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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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