The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, and The Gamer

Jane Seymour reading tarot as the James Bond character Solitaire in Live and Let Die

What do you think of when you think of tarot cards? Puzzles, games, logic, and creative problem-solving? Or crystal balls, tea leaves, palmistry, and vibes?

Popular imagination seems to be split on this. Googling “tarot” brings me recommendations for psychics I might want to visit; a significant chunk of the other search results occupy astrology and “lifestyle” websites. A Teen Vogue introduction to tarot states, “To those who think the practice of reading tarot is an occult art reserved for spook sessions, let me say: You’re wrong,” but goes on to explain that a tarot reading is an intimate conversation.

However, according to A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack, Volume 1,tarot cards were invented for gaming, not for fortune-telling, when they originated in 15th century Italy. And while their modern role in the world of games and puzzles is fairly divorced from their roots, many still see them as having puzzly potential.

The final puzzle in horror video game Silent Hill 3, for example,requires players to arrange tarot cards in a specific order. New tabletop narrative puzzle game The Light in the Mist involves unraveling a mystery with a deck of tarot cards as your greatest resource. A 2018 Nerdist article gives advice on how to incorporate tarot into tabletop role-playing regardless of the original game’s design. There are also many jigsaw puzzles drawing on the designs of various tarot decks, including the classic 1909 Rider-Waite deck, and the “Life is Like a Board Game Tarot” is a fully functional deck modeling itself after Monopoly.

A couple of Rider-Waite major arcana cards. The Fool is commonly the trump card in tarot games. The Wheel of Fortune is unfortunately unrelated to the game show.

The Nerdist article does suggest that using tarot for role-playing is “poor form and bad luck,” and that it would be safest to use a special, dedicated deck for any gameplay rather than mixing and matching your fictional fortunes with your more “factual” future. But just as it’s a personal choice whether to treat a Ouija board as a spiritual artifact and potential gateway to demonic possession or to take it very literally as a toy by Hasbro, only you can decide how much weight to give this word of caution.  

Yes, some people fear that they are tempting fate by using a tarot deck for both serious and recreational purposes—but maybe you’re perfectly comfortable tempting fate! Or maybe you’ll choose to acquire a deck that will only ever be used recreationally. Either way, you can have a lot of fun with tarot, even beyond the possibilities of incorporating it into your usual tabletop role-playing hijinks.

The original Italian trick-taking tarot card games introduced the concept of cards trumping other cards to the realm of gameplay, a concept we can trace all the way to modern fantastical, battle-style competitive card games like Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh. After occupying Milan, the French adopted the idea of playing with the tarot deck, and the game of French tarot quickly became favored more highly than chess. The full rules to playing French tarot can be found here, though you might decide that you’re more interested in playing Grosstarock, which Stewart Dunlop describes as “really cool, if you want to play for real stakes, but are tired of poker.” Or perhaps your fancy will be struck by Hungarian Tarokk or Königrufen, the latter of which is wildly popular in Austria. These games differ in exact rules, number of players, and even number of cards used from the tarot deck, but are united by gameplay featuring bidding and the assignment of point values to the cards.

Your blogger’s preferred tarot decks

Between trick-taking, tabletop gaming, and forecasting the future, tarot is replete with many marvelous uses. While its forecasting function appears to tie into the mystical side of the cards more than the puzzly side, I’d argue that it sits comfortably in both realms. Michelle Tea, who wrote The Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (my personal go-to volume for discerning meaning in my own readings), describes her early experience with tarot thusly:

I was in a growing state of awe at their intuitive accuracy, the way the small stories encapsulated in each illustration knit together into a wider narrative that made sense, sometimes poetic, sometimes chillingly pointed.

What I see in this take, above all, is the word narrative, drawing me back to the allure of tying tarot and tabletop gaming together. There may be no dice or character stats involved, but tarot still enables us to tell compelling stories. Considering that we are living in a world in which forces such as Lifehacker urge us to gamify our lives via apps, I think now is tarot’s time to shine. Maybe pointedly using the same deck for both role-playing games and connecting with your inner truth is actually the perfect way to go, a strategy for injecting your day-to-day life with the magic of games.

Move over habit trackers and apps that turn jogging into an escape from zombies! Here comes something more poetic and more pointed: in Michelle Tea’s words, “an ancient story system” that will fill your life with wonder.


I see in your future . . . a tall, dark stranger, a voyage across the sea, and some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find those deals on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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