Tichu is a strategic partnership card game, played with an almost standard deck of cards, released in 1991 by designer Urs Hostettler. While variants exist, it is primarily a four-player game where each partnership works together trying to play all the cards in their hands before their opponents, while also trying to capture tricks that will score at the end of the round.
A Tichu deck consists of a traditional deck (four suits of thirteen cards each), with four additional “special” cards. While you could theoretically play the game using a standard deck and marking a few extra cards for the remaining four, it is much more flavorful to use an actual Tichu deck that has alternate suites (Jade, Sword, Pagoda, and Star) and thematic illustrations. At its heart, Tichu is what you might call a “climbing” card game. This means that on any given player’s turn, they are only able to play a card that is higher than what has currently been played. Play rotates with the cards climbing in value, until all players choose to, or are forced to pass. At this point, the player who played the last and highest card gets to take all of the cards from that trick for scoring, and also play from their hand to start a new trick.
The primary goal in Tichu is to get rid of all of your cards before your opponents. One of the elements that makes the climbing mechanic very intriguing is that players are not always playing single cards. Whoever is leading from their hand in a trick actually gets to choose from a variety of options to set the rule for playing in that trick. The choices include:
- A Single Card – The most simple (and often most common) type of trick. A single card can be led, with players using single, higher cards to play in the trick.
- A Pair – Two cards of equal rank can be led, and beaten by higher pairs.
- A Triple – Just like pairs, three of a kind can be led and beaten by higher sets of three. Note that while you can lead with a four of a kind as well, they have a special meaning which I will touch on later.
- Sequential Pairs – Probably the least intuitive of the eligible leads, you can play multiple pairs as long as they are sequential in value. For example, you could lead with “7788,” which could be beaten by “8899” or any other set of exactly two higher sequential pairs. There is no limit here, you can play something like “4455667788” if you have it, which will be tough to beat as other players would need to have exactly five pairs in a row that are not only sequential, but starting at 5 or higher.
- A Full House – A pair and a triple can be led together, as found in Poker. When determining the rank of a full house, the triple’s rank is used while the pair’s rank is ignored. So “33344” would beat a “222AA.”
- A Run – A “straight” of sequential cards can be played, as long as it consists of at least five cards. Again, no limit here, so you could play “23456789” and players would only be able to beat it with straights of exactly eight cards.
A round continues as players try to rid their hand of cards by playing in tricks, and the winner of each trick leading a new card combination. When a player “goes out” by getting rid of all their cards, play continues with the remaining three players (one of which is the player’s partner). If both players in a partnership are able to go out before either player on the opposing team, they achieve what is called “Double Victory,” and the winning team scores 200 points, and the round ends. Otherwise, play continues until all but one player has finished. At this point, scoring for the round occurs.
The player who came in fourth (and did not finish playing out their hand), gives all cards left in their hand to the opposing team for scoring. In addition, the losing player must give all their cards won through tricks to the player that went out first (which could be their own partner). Then the following cards are scored:
- The Four Kings – Each King scores 10 points.
- The Four 10s – Each 10 scores 10 points.
- The Four 5s – Each 5 scores 5 points.
- The Dragon (one of the special cards) – Scores 25 points.
- The Phoenix (another one of the special cards) – Scores negative 25 points.
Conveniently, the basic scoring in every round sums to exactly 100. Scores for the round are added to the current totals. Rounds continue until one team reaches 1000 points, with the higher total winning if both teams reach 1000 the same round. Sudden death rounds are played if the teams reach 1000 and are still tied.
The basic game using just the cards from a standard deck works (and is a great way to teach new players), but it is really the four special cards that add a lot of interest into the gameplay:
- The Mah Jong – This card has a few interesting functions. First, it is the only card in the game with a value of “1”. This means it can be used in a “12345…” straight, but also means that it is unable to beat anything as a single card and will likely need to be led to get rid of it. Importantly though, the player holding the Mah Jong gets to lead the first trick of the round. When playing the Mah Jong, the player also has the option to “wish” for a card. By naming any of the thirteen card values (excluding special cards), all players are now bound to play the named card at the next legal opportunity, until one player has fulfilled the wish. This could force a player to play a card that splits up a run or set they wanted to play, but the leading player should beware: reckless wishes may be just as likely to sabotage your partner as your opponents.
- The Dragon – Only playable as a single card, the Dragon is the highest rank of any card in the game (beats an Ace). That said, when the Dragon is used to win a trick, the cards must be given away to an opponent. The player must essentially predict which opponent he thinks will lose the round, as that would send the tricks to the winning player before scoring.
- The Phoenix – The Phoenix is the most versatile card in the game. On one hand, it can serve a similar purpose to the Dragon, counting as “one half” higher than the previous card when played as a single. It cannot be played to beat the Dragon, but could beat an Ace (which, in turn, could be beaten by the Dragon). More powerful though, is the Phoenix’s capability to serve as a wild in any set of cards. It can fill a hole in a long run or complete a full house, for example, which can often be the one thing you need to make a good hand into a great one.
- The Dog – This is the only card that cannot be played normally in a trick. Rather, the Dog can only be led, and immediately transfers the lead to the player’s partner (or the next player in order if their partner is out of the round). The Dog can be a hard card to work with, as you need to win a lead, only to give it up without being able to rid yourself of other low cards. That said, it can often propel you partner to victory as they get a lead of their own for free.
These four cards add a whole layer of interest on top of the base climbing game. Since all of the cards are dealt in every round, all players are aware of what cards are in play; it is just a question of who has them. Before starting a round, players select a card from their hand to swap with each other player. This provides an opportunity to pawn off your worst cards to opponents, and share a card with your partner that communicates information about the strength of your hand. From there, the first trick kicks off with the player holding the Mah Jong, and play continues until either Double Victory has been achieved or all but one player depletes their hand.
I mentioned earlier that a four of a kind is more than just an effective lead. It is what is considered a bomb! A bomb is a set of cards that can be played on top of any trick regardless of type, beating all other cards. In fact, a bomb can even be played out of turn! They come in two varieties: a four of a kind, and a straight flush (a run of the same suit). Note that a bomb must be all-natural; no using the Phoenix as a wild card. A bomb can only be beaten by another bomb of larger value, where larger bombs have more cards, or the same number of cards with a higher rank. Bombs ensure that no trick is ever guaranteed, because you never know what other players might be hiding one in their hand.
The last key piece of Tichu is the “Tichu” itself. Any player that has yet to play a card in a round can choose to call “Tichu,” essentially making a 100 point wager that they think they will win the hand. They will get a 100 point bonus if they succeed, but will suffer a hefty 100 point penalty if they fail. A player can even go so far as to call “Grand Tichu,” which is the same, except it is called after only seeing the first eight cards of their hand (which also means players are aware of the Tichu call before choosing what cards to pass) and raises the stakes to 200 points. Tichu calls add a whole other layer of tension on top of a round, as the opposing team does everything possible to prevent it, and the partner of the caller takes on a support role where they are willing to sacrifice their own chances in the round to help their partner.
What Is It Like to Play?
Anyone who is familiar with traditional card games will likely feel at home with the basic structure of Tichu. While this basic flow with climbing tricks is easy to pick up, the game is really rich with a variety of strategic and tactical decisions. Here is just a sampling of thoughts that may go through a player’s mind while playing Tichu:
My initial hand has three 4s, but also has a 2, 3, 5, and 6. There is a decent chance that I could get passed the last 4 from one of my opponents completing a bomb, but that would mean I wouldn’t be able to use a 4 in a run. I don’t think my hand is strong enough to play the 2, 3, 5, and 6 all as singles, so I think I need to not play for the bomb. In that case, I think I’ll pass a 4 to each of my opponents as it is unlikely it will help them since they could have at most one 4 themselves.
It is early in the round, and my opponent is winning a single card trick with an Ace. I have the Phoenix in my hand, and I could use it to beat the Ace, but who has the Dragon? If my partner does, that would work great, but if my opponents have it then they can beat my Phoenix. That said, it would force the Dragon out early, which makes it easier to play with confidence in the rest of the round.
My partner passed me the Dog, which must mean that he has a really good hand and wants me to support him. The trick going around consists of pairs, and I have multiple Aces in my hand. Usually I’d save the Aces to play one at a time to win single-card tricks, but in this case I think my role should be to help my partner more than focusing on going out myself. I don’t have a lot of other strong ways to get leads, so I think I’ll use double Aces now and Dog to my partner to give him a free lead.
At this point, I don’t think there is any way that I will go out. I have quite a few scoring cards in my hand: two 10s, two Kings, and the Phoenix that will be negative 25. I know that if I don’t go out, my hand will go to my opponents, but since my partner went out first, my tricks will be saved. With that in mind, I am going to aggressively win tricks with scoring cards so my partner will save them, and intentionally hold onto the Phoenix to ensure that my opponents get the negative when they take my hand.
I could honestly go on and on with examples of interesting decisions in Tichu, drawing from my nearly 100 plays at the time of writing this. The beautiful thing is that whenever I play Tichu, I encounter new situations that are fresh and make me think differently than I’ve had to in any past game. That kind of emergent tactical variety elicits excitement with every hand as you pick up your cards and look at the new puzzle that you have to work with that round. The game is a constant balance of figuring out how you will win enough leads to play your lower cards, and knowing when to pull back a little to avoid falling into a position where you are unable to gain a lead to finish depleting your hand. All the while reading your opponents and partner to get a feel of what they are dealing with, and how you can use that information to your advantage. Anyone who takes the time to really dig into Tichu will quickly learn that it is a thinking man’s card game, for sure.
Outstanding. The replay value of Tichu does not come in a variable setup found in many games, as the deck is always the same, but rather in the near infinite combinations in which those cards can be dealt and played. Every hand of 14 cards is a unique puzzle as you try to determine the most effective way to approach the round, and that experience (along with the various ways the hand could play out) keeps the game fresh even after many plays.
Classic card games like Hearts, Spades, Bridge, etc. definitely come to mind. Some other near-traditional card games that might draw comparison are Mu & More, Haggis, or Frank’s Zoo.
Nonexistent. Just deal cards and begin.
While Tichu has similarities to some traditional card games that new players may be familiar with, it actually can be a little challenging to teach. First, there is just the basic game that must be learned, with all of the different types of leads that can be used. On top of that, you add in the four special cards which players will need to be able to identify without help during the round. Add in pre-round passing of cards, bombs, a unique scoring system, and the ability to call “Tichu,” and it can be a little overwhelming for a new player. That said, players familiar with card games usually pick up the concepts quickly, and the learning curve is absolutely worth it.
Things to Like
Tichu is played with what is nearly a traditional deck of cards, and all the cards are dealt in every round. Despite all of the same cards being in play, every hand can play out in endless ways simply due to the card combinations and interactions between players. There are always numerous ways to split a given hand up, but players always need to be able to adjust on the fly to how the round unfolds. You may plan to play a low run at the expense of a full house, but then find that you actually have some easy opportunities to play low singles which makes the full house much more viable. All of this cardplay combined with interesting mechanics like the special cards, Tichu calls, and the partnership dynamic really create continuous interesting and meaningful decisions.
Besides what the partnerships contribute to the game’s strategy, they also provide a really fun dynamic between players. Team-based games are somewhat of a rarity in modern board gaming, and Tichu shows that it is fun to work with another player against opposing players. The relationship with your partner is fascinating as you want to collaborate, but don’t know what they are holding. At the beginning of the round, you get to pass just one card to your partner, trying to communicate to them as much as possible with the severely limited means. The scoring also contributes to the teams rallying together as there is always a chance for a comeback as long as the other team hasn’t reached 1000. Some of my favorite moments in Tichu have been playing a hand with both teams just short of 1000, knowing that it will likely determine the winner.
Like most strategic games, there are often times where there is a choice that is clearly superior to the other options. But I find that in Tichu, a lot of times there isn’t a “best” option, but rather several options that have different risks and rewards and are very situational. There are times where a player can make an aggressive move to win a trick, knowing that they will be stuck if they somehow get beaten (which is always possible with the potential of bombs), but also knowing that securing it will allow them to secure the victory. Other players might play more conservatively in the same situation, and either approach is completely valid and effective depending on the circumstances. I think this is a strength of the game as it allows players to be creative beyond the number-crunching strategic optimization, and gives opportunities for players to push their luck if they want.
As players get more familiar with the game, Tichu calls actually become more common. When you think about it, one of the four players is going to win every round, so it is just a matter of determining if you think there is a good shot that it will be you. The moment that someone calls Tichu, everything changes. The opposing players are ready to sell out to stop the calling player, even at the expense of their own chances of going out. Players might take huge risks in attempts to thwart the Tichu call, simply because the bonus is that significant. On the other hand, the partner of the calling player also plays completely differently, knowing that sacrificing his hand for the Tichu call is always worth it. But what happens when the Tichu-calling player is clearly not going out first? Should his partner try to go out, ruining the Tichu, just to try and salvage other points in the round? Yet another interesting strategic situation that Tichu is capable of creating.
Seriously, you can get a box with two full decks for $10. The ratio of depth and replayability to cost here is just off the charts.
Things to Dislike
The rules to Tichu include variants to play with anywhere from 3 to 10 players. My advice would be to ignore all of these. I consider Tichu strictly a 4 player game (and an amazing one), but that does indeed limit its flexibility in getting played. For some people, this won’t be any problem given their situation and game group. But I know that in my experience, it has prevented me from playing Tichu as much as I would have liked.
I definitely think that much of Tichu is intuitive to new players, especially if they enjoy playing other card games. However, there definitely is a learning curve to playing Tichu well. One of the most common situations for new players to encounter is that they win a bunch of tricks, only to find that they are left with a few low singles, and no way to get the lead back again. It takes a little bit of time to learn how to evaluate a hand and figure out how to approach gaining leads to avoid getting stuck having almost gone out. This aspect of Tichu is ultimately a pro for experienced players, but it does bump up the barrier to entry a bit.
Game Design Perspective
Often times, people use the word “elegant” to describe a game design. This usually means that it achieves a great amount of strategic depth with a disproportionately small number of rules. Tichu definitely has numerous little rules and mechanisms that keep it out of the highest tier of elegance, but I still greatly admire what the designer was able to accomplish with what is nearly a traditional deck of cards. It nails that sweet spot of “emergent strategy” where most of the interesting decisions aren’t situations that the designer specifically constructed, but rather they emerge out of the various combinations of the simple rules the designer put into motion. That is not an easy feat in design, for sure. In an age of modern board gaming where replayability in games is often characterized by endlessly additions of new cards to decks and providing new content to increase the permutations of elements that are used, it is refreshing to see the same depth accomplished by a game that doesn’t utilize any of that expansive approach. Don’t be fooled into thinking this “simple” card game was easy to design; Tichu is an impressive feat, pushing the envelope of what experiences can be created from the framework of a traditional deck of cards.
If you can find a group of four players that enjoys strategic games and tactical card play, there is absolutely no reason not to own Tichu. It can provide a less intimidating gateway into modern board games, and provides a rabbit hole of depth that you can explore and enjoy for a lifetime.
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