Hanafuda Playing Cards

I know very little about art. I also know very little about Japanese or Korean culture. But I can recognize something amazing when I see it. And that's why when I first saw the Hanafuda deck created by Jason Johnson and artist Antonietta Fazio-Johnson (both from IndianWolf Studios), I immediately knew that I was looking at something special!

There are four decks altogether; a set of two Hanami decks that were produced earlier this year, and a set of two Sensu decks currently on Kickstarter. Each project produced two decks: a more contemporary poker style or "fusion" deck, and a more traditional Hanafuda deck.



So what is the fuss about and why did this capture my imagination? In part it is the same reason that the Pipmen World deck from Ben Jones and Elephant Playing Cards captivated me back in 2017. That deck is a remarkable example of polyptych artwork, where each of the 52 individual playing cards can be put together to make a single larger panoramic picture. It was an amazing concept that blew my mind, and I was super impressed by the creativity and work that went into that project (see my pictorial review here). The Hanafuda decks employ a similar concept, because each set of four cards can be placed together to form a tetraptych, or panoramic image. It's brilliant and it's beautiful!

But there's more going on here with these beautiful cards besides beautiful artwork. The Fusion deck can be used for all standard card games. But in addition, it has symbols that correspond to a traditional Hanafuda deck, and thus can also be used for all Hanafuda games. As a result, with the Fusion deck, you don't just get a set of playing cards, but a game system that lets you play a whole set of unique games designed for that deck. Hanafuda even has its own entry on BoardGameGeek - you can also learn more about it over on Wikipedia here.

Hanafuda literally means "flower cards", and they are playing cards of Japanese origin that can be used to play games, and can be found in Hawaii and Korea besides of course Japan. Hanafuda cards normally have twelve suits, each of which represents a month of the year (January, February, etc). Each of these is designated by a different flower, and the four cards of each month can be placed together to make a panorama. They are thought to have originated in the period between the 1600s and 1800s when gambling and playing cards were banned in Japan (thereby fostering their development as small cards that could be easily hidden!), so they have a long history.

Over time, many different games have been invented for Hanafuda cards, and can be played with a Hanafuda deck. Unlike the small thick cards of a traditional Hanafuda deck, the decks from IndianWolf Studios use poker-sized cards. But besides the idea of bringing Hanafuda to standard playing cards, what IndianWolf Studios has done is that they've produced two decks for each project, one in the more traditional style of Japan/Korea, and another which blends this with the usual suits and values of Western playing cards. So sometimes East really does meet West, and here you get the best of both worlds, and with the Fusion deck you can either play traditional cards, or one of the many games in the Hanafuda universe. So Let's take a look at the two wonderful projects that come to us from IndianWolf Studios!



HANAMI EDITION

First of all, here we have the two lovely tuck boxes for the Hanami edition, both of which are touched with gold foil for a completely lavish look.

For added luxury, each comes with a gold foil stamp, and a completely gold foil interior!



Hanami Hanafuda deck

Let's begin with the Hanafuda deck, which is artistically the major attraction and center-piece here.

I'll show you a series of different suits corresponding to various months, such as what you see here with January (The Pine):



One of my favourite suits is for the month of August (The Suzuki Grass). Isn't that absolutely spectacular and stunning, against the backdrop of a colourful moon-filled sky?



The year is rounded out with December (The Paulownia).



Here's an uncut sheet that gives an overview of the entire deck, in all its incredible and breath-taking beauty!



Thirteen sets of four of course only makes 54 cards, so there's also the two extra Jokers shown on the right (below), while the card shown on the left pictures the artwork on the card backs. Koi were chosen for the card backs and Jokers, since koi are common symbols in Asian culture, and are considered to be positive symbols of prosperity and longevity, making these beautiful icons a natural fit for this deck.



Both the Hanami decks were produced by Legends Playing Card Company, using their Emerald Finish. I love LPCC playing cards, but the Emerald Finish is a relatively newer finish, and isn't considered to be the top choice for cardists. I don't think that matters, because it's still a very durable finish that is fine for playing card games and for collectors.

Here's a final look at one more suit/month, with June (The Peony):



Hanami Fusion deck

The Hanami Hanafuda deck is magnificent, and while you can use it to play Hanfuda games, you of course can't use it to play standard card games, since it doesn't have traditional suits. No problem, say our friends at IndianWolf Studios - we'll make a hybrid deck, that fuses the Hanafuda cards with the familiar indices of a standard deck!

These cards are white bordered unlike the black bordered Hanafuda cards, and contain the number and suit we'd expect in a normal deck, as well as the flower and type corresponding to their identity in a Hanafuda deck.



Here's how the creators describe the concept of the Fusion deck: "Since traditional hanafuda cards lack pips and indices, we designed our own hanafuda indices to indicate the flower, month, and type of each card. We combined these indices with traditional hanafuda imagery and standard poker indices to create a multipurpose deck that could be used to play both Eastern and Western games."

The result is quite a different look than the Hanafuda deck, but it is practical and can be used for standard games, and yet it does retain the charming and vibrant panoramic artwork of the original.



If you place four cards of the same value besides each other, you'll see that the artwork still matches. For example, here's a look at September (The Chrysanthemum):



As for the flower icons used for the 12 suits, here is a complete list:



Games Rulebook

But if we have some Hanafuda cards, then we could also use a book with rules for Hanafuda games, right? Let's be honest, that would be kind of nice! Once again, the folks at IndianWolf Studios have stepped up to the plate, by producing a full-colour 236 page book in combination with this project. Apparently rules for Hanafudu games can be hard to find or interpret, so they have done the hard work for us by putting this together in a lovely book, which is available as a hard copy or as an eBook.

I have the eBook version, and was very impressed. Let's be honest, 236 pages is impressive! It contains a collection of 37 different games organized into categories, in sections for four main types of games: Capture Games, Sequence Games, Luck Games, and Fusion Solitaire Games. A full list of the games included can be found here as well as here, including sample pages.



Here's how Jason explains the thinking behind the creation of this rulebook:

"This book was inspired by our love for hanafuda games and our desire to share those games with others. The scarcity of decent rules is a major hinderance to new hanafuda players. Years ago, when we got our first hanafuda decks, we spent a lot of time gathering (& translating) rules just so we could learn to play. After that, we spent even more time trying to find other hanafuda games to play. In the end, we decided we should put our knowledge & research into a book so more people could learn to play hanafuda. One of the really interesting things we learned during our research, is how prevalent the use of 'house rules' are. Common games have many rule variants. There are jokes about the practice that claim that every family would make up their own rules so that visitors could never win. For our rulebook, we did our best to preserve the games (and their variant rules), while making them more accessible to players."

Within each section the games are arranged by difficulty, using a handy color code. A final section at the end of the book contains handy Quick Reference Charts, which help out with scoring. Within the explanations themselves are game-play and scoring examples, pictures, and variants.



SENSU EDITION

The latest project from IndianWolf Studios is the delightful follow-up, Sensu edition, which is currently up for funding on Kickstarter (funding ends around August 31st 2018). This is a new series of playing cards, that once again offers a flower themed deck with beautiful illustrations, and is inspired by traditional hanafuda. This time Antonietta drew inspiration from a number of sources, including pottery glazes, Japanese woodblock prints (e.g. 19th century artists like Utagawa Hiroshige), and the hand illustrated drawings of Uchiyama Rossetsu from 1892.

Sensu means "fan", and this is the theme of these new decks. Fans have a long and storied tradition, and also have a lot of positive symbolism associated with them, representing prosperity, longevity, luck, happiness, etc, and even are considered to be poetic representations of images like life. They also have great artistic value, making them an ideal fit for the new decks.

Here's the two beautiful tuck boxes, which include an embossed linen feel.



Sensu Hanafuda deck

Once again, these cards are standard poker size, but the cards have a more serious and earthy look, and less of a cartoon-like and playful feel.

Like the Hanami deck, the Hanafuda deck has no pips, but features floral imagery in the 12 suits of Japanese hanafuda. As with the Hanami edition, the four cards of each suit in the Sensu edition have been created so that they combine to form a single floral image. Here's the Iris for the May suit:



To give an overview of the entire deck, here you see an uncut sheet - which is available as an add on for this project. I haven't seen the uncut sheets for Hanami first-hand, and while they were beautiful, the Chinese factory that produced them did incorporate very thin white grid lines dividing the cards, which is arguably less than ideal. The Sensu cards are going to be printed at LPCC's factory in Taiwan, so I'm told that this issue shouldn't surface this time around.



A different finish will also be used this time. Unlike the Hanami decks, the Sensu decks will be printed by Legends Playing Card Company in Taiwan with their Classic Finish, which in my experience is a superior finish to the Emerald Finish used for the Hanami decks. The quality here should satisfy everyone, from cardists to collectors.



Sensu Fusion deck

Just as with the previous project, the Fusion deck combines the Hanafuda deck with the indices of standard playing cards, to create a deck that can be used for both Eastern and Western card games.

Rather than just have the usual indices with traditional suits and values, the hanafuda indices on these cards also indicate the flower/month, and card type. This gives the cards a dual function, and these indices are helpful in enabling the Fusion deck to be used to learn and teach hanafuda - even if you're starting by using these cards for a traditional card game.



Here are the Willow images for the November suit:



The Jokers of the Sensu deck have a much more austere look than their Hanami counterparts. However the Sensu card backs have a more intricate design that creates a whole new overall look.



Games Rulebook

A rulebook is once again being provided as an add-on, and the value of this shouldn't be under-estimated. As mentioned already, Hanafudu rules are not that readily available in a very usable form, and the IndianWolf Studios team really has done all the hard work for us by making this available. To give you an idea of how useful this is, some people are so keen to get this book that they plan to get the playing cards, just in order to get the book!

The text of the Sensu rulebook is unchanged from the Hanami one; the only difference is that the art has been altered to match the art of the new Sensu decks.



But there's been a lot of wonderful feedback on the original book, and positive comments like the following help emphasize its credibility and usefulness:

"Love the clear illustrations and examples of scoring. Very in-depth rules explanation of common Hanafuda games, as well as some original games inspired by classic western games such as Rummy." - Dee Glazebrook
"This is a pretty hefty book, glad I spent a little more to get it!" - Michelle
"Both the book and the cards are wonderful and I can't wait to read up on some of the games and try them out." - Martin
"Lovely. Approachable. Quite a lovely book. I got my first Hanafudu deck about fifty years ago ... This book is the first that really makes playing with the cards approachable, and adds quite a variety of games." - abwx
"Ridiculously cheap, for the effort consumed in the production of this excellent games compendium." - Bruno Buffonè
"Best book on hanafuda rules. Wonderfully laid-out, colorful, easy-to-understand collection of many Hanafuda games. The only book you need." - Wade Daniel Cooksey



CONCLUSIONS

The Hanafuda games

It's obvious what kind of card games can be played with the Fusion deck, since you can use this for playing any card game that you'd play with a standard deck. But what about the Hanafuda deck, and what kinds of games can you play with this?

The easiest thing to do here is list the 37 games that the rulebook from IndianWolf Studios includes, which are arranged by the following four categories:

Capture Games are the most popular Hanafuda games. Capture games involve capturing cards from a field and creating yaku (special combinations of cards) to score points.
Absolute Beginner: Simplified Game for Beginners (2-4 players)
Beginner: Matching Flowers (2-3 players), Hana-Awase 1 (3-4 players), Hana-Awase 2 (3 players), Mushi (2 players), Six Hundred (2-3 players), Hachi-juu Hana (2-3 players)
Intermediate: Min-Hwatu (2-3 players), Koi-Koi (2 players), Oni Koi-Koi (2 players), Higo-Bana (2-7 players), Tensho simplified (2 players)
Expert: Go-Stop (2-7 players), Hachi-Hachi (2-7 players), Sudaoshi (3 players), Hachi simplified (2 players), Hachi (2 players), Tensho (2 players)

Sequence Games involve playing cards from your hand in sequential order with the objective of emptying your hand.
Beginner: Poka (2 players), Hiyoko simplified (2-4 players), Isuri simplified (2-3 players), Kage (2 players)
Intermediate: Hiyoko (2-4 players), Isuri (2-3 players)

Luck Games are simple, fast-paced, gambling-oriented games. Many of the games in this section were traditionally played with Kabufuda decks.
Beginner: Sutda simplified (2-10 players), Hiki-Kabu (2-10 players), Oicho-Kabu (2-10 players), Kyo-Kabu (2-10 players), Kingo (2-10 players)
Intermediate: Sota (2-6 players), Sutda (2-10 players)

Fusion Games are a collection of Western-inspired games that we reinterpreted and designed for gameplay with a Hanafuda deck. These games provide a familiar platform for Western players to become more comfortable with the Hanafuda deck.
Beginner: Seasons (1-4 players), Pyramid (1 players)
Intermediate: Solitaire (1 players), Eight Off (1 players), Hana-Rumi (2-4 players), Hana-Gin (2-4 players)



Some of the Fusion Games listed above will be immediately familiar to anyone who has some experience with Western card games, such as the three solitaire games Pyramid, Solitaire, and Eight Off, while games like Hana-Rumi and Hana-Gin have obvious parallels with the counterparts that inspired them: Rummy and Gin. But these are mainly designed to get people familiar with the Hanafuda deck and it's really the Hanafuda games themselves that are of special interest.

The Luck Games are good for social settings, and are fast and fun, whereas the Sequence Games require you to empty your hand and have a more serious and thoughtful feel to the game-play. But what people will especially find interesting is the Capture Games category, where game-play revolves around capturing cards from a field and creating point-scoring combinations. This style of gameplay is reminiscent of traditional and popular card games like Scopa and Cassino.

If you are starting from scratch, I'd recommend beginning with the Simplified Game for Beginners and with Matching Flowers, to familiarize yourself with the cards. Then eventually work yourself up to the classic and popular Japanese two player game Koi-Koi. When you're ready for it, give the more complex 2-7 player game Go-Stop a try, because this is arguably the most popular game played with Hanafuda cards in Korea.

Higo-bana is a version of Hanafuda that is very popular in Hawaii, and is also included in the book, and can be recommended. And of course, you can always play the kinds of solitaire games you'd play with a regular deck - enjoying the magnificent artwork of this deck instead! The beauty of a good rulebook like the one provided with the Hanami and Sensu projects, is that it is a terrific resource that really helps people with a Hanafuda deck get started in exploring this new world of possibilities.



What do others think?

Hanafuda cards have a long history, and I was curious to hear from people who have more experience than me in playing Hanafuda games. Here are some positive comments that people have shared on BoardGameGeek about it, which help give some idea of its popularity and appeal:

"If you enjoy Scopa or Casino, you might like this more complex family of card games." - sbszine
"A Japanese card game. I know how to play the simplest variant, Matching Flowers, and it makes a fun 2-player game." - beri
"This is a childhood favorite for me. I play with "Hawaii rules" ... The game itself is incredibly nostalgic for me, but does withstand the test of time - it is still an enjoyable game to play as an adult or in a variety of contexts." - Keakealani
"I grew up playing this game in Hawaii. A classic game that can be played over and over again. Highly recommended." - BraveReideen
"Once you learn the scoring combinations, you can have a lot of fun with this game." - pattonre
"Several games. I liked this game so much more than I expected, since I'm not a big fan of trick taking/set collecting games. This game is worth owning, especially if one can find a deck that's also printed as a standard poker deck as well." - Landstander
"Interesting mix of skill, luck and beautiful cards. Easy rules that can be remembered while sipping Sake." - Æleksandr Þræð
"I just love this game...quick to play and seemingly simple it can be played as such as or it can be deep and complex." - Shaynerichards72
"Beautiful game with an amazing push your luck mechanic. This is the mother of all push your luck games! Simple, elegant, and beautiful... A great way to pass the time." - mermuse
"Very good game." - Pete Walsh
"Beautiful elegant cards/tiles with a variety of rules for different games to play." - tantras



Recommendation

What I love first of all about the Hanafuda decks is that every card is unique, and yet each set of four cards can be cleverly combined to produce panoramic images. The decks were designed with this in mind, and the art was created as 13 tetraptychs depicting colourful and eye-catching floral scenes. This visual beauty gives them instant appeal, and it's Antonietta who deserves the credit for creating these beautiful cards. The two people behind IndianWolf Studios are the husband and wife team of Jason and Antonietta Johnson, with Jason providing the expertise that comes from a background in computer science and design, and Antonietta being the artist, who is skilled in digital art, illustration, and has a degree and extensive experience in Fine Arts. Together, they have made a wonderful and important contribution that both the custom playing card community and the gaming community should welcome, with these attractive decks, as well as the accompanying rule-book.

But perhaps more importantly, these playing cards draw on a rich tradition, since it is the floral motifs and symbolism-rich imagery of traditional Japanese Hanafuda that really inspired them. These cards are both functional as well as beautiful, and together with a rulebook, you have access to a variety of games that have a long history, and are still popular today especially in Japan and Korea. I've seen many comments from people who have pointed out that the small size of traditional Hanafuda cards makes them difficult to shuffle and use, and they have lamented the fact that they aren't available with regular sized cards. Well folks, your wish has been granted, and now experienced players of popular games like Koi-Koi and Stop-Go can play with normal sized cards, while people entirely unfamiliar with this genre of games have the ideal platform to learn and explore these classics.

Are the Sensu Hanafuda decks for you? If you enjoy original artwork that draws heavily on ancient traditions in a beautiful and creative way, then these are definitely well worth a look. Note that the quality of the published cards will be excellent, both artistically and from the perspective of the playing cards themselves, with production in Taiwan by industry leader LPCC. And if you enjoy playing original or unusual card games, then this is a rare opportunity to obtain an excellent rulebook, and a delightful and unusual deck of cards that will enable you to play a large range of Hanafuda games that are popular in Japan and Korea, and have a long history.

Either way, there's no doubt that these are incredibly unusual and beautiful decks of playing cards, and the creators deserve to be applauded for making a valuable and unique contribution to the card game industry. Well done Jason and Antonietta, in creating the beautiful Hanami decks,and now following up with the beautiful Sensu decks!



Want to learn more? The two Hanafuda projects:
- Hanami Hanafuda and Poker decks
- Sensu Hanafuda and Poker decks (current Kickstarter)

Official websites for the creators:
- Indian Wolf Studios (Jason Johnson)
- Inner Hue Art Studio (Antonietta Fazio-Johnson)

Direct links for where the decks and rulebook from the original project can be found:
- Hanami Hanafuda deck
- Hanami Fusion deck
- Hanafuda Games Rulebook (Hanami Edition also available at Amazon or iBooks)
- Hanami prints on Redbubble




BoardGameGeek reviewer

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James C
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Alexandria
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Great review and some nice looking cards!
 
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