Buzzworthiness: Hanabi

Another day, another review.  Today, it’s for

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Hanabi was originally published in 2010, designed by Antoine Bauza.  ABACUSSPIELE’s 2012 German edition won the Spiel des Jahres in 2013.  R&R Games publishes the English edition.  The game itself is for 2-5 players and takes around 30 minutes to play.  The basic concept of the game is that you are fireworks manufacturers.  However, there has been a mishap and all the fireworks have gotten mixed up.  The big show is about to start, and you have to get everything back together or it will al blow up in your collective faces.

The deck consists of 50 cards – there are five colored suits (red, green, blue, white, and yellow) that are numbered 1-5 (with three 1s, two 2s, two 3s, two 4s, and one 1 5 in each suit).  There is an additional rainbow suit included in the game, but that makes the game much more difficult.  Additionally, there are eight time tokens and four fuse tokens.  At the start of the game, each player is dealt a hand of 4-5 cards (depending on the number of players).  And here’s the twist – you may NOT look at your cards.  You pick them up and hold them so you are looking at the backs.  That means everyone else can see your cards, but you cannot.

On your turn, you have three options.  First, you could give one piece of information to a fellow player.  This information could be about a number in their hand (this card and this card are both 3s), or it could be about a color (this card is blue).  You must give them complete information – if there is more than one three in their hand, you must point out both.  The player receiving the information can orient the cards any way they wish to help them remember.  Giving information costs a time token, which is discarded to the box.  If there are no time tokens left, you cannot do this.

Another option you have is to discard a card.  This is placed in a face up discard pile so everyone knows what is no longer in play.  This action allows you to retrieve one time token from the box.

The third and final action possibility is to play a card.  You select a card and place it in the play area.  In order to be a legal play, it must be the next card in sequence for its number.  If it’s a blue two, there has to be a blue one already present.  If it’s a white one, there has to be no other white cards out.  If it’s a yellow five, 1-4 have to be in play.  If the play was legal, the card is placed on its sequence.  If not, the card is discarded and you lose a fuse token.  If you lose three fuses…well, remember the San Diego fireworks show from a couple of years ago?

If you discard or play, you’ll end your turn by drawing a new card.  Play continues until the last card from the deck is drawn, then each player gets one more turn.  Assuming you haven’t blown yourselves up by this point, you see how many cards you got in play, and that’s your score. 25 is perfect, 21+ is pretty amazing (and better than I’ve ever done), 16+ is a good score, 15 and lower is bad.

COMPONENTS: This is a small box game, and only comes with the sixty cards and 12 cardboard tokens.  The cards are of good quality, and are each illustrated with fireworks.  Additionally, since there’s a heavy reliance on color, symbols directly underneath the number in each corner help distinguish the cards.  The cardboard tokens are pretty good quality.  It may seem odd that they felt the need to include four fuse tokens since you only need to lose three to lose, but the fourth shows a boom to let you know you’ve lost once revealed.

I should mention that ABACUSSPIELE came out with a Deluxe edition of Hanabi last year that had Mahjong style tiles instead of cards.  It was significantly more expensive, but made it so you didn’t have to hold your hand anymore.  It also eliminated the firework illustrations, using only symbols on the tiles.  I like the small nature of the game, and don’t mind holding the cards, though you could always repurpose some Scrabble racks for the game.

THEME: On the surface, I think Hanabi has a pretty good theme.  There aren’t many firework games out there, and this is a clever way to bring it in – rather than mixing ingredients, you are trying to separate them before it is too late.  However, you’re not going to be thinking about it much while you play.  You’re going to be thinking in terms of numbers and colors, not in terms of fireworks.  The fuses probably give the best sense of theme as you don’t want things to blow up in your face.  It’s just that nothing else going to immerse you in that theme – not the cards, not the time tokens.

MECHANICS: Hanabi boils down to a group set collection game.  You are trying to form five sets in order, generally coming from a place of no information.  This means that the set collection has a element of deduction to it.  The major difference between this game and a lot of others is that you cannot look at your own cards.  However, you do know the distribution of each card type, and can make deductions based on what other people have said.  A lot of times, what you do NOT say is just as important as what you do say.

The time tokens are the way to keep the game tense, and provide a limit to the amount of information you can give.  And just to let you know, they go FAST.  You’ll find yourself at some point having to make the decision to discard or play just because you’re out of time tokens and cannot give more information.

Hanabi is cooperative, and the biggest complaint most cooperative games have is that there’s the potential for one person to take over and tell everyone what to do.  You do not have that problem here.  It’s against the rules.  You can’t tell other people what to say or do, you must let them figure it out for themselves.  You have to practice your poker face in this game – that guy across the table from you is about to play his red 5 when the highest card on the board is a 2, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The last thing I want to talk about here is the scoring.  Some people have said that Hanabi is more of an activity than a game, mostly because your are just trying for a good score.  I contend that the ability to lose makes it a game, even if that loss doesn’t happen often – I’ve never “lost” the game, but have had some poor showing in terms of score.  The fuses add that little extra tension to make this game that much more difficult.

Hanabi is a simple game to teach, with only a few possible actions every turn.  They all work well together, and provide for some smooth and challenging gameplay.

STRATEGY LEVEL: The strategy in Hanabi is unique simply because of the nature of the game.  In a typical cooperative game, players can put their heads together to come up with a plan.  Not so here.  In Hanabi, you are on your own, and you have to come up with the best possible move with no help from others.  Likewise, when you get a clue, you have to determine the meaning of this clue.  For example, you were just told that you have a 1 in your hand.  You don’t know the color, but you do know that there are currently four 1s out on the table.  Do you have the fifth?  Should you risk playing it?  Or should you discard it to recover a time token, knowing that if you’re wrong there are two copies of that 1 elsewhere.  The game has lots of internal strategy and deduction.  Luck does play a role in what everyone draws, but you at least have most of the information at your fingertips.

ACCESSIBILITY: Hanabi is a pretty simple game to learn, but there is the barrier to entry of not really being able to talk about how to play with your teammates.  You can’t ask for advice.  Fortunately, the ease of the rules means that people should be able to figure things out for themselves, but there is a definite logical component to the game.

REPLAYABILITY: This is a very replayable game.  You’re going to have a different set of circumstances every time, and the way people respond to those circumstances is going to change a lot.  If you ever get tired of the regular game, the base box includes a sixth set you can add to ramp up the difficulty even more.  So yes, lost of replay value here.

SCALABILITY: The game plays with 2-5 players.  I’ve never played with fewer than 4.  I like having a bunch of people, but I also suspect it might be a little easier with fewer.  I would imagine it might be a very different game with just two.  Take it as you will.

FOOTPRINT: This is a small game, and doesn’t take up much room.  You can play just about everywhere (I wouldn’t suggest it on an airplane – I don’t think they’d like the talk of blowing up).  You just need space for the played cards and discards.  The tile version probably takes up more space since your tile aren’t in your hand, but still not much.

I have to mention that there are members of my game group that advocate a variant they call Hot Tub Hanabi.  It’s Hanabi in a hot tub, presumably with protected cards.  Take that as you will.

LEGACY: Since this game won the SdJ last year, it will forever be looked at in that context.  It’s certainly one of the smallest games to have won the award, and I think it’s the first cooperative game.  It’s a unique winner in almost every respect, and is a good representative of the trend towards small-quick-and-deep games.  As a family game, I’m not sure it’s the best since there’s so little interaction, but I think it is one of the best games to have won the award in recent memory.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  Hanabi is a great game, and one that I think everyone should try.  It may or may not be for you, but I do think everyone should give it one shot.  Thanks for reading!

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