In the pre-hobby days of my youth, I was no less of a gamer. The difference was, I played games that most people knew about. Included in that number were several different card games. I considered myself quite good at games like Egyptian Ratscrew, and when I got into college that enjoyment turned towards more staid games like Spades and Five Hundred. And then there was my old friend Euchre, our family favorite. I have many fond memories of sitting around the table with friends and family, passing away hours playing cards.
It’s a pleasure that most hobby gamers don’t partake in very often. Bridge is well-regarded by many, and I know of some gamers who are usually up for a game of Cribbage. But those games are the exception. We are drawn away by flashier designs that promise more, though they frequently deliver less. But we still know that there is joy to be derived when the deck is shuffled and the cards are dealt. I think that’s part of the reason why many gamers are so enamored by Tichu.
Tichu is the best card game that I’ve ever played. It uses a normal deck of cards, although the suits are different. Players split into two partnerships, sitting opposite each other. The player who leads plays a certain combination of cards, like a pair or a full house. All of the other players, in turn order, then have the opportunity to play a higher set of cards in the exact same combination. You can pass and jump back in if it gets around to you. But if three players in a row pass, the player who played most recently captures everything in the stack. Some special combos are called “bombs.” These can take any trick, even out of turn. Players score for 5s, 10s, and kings, and for a few other things. Thrown into this mix are four special cards, each of which has a specific function but a variety of uses. And of course, players can call “Tichu,” which means they stake 100 points on whether or not they run out of cards first. If you’re feeling especially gutsy, you can call “Tichu” before you’ve seen your whole hand. That’s called “Grand Tichu,” and it’s worth 200 points. The first team to reach 1000 wins.
To anyone who’s played a lot of card games, this should sound pretty familiar. It’s a little like the beautiful baby of Rook and Scum. According to the copy on the box, Tichu is played by over 600 million Chinese everyday. That’s not precisely true. The game was actually designed by some guy named Urs Hostettler. He cribbed shamelessly from more traditional Chinese games like Big Two and Zheng Fen. Still, it’s not a stretch to think that the game is played in the back alleys of Shanghai. Because it’s fairly close to other climbing games, it has an unstudied folksy feel. The deck is simply a standard deck with four special cards, so the rules feel quite intuitive. This is especially true of people who have already played other climbing games.
Of course, familiarity won’t make you good. Tichu is a highly nuanced game. The rules aren’t tough, but the strategy takes a lot of experience to nail down. When is the perfect time to call Tichu? Is it worth breaking up that beautiful combo to win the trick and gain the lead? Add to this the factor of partnership, and the game gets very deep. This is one of a very small group of games that can entirely support its own game night. You can meet with three friends and play several games in a row. And by the end, you won’t feel like you’re burnt out. You’ll want to play some more later that week. It’s an easy game to obsess over, and that incredible depth can be intimidating to new players. It is fortunate then that the game is so much fun even for inexperienced players. Despite the cerebral nature of the game, it still provides a lot of excitement and tension. The meat of the points are gotten by calling “Tichu” successfully, so its very tempting to call it even when you aren’t totally confident. And of course, a team that is behind can pull off a few Tichus of their own and catch up in just a couple of hands. That dynamism is what got me hooked on the game. The depth has kept me there.
The intuitive nature and depth make for a game that is very appealing to a wide variety of people. This is a game that could get a lot of play outside the hobby circle. If you have friends who enjoy playing Rook, Tichu is a natural fit. When I teach, people often say that they want to introduce the game to their parents and grandparents. It’s the sort of thing that can become a family tradition. It’s really too bad that it’s stuck in the niche of the hobby market, because it could be a real sensation outside that realm. It’s certainly become a sensation with my group. I’ve never seen a game that has gotten so many people to drop what they’re doing and drive across town for a Tichu night. The good news there is that the game is playable by anyone who has a deck of cards with four jokers. Just download the rules and you’re ready to go. Not that the game is expensive to begin with. The $15 pack will get you two complete decks. It is bar none the best deal in all gaming.
I cannot recommend Tichu highly enough. This is a remarkable game. All of those years I spent playing other games that weren’t Tichu feel wasted (I’m kidding, but only a little). In fact, it’s the only game I own that now comes to every single game night. Several of us own it, but we all bring it, because we can’t handle the idea that we might want to play and not have cards on hand. And I don’t think it’s unlikely that I’ll need to get a new set of cards eventually. Does all of this sound hyperbolic? Sorry, I don’t mean to gush. Let me just state that anyone who enjoys games at all would do well to try it out. It’s the best card game I’ve ever played, and you might just think so too.