This article was first printed as "GAMEPLAN: Tichu" in issue 26 of The Game Report, published by Peter Sarrett. It is modified and expanded somewhat here, free from the constraints of print.
Tichu is a 4-player partnership climbing game sold by both FataMorgana, Rio Grande Games, and AbacusSpiel. It is in the same family of games as The Great Dalmutti (Wizards of the Coast) and Asshole. More information is available here.
I learned Tichu in June, 2000 and have since played well over 200 games of it, more by far than any other game over a similar period in my life. I find the game to have a very broad appeal and also great depth of play. I updated this somewhat in March, 2014 and again in September, 2018. At this point, I have played thousands of games of Tichu so, not surprisingly, have learned a few more things.
This article should provide some strategy pointers for playing Tichu. If you disagree with any of them, please email me and I'd be happy to discuss it with you. I am assuming here that you know the rules of the game and have played at least a few hands; if you haven't this will likely be difficult to follow.
Note that where directions of "left" and "right" are given, this article does assume you are playing in the standard Western clockwise order, even though Tichu officially is played counter-clockwise.
A good general principle to follow for passing cards to your partner is to pass either your third 'worst' card or your very best card1. This principle should only be broken with a good reason. The Tichu scoring system greatly favors going out first. A partnership that regularly goes out 1st and 4th will easily defeat a partnership that regularly goes out 2nd and 3rd, assuming they correctly call Tichu during a good number of the hands. Partnerships are therefore encouraged to try to concentrate their strength in a single hand. Keep a strong hand strong2 and pass away the three worst cards. With a weak hand, assume your partner's hand is stronger and help it by passing her your very best card. Note that sometimes when passing away your three worst cards, you actually may want to pass away one of the lower ones to your partner. An example would be when passing 245 from a hand that includes 244556789....., I would pass the 2 to my partner as it and only it could fill a four of a kind bomb. I now play a more rigorous version of the rule explained above as a passing convention with my partner. This convention was developed by Sean McCarthy (aka SevenSpirits) and is explained in this post on the BoardGameGeek.com web site.
You should rarely pass any of the special cards to your opponents. The Dragon and Phoenix are the two best cards in the deck and should either be kept or passed to your partner. The 1 (or Mah Jong) is also an excellent card in that it gives you the first lead and that its special ability can be very powerful in hurting another player's hand. I value the 1 as better than a King but not quite as good as an Ace; however, it should be noted that the 1 is sometimes just as good in your hand as in your partner's so I would normally pass a King or Queen to a partner who called (Grand) Tichu before I would pass the 1. The Dog is a bad card for the player who has it but a great card for his partner. It is one of the very best tools you can use to support your partner's Tichu call. If you have quite a good hand that you think is very likely better than your partner's hand, pass the Dog to your partner. Passing the Dog to an opponent who calls (Grand) Tichu before the pass will hurt that player's bid but could lead to their side going out 1st and 2nd. It also sometimes is more valuable in stopping the (Grand) Tichu by being in the weaker of your partnership's hands; if that person can get one lead to use it, that may be just what is needed for the other partner to go out first. This is a complex judgment call that takes a lot of experience that will still just give you a good sense of what to do.
The Dragon is the simplest of the special cards. Only playable on a single trick, it will always win (unless bombed). Control of the Dragon means that you can lead a singleton and be certain that you can win the lead back. If you can, you should hold onto this ability for as long as possible, playing your Aces first. Also, do not always play the Dragon on the first opponent's Ace you see. Unless by taking control you can quickly go out, it is often better to wait and see what the opponent leads. Maybe your 5-10 straight will actually win you a lead over a straight she leads rather than just being played yourself on lead to get rid of it. You should of course give the Dragon trick away to the opponent you think will go out last. Note that if one of the opponents has already gone out first, it makes no difference who you give it to - the opponents will always score it.
The Dog is the one card in the deck with which you can best aid your partner. If you have a quite strong hand (and in particular a hand which includes a bomb or the Dragon), it is often best to save the Dog, particularly if your partner called Tichu, so that you can use it later to bail your partner out of trouble. Other than these rare cases, it is usually best to play the Dog at your first opportunity (this includes the very first lead of the game granted by the 1/Mah Jong). It is very bad to have had a lead and not taken the opportunity to play the Dog and then not gotten another chance before some opponent goes out.
The Phoenix is probably the best card in the game. It is certainly the most versatile. Whether you will want to play it as a single card on top of an opponent's Ace or as a wild card depends on your other cards. Always think about using it each way and decide which is better before you play to the first trick but also be prepared to rethink that decision if the play calls for it.
The 1/Mah Jong (also sometimes called the Sparrow) is a quite interesting card. Both its gift of the first lead and ability to be used in low straights are excellent, even giving one the possibility of the mythical 14 card straight. I haven't yet myself had one but have seen several, including one which stopped my Grand Tichu call!
Most interesting of all, however, is the special ability, probably the most confusing rule in the game. First off, note that the special ability is optional, despite what some early English translations (including one with my name on it) said. In fact, I generally recommend not using it when playing the 1 as part of a straight3. The reason for this is pretty simple. Most likely your opponents will beat you if they can anyway, but your partner won't--so why force her? It is always best to call something, however, when you play the 1 as a singleton. If you call out nothing, you give your left-hand opponent free rein to play anything he wants. Calling for the card you passed him, on the other hand, limits his options and can't reasonably hurt your partner. This does not mean you should always call what you passed. If your partner called Tichu, call what you passed. If your left-hand opponent called Tichu, don't call what you passed and take the chance on more significantly hurting him (for example, by breaking up a straight or calling out an Ace). In other cases, use your own judgment. If your partner calls a random card and it ends up hurting you (such as forcing out a bomb), don't be upset at him--it happens and he had no way to know it would hurt you.
There is only one reason to call Tichu before the pass: to tell your partner to pass you his very best card; to give you the extra help you need to go out first. In general, however, if your partner is following the rule above and you have a very strong hand, he will often be passing you his best card anyway. In addition, there are several disadvantages to this. The other cards passed may be really bad for you. The opponents may pass you the Dog. Your right-hand opponent may use the special power of the 1 to call out an important card. I therefore feel that you should only call Tichu before the pass if none of these things is a serious concern to you and you feel that all you are lacking to feel confident of going out first is one strong card.
Grand Tichu is a very risky call. You may pick up 6 very bad cards after you call it and you are putting a target on your head for the opponents to aim for. However, it is worth twice as much as a regular Tichu. In my recent statistics collecting, I have found Grands to be called in around 17% of the hands and made around 70% of the time. My friend Brian came up with a reasonable rule of thumb on when to call a Grand - the 8 best cards in the deck are probably the Phoenix and Dragon, 4 aces, the 1, and the Dog in that order. If you have four of these, you want to at least consider calling Grand. I do not recommend calling a Grand just because you have a bomb in your first eight cards. Bombs seem very nice but they actually only win you one lead. A bomb is certainly better than any single card but isn't generally nearly as good as having the Dragon and Phoenix, for example. Consider a bomb to be worth about 1.5-2 of the 8 cards above. The idea above is just a 'rule of thumb' however. In practice, personally, I will almost always call if I have the Dragon and Phoenix, regardless of my other 6 cards, and will usually not call if I have AA1Dog. Calling without either the Dragon or the Phoenix has great risk. If you end up with both of them against you, you will very likely fail. There is an excellent analysis by Curt Carpenter on BoardGameGeek.com of 2.3 million hands of Tichu played on the online site BSW. I strongly recommend reading the highlighted points. The money quote is "Dragon + Phoenix, with no aces and no kings already succeeds at 77.4%. That's really already enough! Unless 77.4% isn't high enough for you, you can stop looking once you see those two and confidently make the grand call. No aces required." However, with strong players, I do not buy whatsoever the low value he finds of the Dog and the 1. I have had a ton of calls killed by the 1 and the Dog in partner's hand is vastly better than in either your hand (because opponents passed you it) or in the opposition's hand. I would certainly take either one over a King.
Generally, you want to divide your hand up into three categories of card groups (a group is any set of cards which can be played all at once in Tichu): losers you'll have to lead (the 1, Dog, or very low groups), cards which aren't winners but are often easy to get rid of (such as middle singletons like 6-Q, medium pairs, medium threes of a kind, and medium full houses), and groups which you hope will be winners (bombs, Dragon, Phoenix, Aces, high groups). A good hand has more winners than losers. The best hands are ones where you can lead low groups and be confident of getting the lead back with high groups until you get rid of all of your cards, never relinquishing the lead to the opponents.
The fundamental rule of play is "lead low, win high". Only break it for a good reason. Keeping the lead is not a good reason. Never lead a winner unless you are just about to go out or don't have anything but winners. If you unexpectedly lose the lead, having a winner can let you recover.
If your partner called (Grand) Tichu, do everything in your power to support him. If doing so requires ruining your own hand, do it without hesitation. Until she has gone out, you should only worry at all about yourself if you think you have a good chance to go out second.
In general, split Aces. Unless you have an incredibly strong hand, playing Aces together wastes their power. Each Ace can usually win a lead on its own and even when they don't, they force out very dangerous cards from the opponents. Since Kings don't usually win singleton tricks until one or more people are out, playing them together is much more reasonable.
Don't overplay your partner if her current play has a reasonable chance to win the trick. Overplaying a 5 with a 9 is fine but overplaying a King is usually unwise. This rule is particularly important if your partner called Tichu. Having the Dog is not a reason to break this rule. The Dog's purpose is to take the lead away from one of the opponents and give it to your partner, not to take it from your partner and then give it back. The former is much more valuable. If you called Tichu or, by winning this trick, know you can immediately (or quickly) go out, feel free to ignore this rule.
Unless you have a bomb or other very good winners, play the Dog early as it helps your partner and you may never get another lead where you can play it. If you do have a bomb, it is probably better to wait to bail your partner out of (possible) trouble later.
Be bomb-proof if you can, especially if you have called Tichu. If your last two cards are 2-Dragon, it would be nice to lead the Dragon and then go out with the 2 as it doesn't give a free lead to your left-hand opponent. However, this is very risky. If the Dragon is bombed, you are ruined. If you lead the 2, even if it is bombed (unlikely) the moment another singleton is led you will go out. If you have 2-Dragon and do not have the lead, play the Dragon on the first singleton. If it is bombed you are in deep trouble, but in this case you really don't have much choice so it is a smart risk to take.
Following on the previous point, take the risks you need to take. If you can, play it safe, but if your only way to go out is to take a risk, go for it. Don't be too scared of bombs; they occur on only a low percentage of hands. Generally, don't let yourself lose to a hand that doesn't have a bomb because you were scared of the possibility of a likely non-existent bomb.
Counting some cards, particularly the four special cards and the four aces, is quite useful and well worth the effort. The more cards you track, the better you can play, especially in the endgame.
Don't try to stop a (Grand) Tichu bid, fail, and by having spent your good cards early, let the opponents also go out one-two. Sometime you just have to let the Tichu caller go out. This is a hard decision to make. Also, you should either both try to stop it or neither one. One of you alone trying will almost certainly fail. Support your partner's actions, even if you think they won't be successful - you don't know her hand.
Situation: three players left. If your partner is the one who has already gone out, try to go out next or even third but if you can't, at least try to get as many scoring cards as possible into your pile before the others go out. Your side will score them even if you don't go out. If you are the opponents, make certain that one of you goes out second to avoid the One-Two, no matter what you have to do.
Situation: two players left and your opponent has 1 card. Play all multi-card groups and then play your single cards from highest to lowest. What will really matter is if your opponent's card is higher than your 2nd lowest singleton. The situation would effectively be the same if your opponent has 2 cards and you have all pairs or bigger groups (with one major and common exception5).
Situation: two players left and your opponent has many cards. Play your low cards and win the lead back with your high cards until you get to the above situation. If your opponent is leading low singletons, beat them, even if it requires breaking up groups - otherwise he will just continue to lead singletons and things will only get worse.
Special note. With only two players left, if you have the Phoenix in your hand you actually may want to think about whether you even want to go out. Depending on the cards you and the other player have, it may actually be better to just let him go out, thus sticking them with the -25 points from the Phoenix to score.
Enjoy the game! --Aaron
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