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Tichu is a brutally addictive four-player, partnership-based, traditional-ish card game.

Contrary to the game's quasi-Asiatic namesake (and the spurious origin stories in its very eccentric rulebook), Tichu is actually a Swiss game, conceived in 1991 by a German tabletop board game designer Urs Hostettler. However, Tichu's core mechanics are based on an amalgamation of older Mainland-Chinese traditional card games in the "king-ten-five" family, such as Zheng Fen (挣分) and Mao-era Dou Dizhu (斗地主). It's also inspired a couple of other games (well, at least one) with similarly egregious nationalistic theming - for instance, the conspicuously Scottish game, Haggis1.

Tichu is quite bewildering at first, but enormously fun - and perhaps harmfully addictive to left-brained types. As a warning, it has a tendency to really bring out the trash-talk (somewhat weirdly; there appears to be an consensus on this). And I think the game is special, insofar as its mechanics tend to reward belligerence. With that said - grab your partner, come up with a team name, and let's teach you some Tichu!


Introduction

The game is played with a traditional 52 card deck, with four extra cards: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Faithful Hound, and the Mahjong. The game is played over the course of multiple rounds.

The first team to reach 1,000 points wins. Also, it's possible to go negative, so the game could (in theory) go on for an infinite length of time.


Round structure

The set-up

All four players sit in a circle; the players sitting across from one another from two teams.

Throughout the game, communication between partners is absolutely forbidden, but not table talk is not strictly defined (although wincing at your cards probably counts).

Each round, the cards are shuffled and spread out in the middle of the table. First, each player takes eight cards and looks at them. On the basis of the first eight cards, any player may invoke a Grand Tichu (described later). If a player does not choose to call Grand Tichu, they pick up their remaining six cards, forming a fourteen-card hand.

The push (or the pass)

After each player has formed their fourteen card hand, each player then lays down three cards in front of them, with each card oriented towards each of the other three players. Once each player has laid down three cards, each similarly-oriented card is simultaneously exchanged with the other players.

The play

The player who drew the Mahjong is the first player to lead the play. Similar to most Chinese card games, play proceeds counter-clockwise.

During the round's play, each player will have numerous opportunities to shed cards from their hands, starting with the leading player. Leading players decide which types of hands are permitted to be played during a single round of play.

The hands

The possible hands consist of:

  • Single cards (e.g. '5')
  • Pairs (e.g. 'K-K')
  • Three-of-a-kinds (e.g. '4-4-4')
  • Full houses (i.e. a three-of-a-kind and a pair, like '2-2-2-J-J')
  • Adjacent pairs (i.e. as many pairs as you care to play, provided that they are sequentially adjacent, for instance: 'K-K-Q-Q-J-J'. Note that sequential three-of-a-kinds are not a valid hand.)
  • Straights (minimum five cards; e.g. 'A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7'; '6-5-4-3-2'; etc.)
  • Four-of-a-kinds (e.g. '5-5-5-5')
  • Straight flushes (same as straights, but same-suited)

A couple of important points here:

  • Four-of-a-kinds and straight flushes have a special designation as bombs, which are explained later.
  • In Tichu, straights and straight flushes have a minimum of five cards, and a maximum of fourteen cards. (Stop thinking Texas Hold'em!)
  • Aces are always high - never low. '5-4-3-2-A' is an invalid hand.

The play (continued)

First, the leading player plays to the middle of the table whatever hand they please.2

At any point before a player plays their first card (even really really late into the game), they may invoke Tichu. This means "I'm going to be the first person to shed all of the cards from my hand". They can also call Grand Tichu on the basis of their first eight cards (described above) if they're especially cocky.

The play continues to the player to their right. That player may either pass, or play a better hand of the same type and card count.

To play a "better hand" means to play another hand to the middle of the table of the same type and the same card count. So if the leading player throws out a pair of Sixes, the next player may play a pair of Sevens or better. A pair of Aces does not get beaten by three Twos. Again - don't think Texas Hold'em! There is no hierarchy of hands3. If pairs were led, everyone's playing pairs this round.

To "pass" means "maybe I can beat this hand right now, maybe not - but I don't want to play any cards right this second". If you pass, you can still throw cards down later on in the same play.

Players continue throwing hands into the middle of the table until three people pass, back-to-back. When this occurs, the player who played the highest hand (or card) wins the "trick", and places these cards face-down in front of them. These are kept secret from everyone including the winning player until the round is over. Peeking at your captured tricks is strictly verboten (no peeking)! This player becomes the new leading player. They throw out some hand of their choosing, and the play continues as described above.

This process continues until some player has shed all the cards from their original hand. That player is the first one out.4 The play will continue as normal until all but one player has shed all of the cards from their hand.

When all but one player is out, the play is immediately over. Any cards still on the table are captured by the second to last player. The remaining player (1) gives all cards still left in their hand to their opponents as a scored "trick", and (2) all tricks they won to the player that went out first (sometimes their partner, sometimes their opponents). Once these cards are scored, the round is over.

If a pair of partners both go out before any of their opponents do, a Double Victory occurs, and the round is over and scored immediately.


The scoring

Barring weird circumstances, 100 points are distributed during a round amongst the two partnering teams. Scoring is as follows:

  • Kings and Tens are worth 10 points each.
  • Fives are worth 5 points each.
  • The Dragon is worth 25 points.
  • The Phoenix is worth -25 points (yep: negative).

If a Double Victory occurs, scoring for individual cards is skipped and the doubly victorious team wins 200 points.

If an individual player called Tichu and goes out first, their team wins 100 points. In this case, you still score individual cards. If they called Tichu but did not go out first, their team loses 100 points, and individual cards are still scored.

Same procedure for Grand Tichus, except these are worth 200 (or sometimes negative -200).

Tichus and Grand Tichus are cumulative with the Double Victory event. Therefore, the maximum possible points gained per team per round is 400 points.


Bombs

Remember those four-of-a-kinds and straight flushes I mentioned earlier? Those are called bombs. They can actually be played out-of-sequence during the play (i.e. whenever, and as prejudicially you want). Whenever a bomb is played, play continues counter-clockwise, with each player having the opportunity to play a better bomb. Of course, those players can also play their bombs out of sequence too.

Bombs get beaten by better bombs. A bomb is better than another if the kickers are higher (i.e. 3-3-3-3 vs. 4-4-4-4), or if the bomb has n-many cards, and the next bomb has n+1-many cards. Therefore, a suited 7-6-5-4-3-2 beats a suited A-K-Q-J-10. Similarly, a suited 2-3-4-5-6 beats 5-5-5-5.


Those weird cards I mentioned earlier

The Faithful Hound can only be led. It cannot be bombed. It passes the lead to the player sitting across from you.

The Phoenix is similar to a Joker. It can be played as a single card, or any other non-bomb hand, as a wild card.

As a single card, it always takes the value of the next-highest card, plus one-half. For instance, played on a two, it is a two-and-a-half. Played on an Ace, it is an ace-and-a-half. Played on a Mahjong (which has a value of '1', explained below), it is a one-and-a-half.

As a Joker, it can represent any non-weird card, from Two to Ace. It cannot be paired with the Mahjong to form a pair of Ones, as the Mahjong is a weird card. Also, it cannot be used to construct a bomb.

The Dragon can only be played as a single card. It is the highest possible single card - even higher than an ace-and-a-half. When a trick is won with the Dragon, the entire trick is passed to one of the winning player's opponents (winning player's choice).5

The Mahjong determines who goes first. It has the value of "1". This means that "6-5-4-3-2-M" is a valid hand, and can be led. Alternatively, it may be led as a single card.

Whenever a Mahjong is played, under any circumstances, that player may optionally make a wish. A "wish" means that player can wish for any non-weird card (i.e. a '4' or a 'A', but not for a 'Dragon'). The play then continues as normal, with one important exception (and this is a little tricky to grasp): at any time where a player (usually the acting player; including the wisher) can play a hand that includes one of the wished-for cards, they MUST play that hand.

For instance, if a '5' was wished for, and '5-4-3-2-M' was played, the next player may play a better five-card straight or pass, like normal. But if they have a Five, AND they can form a five-card straight with the Five, they must play their straight to fulfill the wish.

The wish persists until someone fulfills the wish, even if nobody during the first round of play was able to legally play that card. It's possible for the wisher, given the example above, to have to play a single Five (or a pair of Fives, etc.) to fulfill their own wish. It's also possible for a bomb with a Five to be wished out, although this does not have to be played out-of-sequence.

Sometimes the wish can tease out a Phoenix, as part of a straight - for instance, if a '10' is wished for, and a six-card straight was played, a player who has 'K-Q-J-10-Ph-8' (for instance) must use the Phoenix to fulfill the wish (if they are the active player, etc.). However, a Phoenix in this context never represents a natural 10. So 'K-Q-J-Ph-9-8' does not fulfill the wish.




If you made it this far - congratulations! You have now been officially inducted into Tichu, joining the ranks of fellow Tichu degenerates including those have formed competitive Tichu leagues (apparently that's a real thing), that one dude I found online who self-published a formal rules to govern Bridge-like tournament structures of Tichu (aka "Duplicate Tichu"), and some guy I found on Google whose League of Legends account name is "24seven tichu".


1 Haggis was designed by a Scottish computer scientist named Sean Ross, who is evidently a fiend for Tichu. Haggis is also played with a five-suited deck. How weird is that?

2 They are not required to lead with the Mahjong.

3 Well, there's sort of a hierarchy with bombs, where bombs of n-count are automatically beaten by bombs of n+1-count.

4 It's possible for a player who goes "out" to end up winning the trick they threw out their last card on - in which case the leading player is the person to their right.

5 If a Dragon is bombed, the trick is won with the bomb - not the Dragon - so the trick does not pass to an opponent.