Gaming for the Holidays

Whew!  November has been a whirlwind month for me!  Between a 4-day camping trip, a 4-day convention teaching board games, and then Thanksgiving itself, I have not made the time to sit down and write for my, what, 6 or 7 readers?

Anyway, my family was up for Thanksgiving, and I spent much of that time playing modern board games with them, since I had recently acquired several that I was eager to try out.  However, it got me to thinking about family gatherings and various festivals, and the gameplay that often goes with them.  As a result, I felt that would be an interesting theme to explore during this holiday season.

As a first example, one of my supervisors asked my advice on a “team” game to play during the office Christmas party.  Normally, this would be a fairly easy task, as I own several cooperative games that are easy enough even for people who don’t normally play board games.  However, most of the production staff members are Vietnamese, and many only speak a little English, so explaining rules to a game they don’t know would be very difficult.

Fortunately, I knew about a game traditionally played during Têt (New Year) in Vietnam.  We showed a picture of the game to the production staff supervisor, and she immediately got excited and started talking about it with the others, so it looks like we have that activity covered.

Bâo cua cá cop (squash-crab-fish-tiger) is a simple gambling game played with three six-sided dice with pictures on the faces, and a mat showing those faces.

Although oddly, no tiger – except there is – the shrimp is a tiger prawn.

The game is very straightforward.  Players place bets on the mat for what face they think will appear on  each die face.  For each time that face appears, they win their bet back.  In the example above, a bet on the rooster would have earned twice the amount, so a bet of 1 would get back 3 (the original bet, plus two more).  Crab would also have won, but only doubled their original bet.  Three dice would earn three times the bet.

Typically, the game has many players at once, so that there are sufficient losers each throw to pay the winners.  We plan to play with candy at the office.

Variations on this game include Hoo Hey How in China, Crown and Anchor in Britain, and Langur Burja in Nepal.

Stay with me as I poke around the world for other traditional holiday games.

Playable Apps

Bau Cua on iOS

Bau Cua on Android

Warning – neither of these apps is in English.


Gamester Poetry

Billiards from Spain at first deriv’d its Name,

Both an ingenious, and a cleanly Game.

One Gamester leads (the Table green as Grass)

And each like Warriers strive to gain the Pass,

But in the contest e’er the Pass be won,

Hazzards are many into which they run.

Thus while we play on this Terrestrial Stage,

Nothing but Hazzard doth attend each age.

Next are Hazzards play’d another way,

By Box and Dice; ’tis Hazzard is the Play

The Bully-Rock with mangy Fist, and Pox,

Fustles some out, and then takes up the Box.

He throws the Main, and crys, who comes at Seven

Thus with a dry Fist nicks it with Eleven.

If out, he raps out Oaths I dare not tell,

Hot, piping out, and newly come from Hell.

Old Nick o’er-hearing, by a Palming-trick

Secures the Gamester thus the Nicker’s nickt.

Now t’Irish, or Back-Gammoners we come,

Who with their Money, with their Men safe home;

But as in War, so in this subtle Play,

The stragling Men are ta’en up by the way.

By entring then, one reinforceth more,

It may be lost, as those before.

By Topping, Knapping, and foul Play some Win;

But those are loosers, who so gain by sin.

After these three, the Cock-pit claims a Name;

A sport gentile, and call’d a Royal Game.

Now see the Gallants crow’d about the Pit,

And most are stockt with Money more than Wit;

Else sure they would not, with so great a stir,

Lay Ten to One on a Cock’s faithless Spur.

Lastly, observe the women with what Grace,

They sit, and look their Partners in the Face.

Who from their Eyes shoot Cupid’s fiery Darts;

Thus make them lose at once their Game and Hearts.

Their white Soft Hands, (when e’er the Cards they Cut)

Make the Men wish to change the Game to Putt.

The Women knew their thoughts, then cry’d Enough,

Let’s leave off Whist, and go to Putt, or Ruff.

Ladies, don’t trust your Secrets in that Hand,

Who can’t their own (to their great grief) command.

For this I will assure you, if you do,

In time you’ll lose your Ruff and Honour too.

— Charles Cotton – The Compleat Gamester, Third Edition (1709), describing the frontspiece

A Most Trionfi Adventure

Boooo, Happy Halloween, everyone!  Today, we’re finally going to tackle the reason the Tarot deck was invented, the game of Trionfi….sort of.  The first Tarot deck was commissioned around 1425, by Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milano, as part of a Triumph (trionfo) celebration for the birth of his first child, even if it was by his mistress.  Up until then, he had believed himself unable to have children.

He had recently been visited by the Greek emperor for aid against the Ottoman Empire, and it is believed he developed an interest in the greek pantheon of gods at that time.  So he made it a theme of this deck of cards.  The artist used the story of Apollo and Daphne as the core of this theme, which is interesting for another reason.  Daphne is mainly known for having been stalked by Apollo, because he’d had an argument with Eros, the god of love.  Eros made Apollo love Daphne, but Daphne hate Apollo, so she fled his attempts at seduction.  He chased her, and just as he was about to catch her, Daphne pleaded for her father to help, and she was transformed into a laurel tree.  Such was his obsession, though, that Apollo vowed to wear her always in his hair, which is why he is pictured with laurel branches as a sort of crown.  He also used his powers of eternal youth to make the tree evergreen.

What is relevant, though, is that among Apollo’s titles, he is the god of oracles.  Despite the fact that the tarot deck would not be used for divination until around 300 years later, this is a fascinating coincidence.

Now, the first deck was basically for show, and only had 16 of the trump suit (what we know today as the major arcana).  From the spotty records, it seems the rules were unpolished and not finalized with the full 78-card deck until a few years later.  Trionfi’s exact original rules have sadly been lost, but while tarot games have expanded to a wide variety of different ones, the closest modern equivalent to the original ruleset is found in Bolognese Tarot, also known as Ottocento.

A true Bolognese deck is tricky to find, as the trump suit is numbered a bit differently.  There are four cards between the begato (the 1 of trumps, or the magician) and the 5.  These are called the four Moors and are un-numbered.  They are all considered to have the same rank.  The top 4 cards are un-numbered, as well (Angel, World, Sun, and Moon, in rank from high to low).  The best guessed reason for the difference in numbering is that the ranks were chosen before the cards had numbers, so when the numbering was introduced, they shifted to keep 13 associated with the Death card.  I also notice that in my deck, the World is numbered 21, while the Angel is 20.

Since I was unable to acquire a Bolognese deck, I will be using a modern Italian Tarocco deck, which is numbered like a standard tarot deck.  Since there will be some minor conversions, I will go over the card ranks when using a normal deck.  The description on recommends ranking based on the symbols, which would put the Angel (20) above the World (21), among others.  This is one of those instances where I’m more concerned with the teachability of the game, so I’m minimizing changes in card ranks by number.

The Cards

First, the non-trump suits are shortened, with the cards numbered 2-5 removed.  In Swords and Batons, the ranking is what we would be normally used to, while in Cups and Coins, the ranks are partially reversed, as shown below (from high to low):

Swords, high to low


  • Swords & Batons: King, Queen, Knight, Page, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, Ace
  • Cups & Coins: King, Queen, Knight, Page, Ace, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Cups, high to low


Trumps are ranked in normal card order from high to low, except that the 2, 3, 4 & 5 are of equal rank, as these used to be the four Moors.  If more than one is played to a trick, and no higher trump is played to beat them, then the last one played wins (for example, if the 2 is played after the 5, the 2 wins the trick).

The Matto, also known as the Fool, or Excuse, has no rank.  Its main use is to play one time to avoid the requirement to follow suit, as well as one if the wild cards in bonus combinations.

The top two trumps (21 &20), the begato (1), and matto (excuse) together make up the Tarocchi, and are worth more points than the other trumps.

Above, the Tarocchi. Below, the 4 Moors, which are all of equal rank.


Ottocento is a point-trick partnership game, in which the goal for each team is to capture the most card points.  There are also bonus points for certain combinations of cards, which can be Declared before the first trick from your hand, or scored at the end based on tricks you captured.  The basic values are:

  • Tarocchi (21, 20, 1 of trumps, and the Matto): 5 points
  • Kings: 5 points
  • Queens: 4 points
  • Knights: 3 points
  • Pages: 2 points
  • All Other Cards: 1 point
  • Winning the Last Trick: 6 points

Cards are counted together in pairs, and 1 point is deducted from each pair (this basically makes each card worth half a point less, which we’ve seen before).

Game Play

After the shuffle and cut, each player is dealt 3 packets of cards in sets of 5, for a total of 15.  Dealing this way gives the dealer 7 cards on the last pass.  Everyone picks up their cards, and the dealer discards 2, to reduce their hand to the same 15 as everyone else.  These cards will count towards the tricks won by the dealer and their partner (unless the other team wins every trick, in which case, they also get these last 2 cards).  The discards may not be any of the 5-point cards (Tarocchi and Kings).

After the deal, the players may score bonus points by declaring sequences and/or cricche (3 or 4 cards of a kind) in their hands.  Only certain cards qualify for these bonuses, and for some of them, the begato and matto may be used as wild cards.  Since combinations will be looked at for scoring again after all the tricks are played, I will go into them in detail in the Scoring section.  The dealer may not include their discards in the declarations.

By now, you know the drill.  Any card may be led, and players must follow suit if possible.  In this game, as is common in tarot games, if you cannot follow suit, you must trump if you can, although Ottocento does not require you to beat a previous trump.  The trick is won by the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led.  The first trick is led by the eldest hand, and the winner of each trick leads to the next one.

As in many tarot games, the matto is an exception.  It may be played in place of an otherwise required card, avoiding the requirement to follow suit.  It is retained by the player who used it, but they must give a single-point card from their captures in its place.  If they have not yet taken a trick, the matto may be left face-up as a reminder to give a card later.  If the player has not won a trick by the end of the hand, then the matto is lost.


In Ottocento, there are 3 signals that are legal to give your partner, but only when leading to a trick.

  • Toss a card in the air (volo): “This is my last card in this suit.”
  • Strike the table with your first (besso): “Please play your highest card.  If you win, play the same suit.”
  • Scrape the card on the table (striscio): Please lead trumps.

It is forbidden to use any other signals (although cheating players back then had lots more of them).


After the last trick is played, each team’s scores are calculated in the following order (remember, declarations were scored before the first trick)

  1. Lay out your team’s cards, sorted by rank, in a grid.  This makes checking for bonus points easier.
  2. Score for cricche, and remember to double the points if 3 or more different cricche are scored by a single side.
  3. Score for sequences, again remembering to double the points if 3 or more sequences are scored by one side.
  4. Score the card points (the easiest way to do this is to put a 1-point card with any of higher rank, so you can score them as 5, 4, 3, or 2.  Count the remaining single-point cards in pairs, at 1 point per pair.
  5. Finally, add 6 points for winning the last trick.


These are when you have 3 or 4 of a kind of the higher-value cards.  No wild cards are used when counting cricche.  If one team score 3 different cricche at the end of the game, the points are doubled.  If scoring for declarations, all three must be by the same player.

Cards  Any 3  All 4 
Tarocchi   18  36
 Kings  17  34
Queens   14  28
Knights   13  26
Pages   12  24


A sequence is a group of 3 or more cards of the following specific sets.  They score 10 points for the first 3 cards, plus 5 points for each additional card.  The begato and matto are used as wild cards to fill in sequences, and may be used in all sequences, so they are extremely valuable.  In the list below, when I say a card must be real, that means a wild may not be substituted for it.  The valid sequences are:

  • Trump: the 21 (must be real), and at least two of the next 3 trumps, at least one of which must be real.  Wild cards may only be used once in a trump sequence to fill gaps, and two wilds in a row end the sequence.
  • Suit: the King (real), and at least 2 of the other court cards in suit (Queen, Knight, Page), at least one of which must be real.  Once this set is valid, you may also add the Ace of the suit.
  • Moors: at least 3 of the Moors (2-5 of trumps), and at least 2 of them must be real.
  • Aces: at least 3 Aces, and at least 2 of them must be real.

My scoring on this hand is absurd, but that’s what happens when I play all 4 hands for a picture.  Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Cricche: I had 3 of a kind in the Tarocchi, the Queens, Knights, and Pages.  That’s (18+14+13+12)x2 = 114.
  2. Sequences: I had the full suit sequence of Swords (20 points, plus the begato for an extra 5).  Then two of the 4 Moors and the begato to make it the Moors sequence for 10.  Finally, thanks to pulling trumps from everyone, I had from 21 all the way down to 6 (75 points, plus a bonus 5 from the begato).  This makes it (25+10+80)x2 = 230.
  3. We won the last trick for 6 points.
  4. In card points, we had a total of 57 points.
  5. Grand Total: (114+230+6+57) = 407 points.

The game is over when one team reaches at least 800 points.  High score wins.


Juego del Pato!

I made and taught on a life-sized Juego de la Oca board for the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site’s El Camino Real festival.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t find plastic geese for me, so we used ducks instead.  Since we let kids just walk up and join in, the turn order got confusing.   Then again, I don’t think they cared as long as they were able to toss the inflatable dice into the wind, because then they got to watch the adults chase them down to find out what the roll was.