting a decent card from him. If he's got the Phoenix, there's a good chance that you'll be getting it.

Most of the time you would rather wait until after the pass. And as long as you're waiting until after the pass, you almost always should delay calling Tichu as long as you can. Wait until you are compelled to play your first card. That usually gives you time to see a few other cards hit the table. Sometimes you can even put it off until a few tricks have gone by, draining your opponents' hands of strength and giving you a chance to get some feel for who might have a strong hand.

Waiting also has another advantage. It gives someone else time to call Tichu first. Remember that you lose nothing by having someone else call Tichu. You can still call Tichu yourself no matter who else has called it. If your opponent calls Tichu then you can reevaluate your risk. Are you SURE you can go out first? Then you should call Tichu yourself, go out, get the 100 points and set your opponents back 100 on top of that! But if you're not absolutely sure you can go out, then don't call Tichu; just try to play spoiler by going out first yourself. You've risked nothing and you've still gained 100 points on your opponents by setting them.

When Should I Call Large Tichu?

Large Tichu is obviously much more of a risk. You are only allowed to call Large Tichu before seeing your ninth card. That means you've only seen just over half of your hand. And you haven't passed cards yet so you can be very sure that your opponents will give you horrible cards. Before you take that 200 point plunge you need to make sure you're on reasonably solid ground.

Again it all comes down to controlling the lead. If four of those eight cards are strong enough to ensure that you can either keep the lead or take it from your opponent then you should consider it.

As a general rule, if you can be sure of getting four leads then you stand a better than average chance of going out first. So if I see four or more lead getters in those first eight cards then I call Large Tichu.

So what's a lead getter? A bomb is a lead getter, Aces are generally lead getters (particularly if you know where the Dragon and Phoenix are), and any of the four specials are lead getters. The Dragon and the Phoenix are obvious lead getters but the Mah Jong is also a lead getter because it guarantees you the first lead and the Dog is a lead getter because you can pass it to your partner; so long as he wins at least one trick, he can transfer the lead to you.

Remember that a bomb is only good for ONE lead (and even that's not a guarantee). Many novice players see a bomb in those first eight cards and think that this is their hand! That’s a mistake unless you've got some other good cards to back it up.

Also consider the current score. If you're enjoying a comfortable lead, then Large Tichu probably isn't worth the risk.

Many would consider calling Large Tichu as a desperation move if they're far behind in the score. I'm not very fond of that. I've seen too many games where it looked like one team was sure to win and then the cards stopped favoring them and allowed the other team to catch up. Never assume the game is over until someone has 1000 points.

Large Tichu is very rare indeed. I'd estimate that someone will call it once in every two or three games (if that often). Notice I said GAMES, not HANDS.

What Cards Should I Pass?

Here again, remember that Tichu is all about controlling the lead. You want to give cards to your opponents that will either force them to give up a lead or prevent them from taking a lead; and you want to give a card to your partner that will help him take the lead or keep it. But most importantly, you want to improve your own chances of controlling the lead.

I usually sort my cards by rank (suits don't matter except for bombs so Tichu players generally don't sort their hands by suits like Bridge players do) and then I start to think about my strategy. Which cards match up well with one another? Do I have a run? Do I have pairs? Are there cards that obviously don't fit? Low singletons are especially problematic because they're hard to get rid of unless you have a lead and they are easy to play over.

Anything that doesn't fit in my strategy is a candidate for passing. From among those cards that don't fit well, I'll usually choose two lower cards and one higher one. The lower cards will go to my opponents and the higher card will go to my partner.

If I don't think that I have much chance of going out first then I will consider giving my partner the best card I can give without completely ruining my hand. Sometimes I'm even willing to ruin my hand. If it's very bad then losing one good card surely won't make it much worse. If my partner gets an Ace, the Dragon, the Phoenix or perhaps even a King then he should assume that my hand isn't very strong.

Psychology plays a role here. If I know that my opponent likes to pass away twos and threes then I will often keep a two or a three in my hand in the hopes of getting passed a second one.

The worst thing that can happen on the pass is that you'll pass one of your opponents the fourth card in a bomb or the fifth card in a flush bomb. It happens more than you might think. So in order to minimize the chances most Tichu players use a very simple passing convention: pass odd cards to the left, even to the right. If your partner follows the same convention, you have little chance of accidentally working together to create a bomb. If both cards are even or both cards are odd, then pass the lowest odd card left or the lowest even card right.

If you can afford it, consider splitting a low pair. If you pass the same card both left and right, then you run very little chance of passing into a bomb since the only threat is that you'll create a flush bomb.

Unless your opponent has called Tichu, you probably shouldn't pass him the Dog. Remember, the Dog is a lead getter. If you pass the Dog to your opponent, you've just about guaranteed that his partner will get a lead he didn't earn. It's usually better to keep the Dog for yourself and use it as transportation to give an extra lead to your partner. Or if you have a strong hand and are thinking of calling Tichu, pass it to your partner as insurance. That way if you lose the lead your partner can get it back for you.

And finally, ALWAYS remember what cards you passed and what cards were passed to you. (Especially if you have the Mah Jong!) It's the first clue you have as to the state of the other hands around the table. If any of the cards I was passed match a card I already have, I always put the new card in front of its older mate. That way if I need to play one of those cards, I'll be sure to play the one I was passed so I don't give away the fact that I have another card just like it still in my hand.

The Specials

The four most powerful cards in the deck are the four special cards. In order of descending value they are: the Phoenix, the Dragon, the Mah Jong, and the Dog.

The Phoenix

The Phoenix is the single most powerful card in the deck. Novice players will often undervalue it due to it's -25 point value. The point value (while something to consider) is secondary since in Tichu it's all about controlling the lead and the Phoenix is the most powerful lead getter in the deck (outside of a bomb). In fact, its high value is precisely why it costs 25 points: it's a balancing mechanism.

The thing that makes the Phoenix so powerful is its versatility. You should almost always hold onto it as long as you can because so long as you hold on to the Phoenix (particularly if the Dragon has been played) your opponents will be reluctant to play their Aces. As a singleton, the Phoenix can be formidable (so long as you always wait to play it on the highest card left in play) but where the Phoenix really shines is as a joker. Having the Phoenix in your hand means that you can turn any single into a pair, a pair into a triple, a triple into a full house or fill gaps in a run. It gives you the flexibility to play your hand differently depending on the situation. It almost always guarantees that you're going to get one more lead. That makes it worth more than the 25 points it costs to take it.

Because the Phoenix is so powerful, consider passing it to your partner if you think that his hand is likely to be better than yours. Just having both of you know where it is can be a huge advantage and the Phoenix is always a welcome addition to any hand.

The Dragon

The Dragon is powerful because so long as it remains in your hand, none of your opponents' Aces are any good. Its weakness lies in the fact that it can't be used in conjunction with other cards and therefore if your opponent plays nothing but combinations your Dragon does you no good.

Any trick taken with the Dragon gets you the lead but (at least temporarily) gives up any points taken during that trick. While that's a concern, don't sweat it too much. Just give the trick to the player who you think is most likely to go out last, then if you or your partner goes out first you stand a good chance of getting those points right back.

This is another card that's worth passing to your partner if you think his hand is stronger than yours.

Should You Bomb the Dragon?

Most of the time that's a bad idea. If you were winning the trick then playing your bomb is giving away an extra lead. If your partner was winning the trick then playing your bomb steals a lead from him. If your opponent was winning the trick then playing your bomb gets you the lead but the points were going to your team anyway and you could just as easily have waited until your opponent's next play to play your bomb. Of course there are exceptions, such as when you think your opponent is about to go out, in which case of course you should play your bomb.

The Mah Jong

The Mah Jong is powerful for two reasons: first, it gives you the initial lead, and second, it allows you to call for a card. That second ability should not be underrated.

Quite often I'll call for the card that I just passed to the player who will play after me. That's a good idea for several reasons: it will spoil any bomb that I might have just given him, it ensures that I don't pull a crucial card out of my partner's hand by mistake, and (since usually I've just called for a low card) it gives my partner a chance to unload a low singleton, improving his hand.

Don't forget that the Mah Jong can be part of a run. If you can unload a run of low cards on that first lead then by all means do so. But if you do, consider carefully which card you call for. Calling for a card and then leading a run means that it's far less likely that your opponent will be forced to play that card on this trick, since it will also need to be in a run. If you've played a five card run and called for a card that just happens to be in your partner's six card run, you've just ruined his hand. In that case, you might want to consider calling for a very low card, perhaps a deuce, just to be safe.

One other ploy, particularly if you know that either you or your partner has the Dragon, is to call for an Ace in the hopes of forcing your opponent to give up strength early. I've seen this used successfully on occasion but it's risky and I've seen it backfire many times as well. I really don’t recommend it.

You should rarely consider passing the Mah Jong. While it guarantees a lead, your partner may not have expected it and he may not know what card to call out with it. Of course a good player will always remember what he's passed so getting passed a Mah Jong shouldn't really be a problem but the risk usually outweighs the potential benefit.

The Dog

Much maligned, the Dog is the bastard card of Tichu. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE DOG! In the hand of the player who has called Tichu, the Dog can be disaster because it forces him to give up the lead but in the hand of his partner it's an insurance policy second to none because it's a guaranteed, unbombable lead transfer.

If you were dealt the Dog then you should consider how best to use it to get the lead to your partner when he needs it most. Remember that the Dog must be lead so make sure you retain at least one lead getter in your hand and play the Dog as soon as it makes sense, otherwise you may be stuck with it. There's nothing worse than being left with a Dog that you can't play.

As I stated earlier, you should almost never pass the dog to your opponent and you should almost always pass the dog to your partner if you are considering calling Tichu. If you don't think you'll be calling Tichu then you should just hold on to the Dog yourself and use it as soon as it makes sense.

One other thing, remember that the Dog is worth no points so it doesn't matter whose tricks it ends up in. I've seen novice players play the Dog and then wonder who keeps the card after that. It doesn't matter.

Playing the Hand

Here again, it's all about controlling the lead. You want to unload problem cards early and you want to hold on to your lead getters as long as you can.

If you have the lead, lead low and lead into your strengths whenever possible. Look at your cards and try to come up with a strategy for going out. Lead cards that you think you otherwise will never get a chance to play and given a choice, lead cards that will guarantee you can take the lead. For instance, if you have a low singleton, a pair of threes and a pair of Kings, you might want to consider leading the threes in the hopes that your Kings will earn you back the next lead. Then you can play your low singleton. Leading the singleton first would almost certainly be giving away the lead to the first other player with an Ace, after first allowing everyone to unload low singletons along the way. If your plan fails then one of your Kings may earn you a lead later, allowing you to unload the singleton into your remaining King.

Aces should almost always be used as singletons. A pair of Aces is only good for one lead if played as a pair but it's probably good for two leads if played as singletons. And there's nothing more frustrating than a bomb of Aces. Unless of course you have several Kings. In that case you're the happiest of players. (Well, OK, not really. I'll happily take any hand with four Aces. But what I mean is that it's frustrating because you'll almost never want to actually play it as a bomb.)

Card counting isn't as vital in Tichu as it is in Bridge but it's still an excellent skill to cultivate. The player who can keep track of which cards have been played and who has played them has a huge advantage because he has a better idea which cards are the current lead getters. At the very least you must always keep track of the four specials and the four Aces. Anything beyond that is a bonus but it isn't quite as vital.

As a general rule, I like to try and save my big combinations for late in the hand. This serves two purposes: first, it hides the fact that I'm close to going out, thus minimizing the chances of my opponent playing a bomb, and second, it lets me get rid of problem cards such as low singletons early, when my partner still has a chance of helping me out. Of course, playing your only King and leaving yourself with a 2-6 run is almost never a good idea so use good judgment here.

Also, make sure you work with your partner. If your partner is winning the trick, you generally don't want to play over him. That's a waste of a lead and it's probably hurting your partner. Of course if you've called Tichu or if you have the Dog and this is your last chance to get rid of it then go for it.

If you know that you can go out first, you should consider if there's anything you can do to help your partner's chances of going out second. A double win is worth a lot of points. Don't be so aggressive about this that you find yourself putting the hand in jeopardy.


Once again: It's all about calling Tichu at the right time and controlling the lead.

Tichu is an excellent game. For me it hits the sweet spot between strategy and luck, complexity and elegance. It's an extremely balanced game that's a little more difficult than your run of the mill card game but it's not nearly so difficult as a game like Bridge. I hope you have many long hours of enjoyment from this gem of a game. I know I have.

Hopefully you've found this to be an interesting discussion. If you've found something useful in here or if you have anything to add, please leave me a comment. Should I post more articles like this one? Let me know!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tichu Part 1: The Rules

Almost every day over lunch my friends and I play Tichu. This simple card game has become something of a phenomenon for me. It's my favorite four player card game and it's the only game that I currently have rated as a 10 over at the Geek. That doesn't necessarily mean it's my favorite game (that honor shifts with the winds) but it's certainly the game that I'm most willing to play if there are exactly four players and a Tichu deck present.

The other day I received some email from someone who had some Tichu strategy questions and that got me thinking that perhaps I should write an article on Tichu strategy. Now I realize that there are already several very good articles on the web on strategy but I figured that one more wouldn't hurt and perhaps this will spark more interest in this fantastic game. Also, I don't claim to be a world-class Tichu player. If you think I've got anything wrong or overlooked anything, please feel free to leave a comment.

But before I dive too deeply into strategy, I thought perhaps I should provide a summary of the rules just in case anyone isn't familiar with this excellent game. So if you are already familiar with the rules then perhaps you won't want to read this article too closely. There are a few basic strategy tips at the end of this but for the most part I'm saving the real strategy discussions for the next article.

This summary originally appeared on the HFoG forums. It is not intended to replace the official game rules (although it is pretty complete); merely to supplement and clarify them. This summary only applies to the basic four player partnership game. Tichu with any other number of players isn't Tichu; it's a different game that just happens to use the same rules.


Tichu is a partnership trick-taking game. Partners sit opposite each other, as in Bridge. The game is played over several hands. The winner of the hand is the first player to "go out" or play all his/her cards. At the end of the hand points are tallied. The first team to 1000 points wins the game.

The Cards

A near-standard deck of 52 playing cards ranked 2 through Ace in four suits: jade, sword, pagoda and star. Ace is always high.

Also included are four special cards: The Mah Jong, the Phoenix, the Dragon and the Dog. They bring the total cards in the deck to 56.

(Yes, it is possible to fabricate your own Tichu deck from a standard bridge deck by marking 4 jokers or 4 other cards from a matching deck. That's something to consider if you're just interested in trying it out to see if you'll like it. Of course, any game that's worth playing is worth paying for so if you like it, please support the designer by buying a copy.)

The Deal

The rules state that cards aren't dealt in Tichu; they're taken. In practice I find this awkward and when we play we always deal. 8 cards are dealt to each player. Each player then decides whether or not to call "Large Tichu" (see below), and then the remaining cards are dealt so that each player has a hand of 14 cards.

The Push

Each player selects one card to push to each of the other three players (for a total of three cards). In this way, each player is exchanging one card with every other player. Obviously, you may not look at any of the cards pushed to you before you choose which cards to push back.

The Trick

Whoever has the Mah Jong leads but she does NOT need to lead with the Mah Jong.

Unlike most trick taking games, a player may lead one card or a combination of cards. Also unusual is that the next player must either better the lead or pass. You may not "duck" or play an inferior combination to the one that is currently winning the trick.

A trick continues until three players in succession pass. Then whoever played last wins the trick and the lead for the next trick. He takes all the cards played during that trick and places them in front of him (unless the trick was won with the Dragon in which case the cards are placed in front of one of his opponents.)

You may pass on your turn and then play if your turn comes up again on the same trick.

In Tichu play officially progresses to the right instead of the left but as most westerners are used to play progressing clockwise, we usually bow to convention and play to the left.

Legal combinations are very similar to Poker hands. They are:

  • a singleton
  • a pair
  • a triple a.k.a. three of a kind
  • a full house
  • a straight a.k.a. run (minimum length of five - Ace is ALWAYS high)
  • a group of pairs of neighboring values a.k.a. a run of pairs (example: 4,4,5,5,6,6 or J,J,Q,Q)

Once a combination has been lead then it may only be followed by the exact same combination (but of a higher rank). For example, you can't play three of a kind on a pair, you must follow a pair with another pair (or you may pass of course). Another example: you can't play a six card run on a five card run.

In all cases, the rank of a combination is the rank of its highest card EXCEPT for a full house where (as in Poker) the rank is the rank of the triple. (For example: 2,2,2,A,A ranks 2; not A.)

The Special Cards

Mah Jong (0 points): Also called the bird, the sparrow or the 1. Whoever has this card at the start of the hand leads the first trick. The Mah Jong is rank 1 and can be used as a singleton or as part of a run (next to a 2). Whoever plays the Mah Jong gets to request a card by rank (e.g. "I want to see an Ace"). You may not wish for a special card; only a card of standard rank 2-A. The requested card must be played as soon as it legally can be played (even if it means playing a bomb - see below). Play continues as normal but the request remains in force until fulfilled or the hand ends, even over multiple tricks. It is legal to request a card that you know no one has (because they've all been played).

Phoenix (-25 points): When played as a singleton, it always ranks 1/2 point above the last card played (except for the Dragon which it cannot beat). If lead then it ranks 1 1/2. If played as a set, it's a joker that can be ranked two through Ace. Like all special cards, it cannot be used in a bomb.

Dragon (25 points): May only be played as a singleton. It ranks one higher than an Ace and thus always takes a trick (unless bombed). If the Dragon wins a trick then the winner must give the entire trick to one of his opponents. (Generally you either bomb it or give it to the player who you think is least likely to go out.)

Dog (0 points): May only be lead and then only as a singleton. It yields the lead to your partner. If your partner is out then the lead passes to the next player in succession. If that player is also out then the lead passes back to you. It may not be bombed.


Bombs are special. They are either four of a kind or a straight flush (of five or more cards). Bombs may only be made up of the standard cards 2 through A. The four special cards may never be used as part of a bomb.

Bombs may be played AT ANY TIME (so long as they aren't outranked by a bomb already played on the current trick) and they ALWAYS WIN the trick. You do not play bombs in turn. You may play a legal combination and then turn right around and bomb it. You may even bomb your own bomb.

Bombs with more cards ALWAYS beat bombs with fewer cards. Bombs may be lead (in which case the other players would need to bomb or pass and they would NOT be required to bomb in turn).

Note that bombs are the only combination in the entire game where suits matter.

Winning the Hand

Whoever is the first to play all her cards wins the hand. There is no immediate point reward for winning the hand but read on.

The other players then continue to play.

If the winning player's partner goes out second then that's called a double win and the winning team immediately scores 200 points and the hand is over. In this case cards are not scored.

Otherwise, play continues until only one player has cards remaining in his hand. He then gives those cards to the other team and he gives the tricks he took to the player that won the hand.


Unless there was a double win (see above) players score all their cards at the end of the hand. The Dragon is worth 25. The Phoenix is worth -25. Fives are worth 5. Tens and Kings are worth 10. So there are 100 points total in each hand.

Play continues until one or more teams reach 1000 points.

Small Tichu and Large Tichu

Before playing her first card a player may call "Small Tichu". (Note that other players may have already played. In fact, because she may have passed in the previous trick, this might not even be the first trick!) If you call Small Tichu then you are betting 100 points that you will go out first. If you are right, you'll get 100 points in addition to whatever score you get for that hand. If you are wrong then you'll lose 100 points.

Before seeing her ninth card a player may call "Large Tichu" which is the same thing only the gamble is worth 200 points (plus or minus) instead of 100.

More than one player may call Tichu. Two partners may even call Tichu (potentially canceling each other out).

Basic Strategy

Controlling the lead is everything in this game. If you have a seven card run then you can get rid of half of your hand in one play but you'll probably never get to play it if you never get the lead. So it is vitally important that you conserve your high ranking singletons and pairs to make sure that you can get the lead when you need it.

Don't make the mistake of playing your huge multi-card combination too soon. That's bad for two reasons: first, it makes you a target since you're obviously close to going out; second, it probably leaves you with a bunch of easily bettered singletons that you have no way of unloading.

Be careful not to get stuck with the dog if you have no way to control the lead. If you think that there is a chance that you will not be able to get the lead back then you had better play the dog now while you have the opportunity. Otherwise, you'll be left with a card in your hand that can only be played if you somehow get the lead back, which almost guarantees that you will go out last.

If your partner calls "Tichu" then you MUST sacrifice everything to make sure that your partner goes out first. Even if it means misplaying the best hand you've ever seen. That 100 point gamble is worth too much to risk loosing it. Likewise, if your opponent has called "Tichu" then you had better find a way to sabotage it.

Don't forget that ultimately the game is about taking points, not tricks. Going out is good. Taking seventy points is better.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Game Night

Lets just jump right into the games.

As an opener, Oren and I teamed up against Darryl and Mike K. in a game of Polarity. Polarity is a really unique abstract strategy/dexterity game where players take turns placing magnetic pieces on a canvas playing field. The trick is that each piece must be placed so that it is partially suspended above the board by its magnetic field. Disturb the pieces and you'll be losing points. It's eerie fun with science. Oren and I won pretty handily.

By that time we had seven people in attendance and so we split into two groups. Oren, Jose and I played Caylus. We had a good game which Oren easily won. I came in a respectable second.

The other four: Mike K., Adam, Birch, and Darryl played Il Principe. I believe that Mike won that one. Il Principe takes a little auction, some area control, some set collecting, and some production and blends them all together to produce an interesting mix. It's a fun game that grows on me the more I play it.

We both finished at about the same time so we mixed the players up.

Darryl, Jose, Oren and Birch played Hey! That's My Fish! This is that fun abstract strategy game I've mentioned before where players move their penguins from ice floe to ice floe collecting fish. Quick, easy and fun.

Mike K., Adam, and I played Razzia (the card game version of Ra, currently only available as an import). I actually like Razzia a little better than Ra just for the size factor but they're almost identical games. I didn't do well tonight.

Mike K., Adam, and I next played St. Petersburg. This is a very good production game with some brutal economic decisions. Early in the game you really have to concentrate on generating income but at some point in the middle you need to leave off concentrating on income and focus on building victory points. For the first time in a very long time I managed to achieve a convincing victory. Usually when I play St. Petersburg I do rather poorly. Maybe I'm finally getting better. Or perhaps I just got lucky.

Darryl had to leave early and so Oren, Birch, and Jose next played Nexus Ops. This is a very good objective based combat game that kind of feels like a lighter (and much shorter) version of Twilight Imperium. It's also about as geeky as games come. The pieces are clear day-glow colored plastic bugs and those of us playing St. Petersburg busted out laughing more than once at overhearing such phrases as "I'm a Crystaline Killer!" Good fun.

After St. Petersburg I was getting pretty tired so I decide to head for home. As I was leaving Mike and Adam were starting up a game of Dungeon Twister. This is as exceptional two player game (although multiplayer expansions are coming) that has some chess-like elements and some combat elements similar to Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation, all wrapped up in a nice fantasy theme.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Review: Caylus

At the time of this writing, William Attia's game Caylus is currently ranked number 2 at Board Game Geek. That a game which has been available for only a few months (and widely available for only a few weeks) should be ranked so highly by the BGG community of gaming elitists (and I mean that as a compliment) should tell you something. This is not the kind of thing that comes along every day. This is indeed something special.

What's it all about?

Caylus is a game for 2-5 players. Playing time is roughly two hours. It's published by Ystari Games and distributed in the US by Rio Grande Games. The basic premise of the game is that King Philip wants a new castle and it's up to the players to see that he gets it. Players supervise the construction of the castle and the surrounding town. The town is necessary because it will provide the workers, quarries, and other supporting infrastructure that will enable the castle to be constructed.

This is a production style game. As the game progresses, players construct buildings for the town, which can then be used to produce resources or construct other, more powerful buildings and so on. As in all production games, the choices you make early in the game will determine the choices that become available to you later in the game. One of the things that makes this game different from other production games is that although new buildings generate a small reward for the builder (usually in the form of victory points), they become available for all players to use. This keeps games tight and extremely well balanced.

This is also a perfect information game. That means that no player is privy to any information that isn't available to all. There are no closed hands, no secret money, no hidden tiles. In fact, there isn't even any luck in the game other than the random ordering of six tiles during setup (which provides some variety) and the starting player order. Like a chess game, whether you win or lose depends almost entirely on how you play the game and what actions your opponents choose to take. This results in a highly satisfying gamer's game but it does mean that the game could be a little daunting to fledgling gamers.

How does the game work?

Each player has a small supply of money and a meagre income which he will collect at the start of each turn. Each player also has a set of six worker tokens and a resource pool. Resources are represented by colored cubes and come in the following flavors: pink/food, brown/wood, grey/stone, purple/cloth, and yellow/gold. The board depicts a castle at the top and a road that winds down the board from the castle. Along the road are a number of spaces, some permanently occupied, some occupied by building tiles, and some blank spaces which will be filled with building tiles as the game progresses. Each building is associated with an action. Some produce resources, some allow new buildings to be constructed, some affect turn order, some allow players to curry favor by adding to the castle's construction, and so on.

Players take turns placing their workers on buildings. With a few exceptions, no building can have more than one worker on it. Initially, each placement costs only one coin but as players pass, the cost increases. This acts as a governing mechanism that keeps players from taking too many extra actions on a given turn. When all players have passed, players get to take their actions. Beginning with the buildings nearest the castle and proceeding down the road, players retrieve their workers and execute the action of the building that their worker occupied.

The object of the game is to collect victory points and, like most good gamer's games, there are a number of different ways to do this. Each time a new building is constructed, the builder is rewarded with some amount of victory points, so a player could adopt a building strategy, racing to collect resources and turn them into new and more profitable buildings faster than the others. Also, any time a building is used by another player it generates victory points for its owner, so a player could try to build buildings which other players will want to use as part of their strategies. Players will also probably want to divert some of their resources to help build the castle. Each time a player contributes resources to the castle she is rewarded with some victory points and the potential to win royal favor. Royal favor allows a player to advance her status on one of four "favor tracks", each of which offers a different type of escalating reward which could be factored into the player's strategy.

What do I think of the game?

The deep game play, perfect information, lack of luck, and myriad potential strategies of this game make Caylus truly something special. There is also a lovely balance between strategy and tactics. Players can adopt a strategy early on and then circumstances may present tactical opportunities that were unforeseen. This is an extremely well balanced game that works well across its suggested player range. As a two-player game, it's a highly strategic game of maneuvering and resource management. With three or four players, the competition for available actions get a little tighter but the additional players makes it possible to pit your opponents against each other. Adding more players also introduces a little more unpredictability, shifting the emphasis a little bit from the strategic to the tactical. With five players, the game time goes up a bit and the downtime between actions goes up as well, but not so much as to render the game unenjoyable.

The production quality is superb, with a colorful linen finished board, sturdy tiles, high-quality wooden components, full-color instruction booklet, and extremely well thought out iconography that greatly simplifies what otherwise would be a relatively difficult game to play. Simply put, the components are flawless.

If the game has one flaw I would say that it tends to slow down a bit in the end game as players try to carefully think out their remaining moves to make sure that they can maximize their returns before the end of the final turn.

Caylus is not a difficult game to play but playing it well does require careful thought. This is probably not the best game for inexperienced gamers but every seasoned gamer will want a copy in their collection. If you buy only one game this year, this is the one to buy. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Game Night Writeup

Last night's game night had a respectable turnout. Most of the regulars were there and my son Kray was able to attend as well. I arrived while a few openers (Money, and The Bottle Imp) were wrapping up and then we divided into three groups for the main events.

Christopher, Oren and I played Caylus. Just in case you've been living under a rock and haven't heard of it, Caylus is definitely the new darling of the euro-gaming world. It's meteored up to third place on the Board Game Geek top games list. This is the third or fourth time I've played it and I have to say that I've found it very worthy of all the buzz it's received. It's deep, strategic, exceptionally well balanced, and a whole lot of fun. I'd gladly play it any time. Christopher won, followed by myself and then Oren. All three scores were pretty close and had Christopher not managed to build the cathedral (worth 25 VP) before me I'd have won the game. Good times. Can't wait to play again.

Mike M. and Tejas played Memoir '44. I don't know which scenarios they played, nor do I know who won but they appeared to be enjoying themselves. Memoir is a great game that enables players to simulate dozens of historical conflicts that occured during the liberation of Europe at the end of World War II. It's not as deep or accurate as a full-fledged war game, but neither is it as difficult to play. It plays quickly and it's a heck of a lot of fun.

Kray, Adam, Birch, Wade, Jose, and Mike K. played World of Warcraft, Kray's new pride and joy. This is a monster game. Their game lasted well over five hours. I haven't played it myself so I can only comment on what I saw and what I saw looked pretty good. It's chock full of delicious figures, cards, counters, etc. The board is gorgeous. The production quality is first rate (this is a Fantasy Flight huge-box game, similar to Descent or Twilight Imperium III in production quality). Everyone involved in the game seemed to be enjoying themselves.

After our game of Caylus ended, Mike, Oren, Christopher and I played a few hands of Tichu while we waited for the WoW game to finish. Eventually Christopher had to leave and our game broke up after a few three-handed hands of Tichu (which is not nearly as satisfying as the standard four player game).

Can't wait for next week when we get to do it all again!