Thursday, 29 September 2016

Game Review - Koi-koi Hanafuda

 In news that will not surprise anyone I am once again reviewing a relatively obscure game from Japan. However, it is not based on anime, does not have an obtuse and impenetrable theme and so is probably quite good and recommendable to people who aren't weird cartoon people. The game is Hanafuda, a traditional card game from the 1800s designed to be intentionally obscure and unusual to get around restrictions on gambling. If you are interested in learning how this game works, there is a cheap and readily-available computer version on Steam ( which costs a mere £6.99 at the time of this article's publication.

Hanafuda has an unusual history, and it was partially this that made me want to learn more about it. It was the first Nintendo game ever made, for one - invented in 1889 as the first product of the Nintendo company (and Nintendo-branded card games are still available in Japan). So, a history lesson. Western-style playing cards were banned in Japan in 1633, and remained illegal for quite some time. Enterprising board gamers of the 17th and 18th century invented their own games in response – the 75-card Unsen Karuta deck was devised first, replaced in the mid-18th century with Mekuri Karuta, and that in turn was banned in 1791. Various games were invented and banned in the aftermath of this until Hanafuda was invented – an intentionally obtuse and bizarre game with no numbers and complex mechanics that clearly could not be used for gambling (but was as a result a good way of circumventing the anti-gaming regulations). Enter Nintendo in 1889, who popularised Hanafuda as it is known now, and enter the Mafia, who popularised gambling on games of Hanafuda.

The game itself, in its popular Koi-koi variant, is played with a 48-card deck divided into twelve four-card suits, which may contain between 1 and 3 special scoring cards. The aim of the game is to capture certain combinations in the vein of mah-jong or rummy, but instead of using numbers (sets and runs) the emphasis is on combinations of the special scoring categories – Bright (seasons), Animals and Ribbons. Play is quite unlike most card games – each player has a hand of eight cards, and there is a tableau of eight cards in the centre. In order to capture a card a player must play a card that matches its suit – so to capture, for example, the Plum Blossom Ribbon card one must play another Plum Blossom-suit card (one of the two ordinary cards or the Bush Warbler, the Plum Blossom Animal card). After the player takes their turn, either capturing a card by making a match or simply discarding to the tableau, they look at the top card of the deck and if they can make a match, do so. Thus it is possible to capture zero, two or four cards a turn.

Once a player has captured sufficient cards to meet one of the scoring combinations, they must make a choice – either call the hand over and score, or keep playing (Koi-koi). If play continues, then the final score for the hand increases but there is the risk of losing everything. If a player's opponent can complete a scoring combination, they may choose to call (meaning the first player to koi-koi loses everything) or continue themself. The hand continues either until one player runs out of cards in hand, or calls. Should the hand end with someone running out of cards without making a new combination, it is a draw and nothing is scored.

Example: Player 1 completes a set, and continues. Player 2 is next to complete a set, and may thus choose to either call the hand (scoring points for their set, and Player 1 scoring nothing) or continue. If they continue, and neither player completes a new set before one player's hand is exhauster, the round is a draw.

It sounds complicated but is very easy in practice, and there is a lot of strategy to it. Both players know all the scoring combinations and a significant number of cards available (sixteen out of forty-eight cards are known to each player), and so Hanafuda becomes a game of card-counting and bluffing – if you hold a card that your opponent needs to complete their set, you can control their play to an extent. Play continues over a number of rounds, and the highest score at the end wins (if one is not playing for money). Further strategy is added by special winning hands and numerous regional variants.

So that is Hanafuda, a game with an unusual history that is nevertheless intensely fun to play even without the actual gambling element. It is obviously abstract, a purely strategic and deductive card game based on taking calculated risks and mitigating bad luck over the course of several rounds of play. I would highly recommend before setting out to buy a deck (which can be bought at JP Books in Piccadilly among other places) trying either the Steam version or one of the many free online versions to learn the cards, because it is intentionally complicated in terms of scoring.

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