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화투 (Go-Stop) - The cutest and quite possibly the hardest card game you’ll ever play

화투, 고스톱, Go Stop, 花鬪, 花札, Hanafuda, Sakura, Higobana, Koi-Koi

Whatever you know it by, this game is not for the weak minded. Think poker with about 20x the rules.

This game is known in several different countries by different names but the basic rules of the game are the same. I liken the rules to Monopoly - there’s house rules, official rules, regional rules, etc. I usually end up playing 화투 differently each time, it seems.

Go-Stop is usually played during 설날 and 추석 but certainly makes it into a regular game night in Korea. There’s a certainty that every night of the week someone in Korea/Japan/Hawaii/Your mom’s house/etc is playing the game.

The history of the game originates in Japan where gambling with traditional four suited cards were deemed illegal. So, to circumvent this law, smaller cards depicting traditional Japanese scenery and flowers were created in the name of nationalism (read: gambling). In 1889, a little known Japanese company called Nintendo mass-produced such cards by hand on sheets of pressed tree bark. Once the Yakuza caught wind of this seemingly innocent workaround, karuta cards quickly became commonplace in local gambling parlors.

The rules are simple hard to follow. It’s one of those games that you think that after a few rounds you’ll pick up on it. But you won’t. The first couple of times you play it you’ll constantly be thinking to yourself “Are they changing the rules?” and although they might, maybe they aren’t. Also, patience is not a virtue in this game. The faster you go, the better. If it’s your turn and your eyes are still scanning your hand, get ready to be razzed.

Ever watch one of those child prodigies playing lightening fast DDR? Yeah well the game goes that fast but there’s no prodigies - just regular everyday people with sharp minds and years of experience stacked against you. Seriously, I’m used to playing chicken foot, blackjack, or uno (by the way, I’ll destroy you in uno - I don’t play around with uno). These games can be fast, especially uno, but typically one might play them in a retirement community or with family and friends while hanging out enjoying a few drinks and snacks, right? You know, go at a steady pace while having a light conversation at the same time? Wrong. It’s all business and trash talking. Go-Stop lulls newbies into a false comfort and tricks them into thinking that the cute little card game is just for fun until someone suggests “Let’s make it interesting. Why don’t we play for quarters?”.

Man I won’t even get into the scoring system.

Let’s take a look at the cards themselves:
Go Stop Layout

(Full Size Photo Available Here)

To learn the game, other than scouring the rules online, I recommend picking up a pack from your local Korean grocery (mine carries a pack of cards for five bucks) and studying the photo above. The first thing I noticed about the cards is that they are made of plastic, terribly small, and look surprisingly similar. It takes a while to quickly notice the subtle differences. Also, the cards aren’t sticky like western playing cards so shuffling and dealing can be kind of taxing at first. Oh, and they don’t bend. I fumble with them every time, but then again, I’m a clumsy guy. It took me a while to get the hang of slamming the card down.

A younger generation has embraced this game too and in typical Korean fashion, technology integration is not an option. You can play a free version of this game online over at ijji. Also, If you can get your hands on this Nintendo DS rarity, I have been told that it contains Koi Koi.

For more of an overview, here’s a user-made video of the online version and here’s one showcasing the cards and coins used in Korea.

Have you ever played this game? What is something that made your game unique? Any special house rules?

Thoughts?

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