Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tichu: A Great Four-Player Card Game

Tichu is a ladder, shedding, trick-taking, partnership card game for exactly four players. While the specific rules and packaging of Tichu are new, the play is based on dozens of older card games such as Big Two, President, Zheng Fen, etc...


The deck contains 56 gold-backed cards. 52 are what we would consider a standard deck of cards (with funny suits), and the remaining four cards - Mah Jong (a small bird), Dog, Phoenix, and Dragon - all have special properties.

The box comes with an additional 52 black-backed card deck, a duplicate of the standard deck of cards with the funny suits. It is only used for games of five or more players. The game for five or more players (or for two or three players) is nothing like the game for four players.


You sit opposite your partner. Each player is dealt 14 cards.

After looking at the first 8, a player may call "Grand Tichu" if no one has already done so. This is a 200 point bonus if he (alone, not his partner) is the first to get rid of all of his cards, or a 200 point loss if he isn't.

After looking at all 14 cards, a player passes one card each to each other player, and receives in turn one card from each other player.

The player with the Mah Jong leads the first trick, but does not have to lead the Mah Jong.

When you lead, you may lead any one of the following:

- any single card
- any pair
- any three of a kind
- any two pairs, if both pairs are from sequential numbers (e.g. two 4s and two 5s, but not two 4s and two 6s). Similarly, you can lead any three or more sequential pairs.
- any full house
- any straight of five or more cards. Suits on the cards don't matter.

After a lead, the player on the left must play a card or set of cards exactly like the player before him or pass. The set must be higher in value. E.g. if the leader starts with a pair of 4s, the next player can play a pair of 7s. He cannot play a single 7, or a triple 7, only a pair.

As long as other players continue to play higher cards onto the pile, a player may continue to play higher cards on his turn. Passing does not prevent you from playing again if the turn comes back around to you.

Once three players have passed in succession, the fourth player (the last player to play) gathers all the cards in the pile and puts them face down next to him. He then leads the next trick.

Any time before playing his first card, a player can call "Tichu" if no one has called Grand Tichu or Tichu before him. This is a 100 point bonus if he (alone, not his partner) is the first to get rid of all of his cards, or a 100 point loss if he isn't.

Bombs: A four of a kind, or a straight flush of five or more cards (this is the only time that suit matters), is a bomb. A bomb may be played at any time and beats anything played before it, unless a higher bomb is played. A straight flush bomb is considered higher than a four of a kind bomb.

In the original rules, after a bomb the previous leader leads again, but I find the game works better if the bomb player now leads the next trick.

The four special cards:

- Mah Jong: The player with the Mah Jong starts the first trick. In addition, the Mah Jong counts as a "1" for creating a straight. In addition, when playing the Mah Jong, you name any card (other than a special card). After announcing the card, and as long as no on has yet played that card, the first player who has a legal opportunity to play that card must do so, even if it means breaking up a straight or having to play a bomb. Typically, you name the card you passed to your LHO.

- Dog: This card can only be played alone and as you lead. It is discarded, and the lead passes to your partner.

- Phoenix: This card is a wild card (joker) which can be used in place of any other regular card, except that it cannot be use to make a bomb. If played as a single card, it is 1/2 higher than the previously played card, and can even be 1/2 higher than an ace. So it beats any other single card played except a Dragon. It is, however, worth -25 points in final scoring.

- Dragon: This card can only be played as a single card, and beats any other single card. It can only be beaten by a bomb. It is worth 25 points in final scoring. however, when you win a trick with the Dragon, you give the entire trick, including the Dragon, to an opponent of your choice. You then lead, as usual.

Hand end and scoring: Once three players are out of cards, the hand is over. The player who still has cards remaining gives all of these cards to his opponents. He also gives all cards he collected during the game to the player who was first out of cards.

Points are counted: If both players in a partnership went out before either of their opponents, the partnership scores 200 points and forgoes the usual scoring. Otherwise, kings and tens are ten points each, fives are five points each. Tichu or Grand Tichu win or loss is counted independantly of any other scoring.

After the hand, deal again. Play continues until one team has reached 1000 points.


Tichu is really a lovely game. It's not an intense brain burner like Bridge, but it still has a lot of opportunities for strategic play and thought. The four special cards, the passing, and the partnership really make the game. Without these, it would be much duller.

After experience with the game, most hands see Tichu being called. Going out first is the primary consideration (unless your partner called Tichu), and is far more important a consideration in nearly all instances than who has collected which points.

I'm a sucker for most partnership games, really. The passing opportunity, while not as flexible and informative as you get with Team Hearts, is still an opportunity to make important decisions and partnership agreements.

I generally hate ladder games because they typically have this rule that the player who lost the last game has to give their best cards to the player who won the last game, or variations thereof. And, without the special cards and partnerships, you tend to have little control of the play, and you end up just following leads.

Tichu for 2-3, or 5 or more players, is just such a game, and I hate it just as much as I hate President. Thank goodness that's not the case with the four player version.

For some reason that I don't entirely fathom, Tichu has a stellar reputation on Board Game Geek, where it is esteemed higher than any other card game (other than Race For The Galaxy). That's stretching it, as Bridge is the far superior game; it's just that Bridge requires time and investment to become good at it; Tichu is not hard to become good at, yet still remains enjoyable and challenging, albeit at a lower level.

The bottom line: It's cheap and it's a great game. It's light and fun. It's easy to learn and appealing to casual gamers, especially those who already play games like Hearts or President. Definitely add it to your game collection.


According to Larry Levy:

Tichu was derived from a Chinese game that has been around for at least 30 years and possibly much more than that. But I haven't been able to find any source that estimates how old it might be.

The source game is called Zheng Shangyou, which can be translated as "struggling upstream". The Western world was made aware of it in 1979, during a visit to China by some British Go players. Zheng Shangyou is a climbing game, so players must play a card combination of the same type as the leader, but higher ranked. However, points aren't scored by winning cards, but only for going out first. It can be played solo or with partners. There are a number of other differences, but it would certainly be recognizable to any Tichu player.

There is a related Chinese game called Zheng Fen, which has point scoring cards identical to Tichu's. Interestingly, the types of card combinations that can be made in this game seem very similar to the ones in the commercial game Gang of Four (which has yet another way of scoring points, namely the number of cards left in your hand).

As far as I can tell, Tichu designer Urs Hostettler took a number of concepts from several Chinese games and possibly added a few of his own to come up with Tichu. So he deserves credit for creating the game that we know and love. But the games it was derived from have been played for quite a while--I just don't know how far back they go. (source)
All the symbols and quips on the box and in the rules are jokes to add color; it isn't played by 642 million Chinese every day, for instance.


Unknown said...


I have never tried Tichu. But I know how to play Zheng Shangyou as I am a chinese. Thanks for introducing this card game. Will give Tichu a try soon. Good luck to your blog.


Rich Heimlich said...

Tichu deserves the higher rating on Board Game Geek. Why? Because it's far more approachable to a much wider audience than Bridge is. Bridge is a great game but it has very limited appeal. Tichu, meanwhile, can be picked up and enjoyed, quite immensely, by just about any card players. That is worth quite a premium in any ranking system.