A Game for Training Missionaries About Indigenous Cultures

The World of Playing cards is a terrific site with reproductions of historic cards from around the world. Most recently, they  shared Snapshots: A Missionary Card Game from the Church Mission Society circa 1910. It’s described as a basic set-building game of 48 cards with 12 sets from representing different cultural practices around the world. Each set has four cards, each of a different color, showing some aspect of culture in Japan, Sudan, and so on. The goal is to prepare the missionaries to work in these places as they preach the Gospel.



You can find more at World of Playing Cards.

Bicycle Playing Cards: The WW2 Escape Map Deck

2015-01-12 13.21.12You’d be surprised just how short is the list of jobs for “expert on games: their history and play.” That I held one for a couple decades (until this past Fall) was a blessing, but it also means I still have plenty of stuff kicking around and nowhere to write about it. So, if I stray off topic from time to time and start blathering on about card and dice and such, feel free to skip ahead to the next post.

On my old gaming blog, I did a lot of coverage of playing cards in general and Bicycle (my sponsor) in particular. I still pick up interesting decks now and then, and just bought the Bicycle Escape Map: WWII Commemorative Map Deck.

During the war, the United States Playing Card Company (the people who make Bicycle cards) produced a deck for the British and American intelligence agencies. A map showing escape routes was printed between the two layers of the cards. When the cards were soaked in water, a prisoner could peel apart the layers and assemble the full map like a puzzle.

USPCC has created a usable reproduction of these decks, bringing the map image to the surface and laying it over the card faces. Each deck comes with the complete set of cards, a key to assembling the map, and a short history of the scheme. It’s a cool little package, and perfectly playable even with the map art. You can pick one up at Amazon.



The Rivals For Catan [App o’ the Mornin’]

Klaus Teuber’s two-player version of Settlers of Catan went through a much needed streamlining and revision a couple years ago, creating a more balanced, user-friendly game.

The Rivals for Catan (USM, iOS: $4) uses the themes and setting of Catan, such as quasi-medieval village life; gathering rock, wood, wool, gold, brick, and stone; and spending it on upgrades. Instead of a map, however, each player has a town center made of cards in front of him, and begins with two settlements and a stretch of road. By drawing cards and spending resources, the player expands the road, adds and upgrades settlements, and constructs specialty items, such as buildings or heroes, that add resource bonuses or point advantages. The goal is to build enough to reach a set number of victory points.

In the basic game, 7 victory points is the win limit, but The Rivals For Catan app includes all of the special card sets, adding new kinds of buildings that match various Eras: Gold, Progress, and Turmoil. These add subtle strategic changes and have a way of making the game, which is a really a face for points at its basic level, into a more interactive and cut-throat affair.

If you’ve played the original tabletop game, know this much: the app is 100% faithful recreation for the iPad, making good use of the game space. Your town center and cards are visible at all times, and you can toggle to see your opponent’s lay out with one tap. It takes a few minutes to get the hand of the gameflow and the way the interface handles resources by turning cards (thus mimicking the original), but after a tutorial and a few turns, the controls become quite natural.

Rivals includes hotseat and internet play (including GameCenter player matching), which is a welcome treat for those who don’t care for AI opponents. It’s a straightforward and clean adaptation of a fun little addition to the Catan family.

How to Play Tarot: An Explanation with Sample Rules

Detail from Ducale Tarot

Note: This is the seventh in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

French Tarot (Ducale)

Since Tarot games spring from a common source, they share certain rules that make them a distinct family of card games despite myriad differences. If you count variants, there are hundreds of ways to play games with tarot cards. (The key work on the subject is almost 1,000 pages long.) Some of them are almost comically complicated. Once we look at the scoring for a sample tarot game, you’ll have a nice illustration of the source of most card game rules: taverns full of drunk men.

For starters, like many European games, “eldest” (the player who receives cards first in the deal) is to the dealer’s right, not his left as in American games. Thus, dealing is counter-clockwise, with all cards dealt out. This—along with large size of the tarot cards—means hands are larger and more cumbersome to hold. Play may be solo or in partnership, and cards may have odd or unique values. A higher trump beats a lower trump. The lowest trump is the I, as is called the Pagat or Bagotto.

In numbered suits, there is a quirk of play in some games that has Swords and Batons ranked in typical descending order (K, Q, C, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, A) but Cups and coins ranked the opposite direction (K, Q, C, J, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Thus, a 3 of Cups beats a 10 of Cups.

Why, yes: that is spectacularly confusing, but you’ll get used to it.

Games from France and Sicily don’t tend to follow this bizarre tradition.

The rules of trick-taking card games apply. Cards are played in tricks, with one player leading and the other following. The lead plays a card face up the center of the table, and the player to the right follows with a card of the same suit if possible. If the lead card is trump, trump suit should follow. If a player cannot follow suit and has a trump, he must follow with the trump, even if it’s a losing trump. If he can’t follow, he can play anything at all.

In many games, the player holding The Fool can play this card as an “excuse.” This rescues the player from having to play a bad card. The Fool incurs no penalty. It stands in for a regular play, and is then returned to the player’s hand, where it will be scored at the end of the game. In other games, the Fool is the highest Trump.

The player with the highest suit or highest trump wins the trick. The player who takes the trick leads the next trick, and so on until all the cards are exhausted. The usual pace of trick-taking games is followed, with cards scored, gathered, and shuffled; deal passing to the right; and various rounds comprising a complete game. The word “rubber” is not traditional to Tarot rules, but it expresses the pace of play nonetheless.

Detail, Ducale Tarot

Scoring can be extraordinary complex and subtle, and is where much of the variation among Tarot games is found. Players may compete singly or in teams, and the number of players varies from game to game. Winning points are determined not just by number of tricks buy by the value of the trumps won. In some counts, each trick counts for a point and then value cards are added to the total. Court cards may have a fixed value—King: 4, Queen: 3, Cavalier: 2, and Jack: 1. Number cards usually have no value.

The Fool, Trump I (the pagat), and Trump 21 may have the highest values, and are the standard trump honors in many games. Dummett expresses it this way:

“Suppose that all 78 cards are used, and that there are three players, so that there are three cards in each trick and hence 26 tricks in all. To the 26 points for tricks will be added 12 for the Trump 21, Trump I, and The Fool, 16 for the Kings, 12 for the Queens, 8 for the Cavaliers, and 4 for the Jacks, making 78 points in all divided between the players.”

These are the very basics of rules that you’ll find in Tarot games, with additional conventions for bidding, talon, discarding, shortening (or lengthening) decks, as so on.

Where to Get Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are common in bookstores and new age shops, but you don’t want to mess with these. They’re designed not for play but for divination, and most are saturated in occult images that we’re better off avoiding. Not only does this betray the roots of tarot in gaming, but it creates an unpleasant experience for the game. In addition, some of these “designer decks” only include the trumps, and they’re too large to hold as you would a normal hand of cards. (Tarot games already have large hands which can be difficult to hold.)

The Fool (Ducale)

For those who want to avoid any links with the Italian images which inspired the occult tarot, you can go for the French decks. This post is illustrated with cards from the Ducale tarot, which can be bought at TaroBear’s Lair.

The Genoves Tarot by Fournier is readily available from Amazon for about $15. The cards are not occult and they are a reasonable size, sturdy, and handsome.

How to Play Scarto

This simple game contains the basics of Tarot play and can be played with either a French or Italian deck.

Players: 3 people, playing singly

Deck: 78-card French or Italian.

Notes on the Cards: The game originated with the Tarocco Piemontese, a deck in which Trump XX (The Angel: l’Angelo) is the highest honor, and Trump XXI (The World, Mond) is next in order. In other words, just swap XXI and XX.

Card Ranking: The ranking is irrational with the order reversed on the “red” suits:

  • “Black” Suits: Swords/Staves (or Spades/Clubs):
    K, Q, C, V, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • “Red” Suits: Cups/Coins (Hearts/Diamonds):
    K, Q, C, V, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • Honors: Pagat (Trump I), l’Angel (Trump XX), The Fool

Card Values:

  • Honors–5 points
  • King—5 points
  • Queen–4 points
  • Cavalier (Knight)–3 points
  • Fante (Jack)–2 points

Deal: Deal and play moves to the right. Deal in packets of 5. Dealer takes the final 3 cards, then discards them into a pile (the scart). These will be counted for the dealer at the end. Neither Kings nor Honors may be discarded

Play: Eldest (remember: to the right) leads the first trick. Players must follow suit. If they cannot, they must trump if possible, even if it is not an advantageous trump. If they can neither follow nor trump, they may play anything.
Highest card in suit or highest trump wins the trick.
The person holding The Fool may play this as an “excuse” for not playing a card he is obliged to play. The Fool neither wins nor loses. At the end of the trick, it is returned to the person who played it, and placed in that person’s trick pile. In exchange, the person who played The Fool gives the person who won the trick any card from his trick pile. (Obviously, this will be a low-value card.)

The count may seem confusing, but this is how it works:

Cavalier and king (Ducale Tarot)

1. Sort cards into piles of three, with at least one a high card (Honor, King, etc) in each pile.
2. The Fool is counted separately.
3. If there is one high card, the value of the pile is equal to that card. For example, a batch with 1 Queen, a 4, and an 8 is worth 4 points.
4. If there are two high cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 1. (King, Pagat, and a 4 is worth 9 points.)
5. If there are three face cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 2. (King, l’Angel,and Cavalier is worth 11 points.)
6. If there are only non-honor trumps and numbers cards in the pile, the batch is worth one point.
7. One player will have two cards in one pile. These should be counted as if there are three cards.
8. Add everything together.
9. Subtract 26.
10. This is your score, either positive or negative.
11. Deal passes to the right. A rubber is three rounds.

Final Post: Meditations on the Tarot

Posts in this series:

The Bishop’s Dice Game [Tarot Series]

Note: This is the fourth of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

Historical/anthropological research about games is part of what I do as Editor-at Large of Games Magazine, and a shorter version of this material will appear as the lead feature in our November issue. You can see another example of my research in this series on gaming in Colonial America, which also was compiled into a feature for Games. I believe that games are unique and important elements of folk culture akin to song, story, dance, art, and clothing, and therefore worthy of serious study.

One of the interesting side paths on the road to Tarot has to do with a dice game created for the amusement and edification of the clergy.

In the 10th century, Wibold, Bishop of Cambrai, invented a dice game to be played with three dice. When the dice are rolled, there is a potential for 56 different outcomes. Each outcome was associated with a virtue, and assigned a point value from 3 to 18. The clerical class was encouraged to play the game, which was called “Ludus Regularis Seu Clericalis” in some literature (which roughly translates as “A game suitable for monks or priests”). [Thanks to the Facebook Latinists for clarifying my hopeless translation of that name, particularly Professors Daniel McCaffrey and Anthony Esolen.]

The idea of the game was to make certain rolls to reach 21 with pairs of dice out of three dice rolled, with each of the rolls matched to complimentary virtues. (Twenty-one is the number of outcomes with two dice.) These “unions of virtues” are not just meant to be winning rolls, but to illustrate the ways virtues work together. For example:

Charity and Humility are united for 3+18=21
Faith and Continence are united for 4+17=21
Justice and Hilarity are united for 6+15=21

The numbers themselves also had a didactic purpose: 3 for the Trinity, 10 for the Commandments, 7 sacraments, and so on. Clerics, normally discouraged from games of chance, were thus encouraged to play Bishop Wibold’s game in order to meditate on the faith. Perhaps the idea was that they were going to play dice anyway, so why not make it an exercise in virtue?

The number “21” is significant because of the 21 trumps in the tarot deck, but the virtues are also significant, since a number of them also were used as images on the tarot, particularly in the expanded 40-trump Minchiate deck. Did the bishop’s dice game directly influence the development of the trump suit? Perhaps. If not, at the very least it gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the deep meaning and teaching purposes that could be folded into simple games.

At this point, it’s useful to point out that there isn’t a universal declaration by the Church on the evil of playing cards or dice. Some religious orders and bishops may have barred games of chance at various points in history, and they may even have done so out of some idea that they were intrinsically evil, perhaps in light of the Roman centurions dicing for the robe of Jesus.


Notions of playing cards (tarot or otherwise) as the “devil’s picture book” or dice as Satan’s teeth were not universal teachings, and, even when they were prohibited, it was not for abstract or theological reasons. The two main reasons some churchmen took a dim view of card playing and dicing were gambling and the profane use of sacred images.

Gambling in the Middle Ages, as today, could become a serious problem. A man who gambled away his money would leave his family destitute and hungry. The history of cards is entwined with the history of gambling, and it was reasonable to view compulsive gambling as a vice. This brought gaming under suspicion.

The Tarot eventually ran afoul of certain religious authorities in the Middle Ages not because it was being used for divination, but because the sacred images appearing on the cards were deemed too exalted for such a lowly use, and the Church takes its images and symbols seriously.

It wasn’t until the cards became more associated with divination (which is forbidden in Christianity) than with gaming that they fell afoul of Church authorities.

When “Tarot” appears in a negative context in church documents, it always has to do with their use as a tool of divination. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet about Tarot. One widely circulated article is The History of Tarot Cards by Fr. William Saunders.

I’m sure Fr. Saunders had the best of intentions when writing his piece, but it repeats the standard misinformation culled from occult, rather than historical, sources. (In matters like this, it’s generally best not to trust the lies of the Enemy.) So when Fr. Saunders says that “The 22 major enigmas correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the number of hieroglyphs the ancient Jews used in divination,” he’s just repeating the false history of the cards, which we’ll discuss in greater detail tomorrow.

Next: The Fake History of Tarot

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

Who is the Patron Saint of Gamers? UPDATED

Short answer: there is none.

However, searches for variations of that question brought a lot of people to my gaming blog, probably because the sidebar included a picture of St. Balthasar, the Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.  Since I lecture on Church history and have a sizable collection of hagiographic reference material, I thought I’d sort it out so people didn’t go wandering all over the internet getting half-formed ideas about saints, patronage, gaming, and related subjects. It turned out to be a remarkably popular post, so I’ve revised and updated it for God and the Machine, integrating some suggestions from readers.

St. Balthasar

St. Balthasar is frequently listed as the “Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.” I’ve taught the Saints to 8th graders for years, and I have to tell you: that’s one of the most mysterious things I’ve ever found. I have dug deeply in order to figure out how and why Balthasar got attached not to card playing or cards, but to playing card manufacturers. 

Balthasar, along with with Melchior and Caspar, is one of the magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. However, the Bible 1) does not name the magi, 2) does not say how many there were (they are usually depicted as 3 men because there were 3 gifts, but some ancient sources believed there were 12), and 3) does not say what they were (astrologers, magicians, kings, or simply “wise men”). Names of the wise men don’t appear before the 5th century.

We know nothing else about St. Balthasar. There are several purported tombs of the magi, but no one takes their claims seriously.

If there is some source or document that explains why St. Balthasar was given the care of people who make playing cards, it has thus far eluded me. Early cards were simply made by printers or artists.

In the absence of hard evidence explaining the Balthasar/card connection, the most obvious reason may be the actual answer. Balthasar was a “king.” Playing cards have “kings.” Ergo, it was natural to pick one of the Three Kings, and Balthasar got the job.

St. Cajetan

St. Cajetan (known as St. Cayetano in Spanish-speaking countries) is the Patron Saint of Gamblers. Cajetan, born in 1480, was a lawyer and the son of a wealthy family. Driven by a desire to reform the Church, he traveled to Rome, became a priest, and founded a religious order. He used his family fortune to create hospitals that served both the physical and moral needs of the poor. He also established pawn shops and credit unions to provide loans to the poor.

Cajetan’s connection to gambling is obscure. Popular lore says the people would ask him for a favor, and bet him a rosary that he couldn’t come through. Since he always came through, he was able to get people to pray more. Based on what I know of saints, this feels like a pious retrofitting of a reason to a patronage, and it just doesn’t sound likely.

It’s more probable that his loans helped people get out from under the predatory interest rates of loan sharks, and many of the these loans were the result of gambling debts. Then, as now, a compulsive gambler could destroy his family, so it seems more likely that Cajetan probably helped problem gamblers get back on the right path both financially and morally.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga

One of my readers, Mark Franceschini, had this to say: 

“I’ve always recommended St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568 – 1591), based on a story I once read. He was playing chess with some seminarians, and someone posed the question, “what would you do if you knew you had but an hour to live?” One said he would go to confession, another that he would pray before the Blessed Sacrament, but not Saint Aloysius. He reasoned that, since his superiors gave him permission to play the game, and he had no other pressing duties, clearly, this is what God wanted him to do. So, in his final hour, he would finish the game! Sounds like the Patron Saint of Gamers to me!”

St. Matthias

Another reader, Paul, remarked that St. Matthias should be added to the list since he was chosen to replace Judas by a drawing of lots, as we learn in Acts: 1:23-26: “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.”

Yes, they chose the successor to the betrayer of Jesus by rolling dice.

Okay, so they probably weren’t dice, although they could have been: dice date back at least 5000 years, and were used in ancient Greece and Rome. Casting lots was a common method of diving the will of God in Judaism, with a chief priest drawing one of two sacred stones from his breastplate in answer to a binary question. These were the Urim and Thummim. You can find some examples of lot-casting in 1 Chronicles 24 and 26, and, of course, in Jonah and Esther. “Purim” is the Hebrew word  for “lots,” as well as the name of the Jewish holy day commemorating the events of Esther.

The problem is that Matthias vanishes without a trace after this. (Perhaps that 12th apostle slot was cursed.) He may have been crucified in Ethiopia, stoned in Jerusalem, or died of old age. This last one is unlikely: few early Christian leaders died peacefully in their beds. Of the original 12 apostles, only St. John died a natural death.

Matthias is the patron for alcoholics, carpenters, tailors and … the town of Gary, Indiana.

St. Teresa of Avila

Richard Mehlinger tweeted to mention St. Teresa of Avila, who is already the patron saint of chess players. Like many patronages, which arise from popular devotion, this one isn’t always attached to Teresa, and appears to be based on the following passage in her Way of Perfection:

Do not imagine that a great part of my work is done. No, I have only been ‘placing the board’ for the game. You asked me to teach you the foundation of prayer, my daughters, although God did not establish me on this foundation, for I am almost destitute of these virtues; yet I know no other.

But, be sure that any one who does not understand how to set the pieces in the game of chess will never be able to play well, nor, if he does not know how to give check, will he ever succeed in effecting checkmate. You may blame me for speaking of a game, for such things are neither played nor permitted in our convent.

This will show you what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this ! Still, they say that sometimes the game is lawful, and how well it would be for us to play it, and if we practised it often, how quickly we should checkmate this divine King so that He neither could, nor would, move out of our check!

The Queen is His strongest opponent in the game, and all the other pieces help her. No queen can defeat Him so soon as can humility.’ It drew Him from heaven into the Virgin’s womb, and with it we can draw Him by a single hair into our souls. And doubtless, the greater our humility, the more entirely shall we possess Him, and the weaker it is, the more reluctantly will He dwell within us.

For I do not and I cannot understand how humility can exist without love, or love without humility, nor can either of these virtues be held in their perfection without great detachment from all created things.

Perhaps you ask me, my daughters, why I speak to you of these virtues: they are taught in plenty of books and you only wish me to write about contemplation. If you had asked me about meditation, I could have instructed you, and I advise every one to practice it even though they do not possess the virtues, for this is the first step to obtain them all: it is most essential for all Christians to begin this practice. No one, however desperate his case may be, ought to neglect it if God incites him to make use of it. I have written this elsewhere, as have other people who understand the subject, which, as God knows, I certainly do not.

Contemplation, however, is quite another thing, daughters. We fall into a mistake on this point, so that if any one thinks about his sins every day for a certain time (as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything but name), we at once call him a great contemplative, and expect him to possess the sublime virtues proper to such a state: he even thinks so himself; but he is quite wrong. He has not yet learnt how to ‘place the board,’ but thinks he can effect checkmate simply by knowing the names of the pieces—in this he is deceived; this King will not let Himself be taken except by one who is entirely given up to Him.

Thanks to Idle Speculations for posting this passage.


In the end, we’re still left with few facts and no current patron saint of gamers. However, I think St. Cajetan fills the bill pretty well. He has some connection with gambling, which can be an element of gaming. But he also has connections with banking, which is simulated in many games. He used his wealth to help others, and had a deep sense of compassion. He fought the clerical corruption of his time by being a living example of Christian charity and care for the poor, and seems to have have been an all-around good guy.

So, in the absence of another viable candidate, I’d like to nominate St. Cajetan as Patron Saint of Gamers. However, please continue to add new suggestions and I will update the piece.