brusten (brusten) wrote,

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tavern games class handout

A slightly edited copy of the class handout from my class on Tavern Games taught at the Ceilidh event sponsored by the College of St. Joan, in the Barony of Flaming Gryphon in AS 41.

Tavern Games

In the middle ages, a single establishment might well serve multiple functions. While a single building might serve as a church for the Glory of God and yet at the same time be a hospital to tend to the sick and injured, other multi-purpose establishment might be combination restaurant, bar, gambling den, and brothel. One such establishment has left a curious document, which details various games played and wagers placed within during the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first. This infamous den of iniquity was located in one of the channel ports, where it provided entertainment of a low and common type to the worst sorts that always accumulate in such places. In reporting on these degraded practices, my sincere hope is that by educating oneself to the horrors that occurred in such places, people will more fully appreciate the wonders of Truth, Justice, and the Midrealm way that we live with every day.


A game in which two or more teams, often consisting of members of different watches of a crew, or even members of different ships crews and their female companions attempted to pass a fruit from one end of a line to the other. Exactly what type of fruit is unclear, as it is referred to both as an apple and a melon. The players hands were fastened behind their backs, and the players had to pass the fruit down a line without dropping it or using their arms or hands. The line consisted of alternating men and women, and much improper bodily contact could result. If the fruit was dropped, it had to be returned to the start of the line and passed down the entire line again. The first team to successfully pass the fruit was the winner of whatever bet was placed upon the game. In at least one instance, where there were more men than women, such that the women had to scurry from place to place in the line, the women themselves were the prize won by the winning team’s men. While, obviously, such bets would be totally improper amongst the Ladies and gentlemen of the SCA, the game itself has been played within the SCA where it can serve as a nice ‘ice-breaker’ to allow people to get to know one another.


The gambling game of 15th century Italy, it spread slowly westward reaching England in the last quarter of the 16th century. It's popularity amongst the Stuart court, and the amount the royal favorites lost, contributed to the national bankruptcy that created Cromwell, and the evils of democracy and parliamentary government in England. At heart basset was a simple game which could be played by any number of players simply by combining multiple decks of cards. 13 cards were dealt, face up, to each player. The player then decided which of the cards he would bet on. The bet was placed by placing a wager on each card decided upon. Any or all the cards could be bet upon in a single hand, but all bets had to be made before the dealer dealt the first decisive card. The dealer then turned 1 card face up from the remainder of the deck not previously dealt. This first card, oddly enough, was always dealt from the bottom of the deck. The dealer won all bets placed upon cards of the same rank as this first card. He then dealt 2 cards at a time face up, winning all stakes that matched the first card so dealt, and paying all wagers that match the second. He continues to deal 2 cards at a time until he has only 1 card left, or all wagers have been won and claimed. The last card dealt, like the first, pays all wagers to the dealer. A player other than the dealer who wins a bet may leave the bet in play, and if it wins again it is paid at 7 times the original bet. To signify that the bet should remain in play a corner of the card is turned up. If such a retained bet wins again, another corner may be turned up which would pay 15 times the original bet. A third corner turned up winning would pay 30 times the original bet, and if all four corners were turned up and it won again (for a 5th time) it would pay 60 times the original bet. It is recorded as being played according the normal rules given above by both the patrons and employees of the brothel.


The simplest of all dice games, in high roll the player who rolls the highest number wins. It was played with various number of dice, and various numbers of players. The players take turns rolling the dice. If 1 player rolls a higher number than any of his opponents in the first round, he wins all the wagers. If 2 or more players tie for the highest, only those players who tied for the highest number remain in the game for the second round. It continues until all but 1 player have been eliminated. (The name high roll does not come from period sources, where it is most commonly called simply dicing, or dice, but I have followed modern convention in so naming it to avoid confusion.) Of course, the same rules applied to low roll, except that low numbers won. As low roll was supposedly what the soldiers who crucified Christ played for his cloak, low roll was less favored in Christian countries than high roll. Low roll was more popular amongst the Moslems, possibly because of the Christian aversion to it.


The best known medieval dice game is mentioned by sources throughout the SCA's period, from being condemned in sermons from 623, to being condemned in sermons in 1600. It was banned by law in virtually every country in Europe, and throughout the Islamic world as well. In order that this tradition may be continued to the current middle ages, I will give a version of the rules here. Please remember that a game that was ( not ) played by so many people over such a long time would have had dozens or hundreds of variations in the rules, which would have helped make it one of the most popular causes for murders and other mayhem in the medieval period. The game was seemingly played in 2 major formats. In 1, a single person acted as "bank", supplying the dice, alcohol, wenches, and what ever other distractions come to mind in return for a percentage of all moneys wagered. These tended to be either tavern keepers or brothel keepers, or both, and rarely actually played at hazards themselves. The other major format had a group of people, be they soldiers or sailors serving together, pilgrims traveling together, or whatever, playing for amusement, with all parties participation in the wagering. The game was played with 2 dice, like it's descendent modern craps, and by any number of betters. The player whose turn it is to cast the dice cast first the number for the "main". This had to be either 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. The dice would be thrown until 1 of these combinations came up for the main. The player then threw the dice to determine his number, which had to be a 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10. If the player threw a 2 before establishing his number, the player loses, and all bets placed on him lose as well. Other players could bet that a player would win or lose, provided another player, not necessarily the player casting the dice, would accept the bet. If the main is a 7, and the player casts a 7 or 11 while determining his number, or the main is 8 and the player casts an 8 or 12, the player wins immediately. If the player, in determining his point rolls the main point again the player wins immediately. After main and players numbers were determined, provided none of the previously explained conditions had occurred, the player continues to cast the dice until he matched either his number, or the main. If he matches main, he loses, and if he matches his own he wins.

A second dice game also called hazards or grand hazards was developed in the late 18th or early 19th century. It uses 3 dice and a board for wagers, and is still played in some casinos today. Don’t confuse the two games.


A distant relative of modern bowling, quilles was played from at least the 14th century in England, and earlier still on the continent. Originally the pins in the game were made from sheep bones, but by the mid-14th century wooden pins came into play. Henry VIII is known to have played it while he was still the young prince, and more than 1 tournament offered competitions at it for those not fighting. A Sir Charles, from Dover, was "chastized most greatly in that he did abjure his pass at the lance for gaming at quilles" in about 1497. The game is similar to modern skittles in that a weight "of the head of a cheese" was suspended by a rope so that it hung just above ground level. Pins about a foot long were stood upright around the point where the weight hung vertically down. 1 pin, called the kingpin, was made slightly taller than the others and stood directly under the weight . The number of other pins varied, as did the arrangement of the pins around the kingpin. Sometimes the other pins were of 2 different types, either painted or shaped differently. The object was to knock down the pins worth the most points. Scoring varied, with the kingpin sometimes scoring the most points of any, or having to be the first pin knocked down, or the last, or some other special rule just for it. If 2 distinct types of pins, plus the kingpin, were used a player might gain points for knocking 1 type pin down, but lose points for knocking the other down. An ordinance of the city of Bath required that all public quilles posts have their rules posted "that all may know the laws of the quilles" was passed in 1556, despite the playing at quilles having been forbidden by law 7 years earlier. Such public posts were common at taverns and other places. A brothel in Portsmouth had 1 inside so that the sight of women gambling their clothes for money would not offend the public decency at the time of the Spanish armada.


A gambling game that was very popular amongst the Landsknecht of Germany. Special decks of cards were produced smaller than normal size with special cases made so that the cards could be easily carried in the Landsknecht's armor. These decks featured famous captains of Landsknecht companies as their face cards.

The game was played by the dealer first offering a bet, and getting 1 or more opponents to match it in whole or in part. The dealer then dealt 2 cards face up. If both cards were of the same suit the dealer won all the stakes. if not, he dealt cards 1 by 1 until he matched either of the first 2 dealt. A card which matched the first card dealt meant the dealer won, a match with the second and his opponents won. If the dealer lost the deal passed to the next man. If the dealer won he could deal again or sell the right to deal to any of the other players.




Henry II of England claimed in a letter to the Pope that, among other sins, Thomas Beckett was known to play at shove-groat, and that he did so on the holy days of the church. The pope did not seem to feel that this justified removing Beckett as archbishop of Canterbury. Maybe Henry was so offended by this that he eventually had Beckett killed, which just goes to show the dangers of gambling. The game of shove-groat is identical to the modern game of shove-penny, except for the coins wagered in the game. To play, mark a series of lines parallel to the edge of a table, with the space between the lines from just slightly wider than the diameter of the coin to twice or more the width of the coin. The narrower the space is, the harder the game is to win. Place a coin on the edge of the table, with as much of the coin hanging over the edge as you can without the coin falling. The object of the game is to knock the coin from the edge to between the lines marked on the table. You must strike the coin with the palm or back of your hand, or the back of your thumb. You cannot use your fingers. Sometimes the rules required landing the coins in each space in order, either farthest or nearest first, or sometimes they could be achieved in any order. Normally, every space had to be reached to win the game, but sometimes wagers were placed on individual spaces. The number of spaces on a table would vary, as would their width and length. Reportedly, (but unconfirmed by me,) a house of ill-repute in London had a table on which there were squares marked with the names of the ladies working there, and if a player landed a coin fully within the square he received the company of said lady with no further charge than the coin in the square.


Also called cuckoo, gnav, killekort, chase the ace, and hexencarte, ranter go round is first mentioned in Cornwall in the early 15th century, by the end of the century it had spread through out Europe. It became a particular favorite in Scandinavia, from which it spread to the Baltics, Russia, and northern Germany. Allegedly, it is the oldest card game for which directions were printed in the Russian language. It also became quite popular in southern Italy and the western Mediterranean islands.

The game is a simple, fast gambling game for any number of players. Cards rank king high to ace low, without regard to suit. Each player is dealt 1 card. Starting from the dealers left, each player may either swap cards with the player to their left, or stand. A player may only refuse to swap cards if he has a king, which he must then show. This exchange continues until it returns to the dealer, who may, if he wishes, draw a card at random from the pack to replace his card. The player who holds the lowest ranked card must then contribute a coin to the pot. In the event 2 or more players tie for the lowest ranked cards, they both must contribute to the pot. After a player has lost a certain number of hands, and contributed to the pot, he is out of the game. The last player in takes the whole pot. The number of hands required to be lost can be varied, but, at least in the modern children's game derived from the medieval game, is normally 3 hands.


A German game first recorded in 1441, poch is a game for 3 to 6 players. Poch is also called pochen, or gleek, or glic. It uses a 32 card deck consisting of 4 suits of ace, king, queen, jack, 10, 9, 8, 7. Bets are placed initially in seven categories - ace, king, queen, jack, 10, marriage, and sequence. Often a board was used marked with these seven categories plus an eighth, poch, that is used in the second step of play. After all initial bets are placed 5 cards are dealt to each player, then the dealer turns up a card from the deck as trump. Any player holding the appropriate card in the trump suit immediately claimed his winnings from the bets. That is, the holder of the ace of trumps claims all wagers placed on ace, the holder of the king all wagers on king, etc. If the same player holds both king and queen of trumps he claimed the wagers on marriage as well as on king and queen. If the same player holds the 7, 8, and 9 of trumps he claims the wagers on sequence. All wagers not claimed in this round are carried forward to the second step. After the trump wagers are paid, the players bet as to who has the best hand. The first player to bet places his wager (in the compartment marked poch if a board was used). The next player either drops out of the game, matches the amount bet, or increases the amount bet. The betting continues around until all players have either matched the wager without increasing it or dropped out. At this point the players who have not dropped out compare hands, and the best hand wins. 4 of a kind is best, followed by three of a kind, then a pair, then no pairs. In the event that 2 players tie this way the high card in the set wins. For example 2 players both have three of a kind and 2 unmatched cards. The player with 3 queens would beat the player with 3 10s. If 2 players each have a pair of queens, one having an ace, king, 7 as his unpaired cards, and the other having a jack, 10, 8 as his extra cards, the man holding the ace would win. If both players held 2 queens, an ace, king, and 10 the player holding the highest trump would win. The winner of this second step claims all wagers placed on poch, plus any placed in the first part which were not already claimed.


One of the games known to have been played in ancient Egypt. Alquerque boards have been found dating to 1400 BC. The game is mentioned in Roman records, and boards have been found associated with Roman sites in England and throughout the old empire. It appears to have died out of western Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire, and not to have been re-introduced until the tenth century when the Arabs returned it to European attention.

The game of alquerque a doz is played on a field of 25 spots, arranged in 5 rows of 5. Lines connect these spots so that each has a vertical and a horizontal line through them. Diagonal lines are added that would connect the 4 corner spots, each of these diagonals connecting 5 spots. Further diagonal lines are drawn connecting the middle spots on each outer line with the middle spot on the lines on either side of it. Each of these lines contain 3 spots. Each of the 16 squares is thus bisected by 1 and only 1 diagonal line. Each player has 12 pieces which are arranged in 2 rows of five on the players side, 1 piece on each spot. The remaining 2 pieces per player are placed on the middle line of spots, with both of a players pieces together on the same side of the center spot. The center spot of the board is left empty.


The object of the game is to capture all of an opponents pieces. Players alternate moving pieces along the lines 1 spot at a time from any spot to an adjacent empty spot. A piece may be captured if a player can jump his piece over an adjacent opposing player to an empty place immediately beyond along a line. Multiple jumps are allowed, and the player can change direction along the line in the middle of a multiple jump. A player that can capture a piece must do so. Failure to capture a piece allows the opponent to remove the piece which failed to capture, i.e., failure to capture results in being captured yourself. In some variants, a piece that makes a single capture that could have continued to make a multiple capture is considered captured and removed from the board. In other versions of

the rules a piece is allowed to make multiple captures but only required to make 1. There exist many versions of alquerque, played with boards ranging up to 121 spots and 60 pieces a side, but the 25 spot, 12 man version has always been the most popular. Bets could be placed on who would win, or in some instances the bet consisted of the actual coins being used on the board as markers


The modern game of backgammon is described under the name nard in the manuscript by Alfonso X. The only significant difference from the rules adopted by the International Backgammon Association in 1931 is the absence of the doubling cube. As the doubling cube was invented in the 1920, this should be no surprise to anyone. Other than possibly doubling stakes and some terminology, modern backgammon is the medieval game of Nard.


A gambling game using a checkerboard and pebbles or marbles. The checkerboard, or checkered cloth, was laid or spread on the ground, and the pebbles or marbles were thrown or rolled unto it. Bets were placed before hand as to which color square the pebble would land on. There are numerous examples in the record of cheats, like the embroiderer of All Hallow church who in 1382 was convicted of having a board where "all the whites in different quarters were depress lower than the blacks, while in other quarters the black points were that all who played...were maliciously and deceitfully deprived of their property". The game was much favored amongst the apprentices and "lower tradesman" of London, which may have contributed to it's being banned by Edward IV in 1477.


The modern game of acey-duecy is described in an Islamic book from the 14th century, but that same source claims to be a copy of an eight century work which no longer exists. The name given translates as "the Corsican game" or "the Corsican's game", but other items in the work are given geographic names that bare no relation to their actual place of origin. Thus, acey-duecy may have originated in Corsica, but could have come from anywhere. The game is played similar to backgammon, except for starting positions and special rules for the roll of 1-2. All 15 pieces a side start off the board, entering as you would a piece in backgammon that had been hit. There is no requirement to enter all your pieces before you move pieces already on the board. Indeed, you may move pieces completely around the board and bear them off before you have entered all your pieces. All 15 pieces must be entered and transverse the entire board before victory is achieved however. If a player rolls a 1 and a 2, he moves that roll as he would any other, then he is allowed to name any number he wishes from 1 to 6, and take that as if he had rolled doubles of that number. He then rolls again. In effect, his opponent misses a turn. In a variant, the luck roll is not 1-2, but 1-6, and instead of picking a number, the player moves once for every number from 1 to 6.


A game allegedly invented by Francesco de Medici and presented to Phillip II of Spain. Unfortunately for the story, a board for the game is in the Vatican, dated 1536, 20 years prior to Phillip II being crown king of Spain. The presentation definitely occurred, as the board was preserved in Spain until at least the civil war of 1936-38. Francesco de Medicii did not invent the game however. Regardless of who invented it, the game is fun for any number of players.

The game is played on a spiral board of 63 squares, using 2 dice. Various squares have special significance, whereas others have none. All 63 squares are numbered, with square 1 being the outermost square and square 63 being the final, innermost square. The object of the game is to be the first to reach square 63. The piece must land on the final square by an exact roll of the dice, otherwise, any excess spots on the dice must be moved backwards from square 63. The players role the dice, and move their piece the number of squares that they rolled, totaling the spots on both dice. If they land on a square that is already occupied by an opposing player, that second player has to go back to the square that the first player was on when he rolled. Squares 5, 9, 14, 18, 23, 27, 32, 36, 41, 45, 50, 54 and 59 are decorated with a goose. If a player lands on a goose he gets to advance the number of squares that he had rolled to land on it. In affect, his roll is doubled. An exception is if a player rolls a 9 as his entering roll. As every ninth square on the board is a goose, an initial roll of nine would move you to the center immediately if the normal rule was followed in this case. The only way to roll a 9 as your first move is to roll either a 6 and a 3, or a 5 and a 4. Square 26 is decorated with 2 dice, showing a 6 and a 3. Square 53 is decorated with 2 dice, showing a 5 and a 4. An initial roll of 6 and 3 moves you to square 26, and an initial roll of 5 and 4 moves you to square 53. Square 6 is decorated with a bridge, and lets you move ahead to square 12. Square 19 has a tavern on it, where a player who lands must rest out 2 turns. Square 31 has a well, which the player who lands on falls in and must wait at until some other player lands on it to rescue him. It is the only square on the board that 2 players can occupy at the same time. The first player can continue on at his next turn, but the second player has fallen in and must await rescue. Square 42 has a maze in which a player "gets lost" and goes to square 30. Square 52 has a prison, at which the player must wait until he changes places with the next player unfortunate enough to land there. Square 58 has a death's head, which caused the player to go back to the beginning and start over.

In some versions of the rules, Squares 19 (the tavern) , 31 (the well), and/or 52 (the prison) cause the player to lose a turn instead of the penalties specified above. Occasionally surae 42 (the maze) causes the player to go to square 24 instead of square 30.

In the gambling version of the game, each player puts a set amount into an initial pot. Each player who lands on a goose or the 2 squares marked with dice must add the same amount to the pot. A player landing at the bridge, the tavern, or the maze must add double the amount to the pot. A player landing on the well or the jail pays the amount not to the pot but to the player who next lands on the same square and thus frees the first. The first player to reach the center by an exact roll of the dice wins the pot, and all other players must immediately create another pot by wagering the same amount again, or remove their pieces from the board. New players may enter the game at any point by adding their wager to the pot and starting from the beginning. The game could continue for days with players entering and leaving before it finally ended.


The earliest forms of Thirty-one were played with up to 6 dice, attempting to get a total as close to thirty-one without going over as possible. The sources vary, but generally each player rolled the dice in turn, completing all their casts until they either went over thirty-one or chose to hold. The initial cast would be of all dice, after which the player could chose to cast as many or few dice as they wished to attempt to reach but not exceed thirty-one. Once all players had their casts, the pot went to the player closest to but not over thirty-one. If two or more players were tied, they would cast again as from the beginning. In certain circumstances, where there was a ‘house’ covering the bets and taking all moneys bet if all players went over thirty-one, the house would pay ties as if each player had won.

Thirty-one was one of the first games to be adapted to the new medium of cards, when playing cards were introduced into Europe around 1371. In the card game version, three cards were dealt to each player, with face cards counting as 10, and numbered cards counting as their number. Each player could request additional cards until they either went over 31 or decided to hold. Initially, the cards were dealt face up so all players could see their values, but rather rapidly the cards, or at the later cards, were dealt face down so only the player could know what his points were until the end, when they had to show to claim the prize. In the seventeenth century, the number required to be reached but not exceeded in the card game was reduced to twenty-one , and in some places special values were assigned to specific cards giving rise to the modern games of Twenty-one and Black-Jack.

Tags: classhandouts, historicgames

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