An ancient Bavarian tradition: playing cards

A country’s culture is reflected in how a society typically lives together: the architecture, language, clothing, food – all these elements have a certain style. In Bavaria, many of them mainly stand for the spirit of sociability. As does playing cards, an ancient tradition in Bavaria.

Anyone who has ever visited a genuine Bavarian village pub has certainly already come into contact with them: card players. Card playing has been a tradition in Bavaria for hundreds of years, in fact Bavarians have been said to be passionate card players since the Middle Ages. The card game bans in 1378 and 1380, which were issued in Regensburg and Nuremberg, are considered to be evidence of this. It’s believed today that things must have been pretty wild in the pub saloons and living rooms for such measures to be necessary. When you consider that the Europeans were only capable of producing real paper at the end of the 14th century, the Bavarians were absolute trendsetters when it came to card games.

This is also confirmed by research that traces the family tree of specific Bavarian playing cards back to the 15th century: the classical Bavarian games cannot be played with conventional cards. You need a very special deck with acorns, leaves, hearts and bells instead. They can also be found in the Regensburg pattern, which was mainly used in the 18th and 19th century, as well as in the Bavarian pattern by the card maker Josef Fetscher from Munich, which replaced it around 1875.

Popular classic versions of cards in Bavaria: the Central European deck with acorns, leaves, hearts and bells.

The absolute classic among the Bavarian card games is “Schafkopf”, a game that actually does not originate from Bavaria, but is known under the name Lomber or L’Hombre from France and Spain. Nevertheless, it is now inextricably linked to Bavaria: the importance of the game in Bavarian culture can be seen from the fact that there are even initiatives that want to integrate playing Schafkopf into the Bavarian school system to preserve its tradition and pass it on to generations. The game is played by four people, pairs are formed during each round who then play against each other. An aim of the game is it to collect at least 61 out of 120 possible points by trumping the opponent, in the solo version you play without forming pairs. One version of Schafkopf that which is particularly widespread in Upper Franconia is Mucken. The exact rules are subject to regional customs but it is always played in pairs – there are no solo or caller contracts. Mucken is part of the Franconian pub culture and Muck tournaments are therefore very popular in Bavaria’s northernmost administrative district.

However, Schafkopf and Mucken, which is derived from it, do not constitute the Bavarian card playing culture alone. There are also many other games that can be played either just in Bavaria or at least mainly in the southern German region. These primarily include Watten, which originally comes from South Tyrol. Watten can be played by four people and in pair again. The aim is to outdo the opponent pair at least three times per game. Like Schafkopf, Watten is traditionally played as a tournament in Bavaria. As unlike Schafkopf Watten is a game of luck though, organisers of such tournaments have come into conflict with the law – a conflict between tradition and modern times. Watten is of course still allowed within your own four walls though. As is a Watten tournament without playing for money.

In addition to Schafkopf and Watten, there are two other games that are particularly popular and intrinsically associated with Bavaria. They are called Grasobern and Wallachen. The former is a traditional old Bavarian game, the latter is known and played mainly in Eastern Bavaria. Both of them are about outdoing your opponents with the played cards but there are many different types of games that vary according to regional customs, among other things.

Whichever of the games and whichever type of game you prefer, the most important thing about Bavarian card games is and remains the underlying idea of bringing people together. Politics, religion, poverty or wealth – none of that matters when you’re playing cards. The best example of this are the cross-party Schafkopf games still established everywhere on county, city or municipal councils today. Everyone is equal and has the same passion when playing cards, and it is precisely in this spirit, in the spirit of sociability, that card playing is and remains a key feature of Bavarian culture.