W. Eric Martin
For many gamers, Urs Hostettler's Tichu is the go-to title when you have four at the table and want to play a trick-taking game, or a card game, or, well, anything. In the mid-2000s, for example, I participated in a game group in mid-Massachusetts at which many people played nothing but Tichu. It took me a long time to get the nerve to call "Tichu" when playing with those guys, as they could replay a hand by memory as soon as it finished and they all had strong opinions about every little detail of the game and how to play it. I still remember the outcries when I played over a partner who had called "Tichu", and that scene will probably be part of my deathbed flashback given how strongly it's embedded.
What if you have three players, though? Tichu includes rules for a three-player variant called "Threechu" in which players take turns partnering with a face-up dummy hand that they control, but most Tichu fanatics would rather lie down on the floor and spin in circles than play Threechu. (I've tried Threechu a couple of times and find it an interesting spin on the game as everyone has more information, which leads you to better guess who has which cards, which can alter your approach to playing out a hand.)
Other options with three include The Bottle Imp (which I don't play frequently enough to get good at) and Wizard (which runs long with three), but those who want the feeling of Tichu while having only a trio of players will soon have a new option thanks to Ralph H. Anderson's Chimera, coming before the end of 2014 from Z-Man Games. I played Chimera twice at Z-Man's TableTop event in early April 2014 and have played once since on a non-final copy of the game. Here's a rundown of how it plays:
To start, Chimera is played in rounds, with two players teaming up each round as chimera hunters to take down the lone chimera. At the start of each round, players bid for the right to be chimera, bidding 20, 30 or 40 points or passing. Whoever wins the bid takes three face-down cards set aside before the deal, sometimes juicing up his hand with good stuff and sometimes picking up stragglers that complicate things. The chimera hunters exchange 0-2 cards with each other, depending on the value of the bid (20-40).
The chimera leads to start the first trick, and gameplay is similar to Tichu in that many card combinations are possible, you must play the same combination that was led, a player can pass but still play later in the same trick, and play continues until all but one person pass in succession. Here's a chart of the legal card combinations:
(Note that card images and the rulebook layout are not final; the As will become 1s, for example, to eliminate possible confusion over whether they're high or low cards.)
While Tichu players will recognize some card combinations in Chimera, others are new, such as the ability to dump a single card or pair with a triple. While handy in terms of streamlining your hand, sometimes such plays will assist opponents as much as you, giving them a chance to dump a 1, 2 or 3 while you're offloading a middling card. You can play a sequence of three-of-a-kinds, with or without extra cards for each trip. Given that you start with 17 cards in hand (20 for the chimera), dropping ten cards at once on a trip sequence with two attached pairs takes you a long way toward going out.
A trap — that is, a four-of-a-kind with no attached cards — and the Chimera Flight serve as bombs in Chimera as they can be played on any card combination (although not out of turn), and they can be beaten only by a higher trap or the Flight. On their own, the blue chimera is the highest single card, and the green chimera is the second highest single card and it can also be used as a joker, but only in a straight of five or more cards.
Hunters, or Hs, are ranked higher than 12s and lower than chimera, but they're not numbered, so you can't use them in straights or sequences of pairs and trips.
Suits don't matter in Chimera and are included only to assist you in remembering which cards have been played.
The goal of the game, as in Tichu, is to score points and the surest way to do that is to play out your cards first. The game ends as soon as one player empties his hand, but scoring differs depending on whether the chimera or a chimera hunter went out first. In the latter case, each chimera hunter scores 20 points as a reward, the chimera hunter loses points equal to his bid (20-40), then each player scores points for the 2s (worth 10 points) and 11s (5 points) in the cards he collected during play; cards in the hand are worthless. If the chimera goes out first, each player scores for points on cards collected, and the chimera scores double the amount bid (40, 60 or 80); in addition, the chimera scores 25 points for each bonus triggered during the round, with the bonuses being:
• Each trap played
• The Chimera Flight being played
• Either or both chimera hunters having played no cards.
The game lasts multiple rounds until someone has at least 400 points, at which time the player with the most points wins.
My terrible hand (and no, I don't sort my cards)
Given all the similarities to Tichu in the description above, you probably won't be suprised to learn that Chimera feels like Tichu during play. While the card combinations are different, you evaluate your hand in much the same way, breaking down a hand into trick winners, things you can play only with the lead, middling stuff that you can probably pass off without too much trouble, and iffy conditional things that could win a trick but only in certain circumstances or after the early game. Well, that's how I evaluate my hands anyway.
Like Tichu, you evaluate your hand after the deal, then once the chimera bidding is complete and you pass cards or pick up the three on the side, you evaluate once again. The incentive to bid for chimera and pick up those three extra cards can sometimes be huge, especially if folks don't seem eager to bid. Could all the strength be waiting on the side for you to pick it up and wield it? Could you find the joker chimera or the one numbered card you need to turn an okay hand into lightning? How much do you want to risk?!
I have the scoresheet only for my third game, with lasted 13 hands, with the chimera losing in seven of those hands. My first guess is that we're terrible players who don't know how to evaluate our hands; my second guess is that being chimera is tougher than it seems at first glance, especially if your opponents have any clue as to what they're doing. It took me a while, for example, to realize that I shouldn't be using the pass between chimera hunters simply to offload junk but to use it exactly as you use it during Tichu: to signal your partner as to the strength of your hand and to give them the goods if you're going to be little more than a speed bump. After all, if you're not chimera, your goal is to have the chimera lose, whether you or your partner go out first. Grabbing a few points from 2s and 11s is good, but the primary mission is to take down the chimera, swinging your score 40-60 points ahead of that player's regardless of what else you (or he) might score from points.
The bonuses for traps and the Chimera Flight are odd, as sometimes it seems that the chimera is simply being rewarded for having a strong hand of cards, but again that's part of the intrigue about bidding for chimera as you have an incentive to win that bid and (possibly) have that trip transformed into a trap. The bonus points that can come from a successful chimera call, as with a tichu/grand tichu call, give you an incentive to stick your neck out and place that target on your back. After all, if you run fast enough, they have no hope of hunting you down...