The sheer variety of tarot cards on the market is astonishing, with occult publishers issuing as many as a dozen or so new designs every. However, for the most part, these packs should not concern you as they have been designed with divination in mind, not card play. The rules for the games as given here have assumed a fairly common and familiar design best known as the Tarot de Marseille but other packs out there may also be suitable, so what follows is a brief overview of some of the cards I have found worth considering.
Tarot de Marseille
This pattern of cards comes in many flavours and there are two that I would recommend. Availability and pricing can vary, so do shop around.
In Italy, the Tarocco Piedmontese is still in use for playing games and packs are produced by at least three quality manufacturers - my preference of these, is for that made by Modiano, which is very robust and will last you a long time. The options for purchasing this pack are limited in the UK and so prices can vary from about £10 to £40. Personally, I wouldn’t want to spend much more than £20 but it is one of my favourite packs and it will serve you well.
Less durable but perhaps more attractive, is a modern re-colouring published by Fournier, the price of which can vary dramatically but if you shop around, you shouldn’t have to pay more than about £10 - which I consider very reasonable. This is probably your best option in the UK and it is an excellent pack to learn with due to a couple of nice features. First of all, Fournier packs are all of a very comfortable size. Secondly, the background to the regular suits have been given different colours - many new players find they confuse some Swords and Batons and this colour coding helps to avoid that.
Another pack from Fournier that I particularly like is the Tarot Genovés. This is a reproduction of a 19th century Italian pack in which earlier designs have been rendered double ended and have even been given some corner indices. It is one of the most attractive packs available, as well as one of the most suitable for game play and I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, the pack appears to have recently gone out of print and so prices have rocketed. If you can find a cheap second hand pack, get it.
I have already mentioned the Tarocco Piedmontese, as this is a good general use pack with the full 78 cards. There are however, other regional packs in Italy that are worth mentioning, though I will not recommend them for the beginner. I have presented accounts of Italian games in such a way that you can use an ordinary 78 card tarot pack to play them, but in their native regions, some of these games are played with unique packs.
The games of Bologna, such as Ottocento (given here as Eight-Hundred) are played with a pack called the Tarocco Bolognese, which is also known as the Tarocchino. This pack has a unique arrangement of trumps which includes The Four Moors (four unnumbered trumps that replace what I call the Quartet).
The games of Sicily are played either with a Tarocco Piedmontese or the Tarocco Siciliano - this is a very small pack of cards that again, has a unique sequence of trumps.
Availability of these packs is variable, along with their price. They are worth getting if you are building a collection or want to try out the games in their native form.
French Suited Tarot
While in the English speaking world, the Tarot de Marseilles is the most familiar available pack suitable for game play, but on the continent, most countries play with French suited packs. These will have the familiar suit signs of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades, while their trumps will usually feature rural or urban scenes. These are not too hard to get a hold of now and shouldn’t cost you too much (the Fournier packs are usually priced at less that £10). The French Jeu de Tarot will be the most useful to you, as it has the full 78 card pack that can be used to play all of the games given here. Packs from other countries such as Austria and Slovenia, will only have the 54 cards they use to play their regional games and so are less versatile.
The packs from France can also be found with a much greater variety of design, featuring such things as regional costumes, comic book characters (such as Asterix), tennis or pop stars, cartoon characters (such as Tex Avery), flowers, and even textile designs. French computer games company Ubisoft has sometimes included limited edition packs with their games - recent editions of Heroes of Might and Magic and Assassins’ Creed have both been given this treatment and if you keep on eye open on internet stores, you should be able to buy packs that the video gamers don’t want (I would note that while the Ubisoft packs are very attractive, they are not of a very durable quality and so are perhaps best treated as collectors items).
Fortune Telling Packs
For the most part, fortune telling tarot packs are not really suitable for card games. Most of them have been heavily redesigned to reflect various occult philosophies which are of little worth and sometimes aesthetically wanting, there is also the tendency to illustrate the pips with little pictures that act as an aid memoire for fortune telling but which hinder recognition in game play.
This said, there are some exceptions.
There are a handful of Fournier packs which might make for attractive alternatives - particularly for those who enjoy fantasy art with a gothic theme. The Tarot Favole, the Alechemy 1977 England, and the Anne Stokes, all feature artwork not originally intended for tarot but which roughly fits the theme. Rather than commission the artists to create scenic pips, there are true pips, although with some novel suit signs in keeping with the art themes. This said, they will not be the easiest to play but if you familiarise yourself with tarot by playing for a while with a Marseilles pack, you should make the transition to these without any great trouble. They are also fairly inexpensive (as tarot packs go) and you shouldn’t have to pay much over £10 for one.
One more pack from the Fournier stable is worth mentioning: The Nekro Tarot. This is another gothic pack which has more than a hint of Giger’s biomechanics. This time the images have been designed with tarot in mind, albeit with some novel interpretations and again, the pips are not scenic. This would probably the be hardest to use for gameplay but still worth considering if you enjoy the art style.
Luigi Scapini has designed a couple of packs worthy of consideration. While both feature the symbolism desired by fortune tellers, he has integrated it with far more skill than most tarot artists (and not without some humour) so that it does not feel too intrusive. For U.S. Game Systems he has created The Medieval Scapini, while for Modiano, he created The Romeo and Juliet. The former of these might be too large for some hands, while the later comes in two sizes, the smaller of which is the better choice for game play.
…And from the English Speaking World.
Attempts to market tarot cards for games in the English speaking world have been few and far between and never really successful - at least, not so far.
A US video game, Dishonoured, had a limited edition pack of tarot cards of unusual design for playing The Game of Nancy, which was played within their game world. It is worth trying to get hold of and the game itself, while a bit rough around the edges, has a lot of potential for development. If you search the internet for it, you will find people trying to tell fortunes with the cards instead of playing games though. Pity. I have also found forums in which the video game players have given up on the tarot cards because they found the game too complicated. Yes, gamers who don’t want to be challenged by anything more complicated than pixels - it makes you wonder!
A little more recently, a British games design company released The Tarot of Loka using a Kickstarter campaign. It was a tie-in with their Game of Loka, which is a fantasy based chess variant but does not require any knowledge of that. This is a beautiful pack that adds another two cards - Good and Evil - which are employed to create some new twists in game play. Sadly, these cards seem to have been abandoned after their first print run, dropping in price to about £5 a pack as they tried to just shift the stock and then climbing again once the few remaining packs left were in the hands of private sellers (as I write this, prices with postage range between £30 to £300). I was able to pick up about seven packs at a reasonable price and very much recommend the cards if you have a chance to purchase them.