Italian Card Games: Briscola

If you buy a deck of Italian-suited cards, Briscola should be the first game you try.  Its simplicity gives you a good chance to learn the suits. It’s easy, fun, and plays fast: all characteristics which have made it very popular in Italy.

There are versions for 2-5 players, as well as regional variants, but I’m just describing the 2-player version today. As with all card games, rules can be fluid, so I’m not attempting to offer a definitive version of the game: just a common one.

The Cards
Briscola is played with an 40-card Italian deck in suits of cups, coins, swords, and clubs. It may be played with an Anglo-French deck by removing the 8s, 9s, and 10s, but it loses a lot of its flavor in the process.

King of Coins: 4 points

This is a point-trick game, meaning you play to win tricks, and then add up the values of the cards you’ve won.

Cards have the following value:

Ace: 11 points
Three: 10 points
King (Re): 4 points
Knight (Cavalier): 3 points
Knave (Fante/Donna): 2 points
all other number cards: 0 points

The Deal
Players take turns dealing. Three cards are dealt to each player, face down.

A 7th card is placed face up under the pile of remaining cards (the stock) so that its suit can be seen. This is the trump suit.

The Play
Non-dealer leads the first trick with any card of his choosing. The other player can choose to follow suit, play a trump, or simply lay off junk (such as any number cards with a zero value). It is not necessary to follow suit, even if you can. This is an important rule to note, since it runs contrary to most American trick-taking games.

The winner takes the cards and places them in a pile on his side, then draws a replacement card from the stock. The loser also draws a replacement card. Each player should always have 3 cards in hand until the stock is depleted.

The winner of one trick leads the next trick, and so on until the stock is exhausted. The final player picks up the face-up trump card from the bottom of the deck.

Winning Tricks
Tricks are won according to the following rules:

Highest point value card in the same suit wins. If the cards are worth nothing, then highest number card wins. (This means that a 3 beats a 7, but a 6 beats a 4. Remember: a 3 is worth 10 points, while a 7, 6, or 4 are worth nothing.)


Highest trump wins.

Here are some examples, with Cups acting as trump:

Player A leads with a King of Clubs. Player B follows with a 3 of Clubs. Player B wins because the Three is worth 10 points, while the King is only worth 4. Thus, B has the higher value card.

Player A leads with an Ace of Swords. Player B follows with a 2 of Cups. Player B wins because card value doesn’t matter: high trump always wins, and B has the trump.

Player A leads with a 7 of Coins. Player B follows with a 5 of Coins. Player A wins. (Although both cards are worthless, the 7 is higher than the 5.)

When you’ve played through an entire deck, add up your points. It’s easiest to sort cards by value, setting aside the worthless number cards and placing point cards (known as “counters”) in piles according to their worth.

There are 120 points in a deck, so the person with 61 points or more is the winner.

This is a simple, fun formula with a lot of subtly to it. Finding ways to capture the opponent’s cards, as well as to hold onto your own high-value cards, requires some strategy and careful timing. With only 3 cards in hand at a time, your options are limited, and the constant drawing means you never quite know what your opponent is holding.

American card players will find a certain freedom from not having to follow suit, a convention that opens up new strategic avenues. Those who value the probing, calculating element of standard trick-taking games may have trouble adapting to this more free-wheeling approach, but there’s no doubt that it creates a vigorous game with more surprises. On the other hand, Cribbage players may enjoy the combination of chance, point counting, and 2-handed play.

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