When the Top 100 Modern Games list was released, I took no small amount of geeky pride in noting that I owned every single game in the top 10. However,my sense of accomplishment was muted somewhat in realizing that I had only played nine of them. I’d purchased the remaining game, Tichu, several years prior, but a quick read of the rules convinced me that it was nothing special, and it sat on my shelf untouched for years.
But it’s appearance in the top 10 made me wonder if I was missing something. So I dug it up, dusted it off, and gave the rules another readthrough. I remained unconvinced. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I recruited three other players, dealt out the cards, and started playing Tichu.
And now I can’t stop.
Tichu is a partnership game played with 56 cards: a standard deck (four suits, cards ranked 2-10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace), plus four special cards (the Mah Jong, the Dog, the Phoenix, and the Dragon). After the cards have been evenly dealt out the lead player begins a trick by playing a poker combination — three 5s, say. Every other player then has the opportunity to either play a higher combination of the same type (in this example, three 6s, three 9s, etc.), or pass. Play continues around the table until all players have passed, at which point the person who played the final combination takes all the cards and leads the subsequent trick.
The hand does not end when someone gets rid of all his cards; instead, you note the order in which players “go out,” and play until the penultimate player has gotten rid of his final card. Thus by the end of the hand everyone has a ranking, from “first out” all the way down to “last out.”
The mechanics of the card game will be familiar to anyone who played a few drunken hands of Asshole (a.k.a., President) in college. Like Asshole, Tichu is a climbing game; that is, players are generally striving to get rid of their cards as quickly as possible by playing them to tricks.
Several elements set Tichu apart from the standard climbing game, however, the first of which are Bombs. Bombs are special combinations (four of a kinds and straight flushes) that someone can play onto any trick at any time, even when it’s not their turn. A Bomb will always win a trick — unless another player follows it with a higher Bomb.
Each of the special cards has it’s own power and liability: The Mah Jong counts as a 1, but the person playing it gets to make a “wish” — they name any card value and the next person able to play a card of that value must do so. The Dog is the lowest card in the game, but allows a player to pass the lead to his partner. The Phoenix is a wild card and can be used in any combination, but is worth negative points. And the Dragon is the highest card in the game, but if a player wins a trick with the Dragon he must immediately give it (and all the points therein) to one of his opponents.
Scores are tallied after all cards have been played : 5′s are worth 5 points a piece, 10′s and Kings are worth ten, the Dragon is worth 25 points, and the Phoenix counts as -25. If a player and his partner go out first and second, their team receive 200 points and their opponents receive nothing. And any player can up the ante for a hand by declaring a “tichu” before play begins: if the declaring player goes out first, his team receives a bonus 100 points; if he does not, his team loses 100. The first team to 1000 wins.
If all this sounds rather mundane to you … well, now you understand how I felt after reading the rules. But the addictive quality of Tichu is hard to quantify. For one thing, the game is surprisingly deep — it seems that every time I play I stumble upon some facet of strategy that I’d overlooked before. For another, the dynamic of a Tichu hand is always in flux as you play. You may start with a strong full house (three Kings and two 5′s, say), but necessity may force you to break it up, playing the three kings to win a three-of-a-kind trick and leaving yourself with a relatively weak pair of fives. The dynamic nature of Tichu makes every hand engrossing.
In the last month I have been teaching all my friends how to play Tichu, to ensure that I always have a plentiful supply of opponents. And everyone who has learned to play has become a fan. It takes a hand or two to get your “Tichu legs” despite the relatively simple rules, but once you grok the fundamentals you are likely to become hooked. The partnership element of Tichu makes it perfectly suited for those evenings when you, your significant other, and another couple get together, or anytime you find with three others and an hour to kill.
Though I’ve only been playing it for a few weeks, I can see how Tichu wound up on the Top 100 Games Lists. Indeed, it’s already in my personal Top Five, and will likely remain there for years to come.
- Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering) designed climbing game about a decade ago called The Great Dalmuti, which was a favorite of my game group for years. We played so often that I eventually burned out on it, but have pressed my Dalmuti deck back into service since becoming interested in climbing games again. One nice thing about Dalmuti is that it occupies a different niche than Tichu: it’s better suited for larger groups (five to seven players, whereas Tichu really only accommodates exactly four), and is much more of a drinking game than a strategy game. If you’re looking for a light climbing game to play at bars or parties, Dalmuti is a fine choice.
- Gang Of Four is very similar to Tichu, but is streamlined and not played in partnerships, sacrificing some of the depth of Tichu at the altar of accessibility. If Tichu has a flaw it’s that it takes a while to get new players up to speed; with Gang Of Four you get much of the the same Tichu feeling without all the overhead.
- The cards in Frank’s Zoo do not have values, and instead bear the images of animals. You can beat the current animal by playing a better animal onto it, and the highest animal of all — the elephant — can be trumped by the lowest, a tiny mouse.
- Pig Pile is perhaps the easiest game of those listed here, but is remarkably fun despite it’s simplicity. It is an amalgamation of a climbing game and Uno, mostly luck but with a smidgen of skill. Best of all, players keep track of their points with small, rubber pigs — what’s not to like? This is a great game for families or when copious amounts of alcohol are involved.
- Who’s The Ass? is essentially The Great Dalmuti with a scoring system and a deck of cards that accommodates up to 12 players.
- Or you have a few decks of cards laying around your house, you can play one of the many public domain climbing games listed at pagat.com. Tichu is descended from Zheng Fen; Gang Of Four is more akin to Choh Dai Di (a.k.a. Big Two). Pig Pile is a commercial version of Shithead. And then there’s Asshole, the climbing game almost everyone played a few times as a youth, . All these games are played with a standard deck, though a few require a special card or two — nothing you can’t jury-rig with a joker and a Sharpie.