Great Small Games: Hanabi

September 6, 2016

HanabiCoverArtSo you like card games, eh? You like collecting different sets of cards and then playing them? Does it make you feel good when you’re able t o put together a really good combination of cards? Well, you know what’s a tired convention of card games? Being able to see your cards. You know what about card games is getting a little old? How competitive they are. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a card game where you all worked together, therefore ensuring everyone had a good time? Would such a game sound too absolutely crazy to actually exist? Well, luckily enough, the game is real. It’s called Hanabi.

I finally had the chance to play this little gem that snagged the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award back in 2013 when I went to visit my parents a couple of weeks ago, and Hanabi certainly lived up to the hype. What started out as a quick demo game late one evening eventually transformed into a full-fledged playthrough. We were simply transfixed by the interesting puzzle laid out in front of us and had to keep going. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should describe the game a bit more before talking about how good it is.

In Hanabi you play as a group of master firework technicians working to create the most beautiful fireworks display. To do this, you must work together to play cards for each color of firework in order from one to five. This may sounds simple, but the game makes it harder and harder with several clever rules. The first is probably the most devious: you must play with your hand of firework cards facing out, meaning that while everyone else at the table knows what you have, you don’t. This obviously means that you need some way to communicate which cards are which, leading to even more clever rules. On your turn you can give someone else one piece of information: either how many cards in their hand are of a specific numerical value (i.e. “you have three two’s”) OR how many of their cards are of a certain color (“you have two blue cards”). This obviously helps you get the information you need to play the right cards, except that you can’t just keep giving out information every turn. Instead, there are a limited number of clock tokens that must be used to give information. If there are no tokens left, no more information. To get one back, you must discard a card. This means, of course, potentially discarding something useful.

Hanabi CardsHopefully you can see from this what a brilliant see-saw Hanabi is. It’ll give you the tools to get the job done, but it’s going to cost you something. To win, you must strike a delicate balance between handing out information, discarding and actually playing cards. Focus too much on giving information, for example, and you’ll soon find yourselves with no clock tokens. This forces you to either take risks while playing cards with incomplete information or to spend several turns discarding potentially useful cards to replenish your supply of tokens. It’s all about giving the right information to the right person at the right time. Figuring out how to do this is what makes Hanabi so fascinating. You’ll use the state of the board to deduce what card to play based on a piece of information you just received. And it’ll feel amazing. It’ll feel even better knowing that your teamwork paid off.

If you can’t tell, I like Hanabi quite a bit. It isn’t perfect, though. Because it relies so heavily on you not knowing what cards are in your hand and other players communicating that information to you, it’s pretty hard to NOT say anything sometimes. Hidden information is kind of a tough proposition in a co-op game, after all. Even if you’re not directly giving out information that you shouldn’t, it’s still very easy to create some table-talk that indicates what someone should do on their turn. When I played, we would constantly be winking or gesturing to specific things on the board that would give away what the current player should do. In a way, this was fun. It definitely caused some very funny moments and kept things light. But if you’re someone who follows the rules to a T, you’ll have some difficulty keeping everyone playing Hanabi in line. Furthermore, this table talk is a bit of a gray area in the game, anyway. While it’s probably not within the “spirit” of the game, it’s also not really illegal according to the rules, which can cause some confusion and potentially hurt feelings. My suggestion would be to establish what kind of game you’re playing from the beginning of each game. Do you want to play Hanabi as a tough, relatively unforgiving puzzle, or do you want a nice game you can enjoy as a family?

Overall, Hanabi turns card games on their head. By reversing the direction the cards face and switching from competitive to co-op, it provides a refreshing spin on the very traditional set collection game. Better yet, it comes in a delightfully small package with rules that appeal to both casual and hardcore gamers. Whether you use it as a game night opener or the main attraction, it’s sure to make a bang (see what I did there?).

Brian K

Brian K was born the same year the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, so he's been a gamer all his life. When he's not working at the Bayshore store, he's busy teaching composition and working on his PhD at UW-Milwaukee. His favorite games include Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Pandemic and King of Tokyo.

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