Games in the Stacks: Hanabi

The Basics:

Designer: Antoine Bauza
Game Type: Card
Number of Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Mechanics: Cooperative Play, Set Collection, Hand Management

photo 3
Three mistakes in Hanabi is all you get…

The Game:

Hanabi is a cooperative card game where players are tasked to put on a fireworks show. The audience wants a perfect show and players need to play cards in order from one to five in each of the five different colored sets in the deck. The unique aspect of Hanabi is that each player has a hand of cards but may not look at them. The cards are held so that they face the rest of the players. In order to create a pleasing array of fireworks, players need give each other hints, deduce their own hands and play their cards accordingly without making too many mistakes. The show ends when the draw deck expires; the players achieve a perfect game of 25 points with all suits represented; or when players make three mistakes and the whole thing goes *BOOM!*

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Four of the Five color sets are represented. Where are all the reds?

The Rules:

During their turn players can do one of three actions. They can:

Provide a hint: The game begins with 8 hint tokens. The active player can provide a hint about one color or one value represented in a player’s hand. Hints consists of pointing out all the cards within a hand that are either the same color or the same value. For example: “These three cards are red” or “These two cards are 1’s.” Be careful not to give too much away with your voice inflection and intonation. Honor is at stake…

Discard a card: The only way to earn back hint tokens is by discarding a card from their hand. This is generally done when a player knows a card is is already played on the table. Once a card is discarded, the player will draw a new card and place it face-out in their hand. Be careful about which cards are discarded. There are only two 4’s and one 5 in each color. Once they are gone, they are gone! 

Play a card: When a player plays a card, the card has to fit on a set represented on the table. If the card does not fit into a corresponding color set, it is considered a mistake and a fuse token is discarded. Three mistakes and the fuse is spend and the fireworks go off prematurely.

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This is really all you ever see of your hand in Hanabi.

The Review:

Hanabi excels on so many levels. It is a small, simple cooperative game so it can be a potential gateway game for newcomers into the mechanic. The rules and strategy can be learned during play with little loss to the flow of the game. While this will potentially be off-putting to some players, it is also played in less than 30 minutes so even the uber-competitive will likely be able to deal with it. Many cooperative games suffer from an “alpha player” who dictates everyone’s turn with their own strategy. Since table-talk is difficult with this game, each player is really responsible for their own actions and are free to make their own decisions unfettered.

The core mechanism (other than the cooperative nature of the game) is very similar to a game familiar to many…most…all of ya – Solitaire! In Hanabi you lay cards down by color (suit) in ascending number order (1-5) which is very similar to the classic card game Solitaire. The familiarity of this mechanism melded with the uniqueness of the hidden information makes this game intriguing to many. Generally, the information you hold in a game is hidden to everyone else and known to only you – you know your hand, everyone else knows their own hands. In Hanabi this is flipped so that you know everyone else’s hand and your goal is to learn what you can about your own hand in order to play the correct cards. There is also the added bonus of watching people draw a card from the deck and intuitively looking at the card, yelping, and then trying again. Despite their best efforts, they look at the card, yelp louder and then try again.

The theme is also a hit – fireworks. They are celebratory, colorful, unassuming (albeit loud), and peppered nearly everyone’s childhood. Who doesn’t love fireworks?

Hanabi is a rare game which can be rejuvenated with the addition of a group or even one new player. Since this game rewards the ability to read the subtle cues players are giving you, groups will learn their intonations, and “tells” when providing hints. When a new person is introduced into the game, that dynamic changes. So this is a wonderful game to play with new people and I always bring it with me to new library events, gaming groups, or parties. On the other hand, Hanabi rewards repeated plays with the same group as they strive to get closer and closer to the perfect game of 25. There are variants in the game which make it easier or more difficult but I found the core set of colors good enough for repeated play.

It also has a wide appeal across a diversity of ages and experience levels. I’ve had elementary school students, teens, adults and seniors all enjoy this game and pick it up quickly. There is plenty of inter-generational potential with Hanabi and with simple rules almost anyone can get it to the table and pick it up quickly. The low price point also makes it a great value for a library looking for a board game collection to circulate or play in-house.

What hints would you give me?

The Bottomline:

This Spiel des Jahres award winning game is accessible, friendly, and easy to learn. The game mechanisms are both traditional and innovative allowing for a quick understanding, a unique experience and prolonged challenge. With a small footprint of play, low price point, and appeal across most age groups, this is a must have and a great entry point for more complex cooperative games.

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