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


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