"Until the turn of the century whist was the king of socially acceptable card games in England and the United States". So says Albert Ostrow in The Complete Card Player. Whist is mentioned often in 18th century journals and diaries -- literally dozens of times in the journals of James Boswell. Reproductions of 18th-century cards are readily available from your favorite sutler, and whist is a good, fun and authentic game for passing the evening with a few friends in camp.
Whist is a variation on bridge and very similar to Euchre. It is a simple game to learn, but takes time and concentration to master, so it never gets dull. In Boswell: The Ominous Years, mention is also made of a game called catch-honours. This is a variation on whist and is also known as catch-the-ten, or Scotch whist.
Scotch whist is identical to English whist, but the main objective is to win a trick with the ten of trump, which counts for ten points (in whist, that's a lot of points). Note that the trick has to be WON with the ten. A trick won with any other card that simply contains the 10 of trump is scored normally.
Following are the basic rules for whist. Incorporate the ten-point variation and you have Scotch whist. Have a glass of barley juice with a piece of lime in it while you're playing and you have Scotch whist with a Scotch twist! Enough with the puns. Here's how you play:
You need a 52 card deck and four players (if you're not playing with a full deck, consider seeking professional help). The players cut the deck to determine partners -- the two high cuts play against the two low cuts. The lowest cut deals a hand of 13 cards to each player. The last card is turned up and its suit becomes trump. This card belongs to the dealer, but it stays face-up on the table until the dealer plays to the first trick.
Card ranking is as follows: Ace (high), King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Deuce (low). The suits are all equal in rank -- except the trump suit, which always ranks higher that any of its non-trump counterparts (i.e. the two of trump outranks the ace of a non-trump suit).
The player to the dealer's left leads the first trick by laying down any card he chooses. Each player then plays a card, they must follow the suit lead if they have it, otherwise they can throw a trump card or a card from another suit. The highest card of the suit lead wins the trick -- unless a trump card is played, in which case the highest trump card wins. The winner of the trick sets it aside and leads the next trick (only one partner keeps the trick pile). The first six tricks are called the "book" and don't count (sorry, that's the rules). Each trick taken after a team "makes book" counts one point.
At the end of a deal, the tricks taken by each team are added up, and the team holding the most tricks is the winner. The losing team's points are subtracted from the winning team's -- and the total is awarded to the winning team as their score for that deal. In English whist, game point is five (known in the U.S. as "short whist"), but the deal in which the fifth point is gained is still played out and the losing team's points are subtracted.
There are some additional rules and variations, but that's basically it. It's not as confusing as it sounds, and after you play a few hands it begins to all make sense. Once you get the hang of English whist -- try the Scotch whist twist!
SOURCES: Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, editors, Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, McGraw-Hill, 1963
Albert Ostrow, The Complete Card Player, Whittlesey House, 1945