December 24, 2023 • Louie Mantia

Nick Paulson and I made a Checkers app in the evenings and weekends when we worked at Square (circa 2011), and we dreamed of making a bunch of other public-domain board game apps too, like Reversi and Pachisi. While we never shipped any of these together, you better believe I comped up each one and sketched logos for a fictional board game brand: Mantia-Paulson. Nick left Square for Apple, and I went to start my own company (Pacific Helm), where I later shipped Checkers.

Fast forward to 2016. Luka and I were drawing hundreds of emoji for Facebook. Most of the original emoji are pretty Japanese in nature, given that’s where emoji (literally “picture character”) come from. During the project, when we came across a distinctly Japanese emoji, we asked some Japanese friends of ours for guidance.

One of the emoji I signed up for that needed such guidance was 🎴 flower playing cards. (It’s in the symbols section, between 🃏 joker and 🀄️ mahjong tile red dragon.) I had no idea what “flower playing cards” was, so I asked my friend Nobtaka.

↑ A photo of hanafuda. Card art is a reproduction by yours truly. Printed, made, and photographed by Marcus Richert.

Nob told me a little about hanafuda (literally “flower cards”). Basically, they’re playing cards, but much smaller than what I’m used to. They don’t have numbers, pips, or royalty. Just flowers and animals. (Cute.)

I needed to know more (not for the project, but for myself). I started on Wikipedia, then moved onto Japanese-language websites specializing in this topic. And later, I found a Discord server with other (mostly Western) people who were interested in hanafuda like me.

The short of it (I will try to be brief) is that Portuguese traders brought playing cards to Japan. Similar to surviving Italian or Spanish decks, Portuguese decks had four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins. If that sounds like tarot to you, you’re not far off. Tarot was built on top of Latin-suited decks like this, too.

Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world in a period of time referred to as Sakoku (literally “locked country”). All trade halted, and locals started to manufacture their own cards. The first was perhaps Tenshō karuta (Japanese link), similar to the Portuguese decks they intended to replace: 4 suits, 12 ranks, 48 cards total. For reasons we can only speculate about, card designs became abstracted. Like a visual game of telephone? Maybe. Evading regulation? Also maybe. Subject of debate.

↑ An example of a local version of Tenshō karuta called kurofuda. [original photo]

Next up was Unsun karuta (Japanese link). This is where it gets interesting (for me). This deck has a fifth suit (represented as mitsudome), and added 3 cards to each suit. Now there were 75 cards in total.

↑ An example of Unsun karuta, showing five suits with 15 ranks each. [original photo]

…There’s more to this, but at some point, someone (who?) somewhere (where?) started making all-new kinds of cards like hana-awase decks, which included up to 32 (?!) suits, each represented by a flower.

↑ An Edo era Hana-awase deck, with (originally) a staggering 128 cards. Photo from the incredible Japan Playing Card Museum website.

People played fishing-type card games, where you match cards by suit. This later became today’s hanafuda, standardized into a 12-suit deck, with four cards per suit. Kinda the opposite structure of Western cards.

You may know that long before Mario, Nintendō made playing cards. And while they did indeed make Western playing cards, Nintendō’s history really starts with hanafuda. In fact, they still make them today.

I fell in love with hanafuda, so I started to collect them. Lots of them. I studied their stylistic differences between decks. The colors they used. Their construction. Not only are hanafuda smaller than Western playing cards, but they feel entirely different. They’re not made of a flexible paper or plastic. They’re printed, coated, and mounted onto more-durable paper. And very unlike Western playing cards, they are “wrapped” with a colored sheet of paper, glued to the back, with a small amount folded over the edges onto the front, framing the artwork.

↑ Extreme close-up photo of Nintendō hanafuda, showing the folded paper around the edges of the cards.

This method seemed so Japanese to me. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. All the cards I know are printed with an intricate back design and cut with rounded corners. But as it turns out, this is not a Japanese method at all. It seems to have originated in Europe, as evidenced by old tarot packs from the era.

↑ Extreme close-up photo of Mitelli’s Tarocchini (17th century), showing the folded paper around the edges of the card, worn down, and perhaps reinforced with another layer. Photo from the British Museum.

When Japan closed off to the rest of the world, Japanese manufacturers of playing cards adopted this method when producing their own cards. It’s just that Europeans stopped doing it a long time ago. I couldn’t believe it.

I could go on for days about all this, but suffice to say that this topic interests me deeply, and I felt compelled to design my own version of hanafuda. My premise was: what if I made these as Western-format cards? Maybe I could get more people outside of Japan interested in hanafuda if the cards were more familiar to Westerners.

So the version I started to make was poker-size, with suits indicated in the corner. While my deck appears modern in contrast to traditional hanafuda, it was extremely important to me to retain a sense that these are Japanese. That meant using Japanese text and iconography, like mon.

Clans, families, and even companies use mon (or kamon, literally “family crest”) that depict the same kinds of plants and animals that are in hanafuda. Mon vary because they were originally drawn by and for lots of different people across Japan, though they do seem to adhere to some kind of general style, perhaps due to the limitations of drawing tools. With that in mind, I drew all-new mon that were more consistent as a set (with some help from Luka for some of the trickier animals).

The name Junior came about when I was still dreaming about board game apps. I wanted something that felt like the kid in me. As someone who is named identically to my father, that makes me a “Junior.” While no one has ever used that as a name for me (please, don’t start), I figured it would make the perfect brand name for my game projects.

The logo is based on an extremely fun font called Blenny. I later redrew it entirely with larger counters and tighter letterspacing, with guidance from James Edmonson at OHno. When I later made an abbreviated “Jr” version of the logo, I saw an opportunity to make it into a playing card club mark, which is now the shorthand logo for Junior.

Printing playing cards (properly) can cost a little bit of money. The United States Playing Card Company (famous for Bicycle and Bee decks) has a 1000-deck minimum order. If you want to use spot colors instead of CMYK, it’s about $6 per deck. *Gulp* Here goes nothing.

On December 6, 2019, they arrived at my friend Pat’s warehouse, and I bolted over there to tear open the first box, the first carton, the first deck. There they were.

I really can’t tell you how happy I was in that moment. How proud I was. How satisfied I was. It was real. I have always made digital products for others, but this was a tangible product for me. I think that’s when I started feeling more like an artist and less like a designer. (To me, a designer is someone who makes things to specification for someone else. An artist is someone who makes things to their own specification.)

And then, coronavirus happened. (Right then and there, huh?) I sat on these for months because I did not want to start selling something when everyone was struggling with everything, including money. It felt wrong to me.

But the more that time went on, my friends encouraged me to just ship the damn thing. COVID wasn’t going anywhere, and me holding onto these wasn’t changing the course of anything. Maybe people would like to have a new game to play at home.

To say Phoenix (my first deck) was merely a test run would be inaccurate, but it was not the only hanafuda deck I wanted to make either.

You see, my intention was to launch a Kickstarter campaign. It’s just that I’ve seen those go poorly. Lots of people run into “unforeseen” problems due to inexperience. Well, I’m also inexperienced at this. So the Phoenix deck was kind of a test run. I wanted to understand the entire process of making one deck, start to finish. I needed to know the kinds of problems that could cause delays, from pre-process, printing, shipping, all the way to receiving.

After this, I knew how exactly how that worked.

Matsui Tengudō, a particular manufacturer of karuta, once made a 14-suit hanafuda. He added two new suits: bamboo and lotus. This intrigued me so much. I love every part of it. I love how he took something familiar and made it new. I love that he drew the extra suits exactly how they should look alongside the others.

Why am I saying this? Well, a standard playing card deck printed by USPC has 56 cards. There are 52 cards in a Western deck, plus 2 jokers, and 2 “ad” cards that most people use for game rules, website URLs, or social media handles. For hanafuda, I only need 48 cards. That means I have 8 cards left.

Phoenix used 6 cards as an adaptable suit that players can experiment with (plus one with a URL and another of the back design in full color). My next deck would have the extra suits that Matsui Tengudō created, but in my style. I packaged them in two varieties, a red Tiger deck, and a dark blue Dragon deck (otherwise identical).

Then I launched the Kickstarter campaign. I gotta be honest with you, it’s stressful. I think it’s great, but also it can cause a lot of heartache. Seeing in real-time the interest people have in your product (in dollars), can stress you out. Making sure you’re setting enough aside for shipping and Kickstarter fees… it’s just one big ball of stress. No amount of talking with others or watching how-to videos could prepare me for what it would feel like.

But it worked. I raised enough money to print the two new decks, which I ordered as quickly as I could after the campaign ended. I also ordered wood boxes, made in Japan, that packaged all three decks together. The top was hot iron stamped with a higemoji version of the Japanese Junior logo (drawn by the brilliant Japanese lettering artist MILTZ) and red silkscreened accents. It was really special.

I started regularly playing with friends at the coffee shop. That was pretty ideal. Since my new decks allow you to play with more people than hanafuda typically does (due to the extra suits), it was awesome to play Koi-Koi with four people.

So many people asked me, “Are you also going to make ‘normal’ cards?”

I’m going to skip over how it made me feel to have people kinda dismiss what I had just done and immediately ask me for something less interesting, and jump right to the part where I replied, “Of course!”

It was truly on my roadmap to make so-called “normal” playing cards after that, but boy did I experiment with doing Italian or German cards first.

There’s a awful lot of playing card Kickstarter campaigns, which usually seem to appeal to a few specific audiences:

From my perspective, most playing card Kickstarter campaigns do not attempt to market toward people who use playing cards to …play card games. Am I wrong that people still like to play cards? I don’t know. Oh, magicians? They pretty much only want the most standard Bicycle decks, because it’s important they look untampered (even if they are).

But me? I want to make everything custom. Top to bottom, front to back. Not fanciful, not standard, not simplistic. I want card backs that are as ornate as they need to be functional, courts that are clearly distinguishable, pips that are of equal weight, and indices that are instantly identifiable. I made the index font myself. This was all very important to me, even if no one else cared.*

* Ideally, I would like people to care a little bit.

In the spirit of “doing something new each time,” I also wanted to make poker dice. “What are poker dice?” Thank you for asking. Poker dice are six-sided dice, with a 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, and an Ace. You roll five of them and try to form poker hands like a full house. Poker dice aren’t very common anymore, despite being effectively turned into modern-day Yahtzee. Unfortunately, when Yahtzee was made, the card faces on the dice were removed in favor of cheaper-to-produce circular pips. (Boring!)

↑ A photo of various poker dice. Some are molded, others engraved, or simply printed. Junior poker dice are on the right.

I designed new wood boxes that could hold two decks of cards (for poker sets but also for hanafuda sets), and another the same exact size that could house my new poker dice. Then, I launched all of this on Kickstarter.

↑ A photo of Junior’s current products, including the original 3-deck box.

If the first campaign stressed me out, the second one somehow gave me more stress. My expectation, based on people’s vocal requests to me, was that more people would want “normal” cards than my hanafuda. When that turned out not to be true, I panicked a little bit.

The campaign crossed the finish line, but not without my constant, active involvement, talking about it non-stop on Twitter in the hopes that more people would support the project. Honestly, it was exhausting. After everything got made and arrived to me, I briefly enjoyed that they existed before I packed the Mage and Fool decks into their wood boxes and shipped them out.

I kept coming back to hanafuda in my mind. I wanted to do more in that space. I started sketching a more-traditional hanafuda. One that would be hand-drawn and—perhaps to some degree—handmade.

In September 2021, Luka and I got a Glowforge, so I went to a lumber store, picked out some cherry wood, had it cut to size, and put it inside the laser cutter. A few hours later, I had a woodblock I could use to print with. A very new solution to a very old problem.

But could I reasonably make hanafuda this way if I wanted to? What other tools or materials would I need? Would I want to get good at making it myself, or find someone who is already good?

The answers to these questions might be more easily answered if I just moved to Japan. In the summer of 2023, that’s exactly what I did.

After I got settled, my friend Marcus (another foreigner who makes hanafuda and lives in Japan) asked if I was going to get serious about mine, and offered to help making them.

I redrew every card. For what it’s worth, each card is unique, and my deck has double the amount of cards that hanafuda typically has. (You might sense a trend with me and my personal projects. It’s my quintessential personal brand attribute to go way too far with everything.)

We printed them by risograph, a Japanese-made duplicator, where you layer each color by printing separate runs. Then Marcus backpasted one copy of the entire 96-card deck, giving it to me when we opened up a little popup at Game Market in Tokyo. There we were, two foreigners selling our hanafuda in Japan. Weirdos.

After the day ended, I went home and thumbed through these new handmade cards. It somehow felt more incredible than my first poker-size deck I tore open almost 5 years ago. Will anyone else want these? I don’t know. But I’m gonna make them anyway.

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