Tichu

Tichu is a card game for two pairs of players. It contains cards of thirteen ranks (2-10 plus Jack to Ace), in four suits — and four special cards. Thus, despite the manual’s claims to be a lost Chinese masterpiece, it is clearly derived from a standard pack of playing cards. The interesting visual design aspect of Tichu is the approach it takes to distinguish itself from standard playing cards, and whether it helps to make the rules clear.

A Tichu straight, using the Phoenix wildcard

A Tichu straight, using the Phoenix wildcard

Tichu walks a line between being similar enough to standard playing cards that it takes advantage of the similarities, while being distinct enough to add flavour. Presumably, the manufacturers did not want to try to sell a game that was visibly a standard pack of playing cards plus four jokers — but that wouldn’t excuse a bad alternative design. Let’s look at the design of the cards.

Suit and Rank Design

For the suits, Tichu uses different symbols than a standard set of cards, which helps to give a Chinese feel:

The four suits in Tichu: stars, jade, swords, pagodas.  Or: red, green, black, blue.

The four suits in Tichu: stars, jade, swords, pagodas. Or: red, green, black, blue.

Making the suits different from the traditional hearts/clubs/diamonds/spades has very little impact in Tichu, because the suit of your cards matters very little. You can make pairs, straights, sequences of pairs, triples, full houses and four of a kind — all of which rely solely on rank. The only time you look to match suits is for a straight flush, which is pretty rare. (Not as rare as poker, because you have a larger hand, but still very rare.)

While Tichu alters the suits, it keeps the ranks the same:

The highest ranks in Tichu:  10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace

The highest ranks in Tichu: 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace

Here, the relation to playing cards is completely obvious. They could have simply numbered the cards 1–13. But this would have left the deck feeling pretty plain and dull. So they adopted the two..ten/jack/queen/king/ace system, which both introduces more visual flavour into the deck, but is also a convention that’s likely to be known to all players. They could have invented their own Chinese version, but here convention is more useful than innovative design.

(As an example of where Tichu ill-advisedly tries to break convention, the manual suggests that you get players to take one card at a time in turn from the deck, instead of dealing, and that you should play in a counter-clockwise order. Needless to say, playing counter-clockwise is just pointlessly contrarian, so we abandon it in our group, and also just deal the cards out — I imagine many other groups do the same.)

Special Cards

The four special cards in Tichu are the Mah Jong, Hound, Dragon and Phoenix:

The four Tichu special cards, from left to right:  Dragon, Phoenix, Hound, Mah Jong

The four Tichu special cards, from left to right: Dragon, Phoenix, Hound, Mah Jong

My complaint with these cards is that the dragon and phoenix are too close in design. Both are colourful swirling designs with a similar palette, and at first glance are not very distinct. They could put any design on the card, so it is needless to have two of them so similar. The designs do cunningly extend to the top-left corner (whichever way they are rotated), which means that when you hold a hand of cards (as in the picture later on), you can still tell the cards apart. Although I think an icon might still have been clearer than this idea.

Scoring

Tichu is a trick-taking game, where the primary aim is to get rid of all your cards: if your team goes out first and second, you score big points. If this does not happen, points are scored according to how many 5s, 10s and Kings you won in tricks. Presumably these were a relatively arbitrary choice on the part of the designer (Kings not Aces is deliberate, but the pick of 5s and 10s is surely reasonably arbitrary) — and the problem is, it’s surprisingly hard to remember as a player that you want to win these cards as a secondary aim, when you are so focused on your primary aim of getting rid of all your cards.

I’ve played Tichu a lot, and I still forget to treat 10s as different than 9s and Jacks. This could easily have been helped by adding an indicator on the 5, 10 and King cards to show that they are worth points. For example, some horizontal lines (one line on 5 cards, which are worth 5 points, and two lines on 10s and Kings, which are worth 10 points):

Mockup of adding an indicator (the horizontal lines) to scoring cards

Mockup of adding an indicator (the horizontal lines) to scoring cards

These additions may seem quite small, but realise that when you have a full Tichu hand of fourteen cards (the whole deck is dealt out each round), you only ever see the corner of the cards, so any differentiation must occur in the corners. Here’s a mockup showing the modification in a larger hand:

Mockup of extra scoring lines in a larger hand of cards.

Mockup of extra scoring lines in a larger hand of cards.

This picture also shows that Tichu obeys the colour-as-decoration rule. Even if you are very colour-blind, you can still use the symbols beneath the ranks to differentiate the suits. Without these symbols, someone who was red-green colour blind might not be able to quickly and easily distinguish the green/oval suit from the red/star suit.

And As For The Game…

Tichu is probably the most popular game in my gaming group for four players. Just the right mix of relaxing and strategic, relatively fast play, with co-operative teamwork but also competition between teams — it is definitely in my top five board games. Looks simple, plays excellently — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. And when you have tried it, wonder why more game designers don’t design games for competitive team play.

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