Sunday, 21 January 2018

Hanafuda (Japanese traditional game) - Koi Koi

Plays: 2Px6.

I bought my cheap set of Hanafuda cards more than two years ago, and only used it to play a game for the first time recently. One difficulty was not understanding the Japanese rulebook that came with the game. I searched the internet for rulebooks, and none among those I found are exactly the same. I wonder whether there simply are multiple ways to play, and people just mix and match a set of rules they like. Overall I think I got the core mechanisms right. I don't think I've done anything that unbalances the game.

The Game

Hanafuda refers to the set of cards, i.e. the game components, as opposed to an actual game and its rules. Hanafuda cards can be used to play many different games, and Koi Koi is one of the most commonly played. It is a two-player-only game, played over 6 or 12 rounds. Each round only one player scores. After the last round, you sum up your scores to determine who wins. Let's start with introducing the cards themselves in a Hanafuda set.

There are 48 cards in total, 4 for each of the 12 months. There is a plant associated to each month, and this is equivalent to the suit concept in poker cards. So Hanafuda has 12 suits. If you look at the photo above, you will notice that within each set of four there are repeated plants or flowers. In addition to the suit concept, there is also a concept of rarity. There are four rarities: commons, ribbons, animals and brights. Most months (suits) have two commons and two specials (ribbons / animals / brights). E.g. the card with just plum blossoms is a common card; the card with plum blossoms and a bird is a special card, an animal card.

This is the peony set. Peony is the flower for the 6th month. The first card is a ribbon card, in this case a blue one. The third card is an animal card, featuring butterflies. The others are common cards.

At the start of a round, each player is dealt 8 cards, and 8 cards are placed face-up in a common pool at the centre of the table. This uses half the cards. The remaining half becomes the draw deck. On your turn you perform two actions. First you play a card from your hand. If it matches the suit of any card in the common pool, you get to claim both cards and move them to your scoring pile. It there is no match, the card played becomes part of the pool. Your second action is to reveal a card from the draw deck. Similarly, if it matches the suit of any card in the pool, you get to claim both of them. Otherwise, it goes to the pool. After completing both actions, you check your scoring pile. If the cards you own form any scoring combination, you may decide to score and thus end the round. If you can score but decide not to, you declare "Koi Koi" (which roughly translates to "Bring It On!") and continue playing. Usually this means you want to go for a higher point value combination. There is a risk though. If your opponent scores after you declare "Koi Koi", he scores double.

There are many scoring combinations in Koi Koi. The simplest one is 10 common cards, which is worth 1pt. There are others like 5 brights, 3 brights, 5 ribbons, 3 blue ribbons, 3 poetry ribbons. Every round of play corresponds to a month, e.g. Round 1 is Month 1. All 4 cards of the current month is also a scoring combination, worth 4pt.

One unusual scoring combination is Boar-Deer-Butterfly. It requires three specific cards with these animals. In this photo I already have Boar and Deer in my scoring pile, and I have Butterfly in hand. Chances are good that I can make the combo. The Butterfly card is a peony card. I have another peony card in hand - the ribbon peony card. There is currently no peony card in the pool. I can play the ribbon peony card, and then on my next turn play the butterfly peony card to claim both peony cards and complete my Boar-Deer-Butterfly combo. However there is a risk that my opponent has a peony card too. After I play the ribbon peony card, he may quickly play his own peony card to prevent me from claiming peony cards. Even if he doesn't have a peony card, he may draw one from the deck, which will result in him claiming both peony cards too. There is always a risk. When I play the ribbon peony card, I myself may draw a peony card from the deck, forcing me to immediately take both peony cards. Then the butterfly peony card in my hand will be left with no match for the moment. If the last peony card is among the bottom 8 cards of the deck, it will never enter play and I will never be able to complete the Boar-Deer-Butterfly. All of the above are what go through your mind when playing Koi Koi.

There is one special situation when you play a card which matches another in the pool, and then when you draw from the deck, it is of the same suit too. Under this situation, you do not claim any card. All three remain in the pool. Whoever plays or draws the last card in this suit gets to claim all four cards. Not all the rulebooks I found contain this rule, but I have decided to use it when I play.

You play 6 or 12 rounds, and every round only one player scores. This creates a meta layer. If you are leading comfortably, and you are in the final few rounds, you will want to aim for easy combos that allow you to score quickly and thus minimise the chances of your opponent catching up. If you are far behind, you will need to gamble and aim big. Else you will never catch up.

The Play

Shee Yun and I learned to play Koi Koi together. There are so many different cards in a Hanafuda deck that in the beginning it was daunting. It wasn't easy to remember which were brights and which were animals. At first I thought brights would be cards with the sun or the moon, but of the five bright cards, only two actually have sun or moon. I had thought animal cards would be easy, but there is a card with a crane which is a bright card and not an animal card. There is a phoenix card which is also a bright and not an animal. And then there is a bridge card which is an animal. Wha...?! There is one storm card which is a common willow card, but it shows no willow, and it certainly looks anything but common. Shee Yun was much better than I was in remembering all these details. A fresh young mind is more absorbent. For now we still play with the rulebook nearby, for easy reference. We still need that.

In our first two games we made a big mistake which severely unbalanced the game. We had thought any complete set of the same month (suit) is a scoring combination (as opposed to only the current month). That made the game exciting but rather random. Scoring was almost always done via a month combo. It became a matter of who got lucky with collecting cards of the same month. It was hard to stop. I realised the mistake only after I tried a digital version of Koi Koi. After correcting this mistake, our games became much more interesting. Month combo scoring became rare, but it was still something to watch out for. Scoring anything more than 1pt was not easy. There was an interesting balance between going for quality and going for quantity. Focusing on special cards can bring great rewards, but if the game drags on and the high hopes bear no fruit, you will be at a disadvantage trying to scrape together common cards to make cheap combos. There is always a struggle between speed and high point values. Yet another consideration is that the dealer wins if a round ends with no scoring combo from either side. This doesn't often happen, but this rule puts the onus on the non-dealer to score before time runs out.

It is important to watch your opponent and try to guess what he is thinking. There are always clues - from the cards he collects, from the cards he plays into the pool. Sometimes you want to make preemptive strikes to break some combo he might be working towards.

When you look at your hand of cards, you will automatically categorise them in different ways. Some cards are risky to play, e.g. those which may help your opponent claim cards he wants. Some cards are quite safe to play. E.g. two cards of the same suit have already been claimed, and both the remaining two are in your hand. Some cards are labelled non-urgent. Usually they are no longer useful to anyone. You want to use them to bide time, waiting for a better opportunity to play other useful-to-you cards, or waiting for a less risky situation to play other useful-to-your-opponent cards. Some cards you may want to save for later, because they will help you, just that you need to wait for the right time. You need to be prepared for the possibility that all cards will need to be played. If the game drags on, those unsafe cards will eventually need to be played. Maybe you can tempt your opponent to score a lower valued combo before you play those unsafe cards. You never replenish your hand. Your 8 starting cards are all you will ever have in your hand. Hand management - planning how to play out your hand - is core to the game.

By the time the cards are dealt, and you can see the common pool, some situations may already be obvious. If many brights are already in the pool, you can bet your opponent will try to grab them as quickly as possible. By looking at your hand and the pool, you need to assess which combos you will have better chances with. You then plan your card play accordingly. Throughout the course of a round, cards being drawn from the draw deck will change the strategic landscape. You need to adapt to it.

All this sounds strategy-heavy, but ultimately Koi Koi is largely a game of chance. We are mostly talking about probabilities. Yes there are many tactics you can employ, but this is no deterministic strategy game. It is a gambling game. You do your best to improve your chances. The game always gives you hope that you can score big. However you always need a little luck. The 8 cards at the bottom of the deck will never see play. You never know what's in there and what scoring combinations are possible or impossible for the round. That uncertainty is part of the excitement.

I kind of conscripted Shee Yun to play with me, but after she had a taste, she found it interesting and afterwards asked me to play again with her. That's a good sign.

That row in front are the common pool. Currently there are cards from 6 different months, which is considered plenty. The cards at the top right are Shee Yun's scoring pile. This photo was taken when we played wrong. We grouped cards by month (suit) because we almost always scored by completed months. After correcting our mistake, we grouped cards in our scoring piles by rarity.

I did the Boar-Deer-Butterfly!

Shee Yun made this blue ribbon combo.

The Thoughts

Playing Koi Koi was more a cultural experience than trying another boardgame. It's a traditional gambling game, which means more luck and less strategy than the average hobbyist game. That doesn't mean it is low on skill or brainless. It's just a different balance from what we boardgamers usually play. Once you get familiar with the cards and the combos, it is a fast-paced game which you play like eating Pringles - sometimes you can't stop and you keep playing, always hoping that the next round you can score something bigger. What I enjoy about Koi Koi is being greedy, and then due to that greed, succeeding in making huge combos. That is exhilarating. I also like the psychology bit - reading your opponent and trying to guess what he's aiming for. You also need to disguise your own intentions as best you can, so that you don't put him on guard. There is decent player interaction in Koi Koi.

I don't mind the luck element. Some rounds you will be unstoppable because the stars are aligned in your favour. Luck is somewhat evened out because you do play multiple rounds. Tactics will help and are not pointless. Also, it is the luck which gives the game the gambling type of excitement. It feeds you hope that maybe you can finally make that big combo, that maybe you can do even better than the current combo you already have.

I feel the game needs to be played in the 12 month format, for it to feel complete. A single round only takes a few minutes, but playing 12 months will mean 30 - 45 minutes. So maybe if to play it as a filler, do 6 months, and to play it as a proper game, 12 months.

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