@lovethynerd
Love Thy Nerd
Love Nerds + Engage Culture + Build Community

A Definitive Guide to Koi-Koi

In the months leading up to my 2017 mission trip to Japan, I immersed myself in Japanese culture: I studied the language, listened to podcasts about Japanese history and true crime, devoured essays on Japanese culture, tried to translate snippets of manga, and watched lots of Sword Art Online critically acclaimed Japanese cinema. But as my departure date grew near, I discovered a knowledge gap—what games do Japanese people play? I don’t mean Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Shin Megami Tensei—I wanted to learn about ‘native’ Japanese board and card games and found three popular options.

Shogi, often called Japanese chess, seemed to have a learning curve steeper than Fuji-san and thus way too intimidating for a gaijin like me (although I read that Gary Gygax wanted to play it with his son, pg. 21). Karuta, an incredibly fun-looking card game featured in the manga and anime series Chihayafuru, required the ability to memorize ancient Japanese poetry. Yikes! Then I discovered Hanafuda, and so began a new obsession.

Hanafuda literally means “flower cards,” and they have a great aesthetic. The twelve suits in the deck represent each month of the year. Each suit is designated by different Japanese flora, but the cards contain a wide variety of other symbols and images such as scrolls, animals, sake cups, etc.

48-card Hombre decks were first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 1500s. During the isolationist Edo period, foreign playing cards were banned, ultimately paving the way for the indigenous Hanafuda to be developed. The cards themselves are tiny, supposedly so you could conceal an entire deck under your hand at a moment’s notice during the illegal gambling of yesteryear.

Did you know the Nintendo company was actually founded in 1889 for the purpose of producing and selling hand-crafted Hanafuda decks? Well, I immediately got my hands on the ‘President’ deck from Nintendo, which features an image of Napoleon. These days Mario- and Pikachu-adorned versions exist alongside more traditional ones like Tengu and Miyako no Hana. I have since acquired other amazing decks from IndianWolf Studios and have tried in vain to acquire the Modern Hanafuda deck kickstarted by Sarah Thomas.

When I revealed my prized flower cards to my Japanese host in Ishikawa Prefecture, he was stunned. Perhaps this is because Yakuza gangsters getting tattoos of Hanafuda artwork have given the traditional past time a slight sinister-by-association quality, or perhaps my host thought it was too obscure of a Japanese novelty for an American visiting the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time to have in his luggage. However, similar flower cards in Korea have remained mainstream with the popular Go-Stop game, and likewise in Hawaii where they are used to play a game called Sakura.

With my Nintendo Hanafuda deck came instructions for two games: Hachi-Hachi (88) and Koi-Koi. In the 2009 anime film Summer Wars, Koi-Koi played a major role in the story, and it’s the game that I have set myself to master. The problem is that rule and scoring variations abound. So, for your benefit, I have spent over 13 hours obsessively researching every ruleset I could find to present a definitive guide!

OVERVIEW

Koi-Koi is a competitive, trick-taking Japanese card game using a traditional 48-card Hanafuda deck. Variants of this game are played in Korea (Go-Stop) and Hawaii (Sakura or Higo-Bana). It is originally meant for 2 players.

HANAFUDA

Hanafuda literally means “flower cards.” In the deck there are twelve suits representing the twelve months. Each is designated by a Japanese flower or plant, and each suit has four cards. 12 suits x 4 cards = 48 cards.

January           – Matsu (松, pine)

February         – Ume (梅, plum blossom)

March              – Sakura (桜, cherry blossom)

April                 – Fuji (藤, wisteria)

May                 – Ayame (菖蒲, iris)

June                – Botan (牡丹, peony)

July                  – Hagi (萩, bush clover)

August             – Susuki (薄, Susuki grass)

September      – Kiku (菊, chrysanthemum)

October           – Momiji (紅葉, maple)

November       – Yanagi (柳, willow)

December       – Kiri (桐, paulownia)

Each suit contains a combination of regular cards and special cards, which vary from suit to suit. Special cards are assigned different point values. However, in Koi-Koi those point values are only used for reference, not scoring. The four types of cards found in the deck are:

Brights (20 points) – referred to as “Lights” in some rulesets

Animals (10 points) – referring to these as “Tens” may reduce confusion

Ribbons (5 points) – referred to as “Scrolls” in some rulesets

Dregs (1 point) – also known as plains / chaff / normals / junk / trash / flowers

*Dregs appears to be the most accurate choice, as kasu describes the dregs remaining after sake production

There are also two cards that have special properties:

Bake-Fuda – Wild Card – The Sake Cup can act as either a 10-point card or a 1-point card, player’s choice

Optional Variant – Gaji – The 1-point Lightning card from November can be used to capture any other card

OBJECT OF THE GAME

The goal of Koi-Koi is to earn points by making sets, or “yaku,” as fast as you can and ending the round before your opponent. A full game session is 12 rounds or “months,” and the player with the most points after 12 rounds is the winner. Each round is winner-take-all and can involve score multipliers. For a shorter game, 6 rounds can be played.

CHOOSING THE DEALER

An initial dealer, the “oya” or “parent,” is decided at the start of play. Each player will draw a card from the deck. Whoever draws a card representing an earlier calendrical month is the dealer. If both players draw the same month, the value of the card will determine the dealer (e.g., Brights trump Ribbons). If both players draw cards of the same month and same value, they will continue to draw until the oya is decided.

Being the dealer has certain advantages, including going first and breaking ties, and the winner of each round will be the oya at the start of the next round.

SETTING UP THE GAME

The dealer will shuffle the Hanafuda deck and the opponent will cut the deck. The dealer will deal a total of eight cards face-down into the opponent’s hand, eight cards face-down into their own hand, and eight cards face-up in the center of the playing area, known as the “field.” Nintendo’s ruleset recommends dealing two cards to the player, two cards to the field, then two cards to the dealer, repeating this process until the dealing is complete.

The rest of the deck is set to the side, face-down, as a draw pile. Be sure to leave some space in the play area because additional cards may be added to the field.

CHECKING THE FIELD

The first action after the deal is to scan the field to make sure the round is valid. If there are all four cards of a single month / suit showing on the field, the round is void and must be re-dealt. Likewise, if there are four pairs of cards from the same months / suits on the field (e.g., two January, two March, two May, and two September), the round is void and must be re-dealt.

Second, if there are three out of four cards from a single month showing on the field, they must be combined into one stack and left on the field; if a player later makes a match, they capture the whole stack.

CHECKING THE HANDS

There are two conditions that result in instant scoring and end the current round. Each player must check their hands at the start of play. Note that these conditions are identical to what voids a round if found in the field after the cards are dealt.

Teshi (手四) – Hand of Four – Being dealt four cards of the same suit – automatic 6 points

Kuttsuki (くっつき) – Sticky – Being dealt four pairs of cards with matching suits – automatic 6 points

If both players draw either of these instant-win conditions, the dealer breaks the tie and the opponent gets nothing. Points are scored, the round ends, and cards are re-dealt.

PLAYING THE GAME

Step One – Hand Matching

The dealer or “oya” goes first. They will take one card from their hand and place it face-up in the field. If that card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place their card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain on the field.

Step Two – Deck Matching

The player then draws the top card from the deck / draw pile and places it face-up in the field. Again, if the card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place the card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain in the field.

Step Three – Capturing

If there have been any matches made during steps one and two, the player will capture those matches, taking them from the field and placing them face-up to the side of the play area. If there have been no matches made, the two cards remain in the field.

Step Four – Checking for Matching Sets (Yaku)

At this point, the player checks to see if they have acquired a matching set, called a “yaku.” Each yaku has an assigned point value, described in the list below. If there are no matching sets, the player’s turn is ended and the opponent starts over with Step One. If there is a matching set, play moves to Step Five.

Step Five – Calling “Koi-Koi” or “Shōbu”

If the player has acquired a yaku, they have the option to either call “Shōbu” (勝負) meaning “Game” to instantly score the points and end the current round, or call “Koi-Koi” (こいこい) which basically means “Come on!” in Japanese. If Koi-Koi is called, play continues, and the opponent starts with Step One.

You want to call Koi-Koi if you believe that you can obtain a better yaku, an additional yaku, or add to the value of a current yaku before your opponent makes a match and calls Game. It is a risk-reward scenario, because if you call Koi-Koi, your opponent will score double the points if they make a match and call Game before you increase your possible points. You will not be able to call Game after calling Koi-Koi until you increase your total possible points.

Likewise, if an opponent is daring and calls Koi-Koi after you have already called Koi-Koi, you will have the opportunity to win double the points if you manage to call Game before your opponent.

SCORING

When one player calls Game, the round ends and that player who called Game gets the points for whatever matching sets or yaku they have in their possession. The other player scores nothing, no matter how many points they accumulated during the round.

If both players run out of cards in their hands, the round ends and scoring begins; the player with the highest points will score and the other player gets nothing. In this case, if there is a tie the oya breaks the tie and scores the points.

If neither player has at least one yaku at the end of play, then “Oya-Gachi,” “Oya-Ken,” or Dealer’s Privilege is in effect. In this case, the dealer scores 6 points.

YAKU SCORING CHART

Yaku Made With 20-Point Cards

Gokō (五光) – Five Brights – 10 points

Shikō (四光) – “Dry” Four Brights – 8 points

Ame-Shikō (雨四光) – Rainy Four Brights – 7 points

Sankō (三光) – “Dry” Three Brights – 6 points

Yaku Made With 10-Point Cards

Ino-shika-chō (猪鹿蝶) – Boar, Deer, Butterfly – 5 points
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Tane (タネ) – Seeds (Five Animals) – 1 point
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Yaku Made With 5-Point Cards

Akatan, Aotan no Chōfuku (赤短・青短の重複) – 3 Poetry Ribbons + 3 Blue Ribbons – 10 points
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Akatan (赤短) – 3 Poetry Ribbons – 5 points
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Aotan (青短) – 3 Blue Ribbons – 5 points
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Tanzaku (短冊) – 5 Ribbons – 1 point
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Yaku Made With 1-Point Cards

Kasu (カス) – 10 Dregs – 1 point
1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Dregs’ card

The “Viewing” Yaku – (optional)

Tsukimi-zake (月見酒) – Moon Viewing (Moon + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Hanami-zake (花見酒) – Blossom Viewing (Sakura Curtain + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Blossoms in the Moonlight (All 3 Viewing Cards) – 10 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku can only be scored in addition to another yaku

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku score 0 if you have the Rain Man or Lightning Card (i.e., the viewing party is ruined)

Corresponding Month Yaku – (uncommon optional variant)

Tsuki-Fuda – Obtaining all four cards of the suit corresponding to the current month of play for a full 12-round game session – 4 points

Pokémon hanadfuda deck, posted by VerecundusSourceresized

SCORE MULTIPLIERS

If a player accumulates 7 or more points, they will score double the points. This is one incentive for calling Koi-Koi and risking it to try and earn at least 7 points.

If a player called Koi-Koi during the round, the opposing player will score double the number of points if they win the round.

These two multipliers are cumulative, meaning you can potentially quadruple your points in a round. For example, if you have 7 points and your opponent had called “Koi-Koi” before you called “Game” or play ended by both players running out of cards in their hands, you will earn 28 points!

WINNING THE GAME

At the end of 12 rounds or “months” (6 rounds for a short game), the player with the highest total score wins.



Justin Gabriel is a published Christian author, theology geek, and gamer. Find his books and more at http://justingabriel.org/

Reader Comments

Related Content

buy all the nintendo things

Free Play 65 | Buy All the Nintendo Things!

Nintendo had another Direct with amazing games both old and new, and we are left wondering how we are going to buy all the Nintendo things!

When Video Games Become Something More

Video games are often scapegoats for social problems, but they help Eric cope with his depression and social anxiety.

Free Play 61 | Nintendo Switch Lite & Pro Rumors

Nintendo is bringing us the Switch Lite, a simplified version of it’s predecessor and that’s what we wanna talk about this week on the Free Play podcast.

How To Get Started GMing a Tabletop RPG

Free Play 56 | Pokémon Dreamin’

This week we are Pokémon Dreamin' about when in 1996, we were introduced to the video game Pokémon and how they are now invading our sleep.

How to Get Started in Anime

Kaiju vs. Me: How Giant Japanese Monsters Stole My Heart

Honestly, Metroid Fans—Honest Nintendo is Best Nintendo