The AICSA Standard Bartok Meta-Rules

I’ve been a fan for many years of the evil game of Bartok, and I’ve often joked about the AICSA Standard Bartok Meta-Rules. One day on the bus I suddenly decided to write them down. Please note: I have not included the legendary rule 10, For reasons of aesthetics, no rule leading to a game of Strip Bartok may be added when there are SCUNA basses present because I know there are at least a few people in my audience who would object (bless them).

Here, then, are the rules of Bartok, and the much more important (and much longer) Meta-Rules.


These are the rules and meta-rules for the game of Bartok, a card game for two or more players that falls into the general category of combination shedding games, and the specific category of satanically evil ones.

Superscripts in the rule sections refer to the meta-rules, below.

Initial Rules

The setup is a stack and a discard pile. The deck may be a single or double deck; no indication of the origin of a particular card from a double deck is required.

The dealer shuffles the deck. Players are dealt five cards each from the deck.1 The remaining cards are placed face-down in the stack. At her leisure the dealer turns up the top card from the stack and places it beside the stack to begin the discard pile, whereupon the hand begins. Play begins immediately with the player to the left of the dealer.

In turn, each player must follow rank or suit. (So, if the top card on the discard pile is a 3♡, a legal play is any 3 or any ♡). If a player cannot play a card, she must pick up a card from the stack, after which her turn is complete.2

A player with one card left in her hand must speak the word “Bartok” clearly at some time before the next player begins his turn. If another player notices that she failed to do this and calls her on it, she must pick up a card from the stack and place it in her hand.3

The first player to dispose of all her cards in accordance with the rules is the winner of the hand. The winner of the hand makes up a new rule to add to the initial rules. Rules accumulate over the duration of a game.4

The player to left of the last dealer now becomes the dealer, and a new hand begins. Rinse, repeat.


Certain illegal actions are deserving of penalty during the course of a hand.5 Initially the illegal actions are:

  • Asking a question.6
  • Taking too long to play.7
  • Failing to say Bartok immediately after discarding one’s penultimate card.
  • Playing out of turn.
  • Playing illegally (for example, not following suit or face value).
  • Contravening the letter or the spirit of a rule.8
  • Falsely accusing another player of performing an illegal action.9

The standard penalty is to pick up a card and add it to one’s hand of cards. Cards picked up as penalties cannot immediately be played unless it happens to be that player’s turn.

The AICSA Standard Bartok Meta-Rules

  1. The general mechanics of the game should be considered mutable. For example, the initial number of cards dealt may vary by general consensus without requiring an explicit new rule.
  2. As a way to streamline the game and take some of the sting out of a common situation, a player who picks up a card as a result of being unable to play may play that card, if it is otherwise legal to do so, at any time before she places it into her hand. Once she places a picked-up card in her hand, her turn is over and she can’t then say “Oops, look at that” and play the card like some silly person.
  3. The window of opportunity for penalising a player for not saying Bartok is from when her hand initially contains only one card, until when the next player plays or picks up a card or otherwise indicates that he has begun his turn. After that point, calling out a player on this matter is a false accusation, and is itself penalised. The player is expected to say Bartok immediately, but see meta-rule 9.
  4. The fundamental nature of the game may be changed by any new rule. To change the game or make a rule in a way that implicitly invalidates former rules is a matter of conscience, not law. That is to say, you can do it and deal with the wrath of the players; the rules are explicitly silent on the advisability of this — but see metarule 9.
  5. Actions that are worthy of penalty during a hand may not be penalised between hands. So, for example, if a player asks a question after the hand is finished, she doesn’t need to pick up a card for doing so. Since she doesn’t have a hand of cards at that point, this would seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how a long game and a fair bit of drink can affect some people’s capacity for logic.
  6. Questions fairly penalised must be truthfully and reasonably answered. The player who asks the question is designated the asker; the player who calls her on this matter and issues the penalty is the answerer. Play pauses until the answerer answers the question to the best of his ability. In the case of reasonable and answerable questions (“oh dear, did I do that?” is a common one) a true, reasonable answer is a simple thing (“yes, you did, and you also asked a question”); in the case of unanswerable questions (“what is the final digit of the decimal expansion of pi?”) or unreasonable questions (“what are the first ten trillion digits of pi?”) the answerer may give an answer equivalent to “mu”, which means “that question is unasked”. Any answer approved of by consensus among the other players, excluding the asker, will be counted as a true and reasonable answer; otherwise the answerer must try again or pay a forfeit agreeable to the entire company.
  7. A reasonable time limit for playing a card is a matter for the conscience of the individual churchgoer, in consultation and consensus with all players.
  8. Any action that materially disadvantages a player alone is never illegal when performed by that player. Thus, there is no need to penalise a player for, for example, picking up a card and adding it to her hand because she believed incorrectly that she had performed an illegal action. A polite player might point out that she didn’t need to do that, but once she has placed the card in her hand, it’s hers. Of course, if the rules have evolved to the point where adding a card to one’s hand of cards confers some advantage — suppose players are penalised when they have an even number of cards, say — or causes a disadvantage for another player as well, then this is an illegal action and would be penalised.
  9. In general, while a fast game is a good game and the ingenious application of penalties is one of the joys of Bartok, it is better to be kind than clever. A fun game is better than a nasty, vindictive game, and a player who delights in making other players suffer is to be discouraged. Therefore, the players as a group may choose occasionally to override a penalty or reinterpret the application of a rule out of compassion, when to do otherwise would make the game a less pleasant experience for some of the players.