Hanabi occupies a peculiar space in most of the shelves it sits in. Firework making as a theme is both novel and unique; it would never be something to ensure that the game flies off the shelves in the first place, yet Hanabi has seen an extraordinary level of success.
What is Hanabi?
Created by world renowned designer Antoine Bauza (of 7 Wonders and Takenoko fame), Hanabi is a co-operative challenge based around ZBG-RRG869communication, memory and risk calculation. The players as a team are tasked with arranging a firework display on at short notice, and must put together one of each of the five colours, with varying degrees of success.
This is represented in game by the players trying to build a deck for each colour, numbering 1 to 5. The catch is that you are not allowed to see the cards in your own hand, and must rely on your teammates for clues as to which cards are needed next.
How do I play?
On each turn, players must either give a teammate a clue about the cards in their hand (for example, ‘these cards are red’; ‘this card is a 5’ etc), add one of their cards to the decks (hoping they are correct), or discard a card, drawing a replacement. If a player lays a card that is incorrect (for example, a blue 4 when the blue deck is still on 1), they suffer a penalty. Three penalties and the game is over.
In order to prevent players from simply handing out clues until everyone knows their full hand, there is a team-wide limit on the number that can be given, which can only be reversed by discarding cards, thus lowering your chances at getting a high score.
The result is a game that requires the completed focus of everyone around the table. Let your concentration slip at the wrong time and you might discard a card that your team were hoping you kept hold of, or worse yet, try to add an incorrect card, which could spell disaster for the team!
The game comes to an end when any of the following conditions have been met:
- All cards are drawn, signalling that you are out of time and must go with the fireworks you have
- All fireworks are completed and the players are successful
- The fireworks go off during preparation, and the show is a disaster!
Once the game is over, the highest number successfully added to each deck is added up, giving you your total score. I personally found that a perfect score of 25 is extremely rare, and requires a healthy dose of luck since there is only one 5 card for each colour- one of these discarded or misplayed and the perfect score goes up in smoke!
What makes it different from other co-operative games?
In my experience, there are two issues that are often encountered during co-operative games:
The first is the lead player; one person that knows that game better than the others and ends up orchestrating moves on their behalves. Hanabi does well to limit the communication allowed between players to strict clue formats. As a result, the lead player is shackled, allowing for everyone to stand on their own two feet.
The second is that of the absolute result, whereby you have either collectively won or collectively lost. These can often lead to a somewhat anticlimactic finish, with the ending foreseeable long before it arrives (unless you have one of those rare but oh-so-sweet final turn results that we all crave). Hanabi mitigates this with a scalable degree of victory. This often means it is not necessarily whether you will win, but just how well you will do so; a refreshing change to keep people engaged. A perfect score being on the cards can generate a palpable sense of unspoken tension in the room as the game draws to a close.
One of the gameplay features myself and my group struggled to cope with was the idea of everyone having visibility of your cards except for you. Years and years of board and card games have taught us that we always need to be hiding our cards from others, so it is jarring to be staring at the backs and showing them to everyone else. We did find on a few occasions that force of habit would kick in and we would look at the cards we had just drawn, which did undermine the result somewhat. This is more of an issue with us as players than about the game itself, but is worth considering.
What to look out for?
Hanabi is a clever and unique game that can be taken and played almost anywhere. It keeps everyone on their toes throughout the experience and places an interesting emphasis on context within communication.
It is not without some issues, though. In my games, there was often one player who was struggling to get to grips with the strategy, and whilst other co-operative games are about supporting each other, Hanabi felt at times that we were powerless to stop them dragging the game towards disaster. We knew it and they knew, but nobody could step in without breaking the rules. After a few games, they got to grips, but for the first couple, it made them feel small and a liability, and that can be a serious issue for co-operative games.
The theme is a bit of a missed opportunity, truth be told. Firework making is such a specific thing to focus on that you feel it ought to explode off the table (pardon the pun). Outside the rulebook explanation, you wouldn’t know what the context actually was. This is a crying shame. Particularly when compared to Bauza’s other well-known games. The artwork is pretty, but doesn’t serve much of a functional purpose, and when your attention is so focused on the numbers on the cards, you’d be forgiven for not being able to remember what the images are even of. This isn’t an enormous problem when gameplay is at the heart of what you’re looking to experience, but it won’t help people buy into the game if they are sceptical in the first place.
Once you have played a few games and everyone becomes familiar with the strategies, you might find that Hanabi starts to become a bit formulaic. Fortunately, the game has a number of suggested variants to help keep it fresh. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it changes things completely, but it certainly extends the number of sessions you can get out of the box, which is to be commended.
Any further thoughts?
Hanabi feels to me like a throwback to some of the old memory based games I played when I was younger, only now scaled up to require communication and teamwork. It is simple in concept and engaging in execution. My only real gripe is the lack of an identifiable theme outside the rulebook.
If you are after something light and approachable as a co-operative experience, then look no further. The game packs into a pocket-sized box, making it absolutely perfect to take away. The rule book is concise and articulate, the gameplay is accessible, has scalable difficulty to ensure that you are challenged, and it all slots into a neat 20 minutes. For those of you seeking something meaty to sink your teeth into time and again, your time would be better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, the game is not suitable for colour blind players.