Game History by Chris Wray, Tichu Tips by Mary Prasad
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Tichu’s publication. In a hobby that is often defined by the “cult of the new,” Tichu is still a perennial favorite among gamers, and it is arguably the hobby’s favorite traditional-style card game. It is the highest-ranked trick-taking or climbing game on BoardGameGeek, and it has long been in the BGG Top 100, a rare accomplishment among older games. Tichu has more than 100,000 logged plays on BGG (the most of any trick-taking or climbing game), and most major conventions have dedicated events for it. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been in-print continuously for 25 years.
Despite the game’s wide appeal, little is known about its origins. Fortunately, designer Urs Hostettler generously agreed to answer a few of our questions, and I interviewed him in November about the game’s history. What follows is my retrospective of Tichu, along with some Tichu tips by Mary Prasad and thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers.
Climbing Games Reach the West
Tichu is one of the earliest examples of “climbing” games to reach the West. Climbing games — which are arguably a subset of trick-taking games, and at a minimum appear to be derived from them — generally have a few common elements:
- Each player must play a higher card (or combination of cards) than the previous player. This means that the games must generally be played with ranked cards.
- Players are generally not required to play a card — they can pass — and the “trick” ends once all of the other players have passed or once no higher card can be played.
- There is generally a scoring bonus for getting rid of your cards early, and the earlier you go out, the higher your mock social status.
This mock social status, though not present in Tichu, is widely found in climbing games. When card game historian David Parlett described climbing games in his 1990 book The Oxford Guide to Card Games, he called them “social climbers,” noting that in one popular Chinese game — Zheng Shàng Yóu — the earlier a player ran out of cards (i.e. the better he did) the higher the mock social rank he would earn. For example, in a similar Japanese game (Dai Hin Min), the first player out of cards was designated “king,” the runner-up “nobleman,” the third “poor man,” and the loser “very poor man.” As described at Pagat, in many climbing games, this mock social status “is then perpetuated in subsequent hands by making the losers give away their best cards to the winners, as well as suffering other indignities.”
Most sources attribute climbing games to the East, and they are widely played — with endless variations — in China. Zheng Shàng Yóu was first described by John McLeod (webmaster of the Pagat site) in English in the early 1970s. According to David Parlett, when the game was later described in the French magazine Jeux et stratégie, a few reports came in of virtually the same game from two different areas of France. Thus, a French origin is possible, but as David Parlett notes, it is still more likely the game migrated to France from French Indochina. As is the case with most card game genres, the true origin will likely never be known.
Tichu’s 1991 publication date puts it among the earliest of climbing games to be published as standalone games. Only a handful of climbing games in the BGG database predate Tichu, and among those that do, only one — Gang of Four — is widely available today.
Urs Hostettler Discovers (And Publishes) Tichu
Urs Hostettler has long been a figure in the gaming hobby. He started designing games in the early 1980s, and in the ensuing decades he’s released such popular titles as Anno Domini, Cosmic Eidex, Der wahre Walter, Kremlin, Schraumen, Such a Thing?, and Wie ich die Welt sehe. Four of his games have received recommendations from the Spiel des Jahres jury, and he has won other prominent gaming awards as well. He owns publisher Fata Morgana Spiele, as well as a game store in Bern, Switzerland. Beyond gaming, he’s also a successful musician and author.
Urs and seven friends traveled to China in 1988, not only to see the sights, but also to import Mah Jong games for distribution in Switzerland. Urs was familiar with a Japanese climbing game, Grandseigneur, which a friend (Res Brandenberger) had learned from a Japanese exchange student in France, so he was also on the lookout for similar card games.
During their travels, Urs and his friends would see men playing such games in parks. The tables would generally have 4, 5, or 6 players, and the rules appeared to be highly variable. As Urs said, “It was difficult for us to get more than an overview, as we didn’t speak the language, and the players were not really proud of their playing… seems it was forbidden or at least of minor prestige.”
By the time the group arrived in Nanjing, they had hired a guide, Mr. Chuang. “Mr. Chuang showed us Tichu in a bookroom of the Nanjing Confucius temple, assisted by two bus drivers.” He called the game Tichu, and Urs subsequently learned that “there were dozens of names for the game and dozens of rules, varying from city to city.” (Later, Urs would write to Mr. Chuang to tell him of Tichu’s success in Europe. Mr. Chuang wrote back, spelling the game’s title “Tihu” and spelling his own name “Huang.”)
“The Chinese played the game with bridge cards. The 5 of hearts served as a dragon, the highest solo card, while a triple of 5s were a bomb. While travelling home in the Siberian railway, we started to experiment, to form the game.”
Urs and his friends spent three years developing and playtesting the game. They added the four special cards, as well as the exchange of cards at the start of the hand, “to get some more pepper in the game, more combinations.” They added the negative points for the phoenix card, as well as the requirement to hand off the dragon. They also used the card’s usual values for ranking, whereas in Nanjing the twos were the highest rated cards. (In another city, Tientsin, the fours were the highest ranking cards.)
The artwork was done by Res Brandenberger, the friend that had taught Urs how to play Grandseigneur.
Fata Morgana Spiele released the game in 1991, and it sold well not only in Switzerland, but in Germany too. It won third place in voting for A la carte, Fairplay Magazine’s annual award for card games. Several Tichu clubs and championships started to pop up throughout Europe. ABACUSSPIELE and Rio Grande picked up the game in 1998, and since then it has seen a release in dozens of countries. There is even an iOS version.
Tichu has spawned several special editions over the years. The Tichu Circle of Munich once produced a small “Bavarian Edition” with the suits represented by parts of Bavarian culture. Several of the “face” cards were members of the club, but Mr. Chuang was the King of Brezel (pretzel), and Urs was the King of Weisswürste (sausages). ABACUSSPIELE released a special edition in 2015, which has new art similar to that in the Filosofia Edition. Uplay.it released an Italian edition with new graphics. Unfortunately, there are even bootlegged versions sold in China.
For Urs, Tichu has spawned a couple of fun stories over the years. When his son was in high school, he found several friends playing Tichu. They asked if he knew how to play, and he said he did. They replied, “Cool game! Just that rules booklet … the one who wrote it must have been stoned!” His son responded, “Oh no! T’was my father. He always talks this way.” Additionally, during the Greek financial crisis, a Swiss TV station was reporting from the home of an unemployed Greek worker. The worker’s family was gathered around a table, but instead of playing Greek card games, they were playing Tichu.
Urs is still designing games. He still plays Tichu, but he says he and his family prefer Cosmic Eidex, a card game he released in 1998.
Mary Prasad’s Top Ten Tichu Tips
[Introduction from Chris Wray: I like to think I’m a better-than-average Tichu player, but I admit that I’m far from a great player. When I was listening to the Dice Tower Podcast (Episode 392) a few months ago, I suddenly heard Opinionated Gamer Mary Prasad giving tips for playing the game. Mary’s segment was excellent, and it improved my game. Since Mary is known in this hobby for being great at Tichu, I asked her to contribute her top Tichu tips. Enjoy!]
1. The Dog. For some reason this is the most confusing card for new players. Just remember, it must be led – it cannot be played over any cards; it has no trick-taking ability. This means you must gain the lead in order to play it. To gain the lead, you must have cards with which to take the lead. New players tend to get themselves into situations where they have the dog but have no way to get the lead, usually because they played out their power cards too early and didn’t make use of the dog when they had the chance. The dog is a powerful card when you know how and when to play it. As such you might want to think twice before passing it to an opponent, even if that opponent called Tichu. You might be helping that team with a one-two, i.e. both going out before you or your partner.
2. Remembering Cards. Remembering what high cards have been played will help you to know when your high cards will take tricks. For example, if the dragon has been played, your phoenix will be the next highest single over an ace; if the dragon and phoenix have been played, your aces will be the highest singles. Most of the time you just need to count the dragon, phoenix, and aces. Occasionally the mah jong won’t be led in the first play; in this case, you should keep track of it too (especially if you are the opponent sitting next to the player with the mah jong). Better Tichu players (and/or those with good memories) will remember kings and possibly queens as well. My memory sucks though; I’m lucky if I can remember aces. The best card players will probably remember most if not every card played – but this is well beyond the majority of players (thank goodness).
3. The Wish. Try to remember what you passed to your left opponent. If you have or get passed the mah jong, you should probably wish for this card. If you wish for something at random, there is a fair chance you will be hitting your partner instead of your opponent (i.e. if the opponent does not have the card you wished for, your partner will have to play it if he has it). This brings us to…
4. Passing and 5. Information. Passing is an important feature of Tichu. It takes a lot of practice to do it well. Most players use the convention odd left, even right, unless splitting a low pair (e.g. pass 3, 5, 7… left and 2, 4, 6… right). It you want to pass two odd or even cards, pass the lower using the convention. This helps to prevent bombs from being created by the pass. For example, if both partners pass a 2 to the same opponent and that opponent has a pair of 2s – that opponent will now have a 2 bomb. Typically you want to pass your lowest singles but that of course depends on your hand.
Better players will remember all cards passed to and from them, suit and rank. This gives you a little knowledge about each player’s hands that could be useful. For example, assume you passed a jade 3 to the left, a sword ace to your partner, and a jade 2 to your right, if you have the mah jong and wish for a 3 but the opponent plays a star 3, you know he still has a jade 3 in his hand. On the other hand, a savvy partner will play other cards of the same rank before playing the card you passed so you retain the information. In this case your partner might play a pagoda ace, keeping the sword ace so you know she still has that card. Note that for receiving cards, you would want to remember what was passed to you from opponents so you can get rid of them first – that way the opponents won’t have that information anymore. You also want to be the savvy partner to your own partner.
Suit is important in another way as well. Let’s say you have a jade 2, 3, 5, 6, a star 2, and a pagoda 3. You have a straight but which 2 and 3 will you pass? Pass the jade 2 and 3. Good players will likely not pass you a single of a suit they have if they can help it, so don’t expect the jade 4 to be passed to you for the flush bomb. This is why: if you pass the star 2 and the pagoda 3, one of those opponents might have a similar straight in their hand. Hands tend to share attributes due to the distribution of cards, straights one round, pairs another, etc. You may have just completed a flush bomb in this case. By giving them the jade 2 and 3, neither opponent can make a flush bomb with them.
6. Flexibility. Arranging your cards in straights, full houses, etc. is great but don’t be afraid to break things up. Sometimes playing a full house as a pair and triple makes more sense, or playing a pair as singles. I’ve broken up bombs because it made more sense to play the cards another way, such as in a straight when that straight would have left me with a bunch of useless singles (e.g. straight 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 vs. a 4 bomb). The ultimate four card bomb, aces, is usually broken up since they can likely be used to win at least double the number of tricks when played as singles, if not more.
7. When to Call Tichu. First of all, I recommend waiting until you are ready to play your first card before making the call. Although you can call anytime before playing your first card, by holding back a little you can see how the hand is going. This may even result in the opponents calling Tichu – giving you something else to consider… is your hand strong enough bearing in mind the opponent thinks he also has a strong hand? If so, and you make the Tichu, you just gained another 100 points on them! Sometimes I even hold back playing when I could, e.g. if I’m on the fence about calling or if I want to see a certain card out before calling. Generally, to determine if I have a strong enough hand, I count up my stray singles and other weak plays to see how many power plays I’ll need to get the lead back in order to keep playing; if I have enough then I will probably call.
8. When to Call Grand Tichu. As a guideline, I look for three of the power cards: dragon, phoenix, aces, and even the dog or mah jong – the latter depending more on the rest of the cards in my hand. For example, if I had the dragon, an ace, the dog, two or three kings, queens, or jacks – I would probably call it, hoping my partner would have something good to pass me (of course I would give her the dog).
9. Know Your Partner/Work with Your Partner. Some players are more aggressive (often referred to as “alpha players”): taking more chances in calling Tichu, using the wish to call a card they did not pass, usually not passing their best card to their partner, playing over their partner when they called Tichu (horror!), etc. Others are more laid-back, allowing their partner to do more of the calling, passing their best card, etc. If two alpha players are partners, there will probably be issues (as well as some fireworks). Likely, neither partner will have a strong hand. There are also issues with two laid-back partners – they may not call Tichu enough to win the game, they may be trading good cards, etc. The best partnership is one that works together, passing their best card when their hand is not strong but keeping it when they have a good shot at calling Tichu, being aggressive enough to call Tichu when appropriate, knowing they have a partner who will support them. This takes a lot of practice.
10. Practice Practice Practice! The rules of Tichu can be learned pretty quickly but it takes years to master. Most people can pick up the rules after only one game (although the end round stuff usually confuses new players for several games). But Tichu has a lot more depth to explore. I’ve been through like, hate, and finally love of this game – stick with it, it will reward you with many years of enjoyment. If that isn’t reason enough here’s a few more: it’s compact, portable, inexpensive, and one of the few games where you can really socialize as you play. Plus if you really hate it, you can toss the 4 extra cards and play Poker.
Thoughts of the Opinionated Gamers
Chris Wray: Congratulations to Urs on releasing a game that has proven so popular for such a long period of time. I love Tichu, and it is easily one of my favorite card games. I’m a fan of climbing games, as well as partnership games, so it is no surprise that this appeals so strongly to me.
Tichu is one of only two games where I collect the various editions (the other being Hanabi), and my favorite is the Abacusspiele version released this year. The cards are high quality, and the artwork is fantastic.
Here’s to hoping that this is still as popular in 25 more years!
Mary Prasad: If you listen to The Dice Tower, it’s likely no surprise that Tichu is one of my favorite games (there are probably only a few instances when I would rather play something else… although I can’t think of any at the moment). The rules that come with the game are rather rough; it’s better to have someone teach the game to you. Also, if the person teaching isn’t doing a great job, try someone else. I’ve heard a couple people tell me they didn’t like the game but when I (somewhat forcibly) sat them down for a game, they did a 180. The player aids on BoardGameGeek are pretty handy for new players as well.
Michael Weston: Tichu has been my all-time favorite game since I first played it in 2001. Until just a few years ago, it was guaranteed to be ubiquitous at just about any game event, especially in the wee hours of the morning. In my experience that has slacked off somewhat in recent years – it’s certainly still around, just not to the same degree as in years past. Maybe that’s just the places I’m gaming. Anyway, I still rank it an 11. After 15 years of playing it, I still find nuances and insights that keep the game fresh and exciting. Tens of thousands of hands later, I’m still in love with it.
To add to Mary’s excellent tips: For me, there were 3 stages to learning to play Tichu well, and they seem applicable to most people. (The one exception being one person I taught who called and made a Grand Tichu on his very first hand – he’d played lots of card games growing up and was an excellent card counter and quick learner.)
Stage 1: Learn to go out – Tichu is different from a 1-card-per-trick game and requires a different approach. For players of mostly Western card games, it’s not intuitive to play the trash first and set up a plan for going out. You’ll likely commit “seppu-two” a time or two (leaving yourself with just a 2 in hand), but it will soon click and you’ll start to get a feel for the ebb and flow of leads and plays so you can go out consistently.
Stage 2: Learn to call Tichu – Don’t be afraid to call Tichu. The only way you’ll get better at knowing when to call it is to practice. If no one calls Tichu, the hand generally plays very differently. So you can’t always judge “I would have made it” after the fact. Call it, fail sometimes and you’ll learn to better judge the hands that could go either way. This is a great example where failure can actually teach you more than success. So call Tichus, and even a Grand or two along the way.
Stage 3: Play for points – Save figuring out when to play the 5s, 10s, and Kings for last. The skills in knowing how to take the lead, make Tichus, go out and help your partner go out are more important than deciding where the point cards go. Or keeping track of which players’ trick piles have the score cards and trying to block/assist them, or feeding points cards to your Tichu-calling partner, or a myriad of other ways to subtly move those 100 points worth of cards around. But Stage 3 is important. I’ve heard tales of advanced players consistently winning games by being able to go out 2-3 consistently with all the points and rarely ever taking the risk of a Tichu call.
I’ll disagree with Mary about wishing for what you passed left (assuming you passed low/trash cards – if you passed the Jack, by all means wish it away from them). IMO, you’re just helping an opponent get rid of a low card. I see wishing for an unknown card as worth the risk of hitting your partner and worth the chance of really hurting an opponent’s hand. I like wishing for the 6 – if they have a low straight, it leaves the 2, 3, 4 and 5 orphaned; if they don’t, it often still means they have a lower singleton they have to get rid of. I don’t see that as an “alpha” player play – it’s just a different judgement of the risks and rewards and a tolerance for the risk. It also goes hand-in-hand with knowing your partner. If you know their logic for deciding what to wish for, it can inform your choices. For example, if they tend to go for straights in their hands, then perhaps you do wish for what you passed because a “misfire” hitting them has higher chance of injury. If they tend to collect groups, then your wish can be even more aggressive. Or maybe you pass the 6 instead of the 5 because your partner does often wish for the 6. Wishing for what you passed is a very conservative play – don’t feel bound to it at all. And do consider holding the 1 until later in the hand. I’ve seen many instances where a late-hand wish really put the screws to a Tichu call.
Mnemonic for remembering which is higher, Dragon or Phoenix: A dragon can eat a phoenix; a phoenix can’t burn a dragon.
More importantly, I’ll completely agree with Mary on the more important point: practice, practice, practice. It’s a great game worth the time to get better at it.
Ted Alspach: Mary’s 11th tip which she forgot, but knows very very well, is that in certain circumstances when your partner calls Grand Tichu, you should pass the dog to…HER. That’s right. Give the dog to the Grand Tichu caller. Why would you do this? If your opponents’ score is 900 or more, and your score is less than 800 (ideally in the 600-700 range), this gives you the best chance to win on that hand. As long as the Grand Tichu caller goes out first, and they play the Dog as their last card, you have a huge advantage and a much higher chance of going 1-2 for a 400 point score (to your opponent’s 0 points). Warning: some partners get super pissed off when you do this, as they don’t understand the intricacies of this very advanced play. If it doesn’t work, you might have to endure years of berating. But if it does work…
Matt Carlson: Count me as rather blasé about Tichu. I prefer “standard?” trick taking games over climbing games. Although I do enjoy the Dilbert version of The Great Dalmuti, as the cards amuse me as I play. Yes, I haven’t dedicated a large chunk of time to learning the intricacies of this particular card game. While some may use that as a reason for my lowered opinion on the game, I would point out that I would likely increase my enjoyment of any card or boardgame if I spent a significant amount of time delving its intricacies. The popularity of Tichu is actually somewhat of a drawback. Like bridge or chess, players are extremely dedicated to the game and having mis-matched levels of play can make a game less enjoyable for all. (With the exception of playing with partners where each team has a stronger and weaker player.) Because of this dedication, the game suffers from a significant number of conventions (not as badly as Bridge, mind you) that are overlaid on the game play. I prefer trick taking games that have slightly less “overhead” to bidding and signalling, such as Spades or (in a pinch) 500. (I do have to admit a partiality to Pinochle, simply because I consider it such a bizarre game.) I will not quibble about Tichu being a great game. As we say here at Opinionated Gamers, it is simply “not for me.”
Joe Huber (3 plays): I hate Tichu. Well, not really, but I don’t much care for it. And in truth, it’s not Tichu I’m so annoyed with – it’s the extreme popularity the game has achieved that annoys me, as at conventions there are times in the evening when it’s hard to find a non-Tichu game. And honestly, I’d rather play nothing. I’ve never felt that partnerships and climbing games work well together – I much prefer The Great Dalmuti, which avoids the partnership aspect, or Bridge, which avoids the climbing aspect. In my experience – which I’ll be the first to admit is limited enough to be more likely to be wrong than not – The Great Dalmuti is actually the more skillful game.
Having said that – I really am pleased for Hostettler that the game has been so successful. It’s extremely difficult to put out a game to achieve such lasting success. And while Tichu might not be for me, I am a fan of one of Hostettler’s other designs, Hotel Life. So best wishes for the continued popularity of the game – if, perhaps, a little less at conventions I attend…