Tarot is not a set of mystical fortune-telling cards. It's not a cryptic book of secrets ("arcana") from the ancient wizards of Atlantis.
It's a goddamned card game. Old Italian men play it while getting blasted on grappa. Although, those occult tarot cards most of us know were based on this game.
If you want to play a wargame based on Tarot cards, look for Gnostica, an Icehouse game by Looney Labs.
Tarot is played with 3-5 players. You'll need a deck of Tarot cards. In France or Italy you can get them at a supermarket; in America you'll have to go to a hippy/witch store. Try not to punch anyone in the teeth while you're there.
A tarot deck has 78 cards:
- 56 suited cards, divided into four suits (diamonds, hearts, clubs & spades... or coins, cups, staves & swords). These suited cards have ranks 1-10, plus 4 royalty cards called the Page (or Jack), Knight, Queen and King. If you bought a French deck, the royalty cards will be called the Valet, Cavalier, Dame & Roi, or just have the first letter of each.
- 22 trump cards, ranked 0-21. Each of these will have a colourful name like 'the magician' or 'the moon' -- the '0' card is always called the Joker or something like it -- but all that matters is the rank. Any trump card will "trump" the suited cards in a trick (duh).
Rules for French Tarot
In French Tarot, the trump cards 0, 1, and 21 are called "Oudlers" or "Outliers." The Oodlers and the Royalty cards are the only ones used for scoring points. You should know this before bidding.
The dealer shuffles the cards, and deals them all out. Six cards are dealt to a pile called "the Dog" (or "the Kitty" in English?) and set aside for now. If you're playing with 5 players, the dog gets only 3 cards.
Players look at their cards, and go around bidding on how many points they expect to get with this hand. They bid one of the following, and each player's bid must be higher than the last, or 'pass'.
- Pass - either the player has a crap hand, or they know they can't do better than the last bid. If all the players "pass," then it's a mulligan and the dealer takes back all the cards and re-deals them to start over.
- Small - the player figures they can win this hand with the dog cards, for just normal (x1) points.
- Guard - the player figures they can win this hand with the dog cards, and is willing to risk double (x2) points.
- Guard without the dog - figures they can win without the dog cards, for quadruple (x4) points.
- Guard against the dog - figures they can win even if the dog cards go to the defenders, for sextuple (x6) points.
- Grand slam - figures they can take ALL the tricks. +400 points if you win, +200 to each other player if you lose.
Whoever bids highest is the 'Keeper', and all the other players play as a team as 'Defenders.' If the Keeper bid 'Small' or 'Guard', they turn over the cards in the Dog, show them to the Defenders, then pick them up and put back in the dog any six cards that aren't worth points (no Royalty nor Oudlers). If the Keeper bid 'without the dog,' nobody sees the cards in the Dog, but are counted as the Keeper's for scoring at the end. If the Keeper bid 'against the dog' or 'grand slam,' the Dog stays face-down but are added to the Defender's cards for scoring.
Sidenote: officially, French Tarot is only played with 3 or 4 players, but when you play with 5 players, the Dog is only 4 cards instead of 6, and before the tricks start, the Keeper calls out the highest Royalty card not in the Keeper's hand, and whoever has that card becomes the Keeper's partner against the Defenders.
Now you play tricks, starting next to the dealer. Cards played must always follow suit. If you can't follow suit, you must play a trump if able. If there's already a trump in the trick (even if it was the first card), you must play a higher trump if able, otherwise you must play a lower trump. If you don't have the proper suit nor any trump, then you can play any off-suit. The exception is the '0' trump, or the Joker -- you can play that in place of any trump, and the Joker will return to the side that plays it no matter who wins the trick. It almost never wins a trick, but it can save a defender from overtrumping when your side already have the trick, or wasting a trump on a trick that has no scoring cards. Whoever won the last trick starts the next.
Once all the cards are played, time to count the scores. The Keeper includes the cards in the Dog with the tricks they took, unless the bid was 'against the Dog', in which case the Defenders pick up those cards. Count the cards in pairs:
- Oudler + card = 5 points
- King + card = 5 points
- Queen + card = 4 points
- Knight + card = 3 points
- Page + card = 2 points
- card + card = 1 point
- one leftover card = 1/2 point.
Now the keeper counts how many Oudlers they took, to see if they made the goal:
- three oudlers must score at least 36 points
- two oudlers must score at least 41 points
- one oudler needs 51 points
- no oudlers needs 56 points
If the Keeper made the goal, take how many points they went over (even if it's 0) and add +25, then multiply that by their bid. This value is SUBTRACTED from each of the Defenders, and the winning Keeper gets all the points they lost. For each point under the goal, add that to each Defender's score, and subtract all the points gained from the Keeper's score. This makes it a zero-sum game. (In a five-player game, divide the Keeper's positive/negative points between the Keeper and partner.)
Scoring Example 1: The Keeper bid 'Guard', won three oudlers, and just squeaked by with 38 points. That's +2 more than needed, add +25 for 27 points, x2 for bidding 'Guard' for 54 points. Each of the three Defenders loses 54 points, and the keeper gets (54 x 3 =) 162 points.
Scoring Example 2: The Keeper bid 'Small', won 41 points... but only one oudler. Damn; that's 10 points under. Each of the three Defenders gets +10 points, while the Keeper gets (-10 x 3 =) -30 points. If the Keeper had a partner, that's -15 points for each of them.
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