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The object of the game is to form special card combinations called "yaku" from cards accumulated in a point pile. Players can gain cards in their point piles by matching cards in their hands, or drawn from the draw pile, with cards on the table. Once a yaku has been made, a player can stop to cash in points, or keep going (referred to as "koi-koi", hence the name of the game) to form additional yaku for more points. The point values assigned to individual cards have no effect on the score, but they are helpful to judge their value in forming yaku.
An initial dealer (called the "oya", or "parent"), is decided upon when the game starts. This can be done with any method (rock-paper-scissors, dice roll) the players agree upon. A hanafuda-specific method involves random card draw: each player draws a single card; the player who draws a card from the earliest month is the oya. If both players draw a card from the same month, the player with the higher value card becomes the oya.
To deal, the oya deals eight cards to his/her opponent (face down), the table (face up), then to his/herself (face down), though this is normally done two or four cards at a time. The rest of the cards are set aside as a draw pile, and then play begins starting with the oya.
On a player's turn, they may match by suit (such as month or flower) any one card in their hand with one on the table and take both into their point pile. If they cannot match a card from their hand, they must discard a card face up to the table. After matching or discarding a card, they then draw one card from the draw pile and place it face up on the playing area. If this card matches any card now on the table, they must match that card and take both for their point pile; otherwise, it becomes part of the table. In the event that the drawn card matches more than one card on the table, the player gets the choice as to which card to match and therefore keep in addition to the drawn card.
After a player's turn ends, if they made at least one yaku that turn, that player must then make a choice. They may end the hand and add the value of his/her yaku to their point total, or they can choose to continue playing (calling "koi-koi") in an effort to gain more points. In some versions, a player may only call koi-koi once per hand; in others, a player may call koi-koi on multiple yaku-forming turns. Calling koi-koi leaves the player vulnerable, as if their opponent is able to form a yaku before the caller forms another, the opponent gains double their score and the caller earns nothing. If a player has yaku totaling 7 or more points when the hand ends, that player earns twice that value. If a player hits 7 or more points and their opponent had called koi-koi, he gets both doubling bonuses for a total of four times their score.
The player with the most points at the end of the hand becomes the new oya, and a new hand is dealt. Should both players ever run out of cards to play without having formed a yaku on the last play, no points are awarded to either player, and the next hand begins with the same oya. Generally, play continues for 12 hands, but the players can decide to play for a different number of rounds before the game starts.
Some groups, when gambling, will require the player whose score was multiplied to pay a proportionately larger amount of the winnings (i.e. a player who continued play twice would pay twice as much as the other player, since their score would have been doubled).
The Sake Cup is unique in that, though technically classified as a 10-point card, it counts as both a 10-point card and a 1-point card at the same time. Some rules allow the Sake Cup to count as a 10-point card and two 1-point cards at the same time.
Additionally, November's 1-point card, the Lightning, is sometimes used as a wild card that can match any card in some games.
If certain combinations of cards are won during play, extra points apply. Sometimes, players will be paired across the table when this rule is used (in multi-player Koi-Koi) to increase the chance of getting combos. Below is a list of special combinations with example point values. Different rulesets give different point values and some do not include the tsukimi-zake and hanami-zake yaku.
Some yaku can be considered extensions of others. For example, one may qualify for both Akatan and Tanzaku by having the Akatan combination as well as two additional five-point cards. In these cases, players are awarded points for both Akatan and Tanzaku (unless players decide only the single highest-scoring yaku counts).
|Points||Combo Name||Card Combo|
|6||Sankō (三光) "three brights"||Any three 20-point cards excluding the Rainman (Willow's 20-point card).|
|8||Shikō (四光) "four brights"||The four 20-point cards which exclude the Rainman (Willow's 20-point card).|
|7||Ame-Shikō (雨四光) "four rain brights"||Any four 20-point cards including the Rainman (Willow's 20-point card).|
|15||Gokō (五光) "five brights"||All five 20-point cards.|
|5||Inoshikachō (猪鹿蝶) "boar deer butterfly"||The Boar, the Deer, and the Butterfly (the 10-point cards from Clover, Maple, and Peony, respectively). One additional point is awarded for every additional 10-point card.|
|1||Tane (タネ)||Any five 10-point cards, such as animals, the Eight-planked Bridge (Iris), or the Sake Cup (Chrysanthemum). One additional point is awarded for every additional 10-point card.|
|5||Akatan (赤短) "red tanzaku"||All 3 Red Poetry Ribbons (found in Pine, Ume, and Sakura). One additional point is awarded for every additional 5-point card.|
|5||Aotan (青短) "blue tanzaku"||All 3 Purple/Blue Ribbons (found in Peony, Chrysanthemum, and Maple). One additional point is awarded for every additional 5-point card.|
|10||Akatan, Aotan no Chōfuku (赤短・青短の重複)||All 3 Red Poetry Ribbons and all 3 Purple/Blue Ribbons: the combination of Aka-tan and Ao-tan. One additional point is awarded for every additional 5-point card.|
|1||Tanzaku (短冊)||Any five 5-point cards, which includes all Ribbons. One additional point is awarded for every additional 5-point card.|
|5||Tsukimi-zake (月見酒) "moon viewing, sake"||The Moon and the Sake Cup (Pampas' 20-point card and Chrysanthemum's 10-point card). Cumulative with Hanami-zake.|
|5||Hanami-zake (花見酒) "cherry blossom viewing, sake"||The Sakura Curtain and the Sake Cup (Sakura's 20-point card and Chrysanthemum's 10-point card). Cumulative with Tsukimi-zake.|
|1||Kasu (カス)||Any ten 1-point cards, which are all normal (or literally, "junk") cards. One additional point is awarded for every additional 1-point card.|
Instant wins and redeals
There are two special yaku such that, if a player is dealt them before play begins, they are immediately awarded points. Play then ends before it starts, and the game continues to the next hand. If either of these combinations are dealt to the table, however, the hand is declared void and a redeal occurs. These two combinations are as follows.
|Points||Combo Name||Card Combo|
|6||Teshi (手四)||Being dealt four cards of the same suit.|
|6||Kuttsuki (くっつき)||Being dealt four pairs of cards with matching suits.|