Tarot cards were invented for card games a little less than 600 years ago, games that are still being played today throughout continental Europe. There really is no mystery about this, no debate, and no controversy. I know that there are those who disagree but then there are also people who think the Earth is flat, yet there is is no controversy about that either - some people will always believe nonsense and fantasy.
If, however, you are a little concerned about playing games with tarot, then I would suggest reading the section titled: “Will the Real Tarot Please Stand Up...” This will provide more detail about the cards’ history, though if you wish for a more complete account, then you will need to check the books listed in the bibliography. Of course, this section will also be worth your reading if you are having trouble recruiting players – if you are armed with a little knowledge, you can lay concerns to rest and get down to playing some games.
What I aim to present here is a brief introduction to tarot and its history, along with a selection of games adapted from European traditions, re-written to Anglicize and standardize the rules for ease of learning. The decision to present the games in this way means that this book will not be for everyone
If you wish to learn how the games are played in their native countries, with their native terminology, then I must direct you to the sources listed in the bibliography. According to Bunbury is certainly not According to Hoyle and I make no more pretense to authority than I do to authenticity. Instead, According to Bunbury is no more than some common ground from which to start. I hope only that you enjoy these games – either as given here, or as whatever you make of them.
It is my intention to make this text available as both a physical book and as an digital publication. As a physical book, I shall use a print-on-demand service and set it at the base price so that you will only be paying for the printing service and not me - this is not a commercial project. I shall try to make the digital editions freely available (I believe that some stores require a minimum charge) and readers may feel free to distribute these editions unaltered as they please.
You may re-publish the text in this book, in whole or in part, as it is or in translation, privately or commercially, without royalties to me, on the following conditions:
- If publishing any part of this material you must cite your source (ie this book) and my sources, which are given in the bibliography.
- If you are making any amendments or changes to any part of the text as published by myself, you must clearly indicate this.
- You may not publish any of the material in this book in any context that promotes or endorses tarot cards as either occult or supernatural objects, or as tools for divination or magical practices of any kind. If people really wish to indulge in such beliefs and practices, that is, by and large, their own business — however, I do not want to be a party to it.
To get started, I think it would be helpful to look a little more closely at the history of tarot and its origins. While you may be happy to play games with tarot, in my experience, you are going to find very many people who are much less so and the following discussion might help you persuade them that it really is an OK thing to do, and perhaps even a desirable.
Tarot cards have had a troubled history over the last two-hundred years, they have gone from being one of the most popular card games in Europe to being recognised throughout the English speaking world as essentially occult objects. Popular myth is recounted in countless texts on the bookshelves, in newspapers, magazines, film, television, and across the internet. The truth is, as has always been the case, having a hard time.
I don’t intend this to be a history book, there are far more knowledgeable people who have already written exhaustively about the history of tarot. However, I do feel the need to say something about the cards and their confused identity. There are a variety of muddled and conflicting perceptions, interests, and uses that need untangling.
So, where do tarot cards come from?
Let’s begin at the beginning in Europe...
Playing cards are first seen in Europe in the mid 14th Century. They are thought to have come from the Far East, ultimately from Chinese money games, possibly also influenced by games of India. Coming to us from the Malmuks of North Africa, our earliest cards are distinctly Islamic in appearance and feature, as our modern packs, 52 cards made up of four suits, each with ten pip cards and three court cards. The suit symbols were cups, coins, scimitars (a type of curved sword), and polo sticks. Islam (by most interpretations) does not allow the depiction of living things in art, so the court cards were represented by abstract designs and calligraphy.
As Europe adopted these cards, they underwent a couple of significant changes. Polo was not played at that time, so the polo sticks lost their paddles to become batons, while the court cards now showed the figures of a King, a Cavalier, and a Footman (who became our Jack). The result is what we call the Latin Pattern and is still in use for playing cards in Italy and Spain. Various countries experimented with different suit designs and today you can find in Switzerland suits of shields, roses, leaves, and hawk bells, while in Germany there are suits of hearts, leaves, acorns, and hawk bells. It was France that gave us our more familiar suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades.
The original name of trionfi was soon changed to tarocchi, probably to avoid confusion with another card game called trionfi that was enjoying some popularity at that time. Perhaps the most plausible etymology for the new name is the word tarochus, meaning ‘to play the fool’, the Fool card having an important and unique role in the games. As the cards spread through Europe, this name was often truncated to tarock and was further truncated by the French to tarot.
Given the modern perception of tarot cards, it may seem hard to accept this. You are very likely to have read about the church suppressing tarot cards, and that they had to be used in secret because of their heretical images. However, this is not the case. Tarot games spread across the continent, being played openly, without opposition from the church all through the counter-reformation. The only real exception to this is in Spain, where it is important to note that the opposition was not from a perception that the images were somehow unchristian, but precisely because they were Christian. The authorities there felt that it was inappropriate to use such images in a card game, something that trivialised or disrespected the sacred. We have good reason then, to go back and question our initial thoughts. It might help to take a closer look at two cards that have been widely misunderstood to see how easily we can get thing wrong.
Another card that is often cited as having esoteric meaning is The Hanged Man, perhaps because it is difficult to see just what overt and obvious meaning it could ever have had. What are we to make of a man suspended by one foot, often holding money bags? Some have suggested it be Judas, though he would have hung himself by the neck, others have suggested it to be the virtue of prudence, or even Odin - indeed the list of offerings is long and varied. However, if we again look at the card in context we find a different story and no mystery at all. The title of Hanged Man was given to the card by French card makers but we know from written sources that in Italy it was called The Traitor – and little wonder, as this was how Italians used to execute traitors, suspended by one foot and left to die slowly and publicly. As for the money bags, we can find an explanation from another practice of the the time, that of Shame Pictures. It was the practice to shame those who betrayed a trust by employing an artist to draw that person’s likeness hung as a traitor, which would then be publicly displayed. And the money bags? Well, the most common subjects for these pictures were bad debtors and so common were they that at one time Milan had to ban them as they were damaging the city’s reputation for trade!
Tarot’s occult associations do not arise until the end of the 18th century when a Parisian occultist, Antoine Court de Gebelin, published an article in his encyclopaedia declaring that the cards were of Ancient Egyptian origin, brought to us by the Gypsies and codifying the lost knowledge of their priests. He did not present any evidence for his claims but he made them at a time when Egyptomania was popular and so his story captured public imagination and spread. He also published the first account of how the cards were to be used for divination. During the following 100 years. Various French occultists took up the ideas of an occult origin and divinatory use and built upon them, developing still more elaborate myths. Until the end of the 19th century, these ideas were limited to just France but then a small number of British occultists began to import the cards and translate the occultist writings about them. In the English speaking world, the cards seemed new and exotic, and the occultist accounts of the cards were the only ones known. During the next century, the myth of tarot gradually established itself in the public psyche, and toward the end of the 20th century, a whole industry built around tarot reading began to establish itself and to spread back across Europe.
Since occultism first laid claim to tarot, there has been a growing tendency to redesign the cards to better fit occult beliefs and for ease of fortune telling. Thanks to this there is a broad division between types of tarot cards. Those of the occult and those used to play games. To be honest, those cards designed by occultists and for fortune telling are generally ill suited to game play and so any concerns you may have about them need not affect our interests here. Although there have been works of serious history about both the cards and the games published in English since 1980, they have tended to be of limited availability and of high cost. However, in recent years, thanks in large part to the internet, the history and the games are at last getting through to the English speaking public. People are at last discovering the games they have been missing. After all, something that has been played for nearly 600 years across a continent must have something good going for it.
Well, we know from history that tarot cards were created for playing card games. There really is no substantial doubt about that. While we cannot be certain as to what, if anything, the trump designs represented, we do know that the accounts given by the occultists don’t stand up to examination. The questions then, are: Do we declare that occultists should have nothing to do with tarot? Are they simply wrong to think the cards represent anything spiritual? Should the cards only be seen as instruments of play? Now, I have a special interest here – I think that the occult tarot has thrived at the expense of the gamers’ tarot – but need it be so? Can the occult tarot and the gamers’ tarot co-exist?
I think that we gamers have to make some concessions to the modern occultists. History may not give them a claim to the cards but perhaps use and modern design may give them a different kind of claim. Words and symbols have meaning because of the way that we use them and the way that we use them often changes over time. Consider the word ‘nice’. These days we use the world in a complimentary fashion – but it was not always so. When Jane Austin’s characters refer to someone as nice, they don’t intend a compliment, then intend an insult. They used the world to indicate that someone was plain, simple, and perhaps a dullard. Because, historically, the word had a different meaning does not tell us that we are using it incorrectly today. Nor, when we read Jane Austin today, do we read her use of the word to be a compliment – because we read the words in the context within which they were written. There is no metaphysical connection between the word ‘nice’ and some abstract thing ‘simpleton’ that determines its proper meaning, there is only the way that we use the word. Now, occultists use tarot cards to symbolise elements of their spiritual and magical beliefs, so in the context of occultism, they have those meanings.
To further strengthen this position, we can take into account that occultists usually use ‘rectified’ packs. We can question that they are really rectifying anything, which is a matter of history and can be debated with reference to evidence, but we cannot deny that these are new designs created with the intent that they contain occult symbolism. While I find many of the modern designs to be rather dreadful, it would be churlish for anyone to deny that a great many of them are beautiful and deserve to be called art. I can say that as an atheist and sceptic because as such, I can still see the beauty in more familiar religious art, whether it be by Mozart or Leonardo da Vinci.
This is perhaps more of a concession that many card players and sceptics would like to make and yet, there is still more to say on the matter. We must step back a moment and make sure that I have not been tilting at windmills all along. There are giants out there but we need to make clear who they are. I would level attacks against those occultists who have tried to present an account of history that is simply false, people for whom the occult really has been about revealing hidden knowledge in its traditional sense – these are some of the giants and they do still exist. They do not represents all occultists -- over the last quarter of a century, some have begun to look upon religions, spiritual beliefs, and tarot cards, with almost post-modernist eyes. These people are perhaps more relativist in their outlook and choose a tarot pack, not according to how well it reflects a system of occult belief they accept as true, but according to its appeal to them personally and how it reflects their view and experience of the world. The people of this new school sometimes know and accept that tarot was a game. Sadly, I do not feel that they are all that representative of tarot users as a group – at least not in recent experience – but we need to be aware that they exist and guard against tarring them with the same brush as we would tar others.
However, there is still another giant to tilt against and that is public perception. The old occultist myths have become a part of the public consciousness, and have so much appeal within it that breaking the myth is far harder than it should be. You can explain the truth about their history and take out a pack of cards designed without any occult reference, only to find that people will still say that they are uncomfortable with playing a game with them – I have had this response even with the French suited cards! It is this general public perception that is my principle target.
If there is blame to be laid anywhere for this public perception, it does not just lie with the modern tarot reader. Rather – and now I am venturing more deeply into personal opinion – I tend to blame the popular media. Be they TV producers, publishers, magazines, or newspapers, they can be seen, everyday, to put the story they think will sell above any responsibility to educate or to simply be honest. Of course, we are talking about businesses and this phenomena is just the product of market forces as those businesses act to profit their shareholders – but I do not believe that this excuses anyone from moral responsibility.
What my argument does not concede is that people learn anything about the world from studying the cards. Nor do I concede that by reading the cards, people can divine anything about the future. I do not think that they can do either, and I do think that a belief that they can is not a healthy or productive one, whatever its short term benefits. What we can say is that tarot cards fall in broadly three groups. There are those designed purely for game play, those designed by and for occultists and readers, and those designed for game play but which continue to be appropriated by occultists and readers.
Further, I do not think that pursuing promotion of the games of tarot is a neutral activity. However many tarot readers are friendly to history and game play, I suspect that the industry as a whole would not be very welcoming, having been predicated on a fantasy.
By promoting game play -- and with that, the real history of the cards -- we cannot avoid demystifying them, stripping them of much of the magic that makes them attractive and marketable as occult objects. Having your tarot cards read may then seem no more mystical (or credible) than your tea leaves, regular playing cards, or a just a pack of dominoes. A child brought up playing games with a Tarot de Marseille and learning about their origin and what the figures represent, might not be so entranced by the tales told by many readers interested in drumming up business. I suspect then, that the best weapon sceptics might have to combat the occult tarot, is tarot itself and so whatever neutrality I might have hoped for when I began writing about the games, is simply not possible. But if this is the price of promoting the games, I’m not unhappy to pay it.
Honours: 5 points
Kings: 5 points
Queens: 4 points
Cavaliers: 3 points
Valets: 2 points
All others: 1 point
The Nation Suits: Four of the five suits are what I call the nation suits and correspond to the more familiar suits of our regular playing cards. I’ll call these nation suits to distinguish them from trumps and because they each comprise of a court and subjects. Italian packs are themed with Swords, Batons, Cups, and Coins. Each of these suits has fourteen cards. Ten of these are what we call the pips, numbered 2-10, each picturing as many suit symbols as indicated by the card’s number. There is a ‘1’ of each suit but it has its own name: the Ace (and we sometimes call the 2 the Deuce). Then there are four court cards, each of which pictures a different figure; there is a King, a Queen, a Cavalier, and a Valet. The cards in these suits rank from high to low:
King, Queen, Cavalier, Valet, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, Ace.
Identifying Batons and Swords: In my experience, it is not uncommon for new players to confuse Batons and Swords. As a rule, if a sword is not obviously a sword, then it is curved, while batons are always straight.
The Trumps: The fifth suit, the one that really makes tarot unique, is a suit of fixed trumps – cards that beat all those of the regular suits, whatever their rank. Most tarot packs have 21.
From the lowest ranking to the highest then, the trumps are:
1. The Juggler
2. The Female Pope
3. The Empress
4. The Emperor
5. The Pope
6. The Lovers
7. The Chariot
9. The Hermit
10. The Wheel of Fortune
12. The Hanged Man
15. The Devil
16. The Tower
17. The Star
18. The Moon
19. The Sun
20. The Angel (also The Judgement)
21. The World
The Fool & Tomfool: Although numbered 0 in many packs, The Fool was not created as part of the trump sequence. Instead, his traditional role is as something of a wild card or excuse, played in place of a card that the rules might otherwise require. However, many games now treat this card as the highest trump of all, beating everything. When we are using The Fool as a wild card, we shall always just call him The Fool. However, when we are using him as a trump, then we shall call him Tomfool.
The Honours: Three cards are particularly important, they are The World, The Juggler, and The Fool. They are three of the highest scoring cards in the pack and together they are called The Honours.
The Birds: Four of the trumps are often called The Birds, and are used to win special bonus tricks. They are The Juggler (The Sparrow), The Female Pope (The Owl), The Empress (The Cockatoo), and The Emperor (The Vulture).
The Powers: These are four trumps that in some traditions are treated as being of equal rank. They are The Female Pope, The Empress, The Emperor, and The Pope. In the packs from Bologna, these are replaced by four unnumbered cards called The Four Moors.
The Celestials: The Star, The Moon, The Sun, The Angel, and The World, are collectively called The Celestial Cards. In some packs, they are not numbered and their order can also vary. In Italy, even when they are numbered with The Angel at 20 and the World at 21, still rank The Angel as the highest trump and Honour. I will maintain the numbered ranking for the purpose of this book but personally prefer to treat The Angel as the highest card.
Card Points: Tarot games are largely consistent with their card point values – but there can be some variation, so check the rules! The usual scheme is:
Kings: 5 points
Queens: 4 points
Cavaliers: 3 points
Valets: 2 points
All others: 1 point
The obvious answer to this is a game played using tarot cards, which would be trivial, and tarot is more interesting than that. Unlike our regular pack of cards, which has been adapted to play a vast range of types of game, tarot has historically been a fairly tight family of games of a particular kind. To be sure, people have used tarot cards to play simple gambling games and such but these are the exceptions and are little known and more seldom played. The reason for this is, I suspect, that the tarot pack was created specifically for playing trick taking games with trumps and as such, while it is not well suited to generality, it is the best tool for the intended job.
So throughout Europe, tarot games have much in common. They are all what we call trick taking games and with the sole exception of Royal Tarokk in Hungary, they are point trick games with largely the same point values everywhere. A point trick game is one in which the cards carry point values and it is the number of card points won in your tricks that will win the game and not the number of tricks taken (as in Whist or Bridge).
It has been mentioned in the introduction that many changes have been made to the games in these pages and I suspect that some, such as the late Sir Michael Dummett, would be displeased with this, feeling that it is disrespectful to the cultures that have developed and preserved those games. I must disagree with this sentiment, while being somewhat sympathetic to it. To see why, I think we should ask ourselves just how tarot became such a large family of games. If new players from different countries had stuck strictly to the games and terms as played where and when they first were created, we would not have much of a family of games, nor would they likely have travelled so well. Over the centuries, as each country has adopted the games, they have often introduced their own language into the terminology, along with features from other games and original rules they were willing to try out. This is how traditions of play develop and it would be no bad thing for the English speaking world to develop its own traditions of play from the existing ones. The result is not disrespect but the start of fresh enrichment to a wonderful family of games.
It is in this spirit that I have tried to make the games of a broad range of traditions more accessible to a broader community of players, while suggesting some new ways to play along the way, as well as some original games.
The best way to learn a game is by playing it and there really is no substitute for that. However, if the idea of just leaping in seems a little daunting, or if you are unfamiliar with card games, then it might help to talk you through a quick game of Scarto. I’ve highlighted key words in italics which you can also look up in the glossary of terms in the appendixes.
We have three players: Rita, Sue, and Bob too.
They decide by consent, that as Bob is the oldest of them, he will be the first Dealer. It doesn’t really matter how this is decided though – some players each draw a card and whoever gets the highest takes the role first.
Sat at the table, Bob has Rita to his left and Sue to his right. The player on Dealer’s left is often called Eldest, while the player on Dealer’s right is called Youngest.
Bob’s first task is to shuffle the cards. People have different ways of doing this and while it can be a practised art, you don’t need to be elegant about it, you only need to give the cards’ order a good mix-up.
It is then usual to cut the cards, Dealer may do this or hand the cards to Youngest (Sue) to do it. Cutting the cards in this context simply means placing the cards on the table in a single pile, then dividing the pile into two or three stacks which you put back together in a different order. (It can also mean lifting the top half of the pack to reveal a single card but we won’t be using it in this way)
When you start playing, it is usual to shuffle on the first deal, however, as the game continues, Dealer may choose only to cut the cards and not shuffle unless one of the other players requires it – this can lead to some interesting play.
The order of play is given to be clockwise for all these games (ie to the left). So Bob now begins to deal out the cards in packets of five cards, that is five cards to Rita, five to Sue, then five to himself, and so on until the pack is all dealt. There will be three cards left over which Bob will add to the cards he has dealt to himself. The cards that have been dealt to each player make up what we call their hand – thus we talk about a hand of cards and have sayings about playing a bad hand well. We also talk about playing a hand, which might also be termed playing a round of cards. In this context, this means playing the cards dealt until they have all been used.
The players now all examine their hands (their cards, that is) – but Bob has three more than the others. He must now discard three cards that will count toward his tricks (see a bit further on). He cannot discard willy nilly though, he may not discard either Honours (which are The Fool, The Juggler, and The World) or Kings. However, if he has no trumps, then he may discard The Fool.
In discarding, players will usually want to protect vulnerable counters (cards with a value more than 1 but which stand a good chance of being won by other players) or to make themselves void in one of the nation suits (which means that they want to be left with no cards in a non-trump suit), so that they can quickly trump other players. In this case, Bob only has the 3 and the 8 in the suit of Swords, so he discards both of those, he also has the Queen of Cups but not the King, so he thinks it wise to discard that as well.
With the discard complete, they are ready to begin playing. Rita, as Eldest (remember, she is sitting on Bob’s left) will now have to chose a card from her hand and place it face up in the middle of their playing area. This is called leading to the trick, a trick consisting of a card from each of them played in this way. She looks through her hand and having the King of Swords, she figures she might be safe to play it right away on the grounds that she has a few Swords, so the odds are that each of the other players will have four or five as well.
Sue must now play a card – if she can, she must follow suit, which means to play a card of the suit that was led (in this case Swords), or if she has no cards of that suit, then she must play a trump, and if she has neither any cards of the suit led nor trumps, then she may play any card, though it shall not win.
Sue actually has eight Swords in her hand, so she deduces that either Rita or Bob must have very few, if any of them, left – and if Bob hadn’t many to begin with, then he would probably have discarded them. Of course, Rita has played the King and she cannot beat that, so she follows suit by playing her lowest Sword, which in this case is the 2.
Now Bob can reap the reward of having left himself with no Swords – the rules would normally require that he follow suit but as he cannot, he can – and must, if he has one – play a trump. Not wanting to waste a high trump on a trick that is as good as his, he plays his lowest trump, which is The Juggler (the I of trumps). This is a good thing for him as the lowest trump is both one of the highest scoring cards and one of the easiest to lose, so by playing it now he has saved those points and won a trick against a King, also worth 5 points!
If Bob had not discarded his Swords at the start, he would have had to play one of those, no doubt his lowest, against the King. In that case it would have been Rita, having played the highest card of the suit led, who would have won the trick but whenever a trump is played to a trick, then the highest trump played wins it.
Having won the trick, Bob takes all the cards played to it and places them face down with the cards that he originally discarded. This is now his trick pile and he will add to it any further cards that he wins. Winning the trick also means that Bob leads to the next one. He looks through is hand and plays the King of Cups.
It is Rita to play next and she finds that she has a problem – the only two Cups she has are the Queen and the Cavalier, both of which are valuable and either of which will lose to the King. However, she has a life line as she also has The Fool in her hand. The Fool acts as a kind of wild card that can be played at any time instead of a card that the rules would otherwise require. In this case they would require that Rita play and lose a high ranking card, so she plays The Fool instead. Sue plays a low card from her hand and Bob takes up the cards having achieved nothing except for saving his King. However, he does not take The Fool – that card is rarely lost. Instead, Rita takes it back and places if face up beside her.
Play continues like this, with each player putting the cards of tricks that they win face down in front of them in trick piles until all they have played all their cards, that is, played their hand. Before they can work out their scores though, Rita owes Bob a card – this is because she kept The Fool and so his trick pile is now one card short. She looks through her trick pile and gives him an empty card from them – that is a card worth only 1 point – which allows her to now add The Fool to her own trick pile. However, had she not managed to win any tricks during the game, then she would have had to surrender The Fool to Bob after all. (taking no tricks while having played and lost The Fool in this way is something that we call having played a Fool’s Errand)
Each player now works out the card points they have won. Traditionally, counting the card points in tarot can be a little odd but I have simplified counting here. The values of the cards won are counted individually, adding to the total 1 bonus point for each trick (though the Dealer’s three discards do not count as a trick). Players then win or lose in game points the card points they have over or below 52.
Because the player who is Dealer is often at an advantage – in this case by taking the last three cards and being allowed to discard three cards safely into their trick pile for the outset — it is usual for a game to consist of three hands, with each player getting a turn at playing as Dealer. Like the order of play, deal moves to the left, so from Bob, the role of dealer now falls to Rita, before moving to Sue. The scores for the three hands can then be summed for the score of the game.
Hopefully you are now ready to read on but I would suggest trying out the game of Scarto before progressing too far.