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The Highwayman
A game for strengthening tarot knowledge, associations, and reading skills

One of the most common questions we receive from new customers is: "How do I learn the meanings of the cards, and how to read them?" Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that there are many, varied, and differing meanings assigned to tarot's 78 images, the simple answer is: practice, practice, practice!

But practicing how to read tarot for others can be a very intimidating process. We worry about getting stuck, being "wrong", or looking amateur and foolish. But what if you could practice reading... without reading? What if you could lay out the cards, study and learn their assocations, become more comfortable with your deck, and even have fun at the same time?

Well, wonder "what if?" no more! Presented here, for your edification, is the game of "The Highwayman". (Sidenote: Dan learned this game at a Framlingham tarot conference several years ago, courtesy of K. Huggins.) It is a simple storytelling game, than can be played alone, or in a group of any size. Dan and Jeannette love to take a deck with them to a bar, and play the game over a glass of Irish whiskey (Dan) or wine (Jeannette) -- but it can be enjoyed in any comfortable environment. And it's perfect for both novice (like Jeannette) and experienced (like Dan) readers. If you have an imagination, you can play The Highwayman!

So, without further fanfare, here's how it works:

  1. Pick a tarot deck -- any tarot deck. If you've just picked up a new deck, this is a great way to start laying the foundation for working with that deck. Novice students might be best served to use a deck that includes a fully-illustrated minor arcana -- but if you're a more experienced reader who is in the early stages of working with non-scenic pip cards, this game provides a great method for becoming more comfortable with such tarots.
  2. Shuffle the deck, and then set it face down within reach of all players.
  3. The first player begins the game by reciting the phrase, "Once there was a Highwayman...". The player then draws the top card from the deck, and places it face up on the table.
  4. The first player now begins a story about the Highwayman, based on elements and/or associations presented in the card drawn. This can be a simple sentence, a fairly detailed paragraph's worth of narrative, or anything in-between. There is no "right or wrong" here; it simply depends on the card, and the imagination and whims of the player!
  5. The first player ends his or her turn by setting up a continuation point for the next player to build upon. The second player then draws the next card from the deck, places it face up, and goes on with the story based on what he/she sees in the new card. If playing alone, simply draw the next card and continue the story yourself.
  6. Play continues in this manner, with each player drawing a card and continuing the story. When everyone has had a turn, the first player goes again, and once more around the circle it goes!
  7. The game ends when all players agree that the story has reached some sort of "natural conclusion". (Often, this ends up being something along the lines of "and they all lived happily ever after", or "and everybody died a horrible and tragic death". But there are actually other possibilities, so don't be afraid to see if you can wind up the story in a more creative fashion.)
The inspiration for each portion of the story can come from whatever ideas the card image or symbolism triggers for you. To get you started, here is a list of possibilities, with examples:

  • The card number and/or suit (Seven of Wands: "The Highwayman saw seven travelers with staves walking down the road toward him...")
  • The card's elemental or astrological associations, if you know them (Ace of Cups: "A waterfall could be seen in the distance, where the Highwayman could wash the dust from his clothes and shoes."; King of Pentacles: "The Highwayman was a large and powerful man -- as stubborn and bull-headed as they come.")
  • The image on the card itself, or any detail within the image (Wheel of Fortune: "As he sat by the side of the road and watched the carriage pass, the Highwayman was fascinated by the glint of the metal fittings on the vehicle's wooden wheels...")
  • A divinatory meaning for the card that you've learned from a teacher, a website, or a book, or one that you've come up with on your own (The Sun: "...he was a very accomplished and succesful rogue, and had accumulated a great deal of wealth over the course of his nefarious career.")
  • The card's Qabalistic correspondences, if you are familiar with them (Six of Pentacles: "Suddenly, the Highwayman found himself surrounded by the nine pitiful waifs from the burned-out orphanage; their plight melted his heart, and he gave each child a gold coin so that they might eat that night...")
  • Any mythological or fictional characters, objects, or places that have been associated with the card (Ace of Swords: "The Highwayman had heard rumors that the famous sword Excaliber was hidden deep within the cave." Queen of Cups: "As the Highwayment fled, the eccentric queen -- dressed in an odd gown covered with hearts and carrying a flamingo that she had been using as a croquet mallet -- shouted, "Off with his head!")
  • Whatever first pops into your head, no matter how strange it seems (Death: "Although the Highwayman was excited about his impending marriage to the princess, he was somewhat apprehensive about her choice of Morbid Angel for the reception dance band.")
The following provides an example of the first few rounds of a possible game:

Three players are gathered at a table. They choose Player Three's Magic Manga Tarot deck for the game. The deck is shuffled, and placed face-down in the center of the table.

Magic Manga Tarot: Four of SwordsPlayer One says: "Once there was a Highwayman...". She draws the top card, and places it face-up next to the deck; it is the Four of Swords. The image on the card inspires her to continue the story as follows:

"...Who had wearied of the life of the road, and longed to experience life on the sea. So he took all the wealth he had accumulated during his many successful years as a robber of coaches, and bought a ship that he could use to travel the oceans..."

Player One now indicates that it is Player Two's turn. Player Two draws the next card from the face-down deck, and sets it on top of Player One's card so everyone can see it.

Magic Manga Tarot: The MagicianThe new card is The Magician, which in  Player Two's personal "current working" deck -- Lo Scarabeo's Native American Tarot -- is represented by the ancient Pueblo Indian trickster deity Kokopelli. With this association in mind, Player Two continues the story thus:

"...As he prepared to set sail on his first voyage, a strange man with a feathered hat and a wooden flute approached him, seeking conveyance to a land across the sea. 'And how will you pay me for your passage?' asked the Highwayman. The man smiled oddly and said, 'Money is of no consequence to me, my fine captain. Name your price, and I shall pay it in gold and silver.' But the Highwayman was not entirely certain that he could trust this unusual fellow..."

Magic Manga Tarot: Queen of CupsPlayer Three now takes his turn, drawing the Queen of Cups. Player Three has learned that both the suit of Cups and the minor arcana Queens are associated with the elemental force of water, making the Queen of Cups "water of water". This gives him the idea to proceed like this:

"...However, despite his misgivings, he allowed the traveler on board, and began his journey. Soon, they were far from land, with nothing but water stretching before them in all directions. A storm began to gather, and the waves began to swell, violently rocking the boat. A driving rain pelted the deck as the Highwayman  struggled to pilot his craft..."

Manga Tarot: StrengthNow it is Player One's turn again. She draws the next card -- Strength -- and builds on the storyline using some of the divinatory meanings she has assigned to this image over the course of her studies:

"...Sensing their danger, the Highwayman's passenger said, 'I have some knowledge of these waters. Allow me to assist you, and I will steer us to a nearby safehaven.' Tired, cold, and exhausted, the Highwayman stepped to one side, and allowed his companion to take the helm. He then watched in amazement as the man maneuvered the craft almost effortlessly through the turbulent and perilous waters. Indeed, thought the Highwayman, as he observed the man's powerful, steady hand on the wheel, it was almost as if the ocean was parting before them..."

...And the game continues until one of the players brings the story to a conclusion.

Remember: there are no "right" or "wrong" ways to tie each card into the story. While the associations chosen by one person may not be clearly understood by one or more of the other players, the intent is to help each player to build and strengthen their own "mental library" of tarot meanings and symbols.

Every tarot card is multidimensional, offering numerous interpretational possibilities depending on the context and situation. The game of The Highwayman allows us to explore these possibilities outside of the "high pressure" environment of an actual reading, while still providing a wealth of information that can be used when we finally do spread the cards for actual psychospiritual work.

The Tarot Garden

The Highwayman

Improve your knowledge of tarot while enhancing your reading skills and strengthening your confidence through this simple and fun parlor-and-bar game.

Play The Highwayman!

This site maintained by The Tarot Garden; Jeannette K. Roth and Dan M. Pelletier, proprietors.

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