A type of practice: Playing with my tarot deck (1 of 4)

The world is being difficult right now. That is often true. It may be frivolous of me to be writing about simpler things but I wasn’t going to be writing about the difficult things so I may as well share what I have to share.

This will be a 4 part series that I hope to update once a week until the series is done. I hope by the end of the series, you might understand some ways these games can add to your practices.

I want to share my personal opinions and feelings about 3 different card game adaptations using tarot cards that I have played with my friends, and then have a 4th general post about a specific mindset games can help you visit. The games are based on Go Fish (1), Crazy 8s (2), and War (3). This is my perspective, and the people I learned to play these games with and from have their own valid and true points. Only play these games with tools you are comfortable being used in play. I would not, for myself, try to play with popped cowrie shells even if I could figure out how that might work. No disrespect is intended.

This is Part One.

My friends named the first game TarotFish.

TarotFish rules as summarized by Ember Cooke, one of the original creators of this style of TarotFish. A recent post with her rules is here.

  • Deal a few cards to each player, which they look at and keep hidden from each other.
  • On their turn, a player may ask any other player for a card which depicts a secondary symbol of their choosing.
    • It must not be a systemic symbol, such as the suit symbol or card number.
    • Any given symbol may only be requested only once per game.
  • IF the active player receives a card with the symbol they requested, they go again
    • ELSE they draw a card from the deck.
    • Optional: IF the card they draw has the symbol they requested, they go again.
  • The game is over when a player acquires the target number of cards.
    • Optional: They may use their hand as a reading.

What I get from TarotFish.

I love TarotFish for how easy it is to interrupt. The 4th part of this series is going to talk a bit about games in situations like pagan festivals, and in a festival setting it is really valuable to be able to deal people in, shuffle them out, or switch the hand to a new player. Because we changed the rules to avoid sets and as a by-product made card counting useless, there really isn’t strategy. With no real win condition, play can pause for any reason big ( like getting food, having a conversation, going to an event, sleeping ) or small ( placing a food order, answering a question, switching who is playing that hand, splashing water on your face ) and I don’t have to keep track of whose turn it was. I haven’t seen a difference in how fast games are finished if we skip a turn or two, as long as we don’t always begin again at the same spot. Or do always start at the same spot. It is not a big deal. I can even call it and have the player with the most cards fish up enough cards to get to the end number, if I want to do the reading part before I have to go but don’t have time to finish playing and also do the reading part. So often divination tools are treated formally as well as reverently, and it is nice to be able to interact with the tools with less ceremony and in an unstructured way. It helps me feel at less intimidated as a reader.

I love how zen it can be. There is no score. There doesn’t have to be a winner. I can be more in the moment and appreciative because the moment itself is enough. There is enough structure to give the moment context to be played with, which gives it a lovely balance of importless substance. This can also be a lot of fun when someone tries very hard to only ask for deeply mystical things, or positive things, or negative things, and the reading at the end still goes in a totally different direction. Did I just manage to collect every single card that is full of sunshine and happy and hale people in peaceful surroundings? The reading can still be a total downer. I’ve also seen super serious cards turn into a very ribald and teasing reading, and cards full of woe and gloom be a hopeful reading. I think this freedom from result helps play enter more of a flow state that fosters free association. It helps me practice being led by the moment rather than pushing for an answer. It will be what it will be.

I love how simple it is. All I am doing is looking at the cards and asking for what I see. I don’t need to count. I don’t need to have a greater awareness of what the 7 of each suite means. There is no value judgement about which card is more or less stately or beautiful or portentful. There is just what I see. I have played with children. I have played with drunks. I have played with the deeply disassociated. It still works.

I love the way it breaks me of dogmatism and orthodox thought about what is and is not supposed to be true about a card. It doesn’t matter that the sulking young man who is not looking at the cups full of things is supposed to mean something. I have noticed one of the cups has a rainbow in it and I like rainbows. Do you have any rainbows?

I love practicing asking and receiving, and giving. I might not always get what I want, but I will always get something. I like being able to indulge requests. The way that works for me in practicing fulfillment of personal will and in creating social bonds using the Franklin Effect will be covered more in the 4th post.

I love that it is not all me. I love what other people think to ask. There are games where the asks are very direct and literal. Do I have any boots? Do I have any running water? Do I have a barking animal? But I have been asked for types of things I never would have imagined. Do I have someone who looks elated? Sure, have this space dryad open to the universe as they are framed by the Earth. Do I have the inevitable decline of all things? Umm I think this card with all the trees ripped out of the ground and flung into the sky counts…? Do I have any posture collars? Yes, let me choose. Oh wow, a lot of social constructs and virtues in my hand are wearing posture collars. I hadn’t noticed that before.

Compared to the other 2 games, I love the 1-1 association between only two cards. I am not trying to keep track of a series of commonalities. I am not trying to see the overall picture between a group of cards. All that matters is one single element in common between just two cards. I don’t care what else is going on in this party with cordoned off docks and a well dressed people leading each other around by pearl leashes. I don’t care that I’ve seen several cards in a row that have parties. I don’t care that I could easily collect a handful of cards with people on leashes. Is that the jester from the hermit card crashing the party? A hermit? At a party?!

Compared to the other 2 games, I love how focusing so narrowly often has a side effect of making a card seem very important. When I’ve played a series of games, especially because we don’t process the whole deck, cards that repeat start seeming significant. This feeling is interesting to practice feeling both to accept it and to dismiss it. This is particularly fun when it is a card that is usually not seen as a big deal, like a 2 of Wands. In a lot of artwork, there isn’t a lot of drama and action in a 2 of Wands. With the image showing up over and over, and being asked to notice elements about it like crenelations in the stonework, the richness of the clothing, the bay in the distance, etc. then the image gains more and more narrative weight until an end of game reading that includes the 2 of Wands starts to feel all about who or what the man on the ramparts is waiting for.

In common with the second game, and contrast to the third game, I love that I have to leave parts of the deck unused. Too often there is pressure in a reading to pull more and more cards. It is good to practice restraint.

But most of all I love TarotFish for helping me learn my deck.

In a recent game with the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn, (warning: link has cartoon nudity) I was asked for wind chimes. I think there might only be one card with wind chimes in the deck, but now I am curious and will spend some time exploring. It is wonderful for noticing the unique things.

It is even more wonderful for helping to notice commonalities and trends in the deck itself. I might not realize that I have a summer court and winter court dyad in my deck until acorns and pine-cones are asked for so often and can be answered with so many cards that I see that the Cups and Coins are all acorns, and the Swords and Staves are all pine-cones. At which point I should probably disallow asking for acorns and pine-cones, but now I understand the structure of my deck better! In the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn, I already knew that the chevaliers all had 3 panel storyboard format because I paid attention to the artist when they were creating the deck and talking about the process. But if I hadn’t, that detail might have been overlooked by me until someone called it out. At which point, we should take it off the list of things I can ask for since it maps directly to a number type – the knights. To go the other direction, the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn has more than 3 fools, even though there are only 3 fools cards listed in that spot of the major arcana, so I can ask for a fool. My sophistication for making associations in readings with my deck, using the intended forms of my deck, grows.

The associations don’t have to be overt or intended either. I know one of the re-occurring characters in the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn. My housemate spends weekends with the person the character is probably based on. The character’s style is distinct, and it is easy to see as the same person from card to card. Usually, they are in Swords. But they are not only in Swords, so I can ask for them. I am now more aware the character can be used as a narrative thread when I see that character show up on several cards in a reading even though it is not part of the 5 suites with elemental associations and a major arcana structure of the deck.

Across decks a lot of us are used to the assumptions of the more familiar interpretations; like a person of privilege inside a protected place of civilization for the 9 of Pentacles/Coins. Playing with the pieces of that image such as the trappings of civilization, the place of protection, the person of privilege, etc. helps me recognize when a slightly divergent deck is still using the same symbolic language. A garden gate can be a tower staircase or the flagstones of a forbidden city; it is still a protected place. This can let me reach back into archetypes I had with the more usual art and apply those tropes to the less familiar deck.

By practicing new ways of looking at details when the language is different, I can be made more aware of the symbol itself. This can get fairly essential when I stop playing with tarot decks and start playing with oracle decks or other systems that have fewer guidebooks. TarotFish helps me learn my own way around the symbols without a need for organization or destination like what the official interpretation is supposed to be.

Because of all of this the game helps me be a more graceful reader. More important, it is fun!

I hope you give the game a try. If you are local, I would love to play with you.

This is my personal opinion of how we changed Go Fish to make TarotFish:

  • Collect only what you need.
  • Cards stay in a hand and are not removed from play.
  • Game ends at an agreed end count.
  • Deal count is influenced by end count.
  • Requests must be non-systemic.
  • Unique requests only in a single game.
  • The game ending hand can be a reading.

Allow me to explain.

These rules work well together. Feel free to make your own rules. Be aware of conflicts. For example: if you Collect the Whole Deck and decide to collect the deck as sets you might want to change No Repeats.

Collect only what you need.

Playing is the important part, not winning.
There is not a score.
It is ok to leave cards unused.
When there is scoring, there needs to be a place and time when the score is measured. Because the score in Go Fish is sets, the place and time is when all sets are collected. This also, because there is nothing else to play with, ends the game. But we don’t score TarotFish. Winners and losers aren’t part of the game play. We can choose a different ending. You are going to run out of cards to ‘Go Fish’ and not be able to keep playing. That is still an end. And you can have a house rule to use the whole deck even without scoring. But we found that it is more fun for us is to play shorter games so we stop before the whole deck is collected. With smaller decks, like a 12 piece divination system, it might be a moot point and work just as well to play using the entire deck.

Cards stay in a hand and are not removed from play.

This is not to say you don’t give over requests. You totally still give a card that matches the question to the person who asked you. Rather, since we aren’t using any of the labels from deck itself, it is more difficult to gather sets. I can totally see there being a house rules variation where sets are arranged or declared and are removed. Keeping cards in hand leads up to being able to play the ending hand as a reading though, and that is more fun for us.

Game ends at an agreed count.

We used counts that made good spreads, because the game ending hand can be a reading. The end count is also useful for tuning the game for the size of the crowd playing it. A larger crowd playing to a small end count might not let everyone get enough turns to be happy. A smaller crowd with a big end count might feel like the game has dragged on and on and on and on. If you are really getting into it, a big end number with a small crowd is one way of helping the game be longer. You might also think about how the playing hands are held. If you are using something like runes or tiles and have trays like scrabble trays, it is impractical to collect an end count that won’t fit on the tray. Because cards stay in your hand, all the players accumulate cards. Eventually someone will gather enough. Yes, there can be a problem if you have 54 cards, 10 people playing, and an end count of 14. Don’t do that. When there were 3 of us, we often choose to end at 10 cards for a Celtic Cross layout.

Deal count is influenced by end count.

When there were 3 of us playing to 10 cards in hand, we would deal 3 cards for a long game and 7 cards for a short game. Generally, the bigger difference between deal count and end count, the longer the game. If you wanted to knock out a bunch of fast games to figure out how to play, you might decide on an end game of a 3 card spread and deal 2 cards. That would be super fast.

Requests must be non-systemic.

Which is a fancy way of saying you can’t ask for numbers and suites. You can’t ask for 4s. You can’t ask for hearts or swords. But it is also a way to leave open that you shouldn’t ask for anything the deck itself use to mark a set. If your collection of tiles gathers symbols into underground, land, sea, sky, and the heavens you wouldn’t be able to ask for a sky card. If that collection always and only used wings for sky cards you could not ask for wings. If that collection had flying fish with wings as part of the sea as well as wings in the sky, then you could ask for wings because it exists in more than 1 set. It is up to the people playing to agree how detailed and exacting you want to enforce this rule.

Unique requests only in a single game.

This is, I feel, the most fundamental break from the classic play-style of Go Fish. One of the original creators of this style of TarotFish is very into collaborative play and very against conflict play. A repeat, do you have any wings for example, uses the original asker’s creative work in finding something to ask about and can also have the asker lose the cards they gained with their creative work. Repeating is a bit mean. I am fine with competition but I value exploration and this rule encourages new requests. Besides, you can still ask for wings again next game. Since we aren’t using the whole deck that still puts the creative person at the advantage unless you are lucky enough to be dealt wings.

If you are dealing someone in halfway through, or someone is taking over a hand, be kind. It isn’t a repeat if they didn’t know it had been asked.

The game ending hand can be a reading.

Some people are really invested in there being some kind of win at the end of a game. A step that helps these people be happier is to use the ending hand as a reading for the person who ended the game. If you are less fussed about who wins, it can be a good collaborative sandbox to figure out who the ending hand’s reading is for or about, who gets to be the reader or what everyone’s individual or collective read of the hand is. It is also a nice sense of occasion or completion. We do it for fun.

If you made it to the bottom of all of this, I am impressed. Impressive person, let me ask you. How do you think TarotFish could be played by people who are not in the same place or able to use the same deck (not copies of the same deck, the actual same deck). I’d love to hear your ideas because I don’t get to play this often enough and would love such an easy and fun way to help friends who want to gain confidence and comfort as readers.

About the Author

Perlandria has flourished where she was planted, although her family is from many places most of them far away. Her deep roots start in the San Francisco Bay Area. She's fond of visiting many gardens, and learning about their cultural context. A favorite place to visit is a kind of cross denominational seed swap that happens every year in February where she has served the greater community for over 15 years. In her spiritual garden you'll find tracts devoted to Gerth, Oxun, Chango, and Freyr. Early influences were christian mystery cults, shinto, heathenry, buddhism, and hinduism. As an adult, Perlandria chose afro-american faiths for practice. As an atheist, this has caused some confusion about her regular day to day experiences and beliefs.

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    1. I’ve been hearing good things about Ice Water. Maybe one of us should try. Just because we aren’t senior architects doesn’t mean we don’t know how to sling at least a little code. We are locals.

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