Historic Card Games described by David Parlett



Courtly ladies' game of 18th-century France

Historical survey of Quadrille and Médiateur
It will not be unnecessary to acquaint the Reader, that the following game of Quadrille has been about two years, and is at present, the favourite game at the French court... [It] is more amusing and entertaining than... any other Game on the Cards...
gapAnon, The Game of Quadrille (1726)
C'est au bon goût de la nation française, & principalement du beau sexe, qu'il faut rapporter la vogue générale où est ce jeu, ainsi que la prédilection qu'il a sur tous les autres.
gapLes Règles du Médiateur (Paris, 1752)

This four-handed adaptation of the classic three-player game of Hombre (or Ombre, in English) was developed in France in the early 18th century. It spread rapidly and widely to become, by any standard of judgment, one of the great European games for about a hundred years. In England, however, it was soon rivalled by the newly refined game of partnership Whist, with which it eventually had to contend for popularity throughout the western world. Its chief problem in this unequal combat was that of extreme complexity, what with its prehistoric system of upside-down ranking in two suits, its haphazard range of non-standard bids, and a hard-score pay-off system of such complexity as led "Quanti" to complain:

I have known it happen, that a party, being desirous to play at Quadrille, has been obliged to forego [sic] the pleasure of the entertainment, for want of some one to regulate the various payments.

As if in self-defence, in the latter half of the century the principles of Quadrille merged with those of Whist itself to produce the hybrid game of Boston Whist, the parent of Solo Whist that would reach England in the 1880s. Quadrille may therefore be regarded as the chief progenitor of Solo Whist, just as partnership Whist was that of Contract Bridge. All are four-player plain-trick games, the difference between the two branches being that whereas Whist and Bridge are played in fixed partnerships, Quadrille and Solo are contested on an individual basis, albeit interspersed with temporary, ad-hoc alliances.

Which branch you prefer depends on your temperament. Mine favours solo games, unlike that of Charles Lamb's alter ego, Sarah Battle:

She despised [its] chance-started, capricious, and ever fluctuating alliances. The skirmishes of quadrille, she would say, reminded her of the petty ephemeral embroilments of the little Italian states, depicted by Machiavel; perpetually changing postures and connexions; bitter foes today, sugared darlings to-morrow; kissing and scratching in a breath;- but the wars of whist were comparable to the long, steady, deep-rooted, rational, antipathies of the great French and English nations.
GapCharles Lamb, "Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist", in The Essays of Elia (1823)

A notable characteristic of Quadrille is that it was always more popular with women than with men, who evidently preferred the more silent and Spartan rigours of Whist. Here's the author of Les Règles du Médiateur (a development of Quadrille, also described below), writing in 1752:

It is to the good taste of the French nation, and principally to that of the fair sex, that one must ascribe the widespread vogue for this game and the preference accorded to it over all the others.

The pseudonymous author of A Brief & Necessary Supplement to all former Treatises on Quadrille, by No Adept" (London, 1764) addresses his introduction:

To the Ladies: After reading this little book, you will understand what Mr Hoyle says, as well as any Man in England. The Men, some few excepted, like you Ladies, and myself, take it for granted that his calculations are true...

It comes as no surprise to learn that the Quadrille is favoured by the nauseous Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (1813), but by then it must have been well on the wane. In the 1847 edition of Hoyle's Games, editor G.- H.- pens the following introduction:

Gaming, like every thing else in this sublunary world, is subject to the caprices and vicissitudes of fashion. Thus Quadrille, which for upwards of a century held the first rank in all the gambling circles of Europe, is now completely banished from them; and is rarely or ever seen beyond the precincts of some antiquated provincial circles, where it continues still to faire les douces of many a dowager.

and Thomas Love Peacock, in Gryll Grange (1860), puts these words into the mouth of the Reverend Doctor Opimian:

The old time for cards was the interval between tea and supper. Now there is no such interval, except here and there in out-of-the-way places, where, perhaps, quadrille and supper may still flourish as in the days of Queen Anne. Nothing was more common in country towns and villages, half a century ago, than parties meeting in succession at each other's houses, for tea, supper, and quadrille.

From a character in Thackeray's The Virginians (1858) we learn that:

Card playing is greatly out of mode: very likely there are not six ladies of fashion in London who know the difference between Spadille and Manille.

It is on these grounds that in the following description I take it for granted that Hombre, the term designating the solo player, is female, even though it is the Spanish for "man".

uplink downlink SOURCES

There never has existed Titlepage
Title-page of Quanti's treatise
a universally acknowledged standard form of Quadrille. It developed along different lines in different countries over a long period of time, thus further complicating its already inherent complexities. Furthermore, such would-be Hoyles as sought to describe it in the 18th century had not yet developed the art of accurate and comprehensive description, and unconsciously took it for granted that you would understand their explanations because you already knew how to play the game. Those of the 19th century were often better writers and teachers, but by then no longer knew the game at first hand and had (as I have) obvious difficulty in making sense of what their predecessors had passed on to them.

My primary source is an admirable 96-page booklet entitled Quadrille Elucidated, by a pseudonymous "Q. Quanti", largely because I possess a copy but equally because the author was obviously not only a thoroughly experienced player but also a thoughtful analyst and a wonderful writer (if you like 19th-century English).

Quanti clearly belongs to the superior tradition of card-game explication represented by Francis Willughby in the 17th century and Henry "Cavendish" Jones in the 19th, and from his style I suspect him to have been a lawyer (as indeed was Edmond Hoyle).

The Treatise is physically impossible to scan or photocopy without damage, and in any case is too long to reproduce here; but there is a copy in the Frederic Jessel Collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, if you wish to examine it yourself - in which case please send me any corrections you may wish to recommend.

The titles noted above, also in Jessel, are also commendable, if to a lesser degree. I have, of course, examined Hoyle himself and many of his later editors and plagiarists, none of whom contributes anything useful, even where they are intelligible, and most of whom kick the same bits of text about like a worn-out football. (Though G. - H. - , in his 1847 Hoyle, offers the interesting remark that a later form of Quadrille "is very much in vogue" in Lancashire.)

uplink downlink THE PLAY OF QUADRILLE
Rewritten from "Quanti"
Four. Each plays for herself in the long run, but temporary alliances may be formed from deal to deal. The turn to deal, the dealing itself, and all the play of tricks, rotate from left to right. Dealer's right-hand neighbour is the "eldest" hand and dealer "youngest".
40, consisting of AKQJ765432 in each suit. (Omit ranks 10, 9, 8.)
Hard score.
Each player Counters
A basket for holding
sQuadrille counters
starts with a number of chips or counters of her own distinctive colour. Surprisingly, Quanti omits to say how many, probably because regular players could purchase proprietary boxes of Quadrille counters in various denominations, so they knew there would be enough of each sort without having to know exactly how many were "enough". The 1752 French book mentioned above specifies each player's full complement as consisting of 10 jettons (counters, small and round), 19 fiches (fish, so called from their shape), and 5 mils or contrats (large and oblong). As each denomination is 10 times higher than the one below, this brought the total to the equivalent of 700 unitary counters. (Per person! No wonder they needed a basket to hold them all in, as illustrated here.)
A game is forty deals, or any other multiple of four as agreed in advance.
Before each deal, each player stakes one chip to the pool. (Or the dealer stakes four, if preferred.) Deal 10 cards each, face down, in batches of 4-3-3, 3-4-3, or 3-3-4.
Rank of cards.
The ranking order of cards varies as between red and black suits, and as between trumps and plain suits.
The top three trumps are called Matadors and always consist of:
  1. spade Ace, called Spadille
  2. The nominally lowest trump (black 2, red 7), called Manille
  3. club Ace, called Basto.
In a red trump suit the fourth highest is its Ace, called Punto, but it is not a matador. Matadors have special privileges in the play of tricks, as will be explained later.

The trick-taking power of cards,from highest to lowest in each suit, is as follows:
Whoever bids highest becomes the soloist, and is designated Hombre. Each in turn, beginning with Eldest hand, may bid or pass. Passing prohibits you from bidding again. The simplest form of the game has only three bids, from lowest to highest:
  1. Alliance (announced as "Beg" or "Propose" or "Ask leave"). A bid to win at least six tricks after naming trumps and calling as an ally the holder of a specified King.
  2. Solo (or sans prendre). A bid to win at least six tricks after naming trumps and playing alone against the other three.
  3. The vole (or slam). As solo, but also undertaking to win all 10 tricks.
A solo overcalls an alliance, but an elder player (one closer to the dealer's right) who bids an alliance may, if overcalled, raise her bid to a solo and so become Hombre by virtue of positional priority.
It is worth noting that, if you play a solo, you can raise your bid to a vole after winning the first six tricks. Therefore, you needn't bid it in advance unless (a) you need to overcall an earlier player's bid of solo, or (b) your vole is absolutely unbeatable, in which case it is worth bidding now because it earns more than if undertaken later. If anyone does bid the vole, every player, including the bidder, must immediately pay three chips into a new pool, consisting of 12 in all, which is to be kept separate from the main stake or pool.
If playing solo, Hombre announces the trump suit and play begins.
If playing alliance, she names trumps and nominates the King of any non-trump suit lacking from her own hand. If (and only if) she holds all three Kings (Note 1) she calls a Queen instead. The holder of the called card automatically becomes the other partner, but says nothing. The partnership may only be revealed when the called card is played to a trick, or when its holder makes some other play that obviously favours the caller. Hombre may call a King she holds herself, whether by mistake or as a bluff. In this case she will, in effect, be playing a solo (secretly), and wins or loses accordingly.
If everyone passes, the game is Forced Spadille. Whoever holds spadeA must play an alliance by calling a King, or a Queen if she holds four Kings. In this case, however, she may (but need not) invite her partner to nominate trumps (Note 2).
Eldest leads first. Players must follow suit if possible (except when reneging - see below), otherwise may play any card. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played, and the winner of each trick leads to the next.
A player holding a matador need not play it to a trump lead, but may, if lacking lower trumps, instead renege by playing from another suit. However, the lead of a higher matador forces the play of a lower one if its holder has no alternative. For example, if Spadille is led, the holder of Manille or Basto must play it if she has no other trump. Similarly, Manille forces the play of Basto if there is no alternative. Spadille itself, being the highest cannot be forced. Note that forcing applies only if the higher matador is led to the trick, not if played second or third.
Premiers and the vole.
If Hombre in a Solo bid wins the first six tricks straight off, she gains a bonus for "premiers", and may claim her winnings without further play. If, however, she leads to the seventh trick, this automatically raises her bid to the vole. In this event, everyone including Hombre must immediately pay three chips into a new pool, consisting of 12 in all, which is to be kept separate from the main stake or pool. If she then subsequently loses a trick this stake will go to the opponents, but she will still be paid for winning the game and the premiers.
In an alliance, the same rule applies to the partnership if they take the first six between them. Obviously, they must agree whether or not to do so, but they are not allowed to give each other any information as to their cards or likelihood of success. Whoever is on lead should merely say "May I?", and her ally reply merely "Yes" or "No". If after six tricks Hombre does not yet know who her ally is, the latter will naturally reveal herself by either asking or answering that question.
In a Forced Spadille, the vole may not be specifically undertaken and there is no extra payment for winning it. (This presumably also precludes payment for premiers, but none of my sources addresses this point.)
Pay-off for won solo.
Hombre sweeps the pool, plus that for the vole if she won every trick, and receives from each opponent whichever of the following additional payments may apply. (A unit means one quarter of the stake. The stake may be greater than four chips, as it is carried forward when a game is lost.) (Note: "Matadors" are paid when Hombre originally held Spadille, Manille, and Basto. Double matadors, for the additional holding of Punto, is of course possible only when a red suit was trump.)
Pay-off for won alliance or forced Spadille.
The stake is divided equally between the allies, who also receive from the opponents, one to one, any of the relevant bonuses listed above. In this case payment for matadors may be for three or four held between the allies, not necessarily in one hand.
Penalties for a lost game.
In a solo, Hombre pays each of the three opponents. In an alliance or Forced Spadille, Hombre pays the appropriate amount to one opponent, and her ally to the other. But there is an exception that applies to an Alliance (though not to a Forced Spadille), namely, that Hombre is obliged to win at least three tricks, and if she fails to do so must alone pay the two opponents on behalf of herself and her ally. This is because the latter was an involuntary partner and could not reasonably have been expected to contribute more than two (Note 3).
There are two degrees of loss. If Hombre wins only five tricks, it is a remise; if four or fewer, it is a codille.
For loss by remise, Hombre doubles the stake - which is carried forward to the next deal - and pays to each opponent the premium for a solo (if applicable) and for any matadors she may have held (either alone or with an ally.)
For loss by codille, Hombre's two or three opponents themselves sweep the pool and divide it between them - unless there are three opponents and the stake is not exactly divisible by three, when it is left in place and carried forward. Hombre then contributes to the pool for the next deal twice the amount that was just taken, and pays to each opponent the amount she would otherwise have received from them (if applicable) for the premium, matadors and the vole undertaken.
Penalties for a lost vole.
A vole undertaken after six tricks, if lost, does not bar Hombre from winning the game stake, the payment for premiers, and any payment for matadors. The stake for the vole itself is taken in equal proportions by her opponents.
For a lost vole announced (i.e. bid in the auction, as opposed to undertaken after winning premiers), Hombre neither wins the game stake nor doubles it, but leaves it to be carried forward to the next deal. Nor does she pay her opponents anything more than the premium of the vole - provided, however, that she won at least six tricks. If she fails even to take six tricks, however, she does pay a remise to the pool (i.e. doubles it) as well as whatever other payments are due for a lost solo. The stake for the vole itself is taken in equal proportions by her opponents.
uplink downlink MEDIATEUR
Rewritten from "Quanti" (1822) and Les Règles du Médiateur (1752)

By 1750 the French were playing a more elaborate variant entitled Médiateur - as indeed were the English, though they continued to call it Quadrille. Its key feature is the eponymous new bid, which ranks, logically enough, between an alliance and a solo. By bidding this, Hombre undertakes to win six tricks after calling for any King, which its holder must pass her, face up, in exchange for any unwanted card (passed face down) from Hombre's hand. She then plays alone against three opponents. The logic of this bid is that it is called when you have five safe tricks in your hand, as opposed to the four you need for an alliance or the six for a solo.

Médiateur is also played with a suit of preference, or favourite suit - often hearts, though it may be decided otherwise, or at random at start of play or even at each deal. Any bid made "in favourite" overcalls the same bid made in any other suit, and all relevant bonuses for it are doubled (though the stake itself remains single).

Further bids were also added to what the French always regarded as a completely new game, though the English continued to call it Quadrille. The full range of bids, from lowest to highest, is as follows (more or less - there was always a great deal of local variation).

  1. Forced Spadille. As before, but in favourite all payments are doubled and there is a premium of 1 unit.
  2. Alliance. As before, but (again) in favourite all payments are doubled and there is a premium of 1 unit.
  3. Médiateur or roy rendu. Hombre plays after calling for a King (or Queen if four held) and taking it into her own hand in exchange for any unwanted card. Pay-offs are the same as for a solo, except that (a) the premium is half that of a solo (1 unit, or 2 in favourite), and (b) the player who surrendered her King is exempt from paying Hombre that premium, though not from paying for matadors, premiers or the vole.
  4. Casco (or Gasco, or Respect). This may be bid only by a player who holds both black Aces, and is (therefore) presumably uncertain about which suit to entrump. If no one overcalls it, she places both black Aces face up on the table and calls for a specific King lacking from her own hand. Whoever holds that King declares herself and nominates a trump suit, and the two then play as allies. If they win premiers, they may play for the vole. The pay-off includes a premium equivalent to that of a solo, namely 2 units, or 4 in favourite. If unsuccessful, both are equally liable.
  5. Solo. As before, except that the premium is only 2 units unless played in favourite, when it remains 4.
  6. Grandissimo. A solo with no trump suit, apart from the two black Aces, which form a two-card fifth suit of trumps. It is helpful, but not obligatory, to hold both Aces to bid this. You may go for the vole after winning premiers. Its value is twice that of a heart solo, namely 8 units.
  7. Devole (or Nemo, Misère). An undertaking to lose every trick, playing at no trump, except for the two black Aces (as at grandissimo). Its value is twice that of a grandissimo, namely 16 units.
  8. Vole announced or revealed. The non-partnership bids of médiateur, solo, and grandissimo may also be made with the vole announced, in which case they overcall the same bid without it but can be overcalled by a higher mode of play. If not overcalled, an extra stake or pool must be immediately set up for the vole, to which each player contributes an equal share, consisting of three times the value of the basic game - that is, 3 from each for médiateur, or 6 in favourite; 6 from each for solo, or 12 in favourite; and 24 each for grandissimo.

The vole may not only be announced, but also revealed - that is, Hombre undertakes to play with her hand of cards exposed on the table. In this case the pool to be set up for it is double that of its unrevealed equivalent.

I should have expected any vole announced to overcall any bid without it, so that it is always the highest possible call; but Quanti, who is unusually reticent on this point, seems to suggest otherwise. In an attempt to clarify the whole system of payments that he is advocating, Quanti offers the following table, in which each quoted figure represents one quarter of the relevant stake, f = in favourite, and n = not in favourite.

Matadors n f Voles undertaken n f
3 matadors 1 2   Alliance, Médiateur 3 6
4 matadors 2 4   Casco, Solo 6 12
Premiers 1 2   Grandissimo 24 -
Games       Voles announced    
Forced spadille 0 1   Médiateur *5 *10
Alliance 0 1   Solo 9 18
Médiateur 1 2   Grandissimo 36 -
Casco 2 4   Voles revealed    
Solo 2 4   Médiateur 6 12
Grandissimo 8 -   Solo 12 24
Devole (Nemo) 16 -   Grandissimo 48 -

* Theoretically 4½ and 9, respectively


1. The sources usually say "four Kings", but this conflicts with the rule that you may not call the King of trumps. Perhaps you may in fact call the trump King if it is the only one you haven't got. (Return)

2. Sources do not remark on the conflict of this rule with that forbidding partner's self-declaration. But it makes for an elegant dilemma that the caller should either name trumps, or know her partner immediately, but not both. (Return)

3. Quanti argues at length against this rule and reasoning, and proposes an alternative based on whether or not the ally held certain combinations of Kings and matadors. (Return).

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