Game Report: Early French Tarot

Class: Cards

Type: Trick-taking

Number of Players: up to six (four is best)

Reconstructed mainly from secondary source

Date redacted: May 13, 1997

Redactor: Justin du Coeur

Sources: Michael Dummett's The Game of Tarot, London: Duckworth, 1980. This game is mostly Dummett's "Seventeenth-century French Tarot (second version)", combined with a few elements from the first version to fill out the game (pg. 215). Dummett's reconstruction is based mainly on La maison academique des jeux, 1659.


The Tarot deck reaches back well into period; while its exact origins are a bit unclear, it appears to have come into being not too many decades after the more "conventional" decks did in the latter half of the 14th century.

All the available evidence indicates that the Tarot was used more or less exclusively for card games during the Renaissance; the Tarot's occult associations appear to have arisen later, in the 18th century. For a detailed examination of what is known about the occult history of the Tarot, the interested reader is referred to The Game of Tarot, which spends a couple of chapters on the subject, and to the book A Wicked Pack of Cards (by Decker, DePaulis and Dummett), which is devoted to the occult history of the deck. This discussion will concern itself solely with a period game played with the deck.

This particular Tarot variant is highly simplified, possibly a shade over-simplified -- it omits a few common but (to the novice) annoying concepts like inverted suits. It should give an idea of how the family generally works, though. The sources that this description comes from are slightly out of period; I suspect that something like this variant was probably known in period (we know that Tarot games were common enough in period, and this is a fairly elemental version), but the purists should get Dummett's book and judge for themselves.


One 78-card Tarot deck. The typical Tarot deck has four suits (wands, swords, coins, and cups), with fourteen cards each (ace through ten of pips, plus King, Queen, Knight, and Page), making in all 56 suit cards. To this are added 21 "trumps", each of which has a particular image depicted, and which count in a particular order, plus the "Fool", a special card that isn't really a trump for gaming purposes, although it is often lumped in with the trumps today.

Period Tarot decks looked a bit different from the usual modern Rider-Waite-influenced deck. Most conspicuously, the pip cards did not usually have a picture on them; instead, they simply had a stylized representation of the appropriate number of things (six wands, four cups, and so on). The trumps (which are now often called the "major arcana") were fairly similar to the modern trumps, although the details of the iconography have changed over the years, as people have added extra mystical layers to the symbolism. The order of the trumps was apparently a bit flexible, as were the exact card list, but the usual modern list is pretty typical for a period deck. The explicit numbering of the trumps apparently came a bit late; for earlier periods, players were apparently expected to simply know the order of the trump cards. For a variety of pictures of period Tarot decks, the reader is referred to Stuart Kaplan's exhaustive Encyclopedia of Tarot (which is still in print), particularly volume 1, which has the bulk of the pictures of period decks.

None of these differences of nuance significantly affect game play, however; the game described below can be played with most conventional modern Tarot decks. I commend reproduction period decks to the serious player, not just to get the atmosphere right, but because the simpler pip cards are easier to count with than the modern pictorial ones. But you can get started perfectly well with a Rider-Waite deck or something similar.

In this particular game, the ranking of cards is basically intuitive: higher suit cards beat lower, trumps beat any suit card, and higher-numbered trumps beat lower. Note that this is not universal in Tarot games: it is common in these games to reverse the order of Cups and Coins, so that, eg, the three of Cups would beat the eight. As this has no particular effect on the game save to confuse unwary players, I choose to leave out that particular twist.


The game is played by up to six players; this was explicitly variable, but four players was accounted best. Choose an initial dealer by some usual method such as cutting the deck for high card.

The dealer should deal twelve cards to each player, and set the remainder aside (they will not be used during this hand). Dummett says that deal would normally be counter-clockwise; I am not sure whether this is the case throughout France, or only in the south. My understanding is that deal tended to be counter-clockwise in the southern parts of Europe, clockwise in the northern, but I can't claim to be any sort of expert in this. Regardless, it shouldn't make a significant difference, as long as you are consistent.

Play twelve normal tricks, with the Eldest hand leading the first trick, and the winner of each trick leading the next. You must follow suit if possible; if you cannot, you must play a trump if you have any. If you are void of both the suit led and trumps, you may play any card, but will lose the trick. If a trump is led, you must play a trump if possible. The trick is won by the player who played the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led if no trumps were played.

The Excuse: the Fool is known as "the Excuse" is many Tarot games, and serves a very specialized function. You may play the Fool at any time, regardless of suit led (hence the name). The Fool can not win the trick; however, at the end of the trick, the player who played it takes it back, and lays it down as if he had won that card. He gives any other card that he has won to the player who actually won the trick, as a sort of consolation. If he has no other cards, he may hold onto the Fool, and later pay the consolation out to the player who would have won the Fool -- only if he wins no tricks at all must he surrender the Fool to the player who would have won it.

(If the Fool is led, it is essentially invisible; the next player can play whatever card he feels like, and subsequent players should consider that card to be the lead for the trick.)

The Fool is the highest card by scoring value, and it is very difficult to lose it (you can usually win at least one trick), so getting it in your deal is a Very Good Thing indeed.

Scoring: After all the tricks are played, each player totals up his resulting score. If you have won fewer than 12 cards, you lose one point for each card you are short of 12; if you have more than 12 cards, you gain one point for each card above 12. To this, add the following scores for scoring cards you hold:

The other cards do not count towards your score, except in counting how many cards you hold.

A Game is played to 50 points. If no one has 50 or more, play more hands until someone wins. Dummett (and, I suspect, the original source) are not explicit about what to do if multiple players exceed 50 in the same hand. The easiest solution is probably that, in this case, the player with the highest total wins, and if there is a tie, they split the stake. However, other alternatives are obvious. For example, there might be an "instant win", in which players count their scores continuously, and the first player to declare themselves above 50 during play wins. Make sure that you agree how you will deal with this issue in advance, since this situation can happen fairly easily.


As of this writing, I am about to start teaching this game, so I don't have much experience to judge from. It certainly appears to be a good, simple trick-taking game, actually more straightforward than the majority of such games from period.


The order of play is: