Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Time to Teach You About Tichu

By Ward Batty

This week we are going to focus on a popular four-player partnership card game called Tichu, which is pronounced like "teach-you," see how funny my headline is now? When I had a store we had an employee who said that Tichu was adapted from an old Chinese game played with a regular deck of cards called Zheng Fen. Of course, he said the same thing about Monopoly, so who knows? What I can confirm is that Tichu was designed by Urs Hostettler and first published in Germany in 1991. Tichu is currently available in North America from Rio Grande Games.

The Tichu deck consists of a standard 52-card deck and four special cards, Mah Jong, Dog, Phoenix and Dragon. After receiving their hand of fourteen cards, players select three cards they give to each of the other three players. Before playing their first card, each player has the right to declare a small "Tichu" If he then wins the round, his team receives an extra 100 points - otherwise the team loses 100 points. The object of Tichu is to be the first to play all your cards.

A player may lead a card, or any of the following combinations of cards: a pair, a run of pairs of adjoining values (8,8,9,9,10,10, for example), three cards of the same value, a full house (triple and pair), or a straight of at least five cards. The next player may either pass or play a similar combination but of a higher value. The only exception to this rule is playing the "Bomb," which is a straight flush or four of a kind. It is legal for players to pass and then come back in again as long as some other player played in between.

If all four players pass consecutively, the player who last played takes the trick and starts play again. Play continues until three of the four players have played all of their cards. The one player remaining, who still has cards in his hand, gives any remaining cards in his hand to the opposing team and all the tricks he has won to the winner of the round (the player who was the first to play all his cards). The hand is now scored. Fives, Tens and Kings are worth points, and each hand worth one hundred points (without bonuses). The first team to a thousand points wins. Full rules as well as a description of the four special cards can be found at the Game Cabinet.

To try to convey the great appeal of Tichu, I asked several players to help explain the zeal the game engenders. Derek Carver says "To knock Bridge would be crazy. Yet Bridge is one of the only games I know where simply learning the rules doesn't allow you to play the game. It is the conventions that have been superimposed upon the game that have made it what it is. This means it's no use visiting friends and saying 'Let's have a great evening at cards - I'll teach you Bridge!' Tichu on the other hand can certainly be taught in a normal gaming evening and it'll then simply depend upon your 'card sense' as to whether you play it well.

"What do I find so great about Tichu?" asks Michael Weston, "Tichu has several elements that each provides for a fun mental challenge in a trick taking game with almost the depth of Bridge, at least Bridge up to the moderate level of play. There's the real angst and tension of calling a Tichu. The decision of what to pass is not always cut-and-dried, especially the card to your partner. How to play any given hand can vary and shift. You could repeat the exact same deal several times and play quite differently each time."

Of his Tichu experience, Chris Lohroff says "As a person that is learning to play bridge my first comment would be that is a LOT more accessible than bridge. After more than a year of playing at lunch everyday, we still have to refer to our bridge bidding convention sheets. A person can learn the basics of Tichu and play reasonably well after just a few games."

Jonathan Degann says, "What I like about the game is that it lets you look at your hand and create alternative strategies around playing it and organizing it. Every hand is a story, and you have to direct it to its full potential to determine if it has a happy or sad ending."

"It is neat how a given hand can be organized multiple ways. Do I play this really long straight, knowing that it will break up some low unmatched pairs - or do I break up the straight so that I can keep my pairs together? What can I do to get the lead and how will I be able to keep it? Do I have a viable plan for getting it back if I lose it prematurely? I suppose experienced Bridge players go through the same thing. I don't play Bridge and can't speak for them. But I am able to plot out the life of my hand in Tichu with more interest than with any one-card-at-a-time trick taking game that I play."

Richard Irving says "In learning Tichu, one should stopping calling it, and trying to play it as, a "trick-taking game" because it is not. This misapprehension that Tichu is a trick-taking game causes many new players to mistake the capturing of point cards (which is an important aspect of many actual trick-taking games) and forego getting out as quickly as possible (which is never part of any trick-taking game.) Many new players focus on not playing the Dragon or Phoenix when necessary --because it'll cost you 25 points or trying to capture that pair of 10's, etc. These are habits are ingrained from playing trick taking games."

I'll give Matthew Baldwin the last word. "I'm relatively new to Tichu (just started playing a few months ago), but hooked all the same. Perhaps my favorite aspect is that it feels like the best parts of a whole range of game genres packed into one package. There's the partnership element of bridge; there's the "try to go out first" element from Great Dalmuti; there's the "try to capture points" element of Spades; there's the "create combinations" element from poker and rummy; and while a player may have a grand strategy, he may need to make tactical decision based on how the hand plays out. There's also the gambling element: not just in the call of Tichu, but in the decision to break up a good combination to take a trick: Should I play an ace, claim this trick, and save my other ace for a future play, or should I hang onto it and keep the two aces as a pair?"

"The game is less huge helping of a single food and more a buffet."

Ward Batty enjoys a good buffet and is a long-time game-player who has been with the same weekly game group for over twenty years. "I understood there was a pension." is his excuse. He writes a monthly column on the business of board games for Comics & Game Retailer magazine and has written articles and reviews for The Games Journal, Scrye, Knucklebones and Games International.

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