With cards like Death, The Devil, and The Hanged Man, it’s easy to see how tarot developed a spooky reputation. The deck is associated with the occult today, but before it was used to read people‘s fortunes (or misfortunes), it was actually used for recreation. Wealthy European families began commissioning artist-made tarot decks for games around the 15th century, and the cards are still used for this purpose today.
According to Pagat, one of the most common tarot card games is French tarot. It‘s the second most popular card game in France, and there are no divination skills required to play; all you need is a 78-card tarot deck.
How To Play French Tarot
Most versions of French tarot involve four players, and the object of the game is to score the most points, with different cards holding different point values. Kings of any suit are worth 4.5 points, while queens are worth 3.5, knights are 2.5, and Jacks are 1.5 points. Non-suited cards are called trump cards: The 1 of trump (or The Magician), the 21 of trump (The World), and the Fool card are considered honor cards, and they‘re also worth 4.5 points, respectively. All other trump cards have a value of .5.
To start, the dealer hands 18 cards to each player and places the remaining six cards face-down in the middle of the table. Each player is then given the chance to bid or pass the bidding on to the next person; players who choose to bid become the taker for that round.
There are four possible bids to make. For “guard against,“ the taker doesn‘t get to see the cards in the middle pile and the point values of those cards are distributed to the other players at the end of the round. This is the riskiest bid, but it has the highest reward, with the taker‘s score being multiplied by six at the end of the round. For the “guard without“ bid, the taker doesn‘t get to see the center pile, but they do collect the points from it when the round is over. Opting for this bid quadruples their point total. On the other hand, bidding a “guard“ doubles the taker‘s points, and bidding “small“ has no multiplier. For both bids, the taker picks up the cards in the middle pile and adds them to their hand. They then choose six cards to set aside, which will still count toward their point tally at the end of the round.
With the bidding out of the way, the player on the dealer‘s right side kicks off the gameplay. They start the first trick by flipping a card from their hand to center of the table. If the next player has a card that matches the suit, they must play it (like adding a six of swords to a queen of swords, for example). If they can‘t follow the suit (or if the lead card was a trump), they must play a trump card. The next trump card that‘s laid down should be of a higher number value than the previous one. If that‘s not possible, players can add any card they have. Whoever played the highest-ranking trump card (or the highest-ranking suit card if no trump was played) wins the trick and collects the cards from the center pile. The round continues until all cards have been played.
The Fool is the exception to these rules. The card can be played at any point regardless of what came before it, and the original player can reclaim it at the end of the trick by replacing it with a .5-point card even if they didn‘t win.
How To Earn Points in French Tarot
Players also have the chance to win bonus points throughout the game. If the taker wins a trick with the 1 of trump card, they earn 10 bonus points. Players with 10 trump cards in their hand can declare a “handful“ at the start of the round and win 20 bonus points. A hand with 13 trumps is worth 30 bonus points, and 15 trumps is worth 40. A “slam“ happens when a player wins all the tricks in a round. If they declare a “slam“ at the beginning of the round, they earn 400 bonus points, and if they win all the tricks without calling it first, they earn 200. That said, announcing a “slam“ without winning all the tricks costs the player 200 points.
When everyone has played their hand, it‘s time to count up the card points. The goal of the taker is to win a certain number of points based on how many honor cards they collect. If they have no honor cards, they need to earn 56 card points. With one honor card they need 51 points, whereas with two they need 41, and with three they need 36. Their final score is the difference between the value of the cards they won and the minimum number of points they need to be successful, plus 25 base points. They can then multiply that number by their bid multiplier and add any bonuses they received.
This number equals the amount of points the taker collects from each player. That means if the taker calculates 56 points, their opponents each score -56 points, giving the taker a final score of 168 points. All the players' scores should come out to 0 when added together. If the taker doesn‘t earn the minimum number of points they need, they have to pay out their calculated score to each of the other players. Whoever has the most points after an agreed-upon number of rounds is victorious.
If you're interested, you can grab a tarot deck and try this game out for yourself. If you‘re a first-time player who feels lost reading these rules though, you may have an easier time following the instructions in the video below from Gather Together Games. Or you can keep using the cards for divination—in that case, it‘s easier to get away with making up the rules as you go.