“Tell me. Have you ever played Hanafuda?”
Sakae – Summer Wars
In 2009 a movie called Summer Wars was released. It was one of the best movies released in that year (watch it if you haven’t already.) Featured in this movie was a game called Hanafuda, sometimes referred to as Koi-Koi. This film sent me on a quest to learn more about the rules of this game. I hunted high and low and found a couple of versions in the Google Play store, all of which, while being OK, were more simplistic that I would like. Considering the roots this game shares with the digital games industry, I am amazed we have not seen more games feature it. During the Steam Autumn/Spring sales I noticed Koi-Koi Japan on the steam store, so, as I lacked a Hanafuda game for PC, I figured I would give it a try. Here is how it went.
Earlier I stated that Hanafuda shares its roots with the digital gaming industry. In fact, it can be credited with creating one of the three giants in today’s market, Nintendo. Nintendo’s formed in in 1889 as a producer of Hanafuda cards. Over time they expanded into other card games, both Japanese and western, before they eventually took to the world by entering the computer game market.
I will say right now that I do enjoy the regular game of Hanafuda and I do have many sets of Hanafuda cards. I am already familiar with the rules of the game. So, this makes Koi-Koi Japan similar to Monopoly, Poker or Trivial Pursuit style games. That where the rules of the game are already set, and what the program has to do is to present them in such a way that makes the game enjoyable to play on the new platform. As I have played many games that have made the transition to digital (Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Dominion) I am quite aware of the potential issues that this style of game encounters.
I would first like to take a quick second to explain the basic rules of Hanafuda. The Hanafuda deck is made from a deck of 48 cards. Each month of the year is represented by four cards which each share the same flower or plant. Cards are claimed by matching cards of the same month. Each card then has an additional attribute. They could have a ribbon, an animal, a ‘bright’ or nothing at all. Points in the game are scored creating combinations of the secondary attributes, for example: 5 ribbons, 3 brights or 10 plain cards.
Once you create a combination you have the choice of either scoring your points, or calling Koi-Koi. Loosely translated this means ‘Bring it on’. This makes it possible to score from multiple combinations in the same round. However, the cost is that the opponent has a chance to create a combination before you, potentially making you lose any advantage you would otherwise have. This balance of when to finish and score and when to go for the extra couple of points is the essence of what makes Hanafuda one of the best bluffing games out there.
If this seems a little complicated there is no need to worry. This game includes a fantastic tutorial explaining how to play. That having been said, learning the rules is one thing, learning the cards will be what shifts you from knowing how to play, to playing it well. To help players, Koi-Koi Japan includes handy in-game access to the full card list. Knowing and learning the cards has never been easier.
The scoring system of Hanafuda can sometime be flexible. I am pleased to say that this game uses a system which is very simple and allows it to be more focused on skill than luck (I know this, I have had a winning streak of more than 10 games already.) Rather than just playing until a point marker is reached, the game limits the number of rounds that you play. It is set by default to six rounds, but it can be raised to 12. While both are good lengths, I prefer six rounds.
The game is controlled by simply using the mouse and is as simple as clicking on the card you want to play, and then if there are multiple cards to claim, the card that you want to pick. It is a little disappointing that there are very few animations during these steps. It is a very visually static game. I would love to see some more movement during games. I think that at the speed this game can be played it may turn out to just be a distraction.
While I felt a little disappointed with the animations, I believe they made up for this with some great card to table slapping sounds. The sound effects and ambient music is great and very Japanese. There is no J-pop hiding around the corner, what is there does sets the mood quite nicely. The graphics, whilst simple, are extremely appropriate for this game. The images on the steam trading cards are fantastic (in my opinion). As an added bonus, shortly after release the developers gave out a free DLC pack which includes more card backs, another character guide and additional background music.
There are a couple of niggles that I have around some points in the interface. The worst offender is when you are viewing your claimed cards. Claimed cards are by default arranged in their secondary attribute groups. Sometimes you may want to review cards that you have claimed to see what is likely to come up in the future, or to see what special groups you could form; ino-shika-cho (boar-deer-butterfly) being a classic example.
When developers try to tack stories onto these simple games, they can often come across as rather contrived and shallow. I think this is why there is no story mode in this game. Instead they have a ‘Collection mode’. In this mode players compete against AI from different parts of Japan. When you defeat that player you get a postcard from their region. The challenge for players to complete is to collect all the post cards. This is a really nice system.
What it does really highlight, however, is the total lack of multiplayer. While I understand that the audience would be quite small, it would still be nice to be able to get together with my friends and play with them. The AI is good enough to create a fair challenge, but sometimes I would quite like to play versus people. I suppose for now that will be the realm of my physical cards.
So, how have I found my time with Koi Koi Japan? I think that it does a fantastic job of making Hanafuda accessible. Playing the game is easy and the rules are faithfully adapted to make the game rewarding to play. I would’ve loved to have seen a multiplayer element in the game, but I understand that for these niche titles this can be much harder thing to add in. So, I think that if you like Hanafuda you will like this. If you don’t like Hanafuda, it doesn’t stop the fact that they managed to bring it into the digital market very effectively and well. For such a simple, yet fun game I think it deserves a very respectable: