Introduction to Period Card Games

The Oak (A&S Newsletter of Atlantia) Master Dafydd ap Gwystl
Issue #5

"A man's fancy would be summed up at Cribbidge; Gleeke requires a vigilant memory; Maw, a pregnant agility; Picket, a various invention; Primero, a dextrous kind of rashness"1

This article is the first in a series on period card games. This first article will concentrate on a general description of period card games, their development, their history, and the rules to two games: Primero and Triomphe Forcée. Subsequent articles will describe rules to various period card games.

We have proof that playing cards appeared in the last quarter of the Fourteenth century, that they were very successful among all walks of life, and that they were used for playing card games. As it turns out, however, we have almost no idea of what card games were played, or what the rules were. Until Charles Cotton published his Complete Gamester in 1674 rules of card games were rarely written down, and when they were mentioned were almost never complete. Game rules were transmitted orally. Some writers listed the names of games (Rabelais, for example, names some 35 card games among the games listed in his Gargantua, and similar 16th century German authors list hundreds of names of card games).2 Numerous sermons in the 15th and 16th centuries focus attention on one card game or another, but give no specifics on the rules. The names of card games were not standardized -- they varied in different regions and through time, and they were also subject to the vagaries of spelling. Games, however, were surprisingly rigid in format. New games appeared regularly, but once a game became established it usually retained the same form for centuries, often for its whole life span. The oldest game for which we have rules, Karnöffel, still survives in Switzerland (under the name Kaiserspiel) in virtually its original form.3

The card games for which I have found rules can be grouped into the following classes: lottery games, stops games, trick-taking games, melding games, vying games, and a grab-bag of other, less common types. Lottery games are those where players win or lose based upon the random deal of a few special cards. Stops games are those where players attempt to reach (and not exceed) a certain value or sum. In trick-taking games the players each play a single card in sequence (all the cards together called a trick), and the best card wins that trick and leads to the next one. Melding games are those where players gain points through declaring certain combinations of cards held in the hand. Vying games are those, like modem Poker, where players play a sort of psychological warfare with each other, attempting to bluff or fool their opponents into acting (betting) unwisely. Almost all modem card games fit one (or more) of these classes, and there are period card games in each class as well.

Lottery games are focused on a few special cards. Formal lottery games are rare in modem times, and examples are hard to find. In one Sherlock Holmes story a group of men deal out cards, one at a time, face up, to determine who is to die and who to kill-the man who is dealt the Ace of Clubs must kill the man who is dealt the Ace of Spades within the next week. This is a perfect example of a lottery game at cards. Lottery games seem to have been much more popular in period than they are now. Lottery games are pure gambling, no strategy. It seems likely that lottery games were among the first card games to appear in Europe, as gamblers transferred their dice games to the new medium. This is purely conjecture, however. Dice game-card game links can be seen in the 16th century between the dice game Gluckshaus and the card game Glic or Pochspiel, and other examples exist.4

Stops games, like lottery games, seem to appear very early. Blackjack or Twenty-One (called Pontoon in Europe) is a modem example of a stops game. Games called Thirty-One appear in Italy and France from the middle 15th century, and are almost certainly stops games related to Blackjack.5 The interactive phase of modem Cribbage is also a stops game, and is also present in its period ancestor. Many period games appear to have had a phase where the players played a stops game with the cards they held.

Trick-taking games are among the most popular class of games in the modern card world, and were very popular in period as well. Modern trick-taking games include Bridge, Hearts, Whist, Spades, and many others. Trick-taking games can be split into "simple" trick or "complex" trick games. Simple trick-taking games are those where only the trick itself counts for points towards eventual victory; complex trick-taking games have a more complex system where some cards are worth special values if captured. England seems to have favored simple trick-taking games almost exclusively, while the rest of Europe has a much larger number of complex trick-taking games.

Some trick-taking games have a special suit designated which is more powerful than the others, and capable of beating all cards of other suits in a trick. This is called a "Trump" suit. Several games with names similar to Triomphe (French) or Trionfo (Italian), meaning Trump, show up around the late 15th century. Trumps are mentioned many times in sermons and other documentation from the middle 15th century on, but not before then. Evidence survives of some games that seem to be ancestral attempts at trumps in the early 15th century-the Tarot deck (first appearing pre 1440) is simply an Italian suited deck with a special permanent Trump suit attached. 15th century inventories differentiate between 'normal' and Tarot decks by describing Tarot decks as Cards with Trumps. The earliest documented game for which we have rules, Karnöffel (first reference in 1426), has a sort of partial trump suit which is unique among all other games and could easily be an ancestor to modern playing of trick-taking games with a trump suit. A possible reconstruction of the sequence of events is the following: Trick-taking games appear very early, before 1400, possibly with the first card games; games with "power cards" capable of superseding the normal order of cards appear 1420s or earlier (Karnöffel is a documentable example); a deck with a permanent "power suit", or Trumps, appears in the 1430s (this is the Tarot deck); some time soon thereafter the Tarot use of a permanent Trump suit is transferred over to normal 4-suited decks by promoting one of the normal suits to a Trump suit.6

Another class of games is the "Melding" games. "Meld" means to declare a particular combination of cards. Rummy is a very popular modem melding game. Pinochle and Cribbage are modern games with strong melding components. Melding games were quite popular in period as well, and some of them were very complex (for example Minchiate or Tridunus). Many games combined melding and stops; melding and trick-taking; or vying (bluffing) elements with melding. There is not enough evidence to trace the origin of melding games past the ones known from the early 16th century. Since we have examples from Spain (Tridunus), France (Cent), Italy (Partitaccia, Minchiate), and England (Cent, possibly Gleek) in the early or middle 16th century, and since all these melding games are very complex, it seems clear that melding games were already widespread and well developed by the early 16th century. It is possible that melding grew out of more complex Lottery games - Glic/Pochspiel (middle 15th century) seems to have elements halfway between lottery and melding--the Marriage and Sequence.

Vying games is the class of games where victory is clear, and strategy is usually also clear and fairly simple, but limited knowledge and psychology make the game interesting. The real game occurs when players attempt to drive up the stake by betting, either to bluff an opponent into losing nerve and withdrawing or to cause an opponent to stay in on a weak hand. Poker is the modem game that best exemplifies vying games. Vying elements occur in several period games. Primero, Putt, and Post are all period vying games. Primero appears in the early 16th century, and I am not aware of any earlier pure vying games, but Glic/Pochspiel (pre 1441) has a vying phase.

Finally there are the games that do not fit into the classes given above. Reversis is the only Trick-avoiding game I have discovered with any possibility of being played before 1600 (it is first mentioned in 1601). The most widely known modem trick-avoiding game is Hearts. The Art of Memory is a simple memorization game. When it is played for drinks it becomes much more complex as the players' memories become more limited.

Many of the games described in this series are trick-taking games. The descriptions assume a basic familiarity with at least one modern trick-taking game (Hearts, Spades, Bridge, Pinochle, Whist, etcetera). Any readers who are not familiar with playing a trick-taking game are advised to seek out a friend (one who is familiar with a trick-taking game) to get an explanation of playing to tricks. Briefly, a trick is a round of the game where one person plays a card, then each player in turn plays a card to that set. One of the cards will be the "best" according to some criteria; the player who played that card wins the trick (the whole set of cards). The winner takes the whole set of cards off and leads any new card to the next trick. Tricks do not have any relation to each other. The usual criteria for winning a trick is: the highest card that is the same suit as the first card led to the trick wins the trick. When trumps are played, any trump will beat any other card, so the highest trump card played wins the trick (if no trumps were played, the highest card of the suit led wins). Note that particular games will have many other restrictions, for example: players may play any card they wish; players must follow suit if possible (this means that players must play a card of the suit that was led) and if void may play any card; players must follow suit if possible and must play a trump if void. Other restrictions are possible.

The evolution of card games seems to tend from the complex to the simple. Many early games have multiple phases. Glic involves a multiple lottery, vying, and a stops game. More than a third of the games described here have at least two separate phases. Modem games with multiple phases are more rare, and usually have very old roots. Cribbage and Picquet, two of the most popular modem multiple-phase games, are only slightly modified forms of period games (Cribbidge and Cent). Some of the older games are very complex indeed-Minchiate, Tridunus, Partitaccia, Trappola, and Cent all date to the early 16th century.


Triomphe Forcée7

This game is one of the earliest card games played with the tarot deck for which rules are known. The game uses the full 78 card tarot deck. Between 4-10 players may participate; my experience is that 4-6 players is optimal, and more than six players tends to make the game too much of a lottery, with no skill involved.

Triomphe Forcée is a relatively simple gambling game. Each player puts up a stake (2 or 3 denaro is probably good) and is dealt five cards. If any player has La Mort (Trump XIII) in his hand, he declares it immediately and takes all the stakes, and another hand is dealt. Otherwise, each player in turn from the player to the right of the dealer declares whether he has one or more of Le Fou (the Fool), Le Basteleur (trump I), or La Force (trump IX in Vievil's deck; trump XI in others). Le Fou and Le Basteleur gain the owner a sum equal to their original stake; La Force is worth double the stake. A player holding more than one of these cards gets the combined sum for the cards held. If this results in all the stakes being taken, the hand is over and another one is dealt. Otherwise, the hands are played out in tricks under the usual rules. The player who obtains the greatest number of tricks wins the remaining stakes. If two players win two tricks each, the one who won two tricks first wins the stakes. If all five tricks go to different players, the player who took a trick first wins the pot.

Order of Play: counter-clockwise

Order of Cards:
Permanent Trumps: in order as marked (XXI high down to I low)
Swords, Batons: (high) K Q C J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 (low)
Cups, Coins: (high) K Q C J 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (low)

Play of a Trick:
Winner of last trick leads any card. Subsequent players must follow suit if they can (including playing a trump if a trump was led). If they are void, they must play a trump if they have one. The highest trump played wins the trick; the highest card of the suit led wins if no trump are played.

Le Fou (The Fool):
The Fool may be played instead of following suit or being forced to trump. It never takes a trick.

Counting Points:
Only the number of tricks taken counts in this game.


Primero is played with a 40 card deck (no 8, 9, or 10 in all suits). From three to six players may play at once.

Primero was a favorite game of Elizabeth I, and appears many times in Shakespeare. It was played in Italy (Primiera), France (Prime), and England throughout the 16th century. It may well have been played with a 40-card French suited deck in later England and France, but the "Spanish" suited deck is also possible. In Northern Italy it would use the Italian deck, and in southern Italy the Italian or "Spanish" decks.

Primero is a vying game where each player attempts to gain the best hand and so win the pot. Players are dealt two cards, then they bet, then they are dealt two more cards, then they bet again and declare the rank of their hands, then they are given the opportunity to improve their hands by replacing one or two cards, and finally all remaining players reveal their hands and the best hand wins the pot.

The possible four-card hands rank as follows:
Numerus, the lowest hand, consists of two or three cards of the same suit. The point value of a Numerus is the sum of the cards in that suit (only), ignoring other cards in the hand.

Primero is a hand which has one card of every suit. The value of a Primero is the sum of the values of all cards in the hand. Regardless of value, any Primero will beat any Numerus.

Supremus, or Fifty-five, is the Ace, Six, and Seven of one suit plus an unrelated fourth card of a different suit. It is called Fifty-five because that is the sum of the values of its three relevant cards. A Supremus will beat any Numerus or Primero.

Fluxus, or flush, is a hand with all four cards of the same suit. The value of a Fluxus is the sum of the values of all its cards. Regardless of its value, any Fluxus will beat any Supremus, Primero or Numerus.

Chorus is four cards of the same denomination (four of a kind). A Chorus beats any lower hand. If there are multiple Chori the one with the highest point value wins.

Within a hand, card values are as follows:

Seven: 21 points  Six: 18 points  Ace: 16 points
Five: 15 points  Four: 14 points  Three: 13 points
Two: 12 points  all Face Cards: 10 points

If two hands tie, the one closest to the right of the dealer wins.

The game is played as follows: each player antes (one denaro is fine). The dealer deals two cards to each player. (Play is counter-clockwise, like most games from south of the Alps). Starting with the player on the dealer's right, each player gets the choice of betting on the pair of cards he has, or trading one or both of them in for new ones. As soon as one player bets, the remaining players may not trade cards in. If the player trades cards in, the choice passes to the player on his right. If all players (including the dealer) trade cards in, the whole hand must be redealt.

When a player places a bet the others have the choice of playing with the cards they have or dropping out of the hand. On the first betting round only, if no other player chooses to continue, the last player after the one who laid the first bet must matching it and continue.

Except for the initial stake and the above provision, any bet by an opponent could be refused. If every other player refuses a bet, it must be withdrawn, and the betting continues at the lower level. For example: Alberto, Bartolomeo, Constanza, and Fiametta are playing Primero. Alberto has just dealt a pair of cards to each player. Bartolomeo bets 2 denari. Constanza sees the 2 denari bet, and raises it 6 more denari. Fiametta refuses the bet. Alberto refuses the bet. Bartolomeo refuses as well, and Constanza must withdraw her 6 denari raise (if Bartolomeo had taken the bet then Fiametta and Alberto would be out of the hand, exactly as if they had folded). Fiametta now has the chance to see, raise, or fold in response to the 2 denari bet that existed before Constanza raised it, and the betting continues from there.

After the initial round of betting is over, each player remaining in the game receives his other two cards. At this point anyone holding a Primero or Fluxus may call 'Vada' ('go!'), which brings an immediate showdown (no more betting, no further draw). This is not always wise, however, as further betting may increase the pot.

If nobody calls 'Vada', another round of betting follows. Before betting each player must announce the rank of his hand (i.e. Numerus, Primero, etc.). A player may bluff (announce their hand to be better than it actually is), but they may not announce their hand to be worse than it is, except in one particular situation: If a previous player has announced a Fluxus, Supremus or Primero and you have a Chorus, you may declare your hand as the same type as was announced. After this final round of betting, each player gets the chance to improve his hand by trading in one or two of his cards. After the final improvement players compare their hands. The highest hand wins the pot.


End Notes

1. Parlett, David, 7he Oxford Guide to Card Games, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 55. Parlett cites John Hall's Horae Vacivae, 1646.

2. Parlett, 52;
Rabelais, Francois, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin Books, 1955; 1987), 83-86.

3. Parlett, 165.

4. Parlett, 52.

5. Parlett, 80.

6. Dummett, Michael, The Game of Tarot, (London: Duckworth, 1980), chapter 4, especially 84, and chapter 7, especially 170-171.

7. Dummett, 216. These rules Dummett derives from the Maison academique of 1659.

8. Parlett, 91-92;
Alair of the Bloody Fountain, "Period Card Games", Compleat Anachronist #4. Indoor Games, (Jan 1983), 46-47.

9. Alair of the Bloody Fountain claims that Supremus and Chorus were optional hands, and only one of them was used in any given game (46). This claim is not mentioned by Parlett. Dummett mentions a Spanish origin for Primero (27, 48, 182-183); Parlett claims an Italian one (91).

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