Early 17th Century French Tarot

(according to the Abbé de Marolles, 1637) 

Introduction

The Tarot rules in the memoirs of the Abbé de Marolles (1637) represent the oldest known published detailed description of any Tarot game. It is noteworthy that they already contains all the scoring elements later found an essential part of German and subsequently Danish Tarok: bonuses for declaring card combinations that are important in the game, the special card point system and the Ultimo feature: the bonus for taking the last trick with a high value card. However, it is worth being aware that such scoring features are mentioned in Italian sources about 50 years earlier.

Players and Cards

There are three active players, each playing for themselves - there are no formal partnerships. Each player starts with a sufficient number of counters called marques. The direction of play is anticlockwise.

The game is played with an Italian-suited Tarot pack of 78 cards. However, Princess Marie-Louise found the game "more enjoyable" if one “discarded twelve useless cards" from the suits, namely the lowest three ranks, leaving 66 cards (editor’s comment: the only other 66-card Tarot game known is Droggn which was discovered by John McLeod and Remigius Geiser during a visit to Fulpmes, Austria, in 1996. In Droggn, the reduction to 66 cards is achieved in exactly the same way as described below).

The court cards, also called honneurs, are: the King (le Roy), Queen (la Royne), Cavalier (le Cheualier) and Jack (le Faon, from the Italian fante). The ranking of the cards of each suit from highest to lowest:

  • In the ‘long suits’, Swords (espées) and Batons (bastons): K, Q, C, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4
  • In the ‘round suits’, Cups (couppes) and Coins (deniers): K, Q, C, J, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The oddity of numeral cards in the round suits ranking inversely to those in the long suits is found in most Tarot traditions.

There are the 22 triomphes, 21 of which are trumps and are numbered from I to XXI. Trump XXI is le Monde (the World) and trump I is le Bagat (Pagat). The 22nd trump card has a special Joker-like role and is called le Math (the Fool) from the Italian matto (fool). The Ace of Coins is called la Belle (the beautiful woman). The Kings, the Math, the Pagat and the Monde are called Tarots (“les Tarots par excellence”).

Aim

There are three scoring elements:

  • Declarations of combinations of cards relevant to the game;
  • Card points, the value and scoring of which is explained below;
  • Pagat Ultimo or King Ultimo (faire le Bagat, ou vn Roy le dernier) i.e. taking the last trick with the Pagat or a King.

Deal and Discard

The dealer shuffles and the player to dealer's left cuts. The cut card, which becomes the bottom card of the pack will go to the dealer, is shown to everyone. If it is a tarot (i.e. Monde, Bagat, Math or King), the dealer is paid one marque by each opponent.

The dealer deals 4 rounds of 5 cards to each player; then one more card to each other player and 4 to himself. Alternatively the cards can be dealt in 7 rounds of 3 cards each, after which the last 3 cards are for the dealer. Either way, the dealer ends up with 24 cards and the other two players with 21 each. The card on the bottom of the pack, which will belong to the dealer, is shown to all the players and if it is a Tarot

The two non-dealers each discard one card and the dealer discards four. In each case these cards count in the discarder’s favour at the end of the play. No trumps or tarots may be discarded, on penalty of paying two marques to each opponent. Presumably the penalty applies to every such card discarded, otherwise the dealer could discard cheaply a group of high value but vulnerable cards.

Declarations

In turn, players may now declare specific combinations of cards they hold in their hand and receive marques from the other two in return. Each card may be used in each of the following declarations, i.e. multiple times. The declarations are voluntary and will only be paid if declared in advance; it is not possible to claim them later. If a player has a declaration, he receives the following number of marques (M) from every other player:

  • Tarots. First four tarots = 1 M, each additional tarot = +1 M.
  • Kings. The value differs depending on whether the player can also show the Fool. The principle is: there must be at least three cards, three natural Kings = 1 M, four natural Kings = 3 M, the Fool = + 1 M. So:
    • 2 Kings + Fool: 1 M
    • 3 Kings: 1 M
    • 3 Kings + Fool: 2 M
    • 4 Kings: 3 M
    • 4 Kings + Fool: 4 M
  • Triumphs. Ten = 1M, fifteen = 2M, twenty = 3M. A player who has more than trumps than he wishes to or is able to score selects which trumps to reveal (e.g. any 10 of 13 trumps).
  • Imperials. Every four courts in a suit or every four Queens, Cavaliers or Jacks = 1 M each. A card may be declared in both types of Imperial combination, e.g. if a player has all courts in the suit of Cups and all the Queens = 2 M.
  • Brizigole. The uninterrupted sequence of the four, five, or six highest or lowest trumps: 1 M, 2 M, or 3 M.
  • Tout les trois. (not a term used by Marolles) 3M for all three Triumph Tarots (XXI, I, Fool). Anyone who only holds two of them asks “qui à le sien?” (“who has them?”) and gets 1 M from the player who doesn't have one.
  • La Belle. The holder of the Ace of Coins receives 1M from each opponent when he plays it, regardless of who wins the trick. Marolles states that La Belle can also be declared with 7 tarots. Possibly what is meant is that the player declaring 7 Tarots can at the same time show the Ace of Coins and receive the 1M payment for it at that time rather than when it is played.

Marolles seems to have partially included the payment for the tarots in his calculations for the values of the King declaration. Marolles states: four Kings = 4 M, this is obtained with 3 M for four Kings plus 1 M for four tarots; four Kings and the Fool = 6M, so 4M for Kings and Fool plus 2M for five tarots. However, he gives 2 M for “Trois Roys & le Math", although that would be 3 M because of the four tarots. - The accuracy of scoring information in historical rules often leaves a lot to be desired.

Marolles does not specify when these declarations are made. It is most likely that they made before the first lead, since trumps have to be shown to score, but another possibility is that they were be declared by each player just before playing to the first trick.

Marolles does not specify whether declarations must be maximum, as would be required in modern rules, i.e. whether a player holding e.g. 16 trumps or four Kings may declare just 10 trumps (instead of 15) or three Kings (instead of four).

Play

The player to dealer's right leads the first card and each subsequent player adds one to the trick. The rules correspond to those of almost all Tarot games:

  • Suit must be followed, i.e. if you have cards of the suit played in your hand, you must play one of them.
  • If you cannot follow or if a trump has been led, you must play a trump.
  • The highest trump wins the trick, or the highest card of the suit led if no trump was played.
  • The winner of a trick leads to the next.

Players familiar with modern French Tarot will note that there is no need to overtrump a played tarot when playing a tarot is required. The modern French rule is unique among tarot games in this respect.

Whenever a Tarot is played to a trick, the player is immediately paid one marque by each opponent unless it is captured by an opponent. When a Tarot is captured, the player immediately pays one marque to each opponent.

Excusing (S'excuser)

The Fool can be played at any time before the last trick instead of following suit or playing a tarot. It is shown and then discarded to its holder's tricks, so it cannot be lost, but it does not win a trick either. Playing the Fool like this is called ‘excusing’ (s'excuser) i.e. apologising, hence the later German term Sküs for the card and skusieren for its use. Since the Fool cannot be captured the player receives one marque from each opponent.

A player who fails to excuse before the last trick pays two marques to each of the other players.

Marolles does not mention the possibility of leading the Fool to a trick. If this is allowed, we suggest that the second player can play any card, which is then treated as the lead and determines what the third player has to do. However, it is possible that it was not legal to lead the Fool. In this case a player was on lead holding only winning cards and the Fool would be forced to keep it until the last trick and then pay the penalty.

Scoring

  • Ultimo. A player who wins the last trick with a King or the Pagat receives 6 marques from each opponent. Presumably if he plays this card to the last trick without winning it, he pays 6 to the others, but this is not explicitly stated by Marolles.

At the end of the hand, players add their discards to the cards taken in tricks and score them together. The card points are counted in packets of three, each containing one counting card (counter) and two worthless or empty cards. The value of a packet of three is equal to that of the counter. Every three excess empty cards score one card point. Counting cards are:

Card Value
Tarots (trump 21, trump 1, Fool and Kings): 5 points each
Queens 4 points each
Cavaliers 3 points each
Jacks 2 points each

So there are 19 counting cards which along with the 28 empty cards that go with them have a total value of 71 points, plus 9 extra empty cards which are worth 3 points, so that the total value of the 66-card pack is 74 points.

A player with a below-average score pays to the player with most card points:

Card points Marques
24 – 21  0
20 – 16 1
15 – 11 2
10 – 6 3
5 – 1 4
0 5

Marolles does not mention the last two rows, presumably because they are very rare among good players.

Marolles writes: “il est requis que chacun des trois pesonnes qui joüent aye vingt-cing de ces points dans son jeu: car s'il en perd cinq il payera vne marque à celuy qui les gagnera”. In principle, there is a total of 74 card points, so that 25 would be an above-average result. However, Marolles does not say how the single cards discarded at the beginning are scored, what happens if you have too few empty cards and how to deal with the fact that when the Fool has been played, the holder has one card too many and the winner of the trick one too few.

The simple solution is to proceed as in other tarock games:

  • A packet with two counting cards scores its total value less one, a packet with three counting cards as its total value less two.
  • Two surplus cards are treated as if there were a third empty card.
  • A single excess counting card scores one less than its value; a single excess empty card scores nothing.

Note on the Ultimo Feature

If one assumes that the payment of card points is rarely more than 3M and compares that to King or Pagat Ultimo, which always counts 6M from or to each, i.e. worth 12M, then it becomes clear that the Ultimo is the most important game element. The ratio of its payment to that of the card points is comparable to that in the Tarot of Nice, where the Pagat Ultimo is always worth 4M and the card points 1 to 4. In Piedmontese Mitigati, c. 1780, the ratio was even 3 to 1: that is, 60 for the Pagat Ultimo and a maximum of 20 for the card points (Dummett/McLeod 2004, Game 8.7).

When 78-card Tarock first appeared in German card game literature (Regeln bey dem Taroc-Spiele, 1754) the value of the Ultimo was still relatively low (20 M against a maximum of 50 for the card points), it then steadily increased up to 19th century Danish ratio of at least 145 for King Ultimo and a maximum 50 for card points, which roughly corresponds to the ratios in Nice or Piedmont 100 years earlier or in Marolles 250 years earlier.

Bibliography and Internet Links

Depaulis, Thierry (2002), Quand l’abbé de Marolles jouait au tarot. Le Vieux Papier, Fascicule 65, July: 313–26.

Dummett, Michael; McLeod, John (2004), A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. Edwin Mellen, Lewiston, Queenstown, Lampeter. Game Nos. 2.1–2.3, Vol. 1: 17–22.

Marolles, Michel de (1637), Regles dv iev des tarots. Jean Fourré, Nevers. Printed pamphlet, in the manuscript collection of the National Library of France: Dupuy 777, f° 94–97. Online at Hans-Joachim Alscher‘s Tarock pages. Author, publisher, date and year according to Depaulis (2002).

Original German pages by Ulf Martin, translated by Paul Eaton, edited and maintained by John McLeod, john@pagat.com   © Ulf Martin, Paul Eaton, John McLeod, 2023. Last updated: 27th January 2023

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