Feb 27, 2012


Any user who spends substantial time on BoardGameGeek is going to read about a card game called Tichu at some point, a favorite of one of the site founders and many of the long-time users. The game has now been brought to Android, and it was an automatic buy for me, as both a fan of the game and someone who loves board and card game adaptations above any other category of game for my phone. Did the game make it over intact and how is the interface and AI?

Tichu belongs to a category of games that are called climbing games. A climbing game is one in which players take turns playing onto a central pile of cards (confusingly called a trick here, terminology that will be confusing to Bridge or Spades players), with each play being a bigger combination of cards. So if a player has played a three-of-a-kind, a valid play would be a higher three-of-a-kind. Each climbing game has a different set of rules about what are legal combinations and what types of plays count as a raise. Once all players have passed, the last player who played claims the cards and starts of the next play with any choice of combination that they want. Usually, the goal of these games is to get rid of all your cards first, and managing which cards you have that will get you the lead and doling them out carefully is usually the key to success.

In Tichu, the game is a partnership game, which provides interesting dynamics, as you seek to help your partner when possible. Tichu is played with a standard deck of 52 cards (with new suits) with 4 special cards added. Each special card has a unique function, from transferring the lead to your partner (the dog), a wild (the phoenix), a card that always wins but can never combo (the dragon) and the card that determines who leads but is the lowest card in the deck (the mahjong). The combinations that can be played are similar to poker hands, but with the addition of consecutive pairs and with flush not being playable. Four-of-a-kind and straight flush combinations are called "bombs" and can be played at any time to try and steal the lead, otherwise you always have to play the same combination as the player before you (just increasing the rank of the cards). Beyond the peculiarities of the deck and the wrinkles from being a partnership game, Tichu also includes exchanging one card with each opponent at the start of each hand as well as intricate scoring rules. It's a game that requires some adjustment to learn and practice to play competently.

The first question, with any board game adaptation, is how good the interface is. Here, the Tichu app is a bit of a mixed bag. The cards are a little bit smaller than I'd like, especially on my tablet, but not bad. Given the continuous nature of a round, the scrolling list of plays is probably a pretty good compromise and it works reasonably well. It can sometimes get confusing telling who has passed and whose turn it is, and the pauses in the UI (which are necessary for bombing to work right) are a bit of a hassle, but it's pretty good and certainly playable. I'm not sure how easy it will be to learn the game from the application, since I already knew how to play, but the instructions included with the game seem decent (although they lack a few nuances of scoring). The interface will certainly work better for folks already familiar with the game, though.

The actual play experience, meanwhile, relies heavily on the AI for the play quality. Here, I'm pleased to report that the AI is solid. It does seem to make some mistakes in play, but I still do as well, and it's not a bad match up for me. The difficult decision of when to call "Tichu" seems to be handled well, and the computer seems to play good defense on hands. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the AI, actually. Online play is supposedly coming, but I almost always play these kinds of games on my phone single-player, especially since I play on a bus going through a bus tunnel much of the time, so online play doesn't appeal to me but is important to others. The lack here may turn some folks off.

There are some stability concerns with the application. It occasionally crashes and sometime the game state is corrupted so that whenever you try and resume a game it will repeatedly crash. There is a "Reset" option included on the menu to rescue those situations, which is helpful, but it'll be nice when the stability issues are knocked out. It's thus far been a minor irritant and not a major problem.

Overall, I was pretty impressed. For fans of the game, especially those who enjoy it but aren't necessarily masters, it's an excellent game to pick up. I don't know how an expert level human would do, it may turn out that the AI is no match. For folks who enjoy complex card games or partnership games, it's again a recommended purchase. Since I haven't found a great Bridge app yet (one of these days I'll spring for the $20 Bridge baron), this is kind of the next best thing for me. People looking for a casual game that is easy to pick up might want to stay away. It's a little bit of a tricky game to rate, since I think the audience is somewhat narrow, but it's of high appeal to those folks. And at $2.99, it's a little bit more expensive than some other games to take a flyer on. So, it's a 4.5/5 for people looking for a complex, meaty card game (marred only by stability problems) and a 3/5 for folks looking for a more casual experience.

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