How to Play Tarot: An Explanation with Sample Rules

Detail from Ducale Tarot

Note: This is the seventh in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

French Tarot (Ducale)

Since Tarot games spring from a common source, they share certain rules that make them a distinct family of card games despite myriad differences. If you count variants, there are hundreds of ways to play games with tarot cards. (The key work on the subject is almost 1,000 pages long.) Some of them are almost comically complicated. Once we look at the scoring for a sample tarot game, you’ll have a nice illustration of the source of most card game rules: taverns full of drunk men.

For starters, like many European games, “eldest” (the player who receives cards first in the deal) is to the dealer’s right, not his left as in American games. Thus, dealing is counter-clockwise, with all cards dealt out. This—along with large size of the tarot cards—means hands are larger and more cumbersome to hold. Play may be solo or in partnership, and cards may have odd or unique values. A higher trump beats a lower trump. The lowest trump is the I, as is called the Pagat or Bagotto.

In numbered suits, there is a quirk of play in some games that has Swords and Batons ranked in typical descending order (K, Q, C, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, A) but Cups and coins ranked the opposite direction (K, Q, C, J, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Thus, a 3 of Cups beats a 10 of Cups.

Why, yes: that is spectacularly confusing, but you’ll get used to it.

Games from France and Sicily don’t tend to follow this bizarre tradition.

The rules of trick-taking card games apply. Cards are played in tricks, with one player leading and the other following. The lead plays a card face up the center of the table, and the player to the right follows with a card of the same suit if possible. If the lead card is trump, trump suit should follow. If a player cannot follow suit and has a trump, he must follow with the trump, even if it’s a losing trump. If he can’t follow, he can play anything at all.

In many games, the player holding The Fool can play this card as an “excuse.” This rescues the player from having to play a bad card. The Fool incurs no penalty. It stands in for a regular play, and is then returned to the player’s hand, where it will be scored at the end of the game. In other games, the Fool is the highest Trump.

The player with the highest suit or highest trump wins the trick. The player who takes the trick leads the next trick, and so on until all the cards are exhausted. The usual pace of trick-taking games is followed, with cards scored, gathered, and shuffled; deal passing to the right; and various rounds comprising a complete game. The word “rubber” is not traditional to Tarot rules, but it expresses the pace of play nonetheless.

Detail, Ducale Tarot

Scoring can be extraordinary complex and subtle, and is where much of the variation among Tarot games is found. Players may compete singly or in teams, and the number of players varies from game to game. Winning points are determined not just by number of tricks buy by the value of the trumps won. In some counts, each trick counts for a point and then value cards are added to the total. Court cards may have a fixed value—King: 4, Queen: 3, Cavalier: 2, and Jack: 1. Number cards usually have no value.

The Fool, Trump I (the pagat), and Trump 21 may have the highest values, and are the standard trump honors in many games. Dummett expresses it this way:

“Suppose that all 78 cards are used, and that there are three players, so that there are three cards in each trick and hence 26 tricks in all. To the 26 points for tricks will be added 12 for the Trump 21, Trump I, and The Fool, 16 for the Kings, 12 for the Queens, 8 for the Cavaliers, and 4 for the Jacks, making 78 points in all divided between the players.”

These are the very basics of rules that you’ll find in Tarot games, with additional conventions for bidding, talon, discarding, shortening (or lengthening) decks, as so on.

Where to Get Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are common in bookstores and new age shops, but you don’t want to mess with these. They’re designed not for play but for divination, and most are saturated in occult images that we’re better off avoiding. Not only does this betray the roots of tarot in gaming, but it creates an unpleasant experience for the game. In addition, some of these “designer decks” only include the trumps, and they’re too large to hold as you would a normal hand of cards. (Tarot games already have large hands which can be difficult to hold.)

The Fool (Ducale)

For those who want to avoid any links with the Italian images which inspired the occult tarot, you can go for the French decks. This post is illustrated with cards from the Ducale tarot, which can be bought at TaroBear’s Lair.

The Genoves Tarot by Fournier is readily available from Amazon for about $15. The cards are not occult and they are a reasonable size, sturdy, and handsome.

How to Play Scarto

This simple game contains the basics of Tarot play and can be played with either a French or Italian deck.

Players: 3 people, playing singly

Deck: 78-card French or Italian.

Notes on the Cards: The game originated with the Tarocco Piemontese, a deck in which Trump XX (The Angel: l’Angelo) is the highest honor, and Trump XXI (The World, Mond) is next in order. In other words, just swap XXI and XX.

Card Ranking: The ranking is irrational with the order reversed on the “red” suits:

  • “Black” Suits: Swords/Staves (or Spades/Clubs):
    K, Q, C, V, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • “Red” Suits: Cups/Coins (Hearts/Diamonds):
    K, Q, C, V, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • Honors: Pagat (Trump I), l’Angel (Trump XX), The Fool

Card Values:

  • Honors–5 points
  • King—5 points
  • Queen–4 points
  • Cavalier (Knight)–3 points
  • Fante (Jack)–2 points

Deal: Deal and play moves to the right. Deal in packets of 5. Dealer takes the final 3 cards, then discards them into a pile (the scart). These will be counted for the dealer at the end. Neither Kings nor Honors may be discarded

Play: Eldest (remember: to the right) leads the first trick. Players must follow suit. If they cannot, they must trump if possible, even if it is not an advantageous trump. If they can neither follow nor trump, they may play anything.
Highest card in suit or highest trump wins the trick.
The person holding The Fool may play this as an “excuse” for not playing a card he is obliged to play. The Fool neither wins nor loses. At the end of the trick, it is returned to the person who played it, and placed in that person’s trick pile. In exchange, the person who played The Fool gives the person who won the trick any card from his trick pile. (Obviously, this will be a low-value card.)

Scoring:
The count may seem confusing, but this is how it works:

Cavalier and king (Ducale Tarot)

1. Sort cards into piles of three, with at least one a high card (Honor, King, etc) in each pile.
2. The Fool is counted separately.
3. If there is one high card, the value of the pile is equal to that card. For example, a batch with 1 Queen, a 4, and an 8 is worth 4 points.
4. If there are two high cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 1. (King, Pagat, and a 4 is worth 9 points.)
5. If there are three face cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 2. (King, l’Angel,and Cavalier is worth 11 points.)
6. If there are only non-honor trumps and numbers cards in the pile, the batch is worth one point.
7. One player will have two cards in one pile. These should be counted as if there are three cards.
8. Add everything together.
9. Subtract 26.
10. This is your score, either positive or negative.
11. Deal passes to the right. A rubber is three rounds.

Final Post: Meditations on the Tarot

Posts in this series:

Are Monkeys Domesticating Wolves?
Dice Games Properly Explained [Book Review]
Who Is That Priest in the "Pawn Sacrifice" Trailer?
My Favorite Game of 2014 Was ...
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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