Fireworks. The sound, the spectacle, the dazzling display. You’ve probably attended some good fireworks shows in your lifetime, ones that have sent you home with an awed expressions on your face, memories in your mind, and praises on your lips. You’ve probably also seen the demonstrations that are completely forgettable, perhaps a way to pass the time to celebrate a holiday but not an event worthy of remembrance.
But did you know that fireworks displays require cooperation, deduction, and skill? And playing cards in ascending order? No?
Well, in the world of Hanabi they do.
How It Works
Hanabi is a cooperative deduction card game for two to five players in which they try to create the best firework show imaginable.
Each player is dealt a hand of cards at the start of the game. Players are not allowed to look at their own cards but must hold their hand face-out for the other players to see. Players may rearrange their own cards however they wish but may never look at them.
Each turn a player must take one of three actions:
- Give another player a clue about cards in his or her hand by spending a clue token.
- Discard a card to regain a clue token.
- Play a card.
Clues must give information about either color or number, and all cards that match the clue must be pointed to. (For example, “These are blue” or “These are 3s.”) Players must play the cards in order, 1-5, in five different colors. If a player attempts to play a card that cannot be played in order, the players lose a fuse token. If they lose three fuse tokens during the game, they lose. Otherwise, once the deck runs out and each player takes one more turn, players tally their score by counting the top card on each color stack. Players can thus evaluate their performance according to a scale in the rulebook and against past performance.
Note: The game comes packaged with a number of variants and an additional, rainbow-colored suit to tailor the game to your group’s difficulty level.
Fireworks or Sparklers?
Hanabi, on paper, doesn’t sound like much. The twist of not being able to see the cards in your own hand is novel, but really? We’re just playing cards in order? That doesn’t sound too difficult, or too fun.
But this is why we play games in real life and not on paper. The game’s small size and ho-hum description belie a nearly perfect social deduction experience that is sure to keep groups engrossed in game after game.
It’s hard to quantify exactly what makes Hanabi great, but one of the things I appreciate about the game is that it presents a cooperative challenge without a simultaneous feeling of impending doom. There is only one way to lose in Hanabi–play three cards wrongly–and while losing is certainly possible, it’s by no means a given. In Pandemic, or Space Alert, or fill-in-the-blank cooperative game, players feel behind the eight ball from the beginning, dreading that there is no way to complete their task. In Hanabi, first of all, the stakes are lower: if you fail at your task, the world isn’t overrun by viruses, nobody dies or is hurt; the people might just go to another town’s fireworks display next year. And it’s possible to “win” the game even if players don’t play optimally.
Yet despite the low stakes, players still feel invested in the outcome. As I said, losing is far from a certainty, but winning well is equally outside of certainty. It’s easy to win, but achieving a high score is tough, especially since players have to work against the clock. Playing well involves understanding your teammates and playing in sync with them, which is not always (or often) easy. Most of my winning games have been in the 16-19 category; we broke 20 once (with 21), and I felt on top of the world. In this way, players can measure progress over time. The reward is not in winning, full stop; the reward is in doing better than you have in the past.
Along with the cooperative victory condition, I also love how involved all the players must be. Because the game is based upon secret information that must be deduced, the “alpha gamer problem” of one player directing the action (which is often cited as a downside to cooperative games) is effectively neutralized. Information must be carefully meted out through clue tokens, and players must decide each on their own turns what to do (play, give clue, discard), so players have to trust teach other. And since clue tokens are limited, the team must band together around the common goal. One player’s role may be discarding cards, another’s is giving clues, and still another’s is playing cards. All are beneficial and necessary to win.
And beyond player trust, players have to learn how to read each other’s minds. Behind every clue is an unspoken clue. It’s true that each clue is limited to color or number, but because information is so scarce, players have other things to consider: Why is Steve pointing to this card now instead of last turn? There are four 1s on the table: is Phil telling me this card is a 1 because he wants me to play it or discard it? Why is it important all of a sudden to tell me that this card is white? And so on.
Players will make mistakes (which can be more devastating relationally in Hanabi than in other co-op games: each player has a lot of independence, which also means more responsibility), but there is the joy of coconspirators in trying to direct each other to do what is in the best interest of the group. Failure is a bummer (“You discarded the second 3?!”); success is a rush. This is what makes playing multiple games in a row so satisfying. Seeing scores improve and players get better at reading each other’s plays makes for a compelling game experience.
There are a few things that some players might not like about Hanabi. One criticism I’ve heard is that the game is easy to “solve,” particularly if played in the same group. While I can see that this may be a concern, this isn’t a concern I share. Introducing even one new player requires completely new methods and learning a new style of play, since each player will play differently. So if your group changes often, or if you play games in multiple groups, this shouldn’t be an issue. And even if your group is the same, the box comes with some additional variants to help spice up the game–another suit and multiple ways to play it. I’m not to the point of needing this extra suit yet, but I’m thrilled it’s included because it offers more ways to play. And even if the game does wear out, at $10, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.
Another thing some players might not like about the game is the components. The R&R version’s cards aren’t quite standard size (they’re thinner), and the box is a little snug for the cards. Neither of these are an issue to me: the game is cheap enough that sleeving isn’t worth it, and I’d prefer thinner cards in a snug box if I get a small box, too. The tokens are on good enough cardboard, and the linen finish on the cards is really nice (the cards shuffle very well). I also love that the backs of the cards are asymmetrical across the X axis. Since players are allowed to rearrange their hands during the game, the card backs help me to keep track of what information I know.
Some players might also be upset by the talking rules. If the game is played to the letter, the only talking allowed is in clue-giving. And some hardcore gamers might think it’s too easy to cheat and drop clues for the other players in the way things are said or in gestures, and so on. While it’s true that players can cheat, they’re really only cheating themselves if they do this. (See, your teacher was right.) The game is more rewarding if you follow the rules. Even so, I allow some table talk when we play. Not table talk in the casual, off-handedly giving clues way, but in the “this is a social experience; let’s talk” way. The rules allow for a broad range of talking types, and I think the game is better for it. Those who want a purely cerebral experience can have it. I prefer the game somewhere in the middle.
Hanabi also has a strong memory element. Players must remember the clues they’ve been given, the clues they’ve given, and which cards they refer to. Players are allowed to rearrange their hands to facilitate this, but there are some players who react strongly against any memory element. Because this is such an integral part of Hanabi, those players may not enjoy the game. (For me, this wasn’t a big deal; then again, I don’t mind a memory element to games.)
Hanabi scales well from two to five players. I’d say the differences are in control and information, which are inversely related. In the two-player game, you’ll have more control but less information; reversed in the five-player game. While Hanabi is short, I would not describe it as a “filler.” To me, a filler game is not just a game that fills the space in between games; rather, it’s a game that allows and facilitates non-game discussion within the game. A filler game must have light and easy-to-understand rules and play quickly, but it must also not be too taxing on players. Hanabi is certainly simple and quick, but it can be taxing. I liken the experience to another social deduction game, The Resistance. The Resistance is super simple to learn and quick to play, but it isn’t a filler either: there is a full game there, even if it lasts only twenty minutes, and the experience is very satisfying. In fact, you might get a group together just to play The Resistance or Hanabi.
In short, Hanabi is an excellent, excellent game–which surprised me as much as anyone. The game is fun to play, and the joy of collective discovery is truly compelling. (It’s fun to see the way your friends think.) This is a game that will be perfect for lots of situations–a dinner party, a lunch (or even coffee) break, a game night, a family reunion, and so on. In fact, it’s so versatile, I would not at all be surprised to find this game on big-box store shelves, or at least at Barnes & Noble. The small box allows for easy travel, the rules are simple enough for just about anyone to learn, and the engaging gameplay will keep players entertained and trying for that legendary fireworks display.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank R&R Games for providing us with a review copy of Hanabi.