Card Game Review – Hanabi

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pic1365445_md[1]By Michael Chamberlain

Do you think with the help of friends you could sort coloured cards numbered from one to five into that order and by colour? That is the question that Hanabi asks of its players.

Hanabi is a three to five player cooperative game about creating a firework show. It won this year’s Spiel Des Jahres award for best game and as I have played it a good number of times I figured I would put down my thoughts.

Firstly, it is safe to say that if you’re looking for game of the year, you’re unlikely to pick up this very unassuming looking box roughly the size of a pack of cigars with its bright coloured fireworks on the cover. Given the size of the box, it comes as no surprise that the contents are a number of cardboard chits of good quality, a rule book and a deck of cards.

The quality of the cards is nice without being anything to write home about, and the silhouette of a Japanese building and a tree branch with a number of fireworks going off in bright colour is actually rather pleasant. The relevant information on the cards is the colour of the firework and the number (also printed in the same colour) which are both very clear to see. It’s also worth noting that the cards have a symbol denoting the colour which, hopefully, eliminates the barrier for colour blindness.

Set up for Hanabi is really simple and quick. Firstly you shuffle the deck of fire work cards (five colours for the basic game, six for more advanced play) and place the deck and the box lid within reach of all players; then lay out the three life tokens and the eight information tokens next to them. Players then draw their hand of opening cards, four or five depending on the number of players. Players need to take care when doing this – and when drawing cards during play – to ensure that the cards are drawn facing outwards. This sounds a simple enough thing but it takes a little getting used to as in Hanabi you will be the one player who can’t see your cards. Once this is done you are ready to play.

Players attempt to play cards to the table starting at one and getting to five for each of the colours. At the end of the game, how far you get with this determines your score as team. Make enough mistakes and the team loses as your firework display goes up in flames.

On a players turn they have three options: they can play a card, give information or discard a card. If a card if played it is revealed to check if it continues a sequence or starts a new one. If it doesn’t continue the sequence for a played colour or start an unplayed colour (only one sequence of each colour can be in play) the card is placed into a discard pile and the players loose one of their lives – in the shape of the cardboard chits – placing it in the box lid.

Given that at the start of the game you know nothing about your own cards you are unlikely to begin this way. During this game communication is limited and the only way to acquire information about your cards is to be given it by other players during their turns. When doing this a player can tell another which cards they have of a set colour or number, not both. They must identify all cards that have that quality. The player then places one of the information tokens in the box lid. So for instance at the start of the game it is quite likely you will tell another player “these cards are ones” so they can start building the fireworks. By doing this hopefully you will be able as a team to lead players to laying cards that build fireworks, rather than confusing them into playing cards that risk turning your display into a towering inferno.

You only have eight information tokens and there will come a point when you need to replenish them, this is done by discarding a card from your hand allowing you to return one of the information tokens from the box to the pool. This is facilitated by information from other players. Taking again the example of “these cards are ones”, if all of the colours have already had their ones played, that player now knows that those cards can be discarded without limiting the players score. Where each colour has three ones, two twos, two threes, two fours and just one five, it is possible to end up not being able to play later cards in that sequence meaning that this two can become information to help choose which cards to discard. The game ends when the draw deck ends, you complete all fireworks or if the team loses all their lives and the display explodes.

I really enjoy Hanabi as a challenge and, while it feels to me far more like a communication exercise than a game of the year, there is no escaping how broad an audience this game appeals to. Hanabi is not a game you should expect to pick up and win in the first couple of plays. It would worry me if that were the case, for just about any cooperative game, as it takes time for people to start seeing how others are try to lead them towards the cards they need. There is naturally a feeling of frustration when information is forgotten; it happens to everyone eventually it seems, but it is a part of the challenge of the game to work out how much information you can expect any player to handle.

When I started playing Hanabi I didn’t expect to find much depth to it. In this I have been pleasantly surprised as a lot of the depth is in trying to set up the right player and tracking what everyone else knows. More depth can be found for those who enjoy card counting and really want to track what cards are left in the pack, and use that to further garner information about the contents of their hand, which fireworks are still live and which colours are now dead cards, fit only to be discarded. For what it is, a deck of cards and a few chits, the result is a remarkably streamlined and enjoyable experience well worth trying and potentially owning.

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