Pocket Hound: Tichu for the iPhone/iPad

I’ve been a fan of card games since a very young age, from Go Fish to Solitaire to Cribbage. But none have held my collective interest through the years more than Tichu. It’s a trick-based game, a variation of a similar Chinese card game, but fully copyrighted as being created by one Urs Hostettler. While not widely played in the United States, it has gained a small following and (ironically enough because of where I just moved), also has a dedicated community of players in Germany.

For me, it started back in my college years and the development of interest in what my circle of friends liked to call “cheap-ass games,” such as Munchkin-Fu, or for the super-cheap, games that only required writing your own cards on pieces of paper. Somehow through that flurry, someone discovered Tichu — which can be played with a regular deck of cards plus 4 jokers/other random cards that become special cards that make the game unique (a briefer on gameplay will follow below).

I was immediately hooked. The game usually is played with four people, and there were many, many nights in school that included three friends sitting around a table for hours at a time and having an absolute blast playing this fun strategy game. The more we played, the more we refined our strategies and realized that there are many different ways to play based on your own style.

Anyhow, it’s been five years since those happy times, and until recently the opportunity to play Tichu with other advanced players had become rare. And as already detailed, my current situation in Germany has been somewhat boring . While still lacking most of our stuff (which should be in customs by now) and without internet to appease my entertainment needs, I turned to my iPhone and found something to quell my thirst that was released only last month. While the official Tichu app  ($2.99 on the iTunes app store for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) has a few downfalls, overall it is quite satisfying.

And for all of you scratching your heads and wondering what this Tichu game is all about — the app also comes with a great tutorial feature to guide you through your first hand. If you like card games and want to learn a new one that requires a lot of strategy and has so many nuances in gameplay, this is a great way. Then you can teach your friends!

Click through for the full review.

For the uninitiated, first a very quick summary of the basics of gameplay, so that this doesn’t become a novel: Tichu is a trick-based game in which the entire deck is dealt between 4 players on two teams, with each player aiming to play out their full hand first while also collecting certain cards that are worth points.

Cards are played in tricks similar to those in Poker – a pair, three of a kind, full house, straight, etc. Each round can start with any kind of trick, and the next player can only play with the same kind of trick but higher point-value cards.  If a player thinks they have a particularly stellar hand, they can call “Tichu” before playing their first card, and in doing so bet 100 points that they will be the one to go out first.

The game includes four special cards: the Mah Jong, the Dog, the Phoenix and the Dragon, each which have certain abilities that can help or hurt a team’s chances of winning the round. Generally, the first team to reach 1,000 points wins the game. The app does a good job of explaining how to use each of the special cards and how the game is scored, etc. Or you can turn the tool tips off.

Upon loading up the Tichu app, players of the card game will notice the card faces in the app version are exactly the same as both the actual cards and as other computer- and online-based versions that have circulated over the years. Before you start to play, you have the choice to link to a friend as an opponent or team partner via Bluetooth.

The gameplay is quick and smooth – the player with the Mah Jong goes first and the trick moves around the table, as with any Tichu game. The computer usually doesn’t take too long to “decide” which cards to play, which keeps the game moving at a quick pace. “Tichu” is called pretty frequently on the normal setting, but that also can be changed so that each player has either a more or less aggressive style.

By default, as points are collected those totals are shown at the top of the screen, but that option can be turned off to up the difficulty and make card counting the preferred method. When a player happens upon a bomb — either 4 of a kind or a 5+ card straight flush — they will see a bomb button that can be pressed at any time, killing the hand of their unsuspecting opponents. Upon winning a trick, 3 seconds are counted down before the winner can play their next trick, which also allows time to decide whether to play a bomb.

All these aspects are carried off very intuitively with a touch screen and the ability to drag-and-drop to rearrange your hands. The same app also has iPad-ready graphics and, as I have tested, plays beautifully on either option. And I also have to mention the music — perhaps a little corny, but the traditional Chinese-esque soundtrack that accompanies the game, along with sound effects for the special cards, adds a nice touch.

Now for what could make the game better: first off – a method to connect to play with friends who are not within Bluetooth range would be great. For those times that I only have one person around to play with, the current method works fine. But if I ever were to happen to have more than that, chances are I would rather play a round with them face-to-face than through the app. Also, with most of my friends who play now being located overseas, that makes playing them difficult.

Secondly, a smarter engine also would make me happy. While the game has five different settings for how “smart” you want the computer players to be, they still don’t have the stuff to make for the best optimized games. This is particularly annoying when your partner repeatedly calls Tichu and doesn’t have the hand to back it up, despite your best efforts. Also, while this could be coincidence based on the gameplay I’ve put in up until now, the game seems to equate smarts with bomb collection. Bombs usually are a rarity, not something found in every hand.

However, these critiques aside, I am quite happy with my $2.99 purchase, as it already has provided me with hours and hours of gameplay that I otherwise would have spent doing nothing. Long flights back home already are looking brighter.