The object is to collect books, which are sets of four cards of the same rank, by asking other players for cards you think they may have. Whoever collects most sets wins. The basic idea is very simple and they are often thought of as children's games.
So far as I know, games of this type first appeared in the mid 19th century and were played with special cards. In Britain there was Spade the Gardener, in which players collect families of five cards, later superseded by Happy Families, in which each family consists of four cards (mother, father, son, daughter). In the USA, the game of Dr Busby, also based on families, was first published in 1843, followed by Authors in 1861. I do not know whether these games were based on an earlier game played with standard cards, or whether the adaptation to use a standard pack came later.
This game is often just known as Fish, but the name "Fish" (or Canadian Fish or Russian Fish) is also sometimes used for the more complex partnership game Literature. Go Fish is best for 3-6 players, but it is possible for 2 to play. A standard 52 card deck is used. The dealer deals 5 cards to each player (7 each for 2 players). The remaining cards are placed face down to form a stock.
The player to dealer's left starts. A turn consists of asking a specific player for a specific rank. For example, if it is my turn I might say: 'Mary, please give me your jacks'. The player who asks must already hold at least one card of the requested rank, so I must hold at least one jack to say this. If the player who was asked (Mary) has cards of the named rank (jacks in this case), she must give all her cards of this rank to the player who asked for them. That player then gets another turn and may again ask any player for any rank already held by the asker.
If the person asked does not have any cards of the named rank, they say 'Go fish!'. The asker must then draw the top card of the undealt stock. If the drawn card is the rank asked for, the asker shows it and gets another turn. If the drawn card is not the rank asked for, the asker keeps it, but the turn now passes to the player who said 'Go fish!'.
As soon as a player collects a book of 4 cards of the same rank, this must be shown and discarded face down. The game continues until either someone has no cards left in their hand or the stock runs out. The winner is the player who then has the most books.
Some people play that rather than asking for a rank, you must ask for a specific card. You must already hold at least one card of that rank. For example, you say: 'Tom, please give me the seven of diamonds'. If Tom has it he gives it and you get another turn. If he doesn't, he says 'Go Fish!' and you draw from the stock. In the unlikely event that you draw the seven of diamonds you get another turn; if you draw anything else it is now Tom's turn.
If you play this variation, you need to agree whether it is permissible to ask for a card which you already hold in your hand. Obviously you'll have to fish and your turn will end, but you might do this deliberately to mislead the other players into thinking that you didn't hold that card.
Some people play that when the stock runs out, you carry on playing until all the cards have been made into books. Obviously after the stock has run out there is no 'Go Fish!'. If the person you asked doesn't have the card asked for, the turn passes directly to them.
Some people play that when a player runs out of cards, the play does not end, but the player draws a new hand of 5 cards from the stock (or the whole stock if fewer than 5 cards remain there).
Some people play that after a player fishes unsuccessfully, the turn passes to the left, rather than to the player who said "go fish".
There are various ways of scoring. For example, you may play a series of hands, scoring one point for each book you make. The game continues until someone wins by reaching an agreed target score - for example, 10 points.
A few people score according to the cards in the books, for example 2-10 face value, 11 for jacks, 12 for queens, 13 for kings, 15 for aces.
Paul Gardner-Stephen reports that in Australia a variant is often played in which the object is to collect pairs. 7 cards are dealt to each player from a 52-card pack. The player with most pairs plays first. At your turn you ask for a card matching one you have in your hand. All pairs must be put down as soon as they are obtained - you cannot hoard a pair in hand as a basis for asking for the other two matching cards. A player who runs out of cards draws a new hand of 7 cards from the undealt stock. Play continues until everyone has run out of cards, and players score a point for each pair they have made.
This game is sometimes played with special cards, and sometimes with a 54-card pack including two jokers, which act as normal cards forming a pair. Jonny Groves describes a similar game played in the USA, and suggests that a pair of jokers should be scored as 2 points rather than 1 since it is harder to make than other pairs. For similar reasons, collecting two pairs of the same rank should score 3 points rather than 2.
A variant Backstab Fish is played in Adelaide with 108 cards including four jokers. There are 4-10 players, 7 cards each are dealt and the aim is to make sets of four equal cards, suits being ignored. At your turn you ask a specific player for a specific number of cards of a rank of which you hold at least one: for example you could ask a player for three sixes if you hold a six. The player gives you the exact number of cards you asked for, if she has them: if not - for example if she only has two sixes - you have to draw a card from the stock and the turn passes to the player you asked. In this game you are not required to lay down four of a kind. You can keep them as a basis for asking for more cards of that rank, but if you do not put them down you may lose some or all of them if another player asks for them.
The Indonesian version of Go Fish is known as Omben in Javanese or Minuman in Indonesian, both names meaning "drink". It is said to be best for two players, each of whom begins with a hand of 4 or 5 cards (according to agreement) drawn from a 52 card pack. The players take turns to ask their opponent for a rank, such as 8 or king, and the opponent must give the asker all cards of that rank that he or she holds. If the opponent has no such card the asker must "drink" by drawing cards from the pile of undealt cards: the asker continues to draw until he or she finds a card of the rank that was asked for. Whenever a player has four of a kind in hand, it must be discarded face up. The winner is the first player to get rid of all their cards - it does not matter how many or few sets they have made. If the stock runs out, the player with fewer cards is the winner. Note that in this game the players ask alternately, irrespective of whether the card asked for is found in the other player's hand or the draw pile.
This is Go Fish without the stock pile. All the cards are dealt out as equally as possible to the players. A turn consists of asking a player for a rank (or a specific card if you play that version). If they have it your turn continues; if not the turn passes to the player you asked. As in Go Fish, you must have a card of the rank you asked for. Books of 4 cards are discarded. The game continues until all the cards are formed into books, and whoever gets most books wins - or you can score one point per book and play to a target score.
This game is called Authors in the USA, because it was originally played with special educational cards showing pictures of famous authors. These cards are still available and the idea has been extended to cards showing inventors, American presidents, explorers, baseball players and many other themes. A selection of different types of Authors cards is available from from funagain.com
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This British version of the game is played with a special pack of 44 cards depicting the mother, father, son and daughter of eleven families. Everyone contributes equally to a pool, all the cards are dealt, and the player to dealer's left begins. The player whose turn it is asks another player for a specific card; the asker must already hold at least one card of the same family. If the player asked has the card it must be handed over and the asker continues by asking the same or another player for another card. If the asked player does not have the wanted card they say "not at home" and the turn passes to them. Completed families are placed face down in front of the owner. When all families are complete, the player with most wins half the pool.
The game then continues into a second phase, in which players ask for complete families. The winner of the first phase begins, and the player who manages to accumulate all eleven families wins the second half of the pool.
Some play a version in which a player asking for a card must say "please", and a player receiving a card must say "thank you". Anyone who forgets to do this must give back the requested card (if it has been handed over) and the turn passes to the player they were asking.
In the French Jeu des Sept Familles each family has six members including two grandparents, so that the seven families make up a 42-card pack.
This Thai game, whose name means "room card", is essentially the same as Happy Families. It is played by 3 to 6 players using a standard 52-card pack. All the cards are dealt out as evenly as possible, and the aim is to collect fours of a kind. The player next to the dealer who received the first card in the deal begins. At your turn you ask another player for a specific card by rank and suit (e.g. 6 of diamonds): in order to ask for a card you must have a card of that rank in your hand. If the player you asked has the requested card you receive it and your turn continues. If not, the turn passes to the player you asked. A set of four equal cards is called a room (hông): a player who collects one of these can store the cards face down or keep them in hand. The game ends when all 13 rooms have been collected, and the player with most rooms wins.
This is the German equivalent of Happy Families or Authors. Quartett can be played with a standard 32-card pack (A-K-D-B-10-9-8-7), as used for the German national game Skat. However, this is not longer usual as a huge variety of special Quartett packs are available. These mostly also consist of eight quartets and therefore 32 cards.Many different designs of cards have been made for this game from the late nineteenth to the present day, with various educational or other themes. German Quartett cards are often provided with technical statistics related to the theme of the pack, so that they can also be used to play Top Trumps, which in German is sometimes known as Supertrumpf, and sometimes include a Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter) card so that they can be used for the German equivalent of Old Maid.
The cards are thoruoghly shuffled and dealt out to the players one at a time clockwise. Some players will have one more card than others, but this does not matter. The player to dealer's left begins by asking any other player for a specific card: "Heini, do you have the king of hearts?".
The player asking for a card must already hold at least one card of the same quartet. If the player who is hasked has the requested card, it must be given to the player who asked, who can then ask the same or another player for another card. If the player who is asked does not have the requested card, then the turn passes to that player, who now asks any player for a card. Whenever a player collects a complete quartet (four cards of the same rank when using standard cards), these are placed face up on the table. If this leaves the player without cards, the turn to ask passes to the next player to the left.
The winner is the player who has most quartets when all the cards have been laid down.
Each player is dealt a hand of 10 cards and the remaining 12 cards are stacked face down on the table. A player who does not have the requested card draws one card from the stock before asking the opponent for a card. The remaining rules are the same as in the three-player game.
Many Quartett packs with various themes have been published. The variety is so great as to give ther impression that they are seen more as picture books or as collectible objects than as cards for a game. Leonhard Stork's catalogue Spielzeit – Bestimmungshandbuch für Quartett- und Peterspiele von 1880 bis heute (Playtime - identification handbook for Quartett and Black Peter cards from 1880 to the present), published in August 2000 and now out of print, listed 4800 different German Quartett and Black Peter packs.
German Quartett cards are often provided with technical statistics related to the theme of the pack, so that they can also be used to play Top Trumps, which in German is sometimes known as Supertrumpf, and sometimes include a Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter) card so that they can be used for the German equivalent of Old Maid.
The site Cribbage.ca has a description of a French Canadian variation known as Merci, which is similar to Go Fish except that 10 cards each are dealt, and a player who forgets to say "merci" (thank you) when being given the requested cards must return the cards and the turn passes to the player who was asked.
The collection HOYLE Card Games for Windows or Mac OS X includes a Go Fish program, along with many other popular card games.
Robert Schultz's World of Card Games offers an online Go Fish game.
The Softgame Company's Funcrd Card Games program plays hearts, Spades, Cribbage and Go Fish.
At SolitaireOnline.com you can play Go Fish or Quartet on line against the server.
Mike's Cards includes a Go Fish program for Macintosh and Windows computers.
Games4All has published a free Go Fish app for the Android platform, and also a SugarKidsClub version for the Dutch diabetes association DVN.