“Would you like to learn how to play? It’s the oldest card game in the world, and was banned for thousands of years,” says a young man dressed in a white T-shirt and black jeans.
To his left, four players sit on navy blue beanbags around a small, black table at an outdoor market in Downtown Dubai. The man gives me an overview of the game, which is enveloped in myth and mystery. As the story goes, centuries ago in Japan, long before the earliest Asian dynasties came into being, the panda was revered as a great and ferocious creature, contrary to its docile nature. Four high-profile families believed that their divine right to rule was closely linked to the mystical traits of the animal, which was kept locked up in a temple in the centre of the city. According to legend, if anyone set eyes on the panda, the animal would be stripped of its powers and the families would also lose their influence.
Common folk, having never seen the animal, invented a game called Panda, which was the first card game in the world – if you believe the story. When civil war broke out in Japan, China took the opportunity to invade the country, destroy its temples and steal the sacred animal. The panda lost its powerful status and, embarrassed and ashamed, the Japanese banned all signs of the animal, including the game. As a result, the outlawed version was adapted to create new card games, which in turn inspired the common card games of today.
So, who decided to bring this ancient card game back to life? Three entrepreneurs in Dubai aged in their 30s, hailing from business, design and advertising backgrounds. British-Algerian Hisham Lahouasnia and Canadian Scott Leder met while working on a project to rebrand Careem, and they teamed up with American-Indian Raj Malhotra, one of the founding partners of the lifestyle fair Sole DXB, to recreate the game.
The trio are tight-lipped about many aspects of their story, including their Japanese sources, explaining that they must remain anonymous. In truth, it can be hard to differentiate between myth, fact and marketing hype. There are plenty of card games that have enjoyed popularity in Asia over the ages – including Hanafuda, Menko and Karuta – but Panda has seemingly managed to remain entirely under the radar all these years.
“The more we discovered, the more we found it compelling as a story,” says Leder. “We eventually got to the point where we were too far down the path to not invest in bringing this back to life. So we set out on an adventure to do it. Malhotra adds: “We uncovered some information about the origins of this game. We can’t talk about the source, but when we did find this out, it was too hard to resist.”
After they give their sales spiel at the park, onlookers, ranging from a family of four from Uzbekistan to a couple of local men with karak chai in hand, look incredulous and are clearly debating whether or not to believe the elaborate backstory. Nevertheless, they are intrigued and agree to sit down and play a round of Panda.
Being the purported root of all card games, the rules are in line with more familiar, modern-day variations. You sit diagonally opposite your partner and aim to earn the most points. You take turns clockwise to play your cards, using different combinations and strategies to finish first, and win the most points as a team. “It’s one of those games that does take time to get your head around, but I think the layers of strategy and the fact that even if you have bad cards, you can still win, makes it addictive,” says Lahouasnia. “And the partner-play is really important. The two kinds of sounds you usually get from people are either laughing or shouting.”
The scene at the market presents a juxtaposition of sorts: passers-by are glued to their smartphones, snapping their surroundings for their social-media stories, while players sit huddled, immersed in a more traditional form of entertainment. “The fact that we used to lead a digital agency devoted to creating content for the virtual world, was something we wanted a departure from,” says Leder.
The men used their backgrounds in branding to both design and market the card game. The four suits of the cards are inspired by the four ruling families of ancient Japan, and their illustrations reflect elements of contemporary Japanese fashion. “We had a rough idea of their outfits, but we sort of updated that to give the game a unique character, and to create more distance from the authentic families that we had to protect, due to the fact that their legacy and names are still a major part of Japanese culture,” explains Leder. Besides appearing on the cards, these characters are also on poster-sized prints available for sale.
The cards were produced in Belgium, and are packaged in a beige, hard-case box that sits within a glossy black bag stamped with the white silhouette of a panda’s face. “It was really important to us that this was a design object; something that was worth buying,” says Leder. “Japan has such a design-centric culture and we wanted to honour those traditions by making sure it had beauty and architecture, and a very novel approach, and that’s why the packaging is quite different for a card game.”
Panda is available at Virgin Megastores, and priced at Dh89. “The way we see it, the UAE is the world. It’s such a small market that everyone travels in and out of, and it’s a melting pot of cultures,” Leder says. “It fits with the kind of lifestyle people have here: they enjoy going out with friends for sheesha, lazing around on the beach, or camping in the desert. It’s the ideal place to launch a card game.”