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App review: Tichu card game ups the ante for digital trick taking

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Normally, to get a game of Tichu going, you need to round up three friends. If you don't have any card-playing friends who know Tichu, then maybe you have to tell them you're going to have a Bridge party, then *bam!* you bust out the 56-card Tichu deck at the last minute. This sort of gamer subterfuge is a thing of the past, thanks to the brand-new Tichu app from Steve Blanding. Now, any number of players can enjoy the card game at any time: one person can play against three computer opponents or link up with other people on their iDevices (the $2.99 app is universal) and the computer will fill in any empty seats.

Why bother with all of this? Because Tichu is one of the best – and most well-regarded – card game around. The rules will be familiar enough to people who enjoy trick-taking games but it's different enough to present a fresh challenge and is enjoyable every time. Keep reading to find out all about it.

Gallery: Tichu on the iPad | 42 Photos






The Game

Tichu is a "climbing game," which means the cards played in each trick need to keep going up. If you've played other climbing games like The Great Dalmuti or Daihinmin, you'll pick it up quickly. Sometimes, the steps will be small and regular, like a ladder. Other times, the jumps will be like giants scrambling up a mountain, like when someone plays a queen on your two, for example. Each hand has 100 points up for grabs, and the goal is to get to 1,000 points. You can raise the bar by making claims before you play any cards that you'll go out first, but the risk is that you'll lose a ton of points if you don't meet your goal.

The climbing aspect means there are two things in Tichu that don't operate the way they do in, say, Bridge or Skat. First, you can pass and then come back in later in the trick. Second, not everyone will necessarily play a card each trick. Sometimes, in fact, one person can lay down seven cards and everyone else just sits there. While this does bring them closer to playing all their cards, whether or not it's a wise play depends on the other cards in hand.

The rules are actually quite long, and can be found here or within the app, so we won't go into every detail. Basically, the legal tricks are similar to poker hands (singles, pairs, full houses, etc.) and the higher the better. Of course, the goal is to get points – fives score five while tens and kings score 10 – but the cards you collect during a game only matter if you go out. Under normal circumstances, three players will go out. The game is played in partnerships, though, and if a team goes out before either player in the other team, then they score a bonus 200 points and the other team gets squat.


The App

Given Tichu's somewhat complicated nature, it's a good thing the app has three options to ease new players in: a tutorial, a well-written rule set and the choice to just dive in and let the pop-up tips guide you along. Winning hands wasn't easy at the beginning, but the app does make it easy to figure out what's going on. Since you can set the AI opponents to one of five different intelligence levels – from D'oh! to cheater – there's plenty of challenge here once you've figured out what is what. You can even set your partner AI to super smart and your opponents to dumb if you want to feel like a total winner. I was tempted to do so during my first game with the app, since it seemed like my partner was making bonehead plays and our opponents were not even though they were all "normal" AIs. The downside, especially on older iDevices, is that better AI means slower play times.

Once you get the rules down pat, it's apparently quite easy to play against other (local) humans. I wasn't able to try out the Bluetooth multiplayer, but reading the reports over at Board Game Geek makes it sound like Blanding has got this feature programmed well. It's no surprise, since his other game, Mü, uses a similar template and works very smoothly. Blanding is also an active member of BGG, and has already responded to people reporting problems with the app. The game was released last week and has already been updated to take care of a bug that prevented playing the phoenix in a 10-A straight, for example.

The app looks great for a card game, with a few virtual perks thrown in. When the hound is played for example, a big dog shows up in the center of the board so everyone knows the lead has been passed. When the person playing the Mah Jong card wishes for a card, a little thought bubble appears and sits around to let everyone know which card is called for. During normal gameplay, the cards are easy to see and react the way you'd expect them to. You touch cards in your hand to select them and then hit the the "Play Selected Cards" button to place them on the table. The UI is easy, good game play is not.

To be honest, I prefer the gameplay of Daihinmin to Tichu, but they're both pretty great. Until someone makes an app for that game, I'm quite happy with what we've been presented in Tichu. In fact, I propose Daihinmin for Blanding's next project. Until then, if you'd like to try the game, visit the App Store or your local game store. Interested in how this app came to your touchscreen? You can read an interview with Blanding where he describes creating the game here and he answers questions about the app here. There is also a $.99 Tichu scorekeeper app available, if that's more your thing.

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