Evolution of Card Suits

One of the fun things about exploring international card games is discovering different decks.  But how and why did the suits end up the way they are today?  Why does my replica 16th century German deck nothave the same suits the modern one does?  And what does hunting have to do with it?

Conveniently, smarter and more well-read people than I have done that research, so here’s a link!

History of Playing Cards

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French Tarot

There are several games played with tarot cards throughout Europe, and in a later article, I’ll write about the very first one.  It’s surprisingly complex, however, and I figured I’d start with something a little simpler.  Having just learned about the bidding and gameplay of L’Ombre, it will also seem familiar.

French Tarot is playable by 3-5 players, in which one player, after winning the bid, plays to capture a required number of card points, while the other players cooperatively try to foil the attempt.  In each hand, all points are either won or lost by the taker, the player who wins the bid.  This is similar to the role of Hombre in L’Ombre or Tresillo.  But before we get to the scoring, let’s go over the cards.

The Deck

Obviously, French Tarot is typically played with the 78-card French-suited tarot deck, although almost any tarot deck can be used.  This is good, because a French-suited deck is difficult to find in the US.  As a reminder, Swords=Spades, Batons=Clubs, Coins=Diamonds, and Cups=Hearts.  Each suit consists of 14 cards – Ace (lowest) through 10, Valet, Knight, Queen, and King.  The trump suit is what we know today as the Major Arcana – it contains 21 numbered cards.  Finally, there is the Fool/Excuse card, which is essentially the lowest-ranked card in the game – it cannot win a trick at all, except for the extremely rare case that it is led to the last one after a team has won all other tricks.

An important subset of cards is called the bouts – this consists of the Fool, the 1 of Trumps (Magician), and the 21 of Trumps (World).  Capturing these specific cards determines the minimum number of points required to win if you are the taker.

I will cover scoring in detail later, but for now, know that the Bouts and Kings are worth 4.5 points, Queens are 3.5, Knights are 2.5, Valets are 1.5, and everything else is worth half a point.  The point values seem strange, but they came about due to how points in many tarot games used to be counted – basically they started from 4 and went down to 1 for the valet, and the rest were “empty cards,” worth 0.  You would score 1 point for each trick, then add up the points of cards in that trick.  Since this changed with the number of players, the French opted to count in pairs, consistently, and allow half-points for games where a player took an odd number of cards.  Honestly, it’s still kinda weird to me, but I just go with it.

The Deal

Officially, the deal and play are both counter-clockwise, but in a casual game, this is not important, so you may deal and play in the direction your group is most comfortable with.  Deal cards to the players in groups depending on the number of players:

  • 3 Players: 24 cards each, dealt in groups of 4
  • 4 Players: 18 cards each, dealt in groups of 3
  • 5 Players: 15 cards each, dealt in groups of 3

During the deal, 6 cards are dealt singly to a separate pile called the chien (the dog).  These can be dealt at any time except for the first 3 or last 3 cards of the deal.  With 5 players, the chien is only 3 cards.

If, after the deal, a player has only the 1 of trumps and neither the excuse nor any other trump, they can declare a cancelled hand, and the cards are redealt.

The Bids

Much like Tresillo, the bidding in French Tarot is a declaration that you can win the hand against everyone else, although in this case, you are going for card points, rather than a number of tricks.  Starting with the first hand dealt, players have one chance to either bid or pass.  The possible bids from lowest to highest, and how a winner with that bid proceeds is detailed below:

  • Petite (Small) or Prise (Take): The taker reveals the chien for the table to see, then takes them into their hand.  Next, they discard 6 (or 3, with 5 players) cards face down to rebuild the chien.  The chien cards count toward their points to win.  These discards may not include Trumps, Kings, or the Excuse.  If this rule cannot be obeyed to to an extremely lucky deal, the discarded Trump, King, or Excuse must be shown to the other players as it goes into the chien.
  • Garde (Guard): Functionally identical to Petite, although it doubles the stakes of the game (detailed under scoring)
  • Garde sans le chien (Guard without the dog): Nobody looks at the chien, but the card points count towards the taker’s score to win.
  • Garde contre le chien (Guard against the dog): Nobody looks at the chien, and the card points do not help the taker.

In teaching this game, the most common confusion with the bidding is having to unlearn the modern way of outbidding a quantity, whether it is number of tricks or points.  The first person to bid is basically saying, “I have a good enough hand to win the game.”  Someone who outbids them is essentially saying, “Oh yeah?  Well I think I can win the game better than you!”  Their bid is to accomplish the same thing, but with more difficult restrictions, like tying one hand behind your back in a fight.

Think of it like that, without the connotations of “bidding,” and it makes a lot more sense.

The Partner (only with 5 players)

One unique thing about the five-player version of the game is that the taker has a partner, rather than working alone against all the other players.  This is likely due to the greater number of cards working against the taker.

After the discard, but before beginning play, the taker names a King of a suit.  The player holding that king is now the taker’s partner, and their tricks will count together for determining the taker’s success.  If nobody has the named king, the taker names the Queen of a suit, and so on.

What intrigued me, though, is that the partner is secret for much of the game.  Their identity is not revealed to anyone until they actually play the named king in a trick.  This allows them to surreptitiously “lose” higher-point cards to the taker for a while.  This is especially cool to me, considering the “recent” game mechanic of having a hidden traitor in otherwise cooperative games, which are also thought to be a modern invention.

The Play

The player to the dealer’s right (or left, if you dealt clockwise) begins by leading a card to the first trick.  In the order dealt, players must then play a card of the same suit if they can.  If not, they must play a trump card if they have one, and if the trick has already been trumped, they must play a higher trump. If the player does not have a higher trump, they must still play a trump, or any card if they have no trumps left either.

After all players have played a card, the trick is won by the player with the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led, if no trumps were played.  The winner claims the cards and leads to the next trick.

The Fool/Excuse card may be played to any trick to excuse the player from having to follow suit, even if they have another card they could play.  The Fool cannot win a trick, and when the trick is claimed, the player who played the Fool keeps it, giving the winning player any half-point card from their won tricks instead.  You can lead the Fool to a trick, in which case the second player determines the suit led with any card they chose to play.

There are special rules if the Fool is played in the last trick, however.  In the last trick, the Fool is claimed by the winner of the trick.  And in extraordinarily rare games, if the taker’s team or the opponent team has won every trick so far and leads the fool to the final trick, this is the only way the Fool can win a trick.

Bonuses

I’m covering bonus points before the main score, because they do not count toward the card points needed to win the hand.  They may be won or lost by the taker in addition to what they may gain or lose for the hand.

Poignée (Handle)

This is a bonus for declaring a certain number of trumps held before playing a card to the first trick.  It varies according to the number of players, which I will show as (3-#/4-#/5-#) next to the different bonus amounts.

  • Single Poignée: 20 points (3-13/4-10/5-8)
  • Double Poignée: 30 points (3-15/4-13/5-10)
  • Triple Poignée: 40 points (3-18/4-15/5-13)

Petit au Bout (Small at the End)

This is a 10-point bonus for playing the 1 of Trumps in the last trick.  If winning all the tricks and taking the last one with the Fool, petit au bout is scored by playing the 1 of Trumps in the next-to-last trick.  The points are won by the team that takes the last trick.  That is, if the taker doesn’t win this trick, they deduct 10 points during scoring.  This bonus is also multiplied based on the bid – see below.

Chelem (Slam)

If one side wins all the tricks, they score for chelem.  The amount depends on whether it was announced in advance.

  • Chelem Annoncé: The team (usually the taker, since I can’t imagine bidding without being able to take at least one trick) announces chelem before the first play, and leads to the first trick.  If successful, the bonus is 400 points.  Failure is -200 points.
  • Chelem non annoncé: The team wins all the tricks without announcing it.  The bonus is 200 points.

Scoring

After the last trick, the taker (together with their partner, in 5-player games) adds up their total card points, including those in the chien, unless they bid Garde Contre le Chien.  I found it easiest to pair bouts and face cards with half-point cards to just round up.  In games with an odd number of cards, the half point is rounded up if the taker wins, and down if they lose.  Once again, remember that the bouts are the Fool, the 1 of Trumps, and the 21 of Trumps.  Card values are:

  • Bouts and Kings: 4.5 points
  • Queens: 3.5 points
  • Knights: 2.5 points
  • Valets: 1.5 points
  • All other cards: 0.5 points

As mentioned earlier, the bouts are extremely important to win in tricks, as they are not only worth 4.5 points each, but they determine the total number of card points the taker needs in order to win their bid.  The required amounts are:

  • 3 Bouts: 36 card points
  • 2 Bouts: 41 card points
  • 1 Bout: 51 card points
  • 0 Bouts: 56 card points

The scored points are calculated as follows, from the perspective of the taker:

(Base score x bid multiplier) + Poignée + Chelem

The Base Score has several components, added together:

  • 25 for the game
  • Plus or minus the difference between card points needed by the taker, and those they actually won.  For example:
    • If 31 card points were taken with 2 bouts, the difference is -10 points.
    • If 51 card points were taken with 3 bouts, the difference if +15 points.
  • Plus or minus the Petit au Bout bonus

Take that total, and multiply it based on what the taker bid, even if they didn’t succeed:

  • Petite (x1)
  • Garde (x2)
  • Garde sans le chien (x4)
  • Garde contre le chien (x6)

Scorekeeping is based on a payment system.  It’s pretty straightforward, but a little non-intuitive at first.

For example, if the taker wins with a calculated score of 80 points in a 4-player game, the recorded score on the pad is 240.  This is because each other player “pays” the 80 points.  So if in this case, the taker was player A, they would have 240 points, and each other player would have -80 points.  Conversely, if the taker lost, but the score was calculated at 80, then player A would have a recorded score of -240, and the others would each have been “paid” 80 points.

A detailed example of the scoring over several hands can be found on Pagat.com’s rules page for French Tarot.

Closing Thoughts

This was the first Tarot game I learned to play, as well as the first time I researched rules for a game from history.  My wife and I were going with a third to a renaissance festival that was themed around the Three Musketeers.  I thought it would be neat to learn a game from that time period, and was amazed to discover rules for a historically accurate card game played with a tarot deck, of all things.  Even better, it only needed 3 players!

So there we were, in costume, playing with original artwork tarot cards in their tavern, and nobody understood what we were doing.  It was a delicious little secret to be playing something from the right time period.

Much later, I had the good fortune to play this with a full complement of 5 players, three of which hadn’t played any trick-taking games before, not even Spades or Hearts.  Since I only had an Italian deck numbered in Roman numerals, it took them a bit to get the hang of it, but by the second hand, they understood enough to have confidence to raise the bid, and teach yet another new player how to follow suit and trump.

Granted, we kept it simple and just added up the card points to determine whether the bid was won or lost, as they weren’t planning to play long enough to keep score, but the fact remained that once you start playing, the game is pretty easy to understand.  More astounding, though, was that at a board game club meet-up, I drew 4 people away from modern games with shiny bits and complex play to join me in a humble little card game from 400 years ago.

And that makes all the research worthwhile.

Playable Apps

French Tarot on iOS -Allows for a modern miseré house rule, in which a player can declare that they have no Trump or Court cards, scoring 30 points (-10 to all other players)

French Tarot on Android

And You Thought I Only Meant Card Games

When someone mentions trick-taking games, they almost always mean card games.  But of course, almost is the key word there.  Today, we’re going to be playing with dominos, looking into the official domino game of my home state that I never heard of before digging into historic games.

Texas 42 may not have a sordid past, but it does have a murky one.  There are at least two different stories of how it was invented.  The one most commonly passed around is from a 1985 newspaper article, which cited an interview from 1927 with William Thomas.  He claims to have co-invented the game with a friend of his when he was 12, after they were caught playing cards in the hayloft of a barn in Garland (then called Trappe Spring) around 1887.  Their town was devout Baptist, and they were punished for sinful card playing, but dominos were allowed, so they figured out a way to play cards, specifically trick-taking, with dominos.

The other version is from an article in 1915, which states the game was invented in Mineral Wells, by a brakeman who worked on the Santa Fe rail line, while he was on vacation, and bored in his hotel room. The paper only gave his last name, Giescke, and explained that he’d been musing over the properties of dominos.  Games played with multiples of 5 were pretty popular, and he noticed that between the 1-4, 2-3, 5-0, 5-5, and 6-4 that there were a total of 35 points in a double-six set.  Since there were also 28 total dominos, a 4-player partnership trick-taking game would have 7 tricks.  Add 35 and 7 together, and you get a total of 42 points, which is how he came up with the name.

The process described in the second story sounds more feasible from a game-design perspective, but keep in mind that both stories were written after the game was incredibly popular.  Since Texas is known for tall tales, it’s not unreasonable to think that people would claim to be the inventor of a well-known game, since these things are extremely difficult to prove when the game is mainly passed around through word of mouth.

Regardless, Texas 42 is a 4-player partnership point-trick game.  The goal is to bid how many points you will take, then earn “marks” for reaching your bid.  If you fail to make your bid, the opposing team scores the marks you would have earned.  These marks, oddly enough, are drawn on a score-pad to form the word ALL, with each mark earning one line segment, like Hangman.  Counting it up, it looks like 7 marks wins the game.

Domino “Suits”

In a standard set of double-six dominos, there are 28 tiles, and 7 “suits.” That is, the numbers 0-6 on either side of the domino determine the tile suit.  In Texas 42, the double of each suit is the highest-ranking domino, followed in descending order by the rest of the tiles sharing the same suit number.

This by itself is intuitive enough, but the problem that comes to mind is how do you decide which suit a tile is when you play it?  The official ruling is that when a non-trump tile is led to a trick, it is the suit of whatever the higher number is.

As an extreme example, let’s imagine that the suit of 3s is trump for the hand.  You have the lead, and you lead with the 0-6, under the mistaken belief that you just played the six of the zero suit, just one tile less than the double-blank.  Unfortunately, you immediately lose the domino to the 1-6, because you actually played the zero tile of the sixes suit, the lowest ranked tile if the suit.  Of course, then they lose it to the 0-3, and threes are the trump suit.  Later in the same hand, someone leads the 3-5.  Because threes are trump, it counts as being a member of the threes suit, so it actually is the five of threes.

Clear as mud?  Good, me too.  The computer stomped me for like half an hour before I caught on how to lead properly.  I’m also terrible at choosing the appropriate bid for the hand, even though I understand the rules.  Just because you know the game well enough to teach it, it does not mean you are actually skilled at playing it.

To sum it up:

  • Trump Suit: Double high, followed by the six of that suit down to blank, always
  • Non-Trump Suit, When Led: Counts as a member of the higher suit number on the tile
  • Non-Trump Suit, Following Led Suit: Ranking within the led suit is still double high, followed by the six down to the zero.  So leading a 2-4 sets the trick suit to fours, and the 5-4 is still a member of the fours suit during the trick.

The Deal and Bidding

The dealer for the hand shuffles the tiles by “washing” (mixing) them face-down on the table, and each player receives 7 dominos.  The dealer’s opposing team get to draw first, followed by the dealer’s partner, and finally the dealer.  Then each player, starting with the dealer’s left, gets one bid for points or marks.

Bids are a declaration of how many points you think you can take during the game, or how many marks you are willing to risk if you think you can take all the tricks.  30 points is the lowest bid, all 42 points is 1 mark, and the opening bid is maxed out at 2 marks, although the bid itself can go higher.  If all 4 players pass, their hands are turned in, and the next dealer shuffles.

Trying for a bid of 30, declaring ones as trump

 

The Play

Tricks won by me (left) and my partner, on order from bottom to top, left to right, with the first domino being the tile led, and all suits at the bottom: won by 1-2 (11), won by 1-3 (6), won by 1-6 (1), won by 1-1 (6), won by 3-6 (1), won by 1-5 (6). Our final score is 31, so we made the bid and gain 1 mark.

Normally, after winning the bid, the declarer declares the trump suit and leads to the first trick.  The led suit must be followed, if possible, or may be trumped if you have none of the led suit.  Remember, trumps belong to the trump suit and nothing else.  For example, if twos are trump, and someone leads the 4-6, and you have both the 3-6 and 2-6 in your hand, you must lose the 3-6 to follow suit.  Tricks are taken by the highest-ranked domino of the suit led, or the highest trump.

The declarer may also call no trumps, or “follow me.”  This means there is no trump suit for the hand, and the suit for the trick is always determined by the higher side of the domino led.  Remember, the double of each suit counts as the highest tile in that suit.

Tricks remain face up and are displayed next to the winning player in sets of 4, presumably to check for mistakes in who won the trick.  If playing for all 42 points, these may be stacked to only show the 8 dominos of the last two tricks taken.

Special Contracts

However, there are a couple of special contracts the declarer can attempt instead.  During the bidding, they just bid the appropriate number of marks, and announce the contract before beginning play.

  • Nello: If every player before them has passed, the declarer may bid 1 or 2 marks and go Nello instead of passing and going to the next hand.  This bid is to attempt losing every trick.  The declarer’s partner turns down their dominos and is out of play for the hand, making it a 3-hand game.  There are no trumps, and doubles are a separate suit, from 6-6 down to 0-0.  A led domino counts as a member of the higher-numbered suit, as usual, and a double may not be played to the trick unless no other dominos of the led suit are in hand.  In this bid, the point tiles do not matter, only successfully losing all the tricks.
  • Plunge: The declarer must hold at least 4 doubles to choose this contract, and must have bid al least 4 marks (this is the only way an opening bid can be higher than 2 marks), or 5, if the bid was already 4 before their turn to bid.  The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, with no hints from the declarer.  They must then win all 7 tricks.

Variations of Play

In some games, there are a few other trump options, or differences in the contracts.  These are all optional rules, and should be agreed on by all players before beginning the game.

Follow Me (no trumps) declarations may choose whether doubles count as high or low within their suit.

Doubles Trump is a declaration that the doubles themselves are a trump suit, and no longer count as a member of their own suit.  This means that if a double is led, players must play a double to follow suit, or discard any tile if they have no doubles.

Nello players may choose how doubles are treated during their attempt.

  • Doubles high: Doubles are the highest tile in their suit
  • Doubles low: Doubles are the lowest tile in their suit
  • Doubles take doubles: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 6-6 down to 0-0, and not a member of their numbered suit.  This is the normal way Nello is played.
  • Doubles take doubles, inverted: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 0-0 down to 6-6.

Splash is similar to a Plunge bid, but only requires 3 doubles, and a bid of 2 marks.  The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, as usual, but they also lead to the first trick.  Again, all 7 tricks are required to win.

Sevens is another special contract in which the point tiles do not matter.  A trick is won by a domino whose pips total is closest to 7.  If more than one tile is tied, the first one played wins the trick.

Playable Apps

Texas 42 on iOS

Texas 42 on Android

Okay, I’m old…I was trying to figure out a Baba Looey joke for the title, but I doubt people would remember Quick-Draw McGraw’s burro sidekick.  

Anyway, this is about a Spanish card game that is a blend of trick-taking and card-shedding.  That is, the goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards, but the mechanic is similar to trick-taking games.  It’s a children’s game, which introduces the concept of following suit, and the titular B-U-R-R-O is how you track the five penalty points before ending the game.  The winner will be the player with the least letters spelling burro.

Up to 8 players can play, usually with a 48-card deck (which includes the 8 and 9 of each suit), although the more common 40-card deck can be used, as well. Cards are ranked King high down to Ace low.  Deal each player 4 cards, and set the rest aside as a draw pile.

The first player leads a card to a trick, and players must follow suit.  If they cannot, they must draw cards until they have a card of the led suit to play.  If the draw pile runs out, the player simply passes.  Tricks are won by the highest card of the led suit, and that player leads a card to the next trick.

Players who run out of cards drop out of play, and the last player holding cards receives a penalty point, one more letter toward spelling burro.  Once someone has spelled the complete word, the player with the least points wins the game.  If there is a tie, the tied players may play another hand to determine the winner.

Portuguese Variant

In Portugal, the 40-card deck is used, and gameplay is the same except that the deal is 5 cards, and players may continue to draw even after finding a card of the suit led.  In Burro Deitado, the stock is face-down as normal, but there is another game, Burro em Pé, in which the stock is divided in two piles, and they are balanced against each other in the shape of an A.  If a player knocks over the stock while drawing, they are required to pick up the entire pile.