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.