Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The 121-Year-Old Nintendo Game

Hanafuda Cards By Matsuyuki

This is a guest post by Kenji Crosland of TeachStreet. TeachStreet is a website dedicated to providing local and online classes, as well as card and board game classes.

Pop Quiz: What was Nintendo’s first product ever?

If you answered “Donkey Kong” or “Super Mario Brother’s” I’m afraid you get zero points. The correct answer, actually, is Hanafuda.

Hanafuda is a traditional Japanese card game which has taken many different forms and had many different rules over the past few centuries. In 1889, long before the company skyrocketed with Donkey Kong, the founder of Nintendo, Fusajiro Yamauchi, began selling hanafuda cards made out of mulberry tree bark. This version of Hanafuda had 12 suits of four cards each. Each suit represented a month of the year and had painted pictures of maple leafs for October, cherry blossoms for March, pine trees for January and so on.

Hanafuda, just like Western playing cards have many different games, although some are more popular than others. One of the most popular rule variations include matching eight cards that are displayed face-up for all players to see, much like the “flop” in Texas Hold-em Poker. Players then try to get as many special combinations for as many points as they can. There can also be a betting element involved (in a way similar to Blackjack but more fast-paced).

The first time I ran across the game was in college when some Korean exchange students in my dorm played a version of Hanafuda with nickels and dimes. Because the suits are determined by elaborate drawings and not by symbols or numbers, it was nearly impossible to figure out the rules of the game just by watching them play. The rules, however, aren’t too hard, and have about the same level of complexity as poker. Like most of the great puzzles and games out there, it’s relatively easy to learn, but relatively hard to master.

For the rules of the most common Hanafuda games, you can check out this page on, a website that provides a free online flash version of the game. I checked and I founds some cards that sold for about $25. The original nintendo brand cards are a little pricier, but at $50 it’s not a bad price for the hardcore collector. If you ever have a friend going to Japan, you can ask them to stop by a Toys-R-Us or similar toy shop and get them for a lot cheaper.

Hanafuda is a time-tested game that’s managed to stay relatively popular over the centuries. Also, if you’re a real game nerd, you can look into the history of the game, one that involves Japanese warlords, emperors and yakuza gangsters--fascinating stuff. Overall, it’s a great way to mix up game night.

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