For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the Indian playing cards known as Ganjifa, which represent a different branch of the history of playing cards from the more familiar 52-card deck. In 2011 I acquired my own Ganjifa deck and wrote a couple of blog posts on the subject, including my own idea for a game. In 2015 I perfected the rules for this game and rewrote the blog post, giving my creation the title Kendra Kari (केंद्र कड़ी).
In response to that post I was contacted by Sunish Chabba, who was developing a new deck of Ganjifa cards under the brand “Guru Ganjifa”. This began a fruitful correspondence in which I helped Sunish with his project in various ways, and learned a great deal more about Ganjifa along the way. Sunish ran a regrettably unsuccessful kickstarter for the project, but lessons were learned and he plans to relaunch when the time is right.
Ganjifa cards can be looked upon as objects of play, as objects of art, or as objects of history, and there is something to be learnt from each perspective. In their heyday they were popular across most of India and proliferated into various forms, chief of which was the Dashavatara deck, with ten suits each representing an avatar of the god Vishnu. The deck developed by Sunish is of this type, as opposed to the eight-suited Mughal deck featured in my earlier posts.
(For more information I recommend this video if you generally enjoy history/culture documentaries, or if you’d like to explore even deeper you may find something of value in this freely-available research paper. If you’re in a less intellectual mood, perhaps you’d prefer to sit back and watch cards being painted. Other links can be found elsewhere in this post, or by searching. No source can be assumed accurate in all respects, as the sparseness of information makes fact-checking difficult.)
One of the challenges in producing a modern Ganjifa deck is deciding what rules to include for the traditional game. There are three main reasons why one cannot simply reproduce rules from historical sources. (1) As a folk game, Ganjifa spread from player to player over hundreds of years and accumulated innovations in each locality, such that each village evolved its own version of the rules. (2) The few versions that have been preserved in writing — at least in English — are not adequately detailed to serve as a comprehensive guide to play. (3) Any attempt to revive something from the past typically calls not for a faithful facsimile, but for a blend of tradition and innovation that captures the spirit of the original but adapts it to modern needs. Adaptability is, in games as in everything else, the key to survival.
As part of my collaboration with Sunish I drafted a set of rules that will form the basis of those to be published with the Guru Ganjifa deck. The purpose of this blog post is to make these rules available to potential playtesters, to create a forum (in the comments) for discussion of the game, and to provide a platform where I can document rationales for various decisions that I made. Note that my own playtests were limited to simulations in which I acted the part of all 3-4 players; I have not tested these rules under real conditions against live opponents.
Anyone who owns a Ganjifa deck is invited to help, and as there are so few people who do own a deck, my gratitude is all the more sincere. All feedback is welcome, whether positive or critical; whether pertaining to the game itself or to the clarity of the description. Critical comments can be used to improve the game, and positive ones to promote it. The rules herein accommodate groups of three or four players, and if you own a Dashavatara (ten-suited) deck you can play them exactly as intended. If you own a Mughal (eight-suited) deck you can still test the three-player game, but I wouldn’t suggest a four-player one. And if you’ve tried Ganjifa before but been turned off by its dependence on memory or some other quality not to your liking, perhaps you’ll be willing to give it a second chance.
Update 10 August 2017: Revised version available here. See comment section below for details.
The rest of this blog post is more academic than usual as it documents the choices I made in composing these rules. You don’t have to read it. But if you’re curious, read on.