Canasta Rules

At the Canasta Palace, you can play in real-time with fellow card game enthusiasts from all over the world. Now, let us take a look at how to play Canasta! We offer tables for two and four players. Our classic Canasta rules are based on the official Canasta rules of the New York Regency Whist Club. Since a game of Canasta can take a while, we allow setting a limit to the number of rounds. Our basic Canasta game rules are perfectly adjusted for novices and make for an easy start. Once you gained some experience, you can arrange custom rules to construct the game you enjoy most. Go easy or go for a challenge.

In addition to this thorough Canasta manual, you can find quick explanations for all terms around playing Canasta in our glossary. And we prepared deeper looks into specific aspects of the game in our Canasta lessons. Try out which source works best for you.

Canasta Cards and Playing Field

Most of the time, Canasta is played with two decks of French playing cards (52 cards each) and four Jokers. That makes 108 cards in total. There are eight cards of each rank, for example, eight Kings, eight Threes, etc. The cards are dealt at the beginning of the game. How many cards are dealt in Canasta varies depending on the number of players: In a game of two, each player receives 15 cards; in a game of four, 11 cards. The leftover cards become the stock. One card is revealed from the stock pile and is now the base of the discard pile. If a wild card or a bonus card appears here, another card is drawn and discarded until this is not the case anymore. At the beginning of a game of four, the teams (or alliances) are assigned and persist for all rounds played at the table. Usually, the two players facing each other at the table form a team.

2-Player Canasta Field

Playing Field: Canasta with 2 Players

In two-player Canasta, the playing field is divided in the middle. The center area, separated by lines, holds the stock, discard pile, and score display for both players. There is also the undo button. The opponent has an orange marker, and their points are displayed in orange as well. Your points are shown in blue.

The Canasta rules for 2 players are the same as for 4 players, apart from a few details. We are looking at the different setups first.

4-Player Canasta Field

In four-player Canasta, the playing field is divided in the middle as well. But this time, you play in teams! Your team’s melding area is on the left in our desktop Canasta. Accordingly, your opponents’ melding area is on the right. In our mobile Canasta app, your team has the lower melding area, the opposing team the upper one.

Playing Field: Canasta with 4 Players

The center area, separated by lines, holds the stock, discard pile, and score display for both players. There are also two buttons – the undo button and the permission button. The opponents have orange markers. Their points are displayed in orange as well. Your team’s points are shown in blue. The Canasta rules for 4 players and 2 players are the same, except for a few details. In a game of four, you are not playing alone but in teams of two. In each case, there are two opposing parties.

The Aim

In Canasta, you try to collect more points than your opponents over the course of several rounds. A round of Canasta ends when a player has no more cards on their hand. This is called going out and it is achieved by cleverly collecting and combining cards to form sets and melding them. Melding and going out are the main ways you can collect points.

To be allowed to go out of a round, you or your team must have melded at least one set of seven cards – a canasta. A table of Canasta is played over several rounds. You can set a maximum number of rounds when creating tables at the Canasta Palace. Any table of Canasta ends when one team hits 5,000 points, even if the maximum number of rounds is not reached yet. If both teams reach this threshold in the same round, the one with the higher score wins.

The Cards of Canasta

Playing Canasta usually requires two sets of cards holding 52 cards each and four Jokers. That checks out at 108 cards in the game. There are 13 ranks – from Two to Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace. They all appear in the four suits Clubs, Spades, Hearts, and Diamonds.

Examples for Natural Cards

Natural Cards

These are Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and the pip cards from Ten down to Four. They are only used in melds and are grouped into lower-value cards (Four to Seven) and higher-value cards (Eight to King and Ace).

Two Red Threes

Bonus Cards

Bonus cards have no function beyond yielding bonus points. In Canasta, these are the red Threes. When you receive a red three by dealing or drawing, it is automatically placed face-up in the playing field. You receive a supplement card. Red Threes score 100 bonus points. These points cannot be used for your first meld. If you or your team collects all red threes of a round, you gain 400 additional bonus points. But if your team couldn’t play any melds by the end of the round, all points for red Threes are turned into negative points.

While dealing the cards and setting up the playing field, a red Three can end up in the discard pile. In that case, the next card is drawn from the stock and placed on top of the red Three until a natural card or a block card is on top. A red Three in the discard pile remains visible since it is placed there rotated by 90°. If you pick up the discard pile with a red Three, the bonus card is automatically placed in your melding area and will not be replaced in your hand.

Two Black Threes

Block Cards

The black Threes are block cards. When a black Three is on top of the discard pile, it is blocked, and the next player can only draw from the stock. They cannot draw from the discard pile, add a single card from there to their melds, or pick up the whole discard pile.

Red Three and Joker

Wild Cards

In Canasta, the four regular Jokers and all Twos are wild cards. They help with forming melds since wild cards can replace other cards of any rank in melds. Two Kings could form a correct meld with a Joker, for example. Discarded wild cards freeze the discard pile: As long as a wild card is in the discard pile, you can only pick it up by using the top for a meld with at least two natural cards from your hand. In addition, the discard pile is blocked as long as the wild card lies on top.

In Canasta, the pip values on the cards do not correspond with the card scores. Learn the score and type of each card from this image:

All Ranks and Their Values in the Canasta Game

Melds in Canasta

  • A meld must consist of at least three cards of the same rank.
  • The same card can be repeated within a meld (2x Ace of Hearts, for example).
  • There is no limit to the number of cards in a meld.
  • A maximum of three wild cards can be in a meld.
  • Wild cards must not outnumber natural cards.
  • Once melded, wild cards cannot be swapped or picked up again (in contrast to Rummy).
  • You cannot add cards to your opponent’s melds.
  • Black Threes can be melded only before going out.

Conditions for the First Meld

Each round, a party’s initial meld must score a minimum number of points. This minimum threshold depends on the party’s current total score and can be seen in the following table:

Current ScoreMinimum Score for First Meld
Below 015
0 to 1,49550
1,500 to 2,99590
3,000 and above120

So, the required score for a round’s first meld increases during the game. The minimum score is set separately for each party. This brings some balance by enabling the trailing team to enter the game a bit earlier. You can use the top card from the discard pile to compile your first meld. But you get to use the other cards from the discard pile only after forming the first meld with the single drawn card and your hand cards.

We will talk more about picking up the discard pile in a bit.

How to Play Canasta

After dealing the cards, one randomly appointed player starts with their turn. If you are playing Canasta offline, this is the player to the dealer’s left. Now, all players get to each play their turns in clockwise order until one player empties their hand.

Course of Action During a Turn

  1. The player can either draw a card from the stock or, if conditions are met, pick up the whole discard pile.
  2. The player can now play new melds or add cards to their party’s existing melds. If the player’s team has no melds yet, a minimum score must be reached with the initial meld.
  3. When the player is done with all actions, they must discard a card from their hand, and it’s the next player’s turn. The discard pile can be blocked or frozen for the following players by discarding a block card or a wild card. If a player goes out, they may skip this step.

Picking up the Discard Pile

The fight for the discard pile is one of Canasta’s key elements. Players can strategically prevent opponents from picking up the discard pile. The taller the pile is, the more suspenseful the fight. If you get to pick up the pile, you can feel victorious: You gained many cards and, potentially, complete canastas. The opportunity to pick up a tall discard pile can decide the game. Picking up the discard pile is also called buying.

  • You can pick up the discard pile only after your party completed the first meld or if you can use the top card of the discard pile for playing a legitimate first meld with two natural hand cards.
  • When buying the discard pile, you must immediately play its top card, either by melding it with fitting hand cards or by adding it to an existing meld.
  • If the top card of the discard pile is a black Three or a wild card, you cannot pick up the discard pile. It is blocked.
  • If the pile contains a wild card (Joker or Two), it is frozen. It can only be thawed and picked up by using its top card with two natural hand cards to play a meld.

It is wise to consider carefully which card you are going to discard. You do not want to gift perfect opportunities to pick up the whole discard pile to your opponent. You should keep an eye on the course of the game and discard cards your opponent will not find very useful. The best choice is a black Three. If you run out of such cards, you might have to sacrifice a Two or a Joker.

Going out – Ending a Round of Canasta

Ending the round is called going out in Canasta. That is done by playing all your hand cards. You do not have to discard the last one, but you can. Remember, you can only go out if your party has melded at least one canasta by the end of your final turn.

In a game of four, you can ask your teammate for permission to end the round. Their answer is binding. If granted, you can meld and append your last cards, and optionally discard one.

There is a special case where a player is going out concealed: To achieve this, you must go out within one turn, and your party cannot have any melds before that. In other words, you play your first meld and go out in a single turn.

A round also ends when there are no more cards in the draw pile. In that case, points are counted with neither party going out.

Evaluation in Canasta – Counting Points

Once a round ended, the scores are determined as follows:

Played meldsSum of the cards‘ scores
Hand cardsSum of the cards‘ scores as negative points
Going out100 points
Going out concealed100 points in addition to those for going out
Natural canastas500 points each
Mixed canastas300 points each
Red Threes100 points each. If a party has all red Threes, they gain 400 additional bonus points. If no melds were played, all points for red Threes are turned into negative points.

The End of a Table

At the Canasta Palace, a table can end either by playing the selected maximum number of rounds or when one party reaches 5,000 points. The team with the highest total score wins the table.

Adjust Canasta to Taste With Custom Rules

Use extra rules to set up and play Canasta online the way you like it best. You can mix and match the following variations at the Canasta Palace. More detailed explanations of these custom Canasta rules are in the table below the image.

Game Menu: Canasta Custom Rules
Custom RuleDescription
3 DecksUse an additional deck in the game.
3 Jokers per DeckPlay with one more Joker per deck.
Harder First MeldThe minimum thresholds for the first meld of a round are raised from 15, 50, 90, 120 to 50, 90, 120, 150 points.
Tough EndGoing out requires either two canastas or one natural canasta.
If the custom rule Wild Canasta is activated as well, only the party going out receives a bonus for their complete wild canasta. If your party misses to go out, the points for your completed wild canasta are forfeited.
If Tough End is combined with the custom rule Sequences, going out requires two canastas at any time, natural or not.
Wild CanastaYou can play to play a single meld consisting of wild cards only. It is limited to seven cards.
Incomplete wild canastas yield 1,000 penalty points. A big wild Canasta (more Jokers than Twos) scores 2,000 points, a small one (more Twos than Jokers) scores 1,000 points.
If the custom rule Tough End is activated as well, you will get the bonus for your complete wild canasta only if your party is the one to go out. If your party misses to go out, the points for your wild canasta are forfeited.
Draw 2This rule modifies how many cards you draw in Canasta: Usually it is one card per turn. But now you must always draw two cards when drawing from the stock.
Strict Discard PileThe discard pile is permanently frozen. Cards from the discard pile cannot be used to add cards to a canasta.
Strict Wild CardsThe maximum number of wild cards in a meld is reduced to two instead of three. Wild cards cannot be added to a canasta. After the first meld, at least five natural cards need to be used before adding wild cards.
SequencesMelding sequences is permitted. These melds are limited to seven cards of the same suit, no wild cards. The cards must be consistent and in order, the lowest possible rank being Four. There can be several sequences of the same suit.
A completed sequence is worth 1,500 points.
All players start the round with 15 cards, and there is no concealed going out. Going out always scores 200 points.
If Tough End is activated, two canastas are needed to go out, whether natural or not.
SurpriseThree additional cards are placed under the stock at the beginning of the game.
Black ThreesAny black Threes that are still in your hand by the end of a round score 100 instead of the standard five minus points.
TrainingThis table isn’t ranked for the league, but you still gain experience points at these tables.

Canasta Online – What’s the Difference?

Playing cards online is different from a game of cards at a real table in some irreplaceable aspects. But playing Canasta online also frees you of a couple of inconvenient tasks. A substantial improvement is avoiding human error: Players can’t deal too few or too many cards. Melds can only be played if they conform to the rules. All of this is taken care of by programming. The computer also assists you with handling and managing the cards in your hand and the playing field.

Canasta’s Complex Set of Rules

We know, we know… After taking a first look at the rules of Canasta, their multitude and the number of exceptional cases can spoil the initial vim and vigor.

This is partly due to synonymous terms used in different sets of rules – natural canasta vs. real canasta, for example. To help you keep track of the rules, we drew up this glossary.

All the special cases can be learned step by step. The key elements of the game are quickly acquired, especially if you played Rummy before. Once you know the ropes, you might find some interesting insights in our Canasta Lessons.

Fancy More Card Games?

Here at the Palace of Cards, we don’t just run the Canasta Palace. We offer a variety of popular card games. You can play trick-taking games like Skat, Pinochle, Doppelkopf, and Schafkopf. Have a try at our solitaire card games, or patience card games, e.g., Klondike, Easthaven, Spider, and Scorpion, or go classic with Rummy or Mau-Mau. All games are free to play in their respective Palace.