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Subject: An explosive mixture of fun and chance rss

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Matt N

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I’ve played about 30 games of Tichu. Some of my favorite games are Race for the Galaxy, Agricola, and expanded Dominion. All my games were with four players, and I will only be reviewing Tichu as a four player game.

Any links are to reviews I've written.

Rules summary


I refuse to include the joke that I thought of, so just enjoy the picture.

Tichu is a 4-player card-taking game (also a point-taking game) where two fixed teams try to reach a target score first. The gameplay revolves around playing cards, singly or in sets (pair, consecutive pairs, triplet, 5+ card straight, full house). Other players can play higher or pass on their turn; if everyone else passes, the last person to play takes the cards and gets to lead. 5s, 10s, and kings are worth points when taken, as well as two of the special cards. What’s different here from a trick-taking game is that the first player to run out of cards takes ALL the cards that were taken by the last player (who does not run out of cards), and the first team to run out of cards takes all the cards in the remaining player’s hand. There are 100 points split up in a round; a team going out both first and second gets 200 points instead, while the other team gets nothing. The deck consists of 52 cards + 4 special cards. There are also “bombs” (4 of a kind or a straight flush of 5+ cards) which can be played out of turn and beat anything other than a better bomb. Certain unusual situations are covered in http://www.gamecabinet.com/rules/Tichu.html.


Yes, you're paying extra money for these four cards and the game concept. It's worth it.

The dog – passes the lead to your partner, can only be played when you have the lead
The bird (or Mah-Jong) – allows you to play the first card (which may or may not be the bird), counts as a one for singletons and straights. It must be played with a wish for a card between 2 and A, which any player must play on their turn if possible.
The phoenix – a wild when used in a set or a half-step higher than the previous card played if played by itself. Worth -25 points, but helps a lot with running out of cards.
The dragon – can only be played as a single, and is higher than an ace or the phoenix. If the dragon wins a trick, it gives all the cards and itself (worth 25 points) as a gift to a player on the opposing team. Running out of cards first means you might be able to get it back if the player you gave it to goes out last.

Initially, 14 cards are dealt to each player and there is a round of passing one card to each other player. Any number of players may call Tichu before they play their first card; this is a 100 point bet that they will run out of cards first. A player can also call Grand Tichu as long as they’ve only seen their first eight cards; this is a 200 point bet with a high degree of risk. The results of these bets are added onto the regular point totals at the end of each round. The team with the highest score once a team reaches 1000 (or any arbitrary target score) wins.

Ratings:

Ratings are relative to other games, not absolute, and are based on my opinion along with intrinsic traits of the game.

Theme: 0/10 (Dominion (base set) = 1/10, Puerto Rico = 5/10, Agricola = 10/10)

Tichu is a playing card game with four more cards thrown in. The theme is in no way immersive, so the game has to stand up on its gameplay. That’s fine with me, and I prefer a game with no theme to forcing a theme where generals have to make “attacks” and capture “troops” and blah blah blah.

Replayability: 10/10 (Dominion (base set) = 4/10, Agricola = 10/10)

Replayability = a combination of fun and replay value in my ratings

There are plenty of possible starting hands and somewhat difficult decisions woven into the game. Even the exact same hand can play differently if you are 400 behind versus 400 ahead versus tied at zero. That’s because the game adds risk and reward by allowing players to call Tichu (or grand Tichu); a 90% sure even money bet can be a terrible option if you’re ahead anyway, while a 40% even money bet is pretty good odds if you’re probably going to lose as it stands.

The gameplay itself is… dramatic? Eventful? Fun? A game can be going according to script until someone drops a bomb and ruins everything (or gets overbombed and is subsequently mocked). A hand that is clearly terrible can suddenly become very strong when a person is passed the right cards and gets an opportune lead. Someone can sit out the first five leads, passing while everyone’s cards dwindle away, and you still might have no idea if their cards are terrible or if they will call Tichu as soon as they drop a nearly unbeatable set and get the lead. Compared to a game like Dominion or Puerto Rico, there are very big swings which I’ll remember that are still more than just “someone got dealt lucky cards”. The ability to make big bets when you are behind means that there’s still a chance (if a very slim chance) that the losing team can win, and victory is all the sweeter in that case.

I haven’t written much on the strategy/tactics, but subtleties keep popping up over time. Throwing singleton kings out early means that they’ll probably get eaten by aces, but as full houses or even pairs they are much stronger (and give you points to boot). You can pass a middling card to your partner if you have a good Tichu hand, preserving on the value of your call… or you can risk it all and pass them a very strong card from a very strong hand, hoping for the 1-2 knockout for 200 + 100 points. You can pass a two that you need, hoping you’ll get another two back (not uncommon). Figuring out when to break up that 7 card straight or use the phoenix to make a dumb card combination (that you take for -25) can be agonizing, but rewarding. Knowing when to save your strong cards for later is one of the most important skills in the game. In the end, the game moves fast enough that you can beat yourself over the head for a wrong decision while playing the next hand, and that’s great for me.


Ease of learning: 10/10 (Agricola = 2/10, Race for the Galaxy 5/10, Dominion (base set) = 10/10)

This game is relatively easy to explain. People have enough of a background with card games that they’re less likely to be intimidated. Going through all the sub-rules can take time, but people have generally played games in which they take cards and score points. You also have the benefit of balancing the teams by taking the new player under your wing as your teammate, without the dictator disadvantage of fully cooperative games like Arkham Horror. Tichu is very easy for me to teach with respect to games that I enjoy, and that’s a big point in its favor.

Chance: 6.5/10 (Agricola 2/10, Dominion (base set) = 5/10, Settlers = 6.5/10)

There’s definitely a high degree of chance in Tichu. At the heart of the game, if you are repeatedly dealt bad cards (for a given definition of bad), you will very likely lose. Although the gambits to catch up do exist, they are gambits precisely because they frequently fail, and it’s quite possible to lose by a lot to weaker players. Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot of skill involved in Tichu, but if I wanted to win in a given session, I’d rather be a bad player with great luck than a great player with bad luck. If that scares people off from the game, so be it.

You can change up the luck factor if you want by increasing or lowering the target score, if it means that much to you; that's also a simple way to change the target game length.

Interaction: 10/10 (Dominion (base set) = 2/10, Race for the Galaxy = 3/10, Settlers = 10/10)

A card-taking game by nature is going to be very interactive. I try to think of interaction as the number of times my opponent’s decision changes what I would do, compared to a hypothetical solo optimization path. Even if you think of some invisible hierarchy where you always play the lowest cards you can while preserving sets, Tichu pushes people to change that up. Did that person call Tichu? You’d better pass them the weakest card you have (preferably the dog) and make them burn up their wins early, rather than giving them a free lead by sitting on your aces. Does that opponent have one card? Lead a pair, or a sequence of pairs, or any combination greater than one. Does your partner have one card? Lead them a single low card, even if you have a 76543 you wanted to get rid of… unless your opponents don’t have many cards left. Strategy in a vacuum is hard to think of when playing Tichu.

"How much downtime is there?"

The downtime in Tichu is low. Someone will get stuck with a hard decision from time to time, but you can plan out your next move and brood over why they are hesitating. Tichu is a game that largely keeps you in the action; even if you’re out of cards, you still have a rooting interest while your teammate is playing. If they’re out of cards too, even better; you get points and move on.

The game can take more than two hours with relatively new players, so be warned.

Setup/teardown is fast. Deal out the cards 8 + 6 to each player, score for each round (which only requires one person to count up points since the base points in each normal round add up to 100), shuffle, continue.

Final thoughts

Tichu hits a personal sweet spot for me. I don’t care about a lack of theme or the high luck factor, but I do like how well it plays with different skill levels of players. It’s at the top of my list for four player games that I can actually get people to play. The big issues for some would probably be the length (two hours can be a while for a single game) and the level of chance. Neither of those issues matters that much to me.

Buy this game if:
-You enjoy dramatic swings of fortune and bombing other players
-You want a gateway game
-You enjoy lots of tactical decisions

You may not want this game if:
-You can’t stand losing by a lot, even when you play well
-You want a game more strategic than tactical
-You want a thematic game
-You have unreliable gamers that might not show up
-You're too much of a renegade to be a team player

Tichu gets a 9.5/10 from me. It’s great as an exciting and accessible card game for exactly four players. Tichu is also $15 or less on Amazon for two decks; if spending that much money intimidates you, you can always try it out on Brettspielwelt first, or try it by getting two decks and marking up the jokers (while leaving the other 52 cards out).

I could actually consider Tichu a 10/10 game; the issue is that the 4 player restriction really does limit how much I can play the game. So, 9.5/10 it is.

Edit: Added note about the rating
Edit 2: Upgraded rating from 9 to 9.5, upgraded replayability from 8 to 10 based on all the fun I've had since the review. Tichu is a great game.
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Martin G
United Kingdom
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Quote:
I try to think of interaction as the number of times my opponent’s decision changes what I would do, compared to a hypothetical solo optimization path.


I'm stealing that!
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David Zimmerman
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Branson
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Great review! Although, my personal experience gives Tichu the edge over Agricola in replay-ability.
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Matt N

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Upon playing Tichu even more, I've upgraded it to 9.5/10. There's just so much to discover in the game that it keeps making it to the table with all sorts of different crowds. I've crushed people and been thoroughly screwed in the same session; it's all part of the fun.
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