Tarot card games

The Trull, the highest-valued trumps in Central European Tarock games
Hungarian statesmen playing tarokk in 1895, the preferred card game of the pre-communist era.

Tarot games are card games played with tarot packs designed for card play and which have a permanent trump suit alongside the usual four card suits. The games and packs which English-speakers call by the French name Tarot are called Tarocchi in the original Italian, Tarock in German and similar words in other languages.

Tarot cards were invented in northern Italy around 1420 for the purpose of playing cards and with their appearance came the first of the two great innovations in trick-taking games since they had arrived in Europe: the concept of trumps. At around the same time or slightly earlier, a similar concept arose in the game of Karnöffel. However, in this south German game played with an ordinary pack, some cards of the given suit had full trump powers, others were partial trumps and the 7s had a special role. These features have been retained in games of the Karnöffel family down to the present, but are never seen in Tarot games. Suits with these variable powers are thus called chosen or selected suits to distinguish them from trump suits.


The introduction of trumps is one of only two major innovations to trick-taking games since they were invented; the other being the idea of bidding. Trump cards, initially called trionfi, first appeared with the advent of Tarot cards in which there is a separate, permament trump suit comprising a number of picture cards. The first known example of such cards was ordered by the Duke of Milan around 1420 and included 16 trumps with images of Greek and Roman gods.A basic description first appeared in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona, written before 1425. The games are known in many variations, mostly cultural and regional.

Tarot games originated in Italy, and spread to most parts of Europe, notable exceptions being the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, and the Balkans. The earliest detailed description of rules for a Tarot game in any language were published by the Abbé de Marolles in Nevers in 1637.

The abbot had learnt this variant from Princess Louise-Marie of Gonzague-Nevers who had introduced some rule variations from the normal game. It was played by three players with a 66-card pack obtained by removing the 3 lowest cards of each suit from a standard 78-card, Italian-suited Tarot pack. Two players received 21 cards each, while the dealer received 25 from which four were discarded. There were payments for declaring certain card combinations at the start, for playing the Ace of Coins and for taking the last trick with a King or the Pagat. The usual Tarot rules or play and card point values applied; the winner was the one with the most points in tricks and was paid an amount by the losers based on the difference in scores.

Tarot card games are played with decks having four ordinary suits, and one additional, longer suit of tarots, which are always trumps. They are characterised by the rule that a player who cannot follow to a trick with a card of the suit led must play a trump to the trick if possible. Tarot games have introduced the concept of trumps to card games. More recent tarot games borrowed features from other games like bidding from Ombre and winning the last trick with the lowest trump from Trappola.

Tarot decks did not precede decks having four suits of the same length, and they were invented not for occult purposes but purely for gaming. In 1781, Court de Gébelin published an essay associating the cards with ancient wisdom, the earliest record of this idea, subsequently debunked by Dummett. As a result of the unsupported theories of de Gébelin and other occultists, tarot cards have since been used for cartomancy and divination as well as gaming, although nowadays fortune-tellers tend to use specially-developed tarot decks rather than those used for games.

Tarot games are increasingly popular in Europe, especially in France where French Tarot is the second most popular card game after Belote. In Austria, Tarock games, especially Königrufen, have become widespread and there are several major national and international tournaments each year. Italy, the home of Tarot, remains a stronghold, and games of the Tarot family are also played in Hungary, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Czechia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, south Germany and south Poland. Tarot games, however, have yet to be common in the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula.

The cards of the special suit in these games are variously called tarocks, tarocs, taroks, tarocchi or tarots.


Dummett classified Tarot games into three distinct types:[citation needed]

  • Type I – in which there are other trumps with a scoring value greater than one point in addition to the Fool, the XXI and the I. These are only found in Italy.
  • Type II – in which there are 3 high-value trumps, but the Fool is used as an 'excuse'.
  • Type III – in which there are also 3 high-value trumps, but the Fool is the top trump.

Type I – the Tarocchi/Tarocchini group

The Tarocco Bolognese is used for Tarocchini.

Tarocchi (Italian, singular Tarocco), and similar names in other languages, is a specific form of playing card deck used for different trick-taking games. An earlier name of the game Trionfi is first recorded in the diary of Giusto Giusti in September 1440 (in other early documents also ludus triumphorum or similar). The name Tarochi was first used in Ferrara June 1505, the name Taraux appeared in Avignon in December of the same year. The names Tarocco, Tarocchi and Tarot developed in later times beside different writing forms. The poet Francesco Berni still mocked on this word in his Capitolo del Gioco della Primiera written in 1526. The name Trionfi developed later as a general term for trick-taking games (Triomphe in French, Trumpfen in German and Trump in English) and persisted as the name for the trumps in Tarot packs even when they had been renamed Tarocchi. Other different games claimed the name without any use of Tarocchi cards. The first basic rules for the game of Tarocco appear in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona, the next are known from the year 1637.

Excluding Piedmontese tarocchi, which is more closely related to French tarot, Italian tarocchi are all of Type I, i.e. they have trumps other than the I and XXI that are worth more than one card point. Winning the final trick (ultimo) awards a set number of points. Sicilian tarocchi is played in only four towns with 63 cards from the Tarocco Siciliano deck. Tarocchini is confined to Bologna and uses the 62 card Tarocco Bolognese deck. These games have four face cards in each suit but dropped some of their pip cards early in their history. Both decks include 21 trumps and The Fool, a suitless card that excuses the player from following suit.

Type II – the Tarot group

French Tarot being played.

The French adopted tarot games after their occupation of Milan in the late 15th century. French Tarot, known locally as Jeu de Tarot, is one which uses the full 78-card Tarot deck. Originally played with the Italian-suited Tarot de Marseille, the game is now played with the French-suited Tarot Nouveau. The Tarot Nouveau, of Frankfurt origin, has trumps which depict scenes of traditional social activities; this differs from the Renaissance allegorical motifs found in Italian-suited Tarot decks such as the Tarot de Marseille, Tarocco Piemontese and the Tarocco Bolognese. Jeu de Tarot is now the most popular card game in France after Belote and many tournaments are held by the Fédération Française de Tarot.

A Tarot Nouveau deck consists of 56 cards of four suits and 22 emblematic cards called atouts (trumps). Each suit consists of fourteen cards: ten pip cards, and four face cards: the Roi (King), Dame (Queen), Cavalier (Knight), and Valet (Jack). Of the atouts, 21 are numbered from 1 to 21, and a non-numbered card called "Fou" ("Fool", also called "Mat" or "L'Excuse" in play) which "excuses" the player from following suit. Of the atouts, only the Fool and trumps 1 and 21 are considered to be "counting" cards because they are worth more than 1 point. Winning the last trick awards bonuses only if it is won with the lowest trump.

Tarot games from Piedmont, the Italian region bordering France, are more similar to French tarot than other Italian games. These games use the 78-card Tarocco Piemontese deck which was derived from the Tarot de Marseille. The most common Piedmontese tarot games are Scarto, Mitigati, Chiamare il Re, and Partita which can be found in Pinerolo and Turin. Troccas, a Swiss tarot game, is also related and is played with the 78-card Swiss 1JJ Tarot, another derivative of the Tarot de Marseille. Danish Grosstarok, which focuses on winning the final trick, historically used Animal Tarot decks or decks that replaced the animal motifs with ones featuring Danish architecture, until a dying out of local production and a shift towards exclusively producing stripped 54-card decks among foreign producers of Animal Tarot, resulted in players of this game now also adopting the Tarot Nouveau.

Type III – the Tarock group

Industrie und Glück trumps

Tarock games, Dummett's Type III, differ from other forms in the function of the Fool which is now simply the highest trump. Games of this category include Cego, Zwanzigerrufen and Königrufen. These games use the 54 card French suited Cego or Industrie und Glück decks that strip certain pip cards. The games are widely played in the Upper Rhine valley and its surrounding hills such as the Black Forest or the Vosges, and the countries within the boundaries of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, for which even the name 'Tarockania' (Tarockanien) has been coined: the Austrian variation of the game (and the variations thereof) is thus still widely popular among all classes and generations in Slovenia and Croatia, while in Hungary different rules are applied. The Swiss game of Troggu is believed to be an intermediary form linking the older tarot games to the Central European ones.


The individual tarock game variants differ too widely from one another to give a general description of play. However, they can be grouped by sub-type:

The last group is a family of games that emerged as result of the attempt to play Grosstarock with a normal 36-card German-suited pack. Instead of the dedicated trump suit, Hearts is chosen as the trump suit or at least as a preference suit. This family includes German Tarok, Württemberg Tarock or Tapp, Bavarian Tarock, Bauerntarock, Frog and Dobbm. They are ace–ten games that incorporate features of Tapp Tarock, but are not true tarock games.


The following true tarock games are known:

Two players, 54 cards
Three players, 42 cards
Three players, 54 cards
Three players, 78 cards
Four players, 40 or 42 cards
Four players, 54 cards
Round games

Common features

Deck of cards

A complete Tarot deck such as one for French Tarot contains the full 78-card complement and can be used to play any game in the family with the exception of Minchiate, an extinct game that used 97 cards. Austrian-Hungarian Tarock and Italian Tarocco decks, however, are a smaller subset (of 63, 54, 40, or even 36 cards) suitable only for games of a particular region. Regional tarot decks commonly feature culture-specific suits; the German suits of Hearts, Bells, Acorns and Leaves are used through most of Germanic Europe, the Latin suits of Cups, Coins, Clubs, and Swords are common in Italy and Spain, and the French suits of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades are seen in France, Quebec, West Germany and most of the English-speaking world. This trend continues even to non-Tarot decks such as for the German game of Skat (played with a deck of similar-value cards as in the French piquet deck used for Belote; players in most of western Germany use French suits while players in Bavaria and eastern Germany use German suits).

Austrian-style 40-card Tarock hand: the Skys (Fool) as highest trump, trump 21 (the second highest), five other trumps, King, Queen, 1 .

The 78-card tarot deck contains:

  • 14 cards each in four suits (French or Latin depending on the region): "pip" cards numbered one (but called Ace) through ten; plus four court cards, a Jack (or Knave or Valet), a Knight (or Cavalier), a Queen, and a King.
  • The 21 tarots function in the game as a permanent suit of trumps.
  • The Fool, also known as the Excuse, is an unnumbered card that excuses the player from following suit or playing a trump in some variations, and that acts as the strongest trump in others.

The 54-card 'tarock' deck contains:

  • 8 cards each in four suits (usually French), the "pip" cards being stripped out leaving 1 to 4 in the red suits (Ace highest) and 10 to 7 in the black suits (Ten highest). The court cards remain the same.
  • 22 tarocks as permanent trumps, including the Sküs (the Fool) as an unnumbered Tarock XXII, the Mond as Tarock XXI and the Pagat as Tarock I, which are collectively known as the Trull or "Honours" and have a special role.

Due to the antiquity of tarot games, the cards are ordered in an archaic ranking. In the plain suits, Kings are always high. With the exception of modern French tarot and Sicilian tarocchi, the ranking in the Latin round suits (cups and coins) or the French red suits (diamonds and hearts) goes from King (high), Queen, Cavalier, Jack, 1, 2, 3 ... 10 (low).

Basic rules of play

  • Play is typically anti-clockwise; the player to the right of the dealer plays to the first trick. Players must follow suit if they have a card of the suit led, otherwise they must play a trump if possible. The winner of each trick leads to the next.
  • After the hand has been played, a score is taken based on the point values of the cards in the tricks each player has managed to capture.

Common card values

The aim in almost all card games of the Tarot family is to make as many points as possible from the cards taken in tricks, the cards having different point values. Those cards which have little or no point value are called various names – Skartins, Ladons or cartes basses depending on the region – but may be referred to as low cards. Cards which have a higher point value may be called counting cards or counters; they usually include the Fool (Excuse or Sküs), the I (Pagat Petit, Bagatto or Little Man) and the XXI (Mond) plus all the court cards. In such a case, the low cards are the remaining tarots (II to XX) and all the pip cards. Not all games follow this precisely; in some games, other cards are included among the counters. However, the division of counters and low cards described is the most common and is often accompanied by the following 'standard' card values:

  • Oudlers or Trull cards – Trumps I, XXI and the Fool: 5 points
  • Kings: 5 points
  • Queens: 4 points
  • Cavaliers or Knights: 3 points
  • Knaves, Valets or Jacks: 2 points
  • Low cards: 1 point

Tarot scoring

The system by which players work out their scores in almost all Tarot games may appear "eccentric and puzzling", but the rationale to it is that, originally, the cards were each valued at one less point than that shown above (e.g. Kings were worth 4 points and low cards had no point value), but every trick taken scored one point. Dummett argues that the tedious work of counting tricks card points separately, led players to fuse the two processes into a single operation. There are several practical methods, but all are designed to achieve the same aim: a quick and relatively simple way of calculating the score.

A very common system used in many 54-card Tarock games is counting in packets of three. Under the original scoring scheme, the pack would have been worth 52 points and there would have been 18 points for the 18 tricks making a total of 70 points in total; thus, in most cases, a declarer needs 36 points to win. Mayr and Sedlaczek described 3 common systems:

Counting in threes with low cards

The first, easiest and oldest method is counting in threes with low cards. A player gathers the cards won in tricks and groups them into triplets each comprising one counting card and two low cards. Each triplet scores the value of the counter only e.g. a Queen and two low cards scores 4. In addition, a triplet of three low cards scores exactly 1 point. In some games, players may end up with one or two cards over. Two remaining low cards are rounded up to score 1 point; a single low card is rounded down to zero. This is the simplest method but it doesn't work if a player does not have enough low cards for every counter.

Counting in threes with a 2-point deduction

The second method, popular in Vienna, was developed later: counting in threes with a 2-point deduction. Cards are grouped in threes again, but the composition is irrelevant. Within each triplet the card values are added and then 2 points are deducted from the total. So, for example, a Queen, Cavalier and Ten are worth 4 + 3 + 1 – 2 = 6 points. Players try to ensure that any odd cards left over are low cards. Again, two low cards are worth 1 point and a single low card is worthless.

Counting in fractions

The third method is a new development and the most precise, but also the most complicated and least used: counting in fractions. Cards are given fractional values as follows: Trull cards and Kings – 4+13, Queens – 3+13, Cavaliers – 2+13, Jacks – 1+13 and low cards – 13 each. In this way individual cards can be counted. So a Queen, Cavalier and Ten are worth 3+13 + 2+13 + 13 = 6 points, producing the same result as the second method.

A variant of this method is used for Tarot Nouveau or French tarot, where low cards are each worth half a point, and are combined with a counting card. The fractional values of each of the cards are as follows: Oudlers and Kings - 4+12, Queens - 3+12, Cavaliers - 2+12, Jacks - 1+12 and low cards - 12 each. The same method is used as above but counting only two cards. For example, a Queen (worth 3 1/2 points) and a low card (1/2 point) would be counted together to make 4.

Tarot images

For the purpose of the rules, the numbering of the trumps is all that matters. The symbolic tarot images have no effect in the game itself other than influencing the naming of a few of the cards (Fool, Mond, Pagat, Little Man). The design traditions of these decks subsequently evolved independently and they often bear only numbers and whimsical scenes arbitrarily chosen by the engraver.[citation needed] However, there are still traditional sequences of images in which the common lineage is visible; e.g. the moon that is commonly visible at the bottom left corner of the trump card 21 stems from confusion of the German word Mond, meaning "moon", with Italian mondo and French monde, meaning "world", the usual symbol associated with the trump card 21 on Italian suited tarots.

In popular culture

In the denouement of the first volume of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, the protagonist's life depends on his friend winning a prolonged game of tarocco.

See also


  1. ^ Zählen in Dreierlagen
  2. ^ Using the modern card point scheme shown would produces a theoretical total of 106 points for the pack.
  3. ^ Zählen in Dreierlagen mit Leerkarten
  4. ^ Zählen in Dreierlagen mit 2-Punkte-Abzug
  5. ^ Zählen in Bruchzahlen

This page was last updated at 2024-01-13 10:40 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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