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Detail from the Herrenberger Altar

Karnöffel is a card game which probably came from the upper-German language area in Europe in the first quarter of the 15th century. It first appeared listed in a municipal ordinance of Nördlingen, Bavaria, in 1426 among the games that could be lawfully played at the annual city fête.[1] This makes the game the oldest identifiable European card game in the history of playing cards.


The name Karnöffel[2] is probably derived from another card game, Kanjafah or Kanjifah (called in contemporary manuscripts, Karniffel, Karnueffel and Karnoeffelins ), of Persian origin, which bears also a similarity with the name Ganjifa, Ganjifeh, of Indian origin.

Karnöffel was unique in that it had a trump suit of cards with a higher priority than any other suit in the deck, which indicates that it might be a possible precursor to the trump cards of Tarot as well as the Joker card found in modern card decks. In contrast to modern card games such as poker and gin rummy Karnöffel utilizes a deck of 48 cards.

The earliest substantial reference to Karnöffel is a poem by Meissner, discovered by Dr. von Leyden, written in or before 1450.

A derivative of the game is still played around Stans and in the Engelberg valley in Canton Nidwalden in Switzerland under the name Kaisern, Kaiserspiel, or Kaiserjass, though it's not a true variety of Jass.[3] It is a five-card partnership game of which each deal is won by the first side to win three tricks.

The play[edit]

Karnöffel can be played with a standard 52-card deck, omitting the Aces. The German decks have Obers and Unters as court cards instead of Queens and Jacks. If playing with a French suited deck use the Queen as the Ober and the Jack as the Unter. In plain suits the cards rank in the usual descending order of King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

In the quasi-trump suit the K, Q, 10, 9, 8 are not trumps. They act as a normal suit. This gives the following order in the "trump" suit: J, (7), 6, 2, K, 3, Q, 4, 5, 10, 9, 8, (7).

Five cards are dealt to each player, one at a time. The first card is dealt face up, the others face down. The lowest-ranking face-up card determines the "trumps" for that round. In case of a tie for low card the suit of the first of the low cards dealt is trump. Once trump is determined the players turn their card over then 4 more cards are dealt (a total of 5 cards).

The player to the left of the dealer leads any card to the first trick. Each other player in clockwise order plays any card. There is no requirement to follow suit, as in other games. The player of the highest card of the suit led, or of the highest "trump" if any are played, wins the trick and leads to the following trick.

Continue until all cards have been played. The team winning a majority of the five tricks wins the round and the player who led to the first trick then deals for the next round.

Unlimited table-talk is allowed and partners may advise each other on play.

The cards in the trump suit[edit]

Unlike almost all other card games only some of the cards in the suit designated as "trump" have special trick-taking power, and most of those cards only have power some of the time. The special cards are:

  • Jack, "Karnöffel", Unter, Knave: Beats all other cards.
  • 7, "Teufel",Devil: Beats all cards except Karnöffel, if it is the first card played in a trick; otherwise it ranks just as a Seven of the suit led, not as a Trump card. (In case of a tie with the natural 7 of a suit, the first 7 played wins.)
  • 6, "Papst",Pope: Beats all cards except the Jack of Trump and a leading Seven of Trump.
  • 2, "Kaiser": Beats all but the Jack, leading Seven and Six of Trump.
  • 3, "Oberstecher": Beats all but the Jack, leading Seven, Six and Two of Trump, or the leading King of any suit.
  • 4, "Unterstecher": Beats all but the Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two and Three of Trump, or the leading King or Queen of any suit.
  • 5, "Farbenstecher": Beats all but the Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two, Three and Four of Trump, or the leading face card of any suit.
  • King, "König": Beats all cards except Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two, leading Three, leading Four and leading Five of Trump.
  • Queen, "Ober", Knight: Beats leading Seven, Six Two, Three, leading Four, leading Five and King of Trump.
  • 10, "Banner": Beats all cards except Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two, Three, Four, Five, King and Queen of Trump.
  • 9: Beats all cards except Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two, Three, Four, Five, King, Queen and Ten of Trump.
  • 8: Beats all cards except Jack, leading Seven, Six, Two, Three, Four, Five, King, Queen, Ten and Nine of Trump.

All Kings trump the Oberstecher (3), which trumps the Ober in all suits except the trump suit. The Ober trumps the Unterstecher (4) which trumps the Unter in all suits except the trump suit. The Unter trumps the Farbenstecher (5), which trumps the remaining suit cards of the trump suit (10, 9, and 8) and all the numbered cards from the other suits.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Notes about Karnöffel - Caldwell, Ross Gregory. Trionfi.com
  2. ^ The Origin of the word Karnöffel - Autorbis, Triomfi.com
  3. ^ Kaiserspiel Card Game - Oxford Dictionary of Card Games, David Parlett, pg:139

External links[edit]