Playing with Ganjifa (Part II)

[Note: This blog post was originally published in 2011, but has been extensively rewritten several times. Particularly in 2015 when the game that it describes was revised, playtested and named.]

[Note #2: I have a more recent blog post, published in 2016, which describes a modified version of the game traditionally played with Ganjifa cards.]

This is the second of two blog posts about Ganjifa cards. In the first I showed sample cards from my own deck (which I bought from a playing card museum in Germany), suggested suitable English names for the eight suits, and shared some thoughts on how to shuffle them. In this sequel, I’ll describe my own idea for a game that could be played with the cards.

Prelude

In contrast to Western playing cards — which are used for hundreds of games of many different types, the accumulated inventions of many generations — the traditional playing cards of India are used for only a small number of endangered games, and there is no active tradition of inventing new ones. This is not a difference in inherent worth but an accident of history, and in my opinion regrettable. To realise the potential of Ganjifa and revitalise them for today’s world, I propose we invent new games for them, perhaps by adapting elements of familiar Western games to take advantage of cards that are circular rather than rectangular and come in twice as many suits. Let us also feel free to build on each other’s inventions to create families of related games.

Not all Ganjifa are circular, but the fact that most are provides a point of contrast with Western cards, which in my opinion is part of the appeal. Herein, circular cards are assumed and indeed required. Also, there are several types of Ganjifa, but the type intended below is the Mughal variety, which consists of 96 cards in twelve ranks and eight suits. Some other types may be usable but I know less about them. See the end of the post for notes on obtaining a deck.

Introduction to the game

The game described below was unnamed until mid-July 2015, but I have now settled on an Indian name to go with the Indian cards. That name is केंद्र कड़ी, which is Hindi for Central Link and in English can be spelt either Kendra Kari or Kendra Kadi. Credit to Kishor Dabke for confirming that the name is appropriate and means what I thought it did.

(In case you’re curious I’ve added a footnote on pronunciation — but this is a card game, not a linguistics lesson, so it doesn’t really matter.)

As for the game itself, it is inspired by the Eights family, though it lacks the wild cards that give that family of games its name. It is a true Ganjifa game in the sense that it could not easily be adapted to non-circular cards. The game is reasonably simple and should be suitable for players who are new to Ganjifa.

The rules

Preliminaries and Deal

The game is suitable for 3-6 players. I will assume that play proceeds clockwise. (Card games in India are traditionally played anticlockwise, so if that is the custom of your group, replace “clockwise” with “anticlockwise” throughout.)

Throughout the game, cards are played to seven distinct positions on the table. Six of these positions form a ring (we’ll call them Positions 1 to 6, proceeding clockwise), and the seventh is in the centre of that ring (we’ll call this Position 7).

Six cards are dealt to each player, and another card is dealt face-up to Position 7. The remaining cards form the stock.

Normal Play

The first player, if able, selects from their hand a card with either the same suit or the same rank as the card on Position 7, and places that card face-up on Position 1.

In the normal course of the game, each player who can plays a card with either the same suit or the same rank as the most recently played card, and does so by placing it on the next position around from that previous card. So if the previous card was played on Position 1, you play on Position 2. If the previous card was played on Position 2, you play on Position 3. Position 7 is not ordinarily played to, so if the previous card was played on Position 6, you play on Position 1, and round it goes.

A player must play if they have a playable card.

A player who is unable to play picks up a card from the stock. If the card drawn is playable it must be played immediately, but cannot be used to build a bridge (see Special Play below). Otherwise it is added to the player’s hand. Play then proceeds to the next player.

Special Play

So far, I have addressed only what happens in the normal course of the game, but we must now discuss special moves that players can perform when the opportunity arises.

First I must make it clear that when I refer to two cards as directly opposite each other, I refer simply to the layout of the six outer positions. The card currently sitting on top of Position 1 is directly opposite the card on Position 4, and vice versa. The card on Position 2 is directly opposite the card on Position 5, and vice versa. The card on Position 3 is directly opposite the card on Position 6, and vice versa.

A player may play a card to Position 7 if that card not only shares its suit or its rank with the most recently played card, but also shares its suit or its rank with the card directly opposite the most recently played card. Such a move I will refer to as building a bridge, because it connects two opposing positions, metaphorically speaking.

Moreover, a player may play two cards in the same turn if the second one builds a bridge, the first having been played from their hand in the usual way. (Be sure to plan both moves before performing the first, as failure to do so is at least a breach of courtesy.)

After a bridge is built, all cards played so far are gathered up and taken out of the game. The player who built the bridge begins a new phase by playing any card to Position 7, and may, if able, play a second card with the same suit or rank to Position 1. (The first card to be laid down is deemed to be the one at Position 7.) This means it’s possible to play four cards in a single turn: two to build a bridge and two to start the next phase.

Normal play resumes with the next player’s turn.

Winning

A player wins by getting rid of all cards in their hand. Specific ways to win include:

  • Using up your last card during normal play.
  • Using your last card to build a bridge.
  • Building a bridge with one card remaining (as this would be used to start the next phase).
  • Building a bridge with two cards remaining that share a rank or suit (as these would be used to start the next phase).

Notes

Notes on play

The question may arise of what to do if the stock is entirely depleted. There are two obvious possibilities: either declare the player with the fewest cards to have won, or else create a new stock by shuffling all the cards that have been captured by building bridges. I suspect most people will opt for the former, rather than allow the game to go on indefinitely. However, in my experience this is extremely unlikely to happen if everyone plays well: if the stock does run out before someone wins, it’s probably a sign that players have yet to master the strategy and are missing opportunities to play cards.

Describing a game is hard — it’s often like describing a tower or sculpture that looks simple and elegant when you can see the big picture, but complicated and arbitrary when you can see only one piece at a time. Here are some crib notes that might help when explaining the game verbally to others.

1. Match suit/rank. Play to next position. Aim: get rid of cards.
2. If cannot play, pick up card. Play it immediately if can.
3. Build a Bridge = play to centre position.
4. Can play 2 cards if latter builds a bridge.
5. Cannot do (3) or (4) with card just picked up.
6. After building bridge, begin new phase with 1 or 2 cards.

Linguistic footnote

The name केंद्र कड़ी consists of two Hindi words — केंद्र (Kendra) means centre, and कड़ी (Kari or Kadi) means link. It refers to the card in the centre that builds a bridge by linking two opposing positions. I hope the alliteration makes the name punchy and memorable.

The spelling Kari more accurately conveys the pronunciation in English, but there are two distinct sounds in Hindi that the English letter ‘r’ can represent, and if you use the wrong one you’ll be saying Curry, not Link. The alternative spelling Kadi reflects the fact in Hindi the sound is related to a d-like sound, which the Devanagari spelling also reflects. Please see this video and this link for more information about this sound. (For linguists: the ‘r’ in Kendra is an alveolar trill [r] while the ‘r’ in Kari is a retroflex flap [ɽ].)

None of this matters unless you want it to. You can pronounce Kendra Kari any way you like and the game will be exactly the same.

Obtaining Ganjifa

For readers who are interested in obtaining a Mughal Ganjifa deck, here are the sources I’m aware of:

  • I have a copy of the deck produced by Grubbe. It is apparently available online, but the site is in German (which may or may not be an obstacle for you). I can vouch for the durability of the cards, but because some of them are visually confusing it takes time to learn how to identify the suits and ranks. Happily, the deck comes with a reference chart. Another negative is that the box they come in is very bulky.
  • Tab Creations, an American company, has been producing a deck since 2013, and it is available on Amazon. I have not seen these cards, and feel duty-bound to point out that customer reviews (both on Amazon and on the original Kickstarter) have reported that the cards are not sturdy enough to withstand repeated shuffling. On the other hand, the artwork looks simpler, reducing the learning curve for first-time players, and depending on shipping costs in your location this may be a more accessible option for you.

Naturally, I would like to see more options become available in the future. I will add more if I become aware of them, and I’m open to including varieties other than Mughal as long as they’re fit for the same purpose.

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10 Responses to “Playing with Ganjifa (Part II)”

  1. Alex Fink Says:

    My not-having-tried-it impression is that three players would play substantially differently from any number other than three (even two). With three you can set yourself up for a bridge; with other numbers you’re relying on coaxing your opponents into it. Have you found this?

  2. Adrian Morgan Says:

    I got the same comment from John McLeod, who runs the card games site pagat.com, where I will submit my game once I figure out what to call it. (That’s why I really NEED a name: it’s an alphabetical list.)

    However, no. You’re assuming that the two intervening players either have, or pick up, a playable card, but that won’t always be the case. The probability of being able to bridge to your own card changes with the number of players, and that may play into your strategy, but I wouldn’t say there’s a dramatic difference between a three-player and four-player game.

    (Also, you’re thinking of the rule that you can play two cards in a single turn if the second one builds a bridge. In practise, most bridges are built with a single card, so there’s still a possibility of bridging to your own card in a four-player game where all three intervening players can play.)

    I find a bigger difference is that in a three-player game, it’s more common that no players have any playable cards for a few rounds. I wouldn’t recommend trying a two-player game.

  3. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Update on playtesting:

    The game was playtested for the first time on 19 June 2015, with four players who played two games, and for the second time on 18 August 2015, with six players who played once but continued until only two players were left in the game. Including myself, three of the people who played in the first event also played in the second, and it was gratifying that one of them suggested playing again (thanks, Mum). One of the other players in August told me it was a good game, which was also gratifying.

    I won both of the June games and came second in August, behind one of the first-time players. This shows that experience counts but doesn’t guarantee victory, which is as it should be.

    I’ve intentionally refrained from providing strategy tips in the body of this post, because as long as only one person is qualified to write a strategy guide, I feel the game is too young to merit one. But I’m happy to give informal advice here in the comments. In a nutshell, half the secret is to keep your eyes open and not let opportunities go unnoticed, and the other half is to play cards that maximise your chance of being able to play on your next turn while minimising the opportunities for your opponents.

  4. Sunish Chabba Says:

    Understand it is an old post, but still, I thought of commenting. With the intent of reviving forgotten Indian arts & crafts, I’ll be launching another form of Ganjifa called ‘Dashavatar Ganjifa’ soon. At present, I’m researching on the various games that people used to play with this deck in various parts of India. Anyone interesting in play testing, please feel free to ask.

  5. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Sunish. I know that the Dashavatar deck consists of 120 cards divided into 10 suits that represent the avatars of Vishnu, and that the games are traditionally played in a very ritualistic manner as befits its religious underpinning. I guess the main reason you’ll need play testers is to make sure the rules are written clearly so that people can understand them.

    How can people contact you if they would like to help? (I have your email address from your comment, but I can’t share it here without your permission.)

    To be honest, I don’t think traditional Ganjifa games are likely to appeal to many people in the West, because we’re used to games where players have more choice as to which card to play next. There isn’t much room for strategy in traditional Ganjifa games as I understand them (although I believe they do reward a good memory). Also, people in the West are not used to such large decks, and may find the process of dealing and sorting the cards to be rather tedious.

    I don’t intend that to discourage you. I think it’s a great thing you’re doing to share a piece of India with the world, and I wish you all the best. But I just want to make sure that anyone interested in volunteering does so with realistic expectations.

    If your version of the Dashavatar deck becomes available online, please feel free to come back and share the link.

  6. Sunish Chabba Says:

    Thanks for the feedback. In fact, I’ve also observed these issues, and trying to see if a new game can be invented that is easy for the players. Right now, the focus is on the design & illustrations. The revival is necessary otherwise it will soon be extinct and I think it is better to try doing rather than not trying in the first place. I’m from Sydney, btw. Give me a shout whenever you’re around. It is difficult to find real playing cards enthusiasts :)

  7. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Selling the decks with instructions for both traditional and invented games sounds like a good idea.

    I imagine my game as described here could be played with a Dashavatar deck if you first remove two of the suits. Or you could try playing with the whole deck, but the problem with that is that because the number of suits is closer to the number of ranks in the Dashavatar deck (10 & 12 as opposed to 8 & 12), it would make little difference whether to match the suit or the rank of the previous card. That would take away some of the strategic decision-making and make the game less satisfying.

    From my online research I know that other people interested in preserving Indian traditions are more concerned with the handpainted artwork of Ganjifa than the games. Of course, in the modern world that’s not very practical (Europe had hand-painted playing cards too, centuries ago). But I am sympathetic to that cause, and if someone with the right contacts in India sold a deluxe deck consisting of, say, 96 or 120 mass-produced cards plus 2 bonus hand-painted ones, I’d consider supporting that.

    I was born in Sydney and have visited at least three times since (most recently in 2014).

  8. Sunish Chabba Says:

    While researching about this and other related crafts, I felt that the one hope of survival is if this game can find its place as an everyday game, and not merely as an art. The awareness can have a trickling effect in a way that people will start recognizing this craft, and may be, the artisans would start getting the requests for more orders. The game play is a design problem, and I’m hopeful to build one that is easy to play, but is addictive on the other hand. By the way, thanks for the idea of bonus hand-painted because I’m already looking into the add-ons that can be offered with limited-edition decks.

  9. Sunish Chabba Says:

    By the way, it looks like the one Mughal Ganjifa deck brought in by Tab creations have certain quality issues with respect to the card stock. I am planning to use 310 gsm black core stock, that won’t have that problem (I’m hopeful). If you’ve got any other idea, please let me know. Another thing, I’ve contacted USPC for quotes, but I’d really like if I can get these decks printed in Australia. Appreciate any advice or suggestions in this regard.

  10. Sunish Chabba Says:

    Hi Adrian,

    Think you’d be interested, so sharing the link: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1559017/guru-ganjifa-based-dashavatara-ganjifa-artwork-ins

    Received the prototype decks yesterday and have started playtesting :)

    Would you be able to share your personal email address, if you don’t mind. I’m looking for some help.

    Regards,
    Sunish


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