The Kendo Playing Cards displays many aspects of real kendo, or traditional Japanese fencing. In creating the game, great care has been taken to ensure that it is both interesting, exciting and enjoyable to play, while using kendo terms in an educational way, and at the same time retaining the strict and respectful spirit of kendo. What happens in the game can be equated with a snippet of reality.
In a kendo match, competitors aim to score valid hits, which they can achieve by striking a valid blow with the bamboo sword, or shinai in Japanese, on the appropriate surface of the protective armour, (bogu) among a number of other conditions. Such surfaces are the top (MEN) and throat (TSUKI) of the helmet, the protective gloves (KOTE) and both sides of the breastplate (DO).
These are the basic techniques on the brown cards. MEN is for the head, KOTE for the forearm, DO for the torso and TSUKI is for the attack on the throat protector. The brown cards represent attacks and counterattacks. In reality, they are called shikake and oji waza. For multi-cards attacks, we can think of the multi-strike technique, which is called renzoku waza in Japanese. Brown cards can be neutralized with a green card, symbolized in the game by the tsubazerai card.
The word tsubazeriai means a very close distance between two fencers, where the handguards of their swords come together. In reality, this is also a tense situation and is not used for defence, however, the sudden reduction of the distance between the fencers prevents the execution of a successful forward going basic technique.
In addition to the basic strikes, there are additional attacking cards in the game, in red, yellow and blue. The Japanese term seme on the red card refers to a concept often used in kendo, which can be aptly described as pressure on the opponent. In short, this pressure means various ways to get your opponent – unwittingly but in your favor – to launch an attack that you can counter-attack successfully. In the game, this is reflected in the fact that if you cannot react to this card, if you do not resist the pressure, you lose concentration, focus or other tokens.
Another offensive card is the Crazy Kiai, or Crazy Battle Cry, which can be used to confuse the opponent. The battle cry also has many roles in real life. On the one hand, it helps to focus and flow energy, and on the other hand, it can throw the opponent off balance, disturb his concentration and put him in a more precarious position. The penalty for this card is the loss of a card in hand, which reduces the chances of success for the player taking the penalty, but less than the loss of tokens for the red, seme card’s penalty described above.
However, we can neutralize the opponent’s seme withour own seme (another red card) or with an unshakable state of mind (Fudoshin, another purple card, a term related to Buddhism), as in reality, so on the cards.
The last attacking card is called Maki waza and is marked with yellow. Maki waza is a technique to disarm the opponent by twisting the sword out of his hand. The penalty for this card is a penalty point, or hansoku in Japanese. During a real kendo match, in such situation the fighter would receive a penalty point as well. The second penalty point is an ippon for the opponent.
In the game, the red and white colours mark the players’ spaces. In a real kendo match, a traditional red and white ribbon tied on the backs of the players helps the referees to distinguish the competitors. The red and white colours are derived from the colours of the Japanese flag, and the referees hold a red and a white flag in their hands to award penalties and hits to the competitors. Hence, the two flags on the Referee’s tokens.
The only card we haven’t mentioned is the Time’s up card, which features stylized drawings of the supporting referees at the table. One of them, who is checking the time, raises a yellow flag in the air, just like in real life. The kendo matches are timed, and when the time runs out, the player who has scored at least one hit wins.
Individual kendo matches are played to two ippons, or hits, so the game continues until one player scores two ippons first. An ippon can be scored if your opponent cannot fend off a strike or cannot attack because, for example, he has run out of cards.
The use of Referee’s tokens represents the aspect of kendo in which competitors, with unblinking faces and unmoving “spirit”, try to hide their intentions from their opponents and fathom their own intentions. The Time’s Up! card and the Yame! shout bring this kind of real tension and unruffled, calm action into play. Incidentally, the Yame! shout in a real kendo match is used by the head referee to stop the fight while raising the flag held in both hands.
The passage of time in the fight for the second ippon is symbolized by the lower number of Time’s Up cards and the fact that if the leading player draws this card, he wins the match to 1:0, as in reality a late ippon demoralizes the opponent, who has little time to equalise. This gives both an advantage to the leading player in the game and extra tension to the trailing player, who at the same time has an additional “arsenal” to balance the situation.
The players start from a relatively equal position, with more or less the same amount of training and the same high level of concentration, but as in reality, the different levels of training and experience behind the competitors will eventually lead to an imbalance. This difference and relativity is represented by the randomly dealt cards. And just as in a real match, the fighting situation changes every second, in the game the players have a different set of cards in each turn, and they must always try to make the best of them.
It is a chain of simple, small decisions that sooner or later, tip the scales in the direction of one or the other of the two sides and lead to victory. It is useful, but not strictly necessary to think very far ahead in the game, but rather to always try to make the best of the situation. Icons on the cards indicate which cards they can be used against and basically no knowledge of Japanese terms or their meaning and function is required to start the game.
This is essential because an important objective in creating the Kendo Playing Cards was to make it easy to play with non-active kendo practitioners and even to use it as a light, playful introduction to the art of kendo.