hist-games: Rules for "Basic Tarot"

SeaanMcAy at aol.com SeaanMcAy at aol.com
Tue Sep 1 23:05:49 PDT 1998

Here are some class notes from recent courses I've taught.  These are not
detailed references, rather they are practical notes on how to play the game.
I've also attached an RTF file to this message (which should help preserve the

Michael McKay  (known in the SCA as Seaan McAy)


The Basic Tarot Game
The tarot deck consists of 5 suits.  There are four normal suits consisting of
10 number cards (1 through 10) and 4 court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and
Jack).  The fifth suit consists of 21 trump cards and the fool to make a total
of 78 cards.  The four suit signs are Swords, Batons, Cups and Coins (known as
the "Latin" suits, which includes Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese cards).

This section describes the basic game of tarot.  These rules are used in
almost all other tarot games, with only minor variations (the other games add
more complex rules based on top of these rules).  It is a trick taking game,
and can be played with 2-6 players.  Start by dealing out all the cards to
each player.  If there are cards left over (which will happen when playing
with  4 or 5 players), give them to the dealer.  The dealer looks at the extra
cards and chose which cards she would like to discard (there are some rules
limiting which cards can be discarded, which will be covered toward the end of
this section).

The object of the game is to capture the most points.  Only some cards count
as points (see the table below).  Traditional tarot play is counter-clockwise.
The player to the right of the dealer places the first card on the table.  The
player to her right plays the next card, and so on, until every player has
played one card on the table.  The players must follow the suit of the card
that was "lead".  If they don't have the suit that was lead, they must play
trump instead.  If they are out of both the suit and trump, they can play any
card they want.  If no trump cards have been played, the highest card of the
lead suit wins the trick.  If a trump card has been played, the highest trump
takes the trick. The player who wins the trick gathers all cards together and
places them face down.  The winner also gets to lead for the next trick.
Optional rule: Many people are used to playing clockwise, so I sometimes start
people playing that direction when first teaching the game.

 This is not an "ace high" game, the "1" cards plays normally.  There is a
tradition (which I often suspend when first teaching the game), that the Cups
and Coins (the round suits) count the number cards backwards (K, Q, Kn, J, 1,
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10).  The Swords and Batons rank normally (K, Q,
Kn, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1).   A historical aside: There is some
speculation that this practice might have lead to the first "ace high" games.
The  trump suit counts normally, with 21 being the highest trump.  The fool is
a special card, with the rules described below

Points	Cards Name
5	21 of Trump
5	1 of Trump
5	Fool
5	each King (K)
4	each Queen (Q)
3	each Knight (Kn)
2	each Jack (J)

After all the cards have been played, it is time to count the points.  This
counting method is a little different than usual, but for 3 and 6 players it
will result in exactly 78 points total (not coincidentally the number of cards
in the deck).  The cards should be counted in groups of threes.  It does not
matter which order you count the cards (try counting your cards in a couple of
different ways to convince yourself).  As you get each set of three cards, use
the table below to figure out how many total points the group is worth. 

Number of Point Cards	Value of Each 3 Card Group	Example
0	1 point	2 Batons; 4, 5 Coins = 1 Point
1	Value of point card	3, 7, 21 Trumps = 5 Points
2	Add points cards, subtract 1	8, J, K Swords = 2+5-1 = 6 Points
3	Add point cards, subtract 2	1 Trumps, Q, K Coins = 5+4+5-2 = 12 points

The fool is a special card, know as "The Excuse".  When you are dealt the
fool, you can play it at any time instead of another card.  Once the trick is
finished, remove the fool from the trick and place it face down with any other
tricks you have captured.  Thus the fool has two uses, first it allows you to
avoid playing a card, and gives you points once you have played it.  The most
typical time you would want to play the fool is in a situation like this:
Swords are led and you only have the Queen of Swords left (worth 4 points),
someone has already played trump and you know that playing the Queen (which
you are normally forced to do because of the "follow led suit rule") you will
give someone else that 4 points, so you play the fool instead.  Once you see
the fool in your hand, you know that you will get at least 5 points, unless
you don't win any tricks at all.  If you are shut-out, you will need to give
the fool to the person who won the trick the fool was played into.  The only
other rule is that if you lead the fool, the next card played establishes the
"lead" suit (the fool does not count as a suit, and can not win a trick).

I'll close by talking about the dealer discard.  The rule is that the dealer
can not discard 5 point cards (any King, 1 and 21 of trump, and the fool).  If
the dealer discards any other point cards, the dealer will get those points.
If the dealer discards points, it is often unprotected point cards (for
example: you have only 1 Sword, which is a Knight).  Another strategy is to
try and "void" a suit (get rid of all the cards in one of the suits).

Basic Variations

So now you have the basic rules of the Tarot cards game.  Usually when you
find other tarot card games, they will assume these rules unless you are
specifically told otherwise.  Although many of the more complex games have
special features, there are also some fairly typical modifications to these
basic rules.  Here are some typical rule variants.

o Stripped Deck (cards 2-7 in all four suits are removed)
o Don't deal out the whole deck (10, 12, 15 are typical numbers of cards)
o Play with partners (only for 4 and 6 players, partner is opposite from you,
count points together)
o Add bonus for taking the last trick, and count by different card group sizes
to insure point total of 78
o Count points with different amounts of cards (typically 2, 3, or 4)

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