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

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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.

You Da Man!

L’Ombre, from mid-17th century Spain, was the trick-taking game that introduced the idea of bidding.  Players of games like Spades and Bridge know of bidding as declaring the number of tricks you and your partner think you can take with your hand.  At the beginning, though, bidding was a declaration of how you, on your own, planned to win the hand with a majority of tricks.

L’Ombre (or Hombre) is a three-player game, using the 40-card Spanish deck.  In the 1657 description from The Compleat Gamester, he describes the card ranks using French suits – the writer was in England, and pared down a French (now standard) deck by removing the 8, 9, and 10 of each suit.  In my illustrations, I will be using a Spanish pack.  Conversion is straightforward – Sword became Spades, Batons were Clubs, Coins changed to Diamonds, and Cups are now Hearts.  First, an excerpt describing card ranks, and then an illustration to show what he means.

The Ranking of Cards

There are two suits, Black and Red; of the Black there is first the “Spadillo” or Ace of Spades; the “Mallillio” or black Deuce, the “Basto” or Ace of Clubs; the King, the Queen, the Knave, the seven, the fix, the five, four, and three. Of the Red Suit there is the Spadillo, punto, Mallillio, &c.

The Spadillo or Ace of Spades, is always the first Card, and always Trump, and the Basto or Ace of Clubs is always third; of the Black there is 11 Trumps, of the Red 12. The Red Ace enters into the fourth place when it is Trump and it is called Punto then, otherwise only called an Ace.

The least small Cards of the Red are always best, and the most of the Black; except the Deuce and Red Seven, which are called the Mallillio’s and always seāˆ£cond when Trump. The Matadors (or Killing Cards) which are the Spadillo, Mallillio, and Basto are the chief Cards, and when they are all in hand the Others pay for them three of the greater Counters apiece; and with these three for foundation you may count as many Matadors as you have Cards in an interrupted series of Trumps; for all which the others are to pay you one Kounter apiece.

Just roll with the spelling – at least the transcription I found converted f to s where appropriate – the scan read as “the leaft fmall Cardf,” for example.  In the first paragraph, he’s naming special card ranks that change depending on which suit is trump for the hand.  The second paragraph mentions Punto, which is a special rank for a red Ace only when a red suit is trump.

In the third paragraph, he describes the full ranking of the cards, seeming to contradict his earlier definitions, although he’s just including the other suits for the special positions.  He also mentions Counters, which represent the bets in the game.  A small counter is worth 1 bet, while a large one is worth 5.  We’ll get to the betting system in a bit.  Below are the card rankings for each suit, assuming they are trump.  When a suit is not trump, the card in the Mallillio or Punto positions are back in normal numerical order – note that the Ace of the red suits only counts as 1, so it’s next to the 2, not above the king.  Meanwhile, the Mallillio card is the lowest-ranked card in a suit when it is not trump.  A little weird, I know.

The Black Suits, from left to right: Spadillo, Mallillio, Basto, King, Knight, Knave, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. When not either is not trump, their ranks go from King down to 2


The Red Suits, from left to right: Spadillo, Mallillio, Basto, Punto, King, Knight, Knave, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Notice that no matter what suit is trump, the Ace of Swords is always the highest card, and the Ace of Batons is always third highest.  The Mallillio (second highest card) is held by the lowest-ranked card of the current trump suit, so a 2 when it is Swords or Batons, and a 7 when it is Coins or Cups.  The term Matadors refers to these three “super-trump” cards.

You may also have spotted that in the Coins and Cups suits, there is a partial reverse-ranking – that is, after the face cards, the Ace (1) is the highest rank, counting down to 7.  I’m not sure of the reason for this, but I’m sure I’ll dive down that rabbit hole in some future post.

The Deal

Just before the first deal, players put up one of the Greater Counters (worth 5) as the stakes.  If the stakes are empty at the beginning of a hand, each puts in another Great Counter.  Otherwise, the Player to the left of the dealer (the Eldest hand) adds in one Lesser Counter (worth 1) to begin the deal.

The players are each dealt 9 cards, and the remaining 13 are set aside to form what in some games is called a talon or cache.  They are effectively out of play, which makes figuring out what each player is holding more difficult.  Depending on the outcome of the bid, cards may be exchanged (“taken in”) with the talon, blindly from the top of the deck.

The Goal and Bidding

I’m blending these together, because it’s hard to bid on winning a game without knowing how to win in the first place.  Simply put, you want to take the most out of nine tricks if you win the bid.  This means at least 5 tricks won guarantees the game, and you can win with 4 if the other two players end up with a 3/2 split.  A tie with one or both opponents will have you doubling the bet in play, rather than paying out to either opponent.  I’ll explain more about how the payouts work when I detail the end-game results.

The bidding is very simple – the eldest hand has the right to bid game or pass, letting the second player make the same choice, followed by the third.  When you pass, you pay one Lesser Counter to the stakes.  If all three players pass without bidding game, the eldest hand automatically wins the bid.

To bid game allows you to choose the trump suit, and to have the first right of exchange with the talon. Simply discard any number of cards, and draw the same amount from the top of the deck.  Each card taken costs one Lesser Counter, again paid to the stakes.  If you look at the cards you have drawn before naming a trump suit, however, be aware that the other players now have the right to name a suit for you.

After the game player (the Hombre) has exchanged cards, the other two players have the option of doing so as well.  The Hombre can also choose not to exchange cards at all if he feels certain he can win at least 5 tricks, in which case each of the other two players immediately pays him one of the Greater Counters as a side bet.  If he fails in this declaration, he must return their Greater Counter, and pay another one to each of them, so the Hombre stands to gain or lose 10 bets on this gamble, where each of the other players may gain or lose 5 each.

In later games, such as Tresillo, you could outbid a player who already bid game, by declaring a more difficult win, such as a random trump, or not exchanging cards at all.  But in this first bidding game, you either bid to win or you pass.

The Play

The Compleat Gamester mixes recommended strategy and payouts with the gameplay rules in a way that is difficult to follow, so I will be summarizing how to play.  For the curious, though, here is an example:

When one hath a sure Game in his hand, he is to play without taking in, then the others are to give him each one of the great Counters as he is to give them, if he play without taking in a Game that is not sure and loseth it; if you win all the Tricks in your hand or the Voll, they likewise are to give you one Counter apiece, but then you are to declare before the fifth Trick that you intend to play for the Voll, that so they keep their best Cards, which else, seeing you win five Tricks (or the Game) they may carelessly cast away.

The Hombre leads a card to the first trick.  Players are required to follow suit.  There is no requirement to trump if you are out of the led suit, although of course, you may do so.  Leading trumps or Matadors forces other players to use any trumps in their hand, although the three Matador cards can only be forced out by the other Matadors.

After each player has laid down one card, the highest card of the led suit wins the trick, unless it was trumped, in which case the highest trump wins it.  The winner collects their trick and angles them out to keep track of tricks won before leading a card to the next trick.

If any player wins the first 5 tricks, whether they are Hombre or not, they can either collect one Lesser Counter from each other player immediately, or declare that they are playing for the Voll, that is, attempting to win all 9 tricks.  Success is worth an additional Greater Counter from each other player, in addition to the normal winnings.

Endgame and Payouts

After all nine tricks have been played, each player counts up how many tricks have been won, and make payouts based on three possible conditions:

  • Sacado: The Hombre succeeds in having more tricks than any other player.  He wins the stakes, plus one Lesser Counter from each opponent.
  • Codillo: The Hombre has fewer tricks than at least one other player.  The player with the most tricks wins the stakes, plus an equal amount from the Hombre
  • Repuesto: The Hombre is tied with one or both opponents.  He adds up the current total of the stakes and pays that amount in, doubling the initial stakes going into the next game.

In the case of either Sacado or Codillo, the stakes are empty going into the next hand which means each player will ante in one Greater Counter, as explained in the section on the deal.

Game Evolution – Tresillo

Given that I’ve mentioned it several times and it is the version played today, I will also detail rule changes which will allow you to play Tresillo.  It is virtually the same game, except for the counters, the possible bids, and the payout system.

In Tresillo, the counters are referred to as tantos.  Think of them as poker chips.  Each player had their own color, and there were three denominations – a square worth 1 tanto, a circle worth 5 tantos, and a rectangle worth 10 tantos.  Typically players would buy in to have 10 of each unit.  The different colors were so players could distinguish how much they each won or lost, and settle up after the game.

The game made use of two plates, one to hold a 5-tanto piece from each player at the beginning of the game, and one for the actual stakes of the current hand, which passes from dealer to dealer – this is referred to as the plato.  To begin a hand, the dealer first examines the plato.  

  • If it is empty, the dealer takes one of the 5-tanto pieces from the middle of the table, and adds a 1-tanto piece from their personal stockpile.
  • If the plato is not empty, the dealer adds only 1 tanto from their personal stock.

The deal and tricks are played the same, except players do not have to pay out for passing on the bid or exchanging cards.  There are, however, other possible bids, listed below from lowest to highest in rank.  The highest bid becomes the Hombre for the hand.  If there is a tie bid, the last player to give that bid is the Hombre.  Like poker, you can raise the bid as it goes around the table, until the other two players pass.

  • Juego (I play): choose the trump suit, then exchange cards with the talon.
  • Vuelta (turn): flip over the top card of the talon to determine the trump suit, then exchange cards.
  • Solo (alone): choose the trump suit, but exchange no cards

In all of these cases, the opponents may exchange cards with the talon after the Hombre either exchanges or chooses not to.  Typically, they negotiate so that the player with the stronger hand exchanges first.

At the end of the game, there are nine possible situations (the same three outcomes as in L’Ombre, as well as three different situations with the stakes.  Below, I’ll list them as an outline, which sadly looks more complicated than it is in actual play.

  1. First Puesta: The plato was empty before the deal, and there are no open debts
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent
    2. Repuesto: Hombre pays the amount in play into the plato.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
    3. Codillo: Hombre pays the amount in play into the plato and an equal amount to the winning opponent.  Again, the amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
  2. Puesta in the Plato: The plato contains an amount paid in by an unsuccessful Hombre.
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent.
    2. Repuesto: Hombre writes the amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
    3. Codillo: Hombre writes the amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name, and pays an equal amount to the winning player.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
  3. Reserved Puesta: There are debts recorded on the Reserved Puesta sheet.
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus the highest recorded debt from that player.  If the highest recorded debt was from the Hombre, they simply win the contents of the plato, and cross out that debt.
    2. Repuesto: Hombre writes the current amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  The amount in play is the highest debt on the sheet, plus the contents of the plato.
    3. Codillo: Hombre writes the current amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  They also pay an equal amount to the winning opponent.  The amount in play is the highest debt on the sheet, plus the contents of the plato.

There are some bonuses paid to a successful Hombre, as well.  These are paid by the opponents, or to both opponents if the Hombre was unsuccessful in these special bids:

  • Vuelta: 1 tanto extra
  • Solo: 2 tantos extra
  • Estuche: Has all 3 Matadors and wins – 1 tanto extra
  • Primeras: Wins first 5 tricks and does not play the rest – 1 tanto extra
  • Bola (or Voll): Wins all 9 tricks – 8 tantos extra

Closing Thoughts

Between a deck with unfamiliar suits, Spanish game terms, super trumps, reverse card ranking, special rank for the lowest card of the trump suit, two against one gameplay, and the payout system, L’Ombre can seem daunting on the first read-through.  I felt the same way when I initially found Tresillo, which borrows much of the gameplay and adds another layer of complexity to both the bidding and payout system.

I had learned Tresillo first, and though it was fascinating to me, as a lover of trick-taking games, it was complicated enough to explain to a casual player that it was easier to just teach a faster game from the time of El Camino Real, which was the initial inspiration to research these games.  Fortunately, because of those borrowed concepts, when I was slogging through the rules as interpreted by an Englishman writing them up for a compilation, it helped me considerably to fill in the blanks, or follow the rambling strategic suggestions to write up the rules as simply as I could.

It just lends credence to my belief that the broader the range of games you have learned or played, the easier it is to learn unfamiliar ones, as you will recognize concepts and mechanics that carried over as the games themselves evolved.

With that in mind, enjoy the game.  Keep gaming, and keep learning.

 

 

Trick or Treat!

I felt like doing a theme this month, so all my game posts are going to be about trick-taking card games, and their evolution through history.  Trick-taking games are actually my favorite, because they require a skill in making the most of the hand dealt to you, as well as getting a rough idea what other player’s hold.  You must manipulate the other players to lay down cards advantageous to you, while playing cards with as little value as possible when you cannot take the hand.  There are many distinct classifications of trick-taking games, but in broad terms, they boil down to two basic groups:

  • Plain Trick-Taking: What matters is how many hands (tricks) you capture.  Spades is a well-known example, as is Contract Bridge.  Bidding is usually for the number of tricks, and may or may not involve trump suits, partnerships, or a requirement to follow a led suit.
  • Point-Trick-Taking: In this group, individual cards have different values, and the goal is to win a certain number of points, or to capture particular cards.  Hearts could be considered to fall into this group, with each heart being worth negative points.

There are other games with a mechanic that is similar to trick-taking, such as Big Two, which has players trying to beat a led combination of cards by laying down the same combination with higher ranks – the hand may continue around the table more than once, until someone cannot or will not match the combination.  On rules sites such as Pagat.com, these are considered quasi-trick-taking games, as the goal is usually to accumulate or get rid of cards, rather than specifically capture tricks.

Early trick-taking games were simply about capturing tricks, and didn’t require following suit, as is taken for granted today.  Each hand was usually won by whomever played the highest card of the led suit.  Given the simplistic play, it looks like these early games were of minimal interest to historians or game collectors, as I could not find any specific named games.

The earliest game to introduce the idea of cards with greater power than the others was Karnöffel, first mentioned in 1426. In this game, a card is dealt face-up to select a suit, in which the Jack, six, and deuce have special ranks. Interestingly, the objection to this game by the gentry had more to do with the lower-ranked cards having power over the “royalty” than the usual complaints about gambling.

Near the same time, close enough that we don’t know which influenced the other, if at all, the point trick-taking game Trionfi was introduced in Italy, later renamed Tarocco.  This was the Tarot deck, which added a 21-card fifth suit specifically to be able to beat all other suits in tricks.  In French, it translated as Triomphe, in German, Trumpf, and in English, Trump.  The French were enamored of the game, and spread it throughout the rest of Europe.

Pretty much all card games that use a trump suit were influenced by the idea introduced by the Italian Tarot deck in the mid-1400s.  Use as a divination tool didn’t occur until around 1780, when some French scholars saw the Italian-suited cards (still using swords, cups, coins, and batons), and interpreted the symbols as being hieroglyphs, creating occult meaning where none existed.

In the 17th century, Spain introduced a game called L’Ombre, a plain trick-taking game that was the first to incorporate bidding.  The game was immensely popular and spread throughout Europe, mainly the Renegado variant.  When I originally heard of it from Pagat, it was from the page about Tresillo, which is a variant still played in Spain today.  Since I was looking specifically for Spanish games to demonstrate on El Camino Real, it made sense to use Tresillo, since the rules for L’Ombre were supposed to be lost.  Fortunately, I recently found a scan of The Compleat Gamester from 1657, so I’ll be plodding through the rules to write about it in my next post.

Now, bidding wasn’t originally specifying a number of tricks – it was betting whether you could win the game with or without choosing trumps or using extra cards that were set aside during the deal.  The most challenging way to capture a majority of tricks would win the bid, and the other players would cooperatively try to prevent the winner of the bid from achieving their goal.  This was a three player game.  If a fourth player was participating, they would sort of rotate into the game, with one player sitting out each hand.

Meanwhile, in England, a game called Ruff and Honors was evolving into Whist, which is a bit more recognizable to modern card players, as it was widely played in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Whist is a plain trick-taking game in which trumps is determined randomly, and partners score the number of tricks above 6, as well as for holding the Honors (the Ace and face cards of the trump suit).  From there, the idea of bidding based on how many tricks you think you can take was an inevitability.

Stay tuned, readers….next time, I try interpreting a rambling explanation of game rules from the tail end of the Renaissance.

More Fun than War? Burglary!

I remember many afternoons killing time with my younger brother by shuffling up a deck of cards, dealing it all out between us, and playing War.  It was an easy game to play – put out a card each, high number wins.  If they’re equal, deal 3 face down, and one more faceup – high number wins it all.  Still equal?  Another three face down plus one faceup, lather, rinse, repeat.  All the cards you win go on the bottom of your deck.  First player with all the cards wins.

It seems fun at that age, a game of chance, but unfortunately, the game is determined completely by the shuffle.  There are no decisions to be made during play.  And without choice, you have no real stake in the outcome.

So, as an alternative game with a similar feel, allow me to present Casita Robada (“Stealing Bundles”), from Argentina.  In Italy, this game is called Rubamazzo.  English-speaking countries call it Steal the Old Man’s Bundle, or Stealing Piles.  As you might guess, stealing what your opponent has won is part of this game.

Casita Robada is from the family of card games known as fishing games.  Oddly enough, I don’t think Go Fish falls in this family.  Fishing games have a selection of cards on the table, which you capture in some fashion with a card from your hand, sometimes with math, but usually by matching.  Most fishing games are won by having the most captured cards after one run through the deck, but obviously, it varies from game to game.

You can play this game with 2-4 players, and with pretty much any card deck, though I initially discovered it while researching games to play with the Spanish pack.  Deal 4 cards to each player, and then 4 more cards faceup in the middle of the table.

On your turn, play a card from your hand faceup into the cards in the middle.  If you match ranks with any of the cards there, you capture them.  Take your card and all matching cards, and put them in a faceup pile in front of you, only the top card showing.  If you didn’t match anything, your card stays in the middle.  In either case play then passes to the next player.  After each player has used their 4 cards, deal them each 4 more (but not to the middle), and play continues.

“Okay, but where’s the stealing?  You promised me looting,” you may be saying.  Here’s where having that faceup pile of captured cards matters.  If the card you play matches the top card of someone’s pile, then instead of taking cards from the middle, you capture that player’s entire pile.  Take your card and their stack, and place it on top of your own pile.

In this example, I can play the 10 to the table, capturing nothing. Or, play the 6 and capture the 6 from the table, and put them both on top of my pile. Finally, if I play the 5, I capture my opponent’s entire pile and put it on top of my own.

 

Once all cards have been played, any remaining cards in the center go to the last player who made a match.  Players then count up their stacks, and whoever has the most cards wins.

Playable Apps

Rubamazzo for iOS

Rubamazzo for Android