Play Time: 25 mins.
Hanabi is a cooperative game with a simple, yet deceptively powerful twist: the notion of playing with a hand of cards that only the other players can see.
As great as American Football is, Quarterbacking sucks.
For a hobby as indoorsy as Tabletop Gaming, it’s odd just how much the topic of Quarterbacking comes up. In the case that it’s an unfamiliar term, here’s a definition of it in the context of Gaming:
Quarterbacking: When one player dictates or persuades others at the table to follow their actions or guidance. AKA Alpha Gamer
The end result of these types of people is that a multiplayer cooperative game can very quickly turn into a game of solitaire. This ends up being a pretty lame experience for the non-Alpha players and can really keep cooperative games from escalating to truly memorable experiences.
Recently, designers have been doing a great job of creating cooperative mechanics that either work around the problem of Quarterbacking. Rules about what you can and can’t say about a hand of cards is a simple, yet effective technique.
Hanabi is a game that sets out to take an even bigger shot and destroy any possibility of Quarterbacking with the simple concept of turning everyone’s hand of cards around.
Does Hanabi actually succeed in the goal? Let’s take a closer look at the little explosive game and see!
Gateway Game / Light Weight: Enjoyable for everyoneHanabi is about as accessible for gamers and non-gamers as possible. The basic version has 5 colors of cards, and 5 numbers. Your grandmother can most likely understand it and the rules in three minutes of explanation.
Hanabi comes in the smallest box of any Tabletop Game that I own. It’s even smaller than the excellent Love Letter Batman Card Game. The primary component of Hanabi are the physical cards themselves – and they are almost perfect:
Each one shows the color and number in a very clear manner as well as different symbols to represent the color for the sake of colorblind Gamers. The actual fireworks in the middle of the card even help make Hanabi language independent.
Along with the cards, there are some tokens in the box. One set of tokens are the communal clue tokens that everyone will use. The other tokens are simply to track the amount of mistakes your team of firework-planning folks can make before the game ends and the “show” of fireworks begins.
…and that’s it! Short, sweet, and right to the point. Hanabi is a game that exemplifies lean design.
Instructions and Rules
Hanabi‘s rules follow the same pattern of the component design – clarity and only what is necessary. It’s small enough to fit in the little rectangular box and folks out to look like this:
In some ways, it’s incredibly reminiscent of just how well Splendor’s instructions got the job done. Hanabi‘s rules break down the actions that each player can perform, and even has room on the other side to explain a few more rules to add in for increased challenge and variants.
One very important section that makes more sense on follow-up plays is some more specifics on acceptable levels of communication between the players. This is a great addition that pre-emptively covers the different techniques that players will naturally flock to when trying to get creative and win the game.
Hanabi also doesn’t come off as a bossy game. These are all just guidelines for how to communicate for the version of the game that the designers intended – but they’re also totally cool if you play it however you want.
In Hanabi, the goal of the entire team is to create stacks of fireworks to prepare for a show. Each stack should be the same color, and also has to be in ascending order – so the show starts with little fireworks (1’s) on the bottom, and progresses to the big boys (5’s) on the top. Just like a real show of fireworks!
To accomplish this, each player will be given a hand of cards. (5 for each player in a 2-3 player game and 4 for each player in a 4-5 player game) Your cards have to be held facing away from you at all times! The first moments of a new player adjusting to this are always interesting as it’s completely counterintuitive to almost any type of card game they’ve played before.
On every turn, players have to take one (and only one) action. Now that everyone has cards and only the other players can see and know what you have, the only way to accomplish the goal is to give each other clues.
One action you can take is to tell one other player something about their hand. You can tell them if they have a number OR if they have a color. If you choose to inform them of a color or a number, you have to tell them every card in their hand that shows that color or number.
In order to give a clue, however, you have to flip one of the eight clue tokens. If they are all flipped? No more clues!
How do you get more clues for the team? Another action that a player can take is discarding one of their cards and flipping a clue token back over so it can be used again.
This seems like it should be pretty easy too, but there can be a serious cost to this. The deck of cards in Hanabi only has a certain amount of each number!
- 3 cards with #1
- 2 cards with #2
- 2 cards with #3
- 2 cards with #4
- 1 card with #5
This presents the players with the immediate sense of scarcity. You’ll need clues to get anything done, and you need to discard cards to get more clues. Very often, you’ll only know a little information about what you have in your hand – and sometimes no information at all.
The third and final action a player can take is playing a card from their hand. The card that gets played has to either:
- Start a new color pile with a #1
- Add on to an existing color pile with a matching color in sequence, going from #1-#5.
Playing anything other than that is a major fail, and results in one of the three fuse tokens going in the box. Blow all three fuses, and it’s game over!
It’s quite a challenge to play the perfect game of Hanabi. It takes a lot of memory from all players, and will probably take a good bit of luck with having to discard while having imperfect information. The game has scoring built in, just adding up the top-most card of each pile that you were able to get to, and adding them up. This gives a real and very easy sense of how well your group did, and lets you track improvement.
The other great addition of value comes in the rainbow suit of cards. The variants for these are listed in the rulebook and offer an easier mode (acting as wild cards) or a more challenging mode (acting as a 6th suit). Given the low price of Hanabi, there’s a relative ton of value in the small box and limited components.
If there’s one knock I could make against Hanabi, it’s a subjective criticism that the theme is really bland. Still, I’m not sure how to make a game primarily about 5 colors and numbers into a thematic masterpiece.
True cooperation through forced interdependence. There’s not many games out there that require each person to rely on their friends at the table quite like Hanabi does.
The early part of that first game is so very deceptive, as well. Everyone is sitting there, holding a few cards, and there’s clues abound. You get a clue, you get a clue, everyone gets a clue. By the second time your turn rolls around, things are going alright, you know some information – maybe you even know that you can put a ‘1’ card down.
Then, the next time you look down, that pile of available clue tokens looks downright scant. You spent the last two turns giving clues out, and before everyone at the table knew it you were left with just one piece of information about having some ‘1’s. There’s three ‘1’s out on the table now… will you put one down and risk losing a fuse? Discard it and get another clue, but potentially lose a starting ‘1’ that you needed?
The stress of every turn ramps up very quickly – and the early stress pales in comparison to the times when you are holding on to one, two or even three ‘5’ cards. One wrong move with one of those bad boys and the perfect game possibility is gone.
Hanabi is a game that subtly demands focus and attention, requiring memory as well as deductive reasoning skills. Knowing the count of each number per color of the card is necessary to find regular success. Towards the end of the game, it’s possible to see what could be in your hand based on what everyone else is holding, as well as what has been discarded.
Great communication, solid memory, and deductive reasoning will take you a long way, but eventually there will be a move or two in Hanabi that have everyone at the table holding their breath. Your fingers brush the cards and pull out one to play – and at that moment you’re the last one that knows whether you’ll be the hero or the scrub! It’s honestly an exquisite moment in tabletop gaming, and shouldn’t be missed.
Hanabi – The verdict
Imperfect information, at all times. Hanabi is a game that is balanced very tightly at the basic level and creates a compelling challenge in almost every play.
What we Loved about Hanabi
– Mechanics that enforce and enable true cooperation.
– No Quarterbacking/Alpha-player.
– Built-in difficulty scaling.
– Perfectly Accessible for a wide range of ages and experience.
What we didn’t Love as much about Hanabi
– Theme is pretty bland.