Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Alain Borvo: Discover Aluette, the Game of the Cow

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Translator’s Introduction

Aluette, or the Game of the Cow, has already been the object of an article by René-Louis Doyon, and while it is still played in certain areas of western France, it remains mostly unknown in the English-speaking world. Yet its peculiar rules and peculiar iconography deserve to be better known. For that reason, we present the translation of an engaging introductory article by a specialist of the question, Alain Borveau, which examines the history and the rules of the game in greater detail.

The author Alain Borveau (1933-2002), or Borvo as he styled himself, after the Breton spelling, was  a well-known card collector and games specialist, publisher of a journal devoted to games and author of a number of books on card games, such as Jeux De Cartes Et Cartes A Jouer, De Vecchi, 1978; and Comment on joue : 85 regles de jeux de cartes pour vous amuser en famille ou entre amis, De Vecchi, 1987, and, of course, a very interesting monograph on the subject of Aluette, Anatomie d’un jeu de cartes, l’Aluette ou le Jeu de la Vache, Librairie nantaise Yves Vachon, Nantes, 1977.

An ethnologist by training, Borveau spent time in northern Finland studying the Sámit culture. His personal website and a brief English biography may be found here. Borveau’s article, Sáhkku, The “Devil’s Game”, may be read online in English in the n° 4 issue of Board Game Studies here (pp. 33-52). An obituary of the author by Thierry Depaulis (in English) may be read in the n° 6 issue of Board Games Studies, 2003, on page 102, and a fuller biography (in French) may be read here. Borveau was also the creator of Le Grand Oracle Celtique, a 72-card oracle deck of druidic inspiration published by Grimaud in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the author of a novel, Celui qui a perdu son nom, Spes, 1960.

This article by Alain Borvo, “Découvrez l’aluette”,  first published in Jeux et Stratégie, n° 4 August 1980, may be downloaded from this website or read here: part 1 and part 2.

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Discover Aluette, the Game of the Cow

Alain Borvo

At least as much as monuments, traditional games are a part of our cultural heritage. Let us therefore take advantage of this Year of Culture to rediscover them. And let us begin with one of the most curious games, as much by the originality of its rules as by the design of its special cards, the game of Aluette or the Cow, still very much alive in the West, from the Cotentin to the estuary of the Gironde.

West coast of France. Areas in which Aluette is played.

Le Croisic, 5 pm. In the smoke-filled backroom of the bar down by the docks, four elderly men “strike the cardboard.” Former fishermen versus the veterans of the Royale, as they still call the National Navy around here. The conversation flows, sprinkled with curses and snatches of obscure phrases in which it is question of one-eyed men, cows, pisspants, horsewomen and of a certain Kiss-Hard!

You may also have caught a glimpse, once the cards have been turned over, of some bizarre grimaces on the delighted faces of the partners: you are in the presence of a genuine game of Aluette, one of the oldest games of Europe.

Let us take a closer look over the players’ shoulders: the cards they have in hand have nothing to do with the usual ones we know, shapes and backs aside. Instead of our traditional spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds, they bear swords, cups, staffs, and coins, the same suits as we find on the ancient tarot and which we still find today on Italian and Spanish cards. But the similarity ends there: the characters of the Aluette court are very different and the point cards are supplemented with all manner of very strange naïve drawings – cherubs, medals with busts and profiles, birds, a sort of feathered Indian, violins, without forgetting the cow lying down in the 2 of Cups, which has also given its name to the game.

What, then, is the origin of this “game of the cow” and its surprising imagery? The two earliest mentions we know of date back to the beginning of the 16th century, in the lower Loire valley. In effect, the chronicles tell us that at that time, Anne of Brittany, then Queen of France, had taught Archduke Philip the Fair to “play the luettes”, a new game in favour at the court of Amboise and which she herself had perhaps brought from her castle in Nantes. On his side, Rabelais, who had lived for a long time in Vendée, cites the “luettes” among the games played by the young Gargantua. With Pantagruel, we find ourselves in Bordeaux, where the hero “found no entertainment apart from sailors playing the luettes on the shore.

Aluette, luettes, we could doubt that it is even the same game if the term of “luette” were not still in use to denote the strongest cards. This brings us to take a closer interest in the composition of the game.

The Aluette deck comprises 48 cards, divided into four series: two with round suits, corresponding to our red suits – the cups and the coins, and two with long suits – the staffs and the swords. Each suit comprises 12 cards, from the strongest to the weakest: the ace, the king, the horsewoman, the valet, the 9, the 8, the 7, and so on till the 2. However, this order is partly modified by the existence of the “luettes” and the “doubles.”

Certain point cards have effectively left the ranks to become a sort of “super ace.” The strongest are the 4 luettes, which are, in order of decreasing strength:

  • the 3 of Coins, called Monsieur;
  • the 3 of Cups, called Madame;
  • the 2 of Coins, called the One-Eyed Man;
  • the 2 of Cups, called the Cow.

Next come the 4 doubles or double-aces, still in the order of their decreasing value:

  • the 9 of Cups, called the Big 9;
  • the 9 of Coins, called the Little 9;
  • the 2 of Staffs, called the 2 of Oak;
  • the 2 of Swords, called the 2 of Writing, so called because the name and address of the cardmaker was once written on it.

Each of these 8 cards beats all the others of the deck, beginning with the aces. As there is no suit of trumps, the order thus defined is unchangeable.

* * *

The Game of the Cow

From left to right: 20th century; 16th century; 19th century.

By the oddness to the drawings they bear, the cards of the Aluette deck cannot but arouse the curiosity of whoever contemplates them for the first time. Who is this young beauty called Madame, and who is coming out of one of the cups of the 3 of Cups? Why this feathered Indian on the ace of Staffs? And above all, what is this incongruous cow doing at the foot of the 2 of Cups, this ruminant which has given its name to the game, when the card it denotes is only the fourth highest in value?

All these symbols have been superadded over the course of the centuries, and the “Cow” is perhaps the most ancient: we find it, on this same card, at the dawn of the 16th century, as seen on this 2 of Cups of a Spanish-suited deck printed in Toulouse towards 1510.

At the time, the point cards were often supplemented with multiple drawings added to the spaces in between the suit symbols, for the most part heraldic symbols. Thus, the eagle of Castile adorned the ace of Coins. The lion of León, the 2 of that same suit. The cow of Béarn, the 2 of Cups.

In all likelihood, this “cow” was the strongest luette at the time, a sort of super-ace whose name would remain associated with that of the game over the centuries, long after its drawing had disappeared from the card.

The most surprising thing is that, as with all the other symbols that decorated the point cards in the beginning, the cow very quickly vanished from the 2 of Cups. It was only 250 years later, at the beginning of the 19th century that it made its reappearance, reinvented by the cardmakers from Nantes, concerned with materialising with an image the name which the players had not stopped using to designate this strong card of the game!

* * *

But let us return to the story of our game of luettes which we have left on the banks of the lower Loire and the Gironde at the dawn of the 16th century. At that time, the piquet cards with French suits have not yet spread throughout the country. In the south-western quarter of France, a type of Spanish-suited playing cards was long in use, and were notably manufactured in Toulouse, Limoges, and in Puy-de-Dôme, in Auvergne, which are the main centres of card exportation towards Spain. What games were they used for? We do not know, but we may suppose that for the most part they more or less derive from an old stock of rules in use in the Iberian peninsula, having perhaps been brought over by the Moors with the cards themselves.

Aluette has preserved some of these archaic rules, which proves its antiquity; among others the one that gives the game all its flavour: the rule that allows the partners to signal to each other, using codified mimicry, the strong cards they have in hand!

To each of the luettes and the doubles corresponds an imperceptible movement of the head, the eyes, the mouth or the hands, which, naturally enough, the adversaries will attempt to notice all the while trying to communicate without being seen themselves. Following the regions, there also exist other signs to indicate the aces, the figures or to signal that one has nothing. These mute declarations may be accompanied by commentaries voiced aloud, to say for example that one has the “higher” or “lower” card, or even the “higher of the higher” or the “lower of the lower”. The essential thing is to never pronounce the name of a card aloud.

* * *

Learn to Make Faces!

To each of the strong cards of the game corresponds a mimic or a conventional sign, which enables one partner to indicate to the other which cards he has in hand. These are among the most commonly-used, but there are others for the aces and the court cards. When one has a bad hand, one shrugs the shoulders according to whether it is very weak or simply mediocre. A player who has a number of strong cards might only make one signal and then announce aloud that he has “the higher,” or “the lower, or the “lower of the lower.”



Above: the 4 Luettes (from left to right): Monsieur: raise the eyes; Madame: smile to one side; the One-Eyed Man: wink; the Cow: pout. Below: The 4 Doubles: Big Nine: Thumbs up; Little Nine: Raise the little finger; 2 of Oak: Raise index and middle fingers; 2 of Writing: put two fingers forward. (Image from Alain Borvo, Anatomie d’un jeu de cartes, Librairie nantaise Yves Vachon, Nantes, 1977, p. 16)

From left to right: Monsieur; the One-Eyed Man; the Cow; Madame.

* * *

This rule is of great interest due to the mode of counting the points. Like many trick-taking games, Aluette is played by 4 players, in 2 teams of 2, the partners being seated on opposite corners. But they do not add up their scores: it is the player of the pair who scores the highest who will mark the point for his team. Therefore it is essential to know which of the two partners has the greatest chances of taking the trick.

It is then understandable that the entire strategy of the game, for the team, will consist in preferring the partner who has the greatest number of strong cards. To do so, there exist a certain number of ways one must know how to combine. One of them resides in the skilful handling of “the hand”: it is effectively the player who takes the trick who will put down the first card in the next hand. Given that one is not obliged to raise, the last one to play will make the decision as to the trick. He has three possibilities:

  1. He plays a card higher to the other three, and takes the trick. In this case, he will be the first to play next.
  2. He plays a lower card; either because he has no higher card; or because he wants his partner to win; or again, because he wants the opponent to his left to win, which will allow him to play last again in the next hand.
  3. He plays a card of the same value as the strongest card played of the preceding 3 already played. We say that he has “done as much,” and that the trick is “spoiled,” and no one takes the trick. His opponent to the left plays again first, and it is he himself who will once again make the decision.

The possibility of “spoiling” the hand takes an important place in the strategy of Aluette. It is useful, to be sure, when one has no strong card to take the trick, as well as to ensure the trick does not go to the opposing team. But one may also use it to get a better idea of the opponent’s hand by having him play first next, when one wishes to hold onto the luettes or the doubles for the following hands, or again, if one wishes to make a “mordienne.”

The mordienne is one of the twists of the game, which consists of, for one of the players, to take the last tricks in a row without having taken any beforehand. The number of these tricks taken must be greater than that of the tricks taken each of the other 3 players. Successfully played, the mordienne brings 2 points instead of the single point which the team would score by winning the deal. Obviously one only tries to pull off a mordienne when one has the greatest number of strong cards in hand. In this case, one tells one’s partner by lightly biting one’s lower lip. From then on, the partner will try to spoil the greatest number of deals at the beginning of the deal. But the opposing team will not be long in guessing the manoeuvre: and then they will endeavour to take the trick, or to keep one luette for the end, or else to spoil one of the last hands, which would the effect of interrupting the mordienne.

Aluette, as we can see, is a game of subtlety, which, without suit of trumps or the obligation to raise, and perhaps even because of this, requires an extremely tight analysis of the probabilities. But by its vocabulary as well as by the use of the mimicry it allows, it is also a joyful pastime. This explains no doubt why the game has very much remained alive over a vast region: southern Brittany, Vendée, and Charente-Maritime, where Aluette is played quite far inland. In the Cotentin, Ille-et-Vilaine, the Côtes-d’Armor and the Morbihan, it is only known on the coast, amongst the fishermen and the retired sailors of the National Navy. It is also to be found all along the valley of the Loire all the way up to Orléans, whence it is was imported from Nantes by sailors.

* * *

The Misadventures of Kiss-Hard

“Kiss-Hard” has fooled a lot of folks! With a decorative medallion which relates it to “Monsieur” and to the “One-Eyed Man,” we could think that it is a luette. In fact, the 5 of Coins has no value, aside from giving you the right to kiss the nearest woman, when there is one in the group. Yet its story deserves to be told. Originally, the central coin was none other than the reproduction of the coin newly-minted in Spain in 1497. We see, face to face, Ferdinand and Isabella, the famous couple of Catholic Monarchs, who enabled Christopher Columbus to discover America.

From left to right: Coin from 1497; 16th century: a chaste Kiss-Hard…; 18th century: the libertinage of the Kiss-Hard couple…; a very chaste Kiss-Hard couple on a 20th-century deck…

Almost 3 centuries later, the French Revolution occurred. Deprived of their royal attributes, that is, of their crowns, the “Kiss-Hard” couple would lose all restraint to give themselves up to intimate exercises, well suited to arousing the mockery of the Aluette players. But morality will end up by gaining the upper hand: the decks of the 20th century show a very chaste “Kiss-Hard”, nicely kissing each other on the lips in the fashion of the Vendéen Marais.

In our era in which eroticism is permitted, should our master-cardmakers not revise their Aluette designs to make them better suited to the spirit of the times? …

* * *

The Last Trick

We are here at the last of the 9 tricks of the deal. By playing the “One-Eyed Man”, the player from the bottom left will take the trick, thereby scoring 3 hands. As none of his opponents has done as much, he will take the point. In Aluette, in effect, the partners’ tricks are not added up: it is the player who has taken the most tricks who will score the point for his team. If two opponents reach the same number of tricks, the point goes to the team who scored the tricks first. Above, in the centre: two spoiled tricks which went to no one, one of the players having put down a card of the same value as the strongest of the 3 others.

* * *

To Know More

The Aluette cards are only published nowadays by two manufacturers, Grimaud, in Paris, and Héron-Boéchat, in Merignac. The rules are included with each pack of these commercially-available decks.

For the rules, one may also refer to the little book published in 1968 by Guy Rebour, La Crapette et le jeu d’aluette, Éditions, Bornemann, paris.

As concerns the history of the game, its iconography and its customs, one will consult with interest the following works:

Every general work on the history of playing cards will devote a certain amount of space to the game of Aluette, and its rules will be found in most volumes dealing with the rules of card games.

* * *


For the further explanations of the rules of the game in English, please see here, here, or here.

Héron-Boéchat no longer manufacture an Aluette deck, although Grimaud still do. The contemporary Grimaud edition, available here, includes both the value of the cards as well as the miming signals printed on the individual cards, as shown below.

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