Tichu Review
Tichu Review

Tichu Review

Designed by Urs Hostettler

Release Year: 1991 Complexity: Medium

  👥  4 Players   ⏰  45-90 min   💸 ~$15   🔗  Buy

Overview

Tichu is played in two teams of two, where you and your partner are working together to shed all of the cards from your hand first while winning points along the way. One player will lead a set of cards from their hand, and play proceeds around the table with players either playing a higher set of the same type or passing. Once all players have passed, whoever played the last and highest set takes all of the cards and leads a new set. Once a player empties their entire hand, play continues until only one player, or one team, has cards remaining. The round is then scored, with rounds repeating until one team reaches 1000 points.

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Game Feel

A lot of the decision-making in Tichu stems from the variety of set types that can be led. You can play a single, a pair, three-of-a-kind, a full house, a sequential run of at least 5 cards, or even “sequential pairs,” such as 2-2-3-3-4-4. Whatever type is led must be matched exactly when playing higher sets that round, so there is a lot of strategy in how to break up your own hand as well as how you dictate which set types the other players can play. Happen to have a four-of-a-kind or a straight flush? Either can be played as bombs: sets that can be played out of turn, regardless of what was led, and can only be beaten by larger bombs.

One of the things that really spices up the decision space is the inclusion of four special cards on top of the standard 52-card deck. The Mah Jong determines the round’s start player, but also is the only card with a value of 1, and allows the player to “wish” for a card that must be played at the next legal opportunity, by any player. The Dragon is the highest single card, causing players to be tentative with their Aces if they don’t know who has it, and the Phoenix can be either a half-point above a single, or used as a wild in a multi-card set, making it the most flexible card in the game. Finally, the Dog must be led, but passes the lead to your partner, helping them to play without winning a trick themselves.

While a lot of your focus is on how to play your own hand effectively, the partnership aspect of Tichu creates a lot of interesting decisions where you are trying to deduce the position of your partner and how to best support them. Your awareness of other players is boosted by the pre-round passing of cards, where you will pass one card from your hand to each other player. This is your one opportunity to communicate directly with your partner, and sometimes passing a card like the Dragon is powerful as both you and your partner now know who holds it while the other team is in the dark.

There are 100 points up for grabs in each hand, but the scoring becomes much more interesting once you consider that both you and your partner going out before either opponent results in “double victory,” which overrides the normal scoring with a dominating result of 200-0. Additionally, any player that hasn’t played a card yet has the opportunity to call “Tichu,” betting 100 points that they will go out first. Not only does this raise the stakes, guaranteeing a big 100-point swing either up or down, but it changes the entire feel of the round as all players know the player called “Tichu” and can adjust their play accordingly.

FAQ

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Player Counts - Some editions of Tichu include variants ranging from 3 to 10 players, but we recommend it solely as a 4-player game, anything else pales in comparison.

Abstract vs. Thematic - No real theme here, just a traditional deck of cards and a few special cards, all with a stylized Asian aesthetic.

Luck vs. Skill - Card games generally bring a level of luck, and while that’s true here, there is a surprising amount of depth where skillful play tends to win out in the long run.

Multiplayer Solitaire vs. Highly Interactive - Tichu is very interactive. Not only is everyone playing cards onto a common climbing pile, but there are also a lot of strategic considerations in the dynamics of the partnership play and whether a player has called “Tichu.”

Short Setup vs. Long Setup - You have to love a game where the setup is simply, “shuffle and deal.”

Easy to Teach vs. Hard to Teach - While the core climbing mechanisms in Tichu tend to be somewhat familiar to new players, there are just a lot of extra layers here that can be hard to grasp without repeated play. Some of the nuances of playing well take time, and it often doesn’t feel worth introducing to a player if they aren’t going to have the chance to play it multiple times.

Low Setup Variability vs. High Setup Variability - There are no “variable player powers” or other randomized elements here, just the shuffling of a deck of cards. But it is amazing, after so many plays, how we still are dealt hands that feel fresh and different, which is a testament to the meaningful variety that stems from the shuffle of the cards.

Things to Like

✅  Amazing Emergent Strategy and Tactics - Tichu has a certain elegance with the relatively simple rules leading to so many unique strategic considerations. The fact that so many different types of sets can be led means that it is common for most cards in your hand to be playable in more than one way. Do you try to play your three Kings together, or break them up into singles or a pair? The answer depends a lot on the rest of your hand, the way the round plays out, whether someone has called “Tichu”, where you think the special cards are, etc. It is the strength of this core system that makes it a game that rewards players who play it a lot. The more you deeply understand the nuances of the game, the more fun it is to apply that knowledge play after play.

✅  Strong Team Dynamic - Not a lot of modern board games use a “team vs. team” structure, and there is a certain fun factor that comes from trying to be on the same wavelength as your partner while still being in a competitive context. We find that there is usually some friendly banter that is enjoyable, but the partnership structure is also directly responsible for some of the interesting decision points in the game such as, “What card do I pass my partner?”, “what do I know about my partner’s hand based on what they passed me?”, and “How do I best support my partner while also trying to avoid allowing the other team to achieve double victory?” Often it is best for you or your partner to go out first, even if that means the other doesn’t go out at all, and that adds an intriguing dynamic to the passing and playing since you are very limited in what you can communicate to your partner.

✅  Opportunity for Comebacks - And as you play round after round in a race towards 1000 points, each team always feels like they have a chance due to the nature of the scoring. Double victory ensures that you can score a lot of points without your opponents progressing at all, and adding in “Tichu” calls opens the door even more to big swings. In fact, players can even choose to call “Grand Tichu” by declaring “Tichu” after only seeing their first 8 cards, not only making the bet with less information about their hand, but also raising the stakes to 200 points instead of the normal 100 points. While teams coming back in these situations is often still unlikely, it is fun for it to be a possibility, and we have seen amazing comebacks be successful many times.

✅  Scoring Is Self-Validating - This is kind of an odd positive, but the way Tichu hands are scored actually makes it so that you can have high confidence that you haven’t scored incorrectly. Every hand of Tichu has exactly 100 points in play, with the possibility of a “Tichu” call adjusting that total by 100. This means that if each team counts up their points, they should always add up to 100, and if they don’t, you know you should re-count. It’s a little thing, but kind of a nice quality since it can be so easy to make scoring mistakes in board games.

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Things to Dislike

❌  Really Want Exactly 4 Experienced Players - There is a very specific scenario where Tichu thrives, and that is with exactly 4 players who know the game well and are of a similar skill level. Depending on your group, this could be a situation you find yourself often, or it could be a near-impossible game to get to the table. But Tichu’s strength definitely does not come from being a versatile game across player counts and gaming situations.

❌  Hard to Predict Playing Time - While we praised how the scoring system allows for amazing comebacks, it is a double-edged sword in that it also makes it really hard to predict how long a game is going to take. You can have rounds of Tichu where very few points are scored, and even rounds where teams go backward due to failed “Tichu” calls. In our experience, a full game tends to range anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. This makes it tricky when you have around an hour to play. Do we have enough time to play Tichu? Uh… Maybe? There are simply times when it is inconvenient to not have a good estimate of how long a game will take to play.

❌  Card Scoring Isn’t Intuitive - The scoring in Tichu also takes a little getting used to. At the end of a round, the player that did not go out gives their won tricks to the player who went out first, but their hand always goes to the opposing team. Then teams score all of their 5s, 10s, and Kings, with the Dragon being 25 points and the Phoenix being negative 25 points. We often tell new players to just worry about trying to go out first and generally the points will shake out alright, but it takes a little while to internalize how the scoring conditions should actually affect your tactical choices during the game.

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Our Ratings

Ryan (106 Plays) - 9 Daniel (34 Plays) - 9

Is It For You?

If you don’t have a group of exactly 4 players who will be able to play together consistently, then it may be hard to get the best experience out of Tichu. 👎

But if you enjoy classic card games with trick-taking or climbing mechanisms, you love exploring games that reveal their depth over repeated plays, and you have at least 3 like-minded friends, Tichu is a game that has been a staple in our groups for over a decade. 👍