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How To Play Hanabi

Hanabi how to play

Did you know the word ‘Hanabi’ translates in Japanese as ‘fireworks’? Rather suitable, then, that in Hanabi you and your friends aim to put on a fantastic firework display! It’s a co-operative card game, so you’re all working on the same team. Your target is to wow the crowds with a spectacular light show.

In Hanabi, Antoine Bauza has designed a screamer of a game. It won the much-admired Spiel des Jahres (Family Game of the Year) Award in 2013. Other winners of the ‘SdJ’ include Catan, Carcassonne, and Azul. (Click here to read about more past winners of this award.) The nucleus of what makes a nominee is the maxim: simple to teach, easy to grasp, fun to play, but difficult to master! That’s Hanabi, in a nutshell.

The latest reprint comes from R&R Games, but your challenge is to make the crowd go ‘Oooh&R!’ (Groan; bad dad-joke klaxon.) So: got your gloves on? Safety bucket of water at the ready? Let’s light the fuse and learn how to play Hanabi!

This Is The Greatest Show

When boiled down to a single sentence, Hanabi sounds simple. The aim is to place sets of firework cards into numerical order. Talking theme… well, that’s about as far as it goes. But you don’t play Hanabi because it feels like you’re planning a firework display. You play it because it’s a fascinating cooperative experience, for up to five players.

There are five different coloured sets of fireworks. Each set has numbers 1-5. You and your team’s target is to place them all into their individual sets. As in you’ll need to play the, say, blue 1 before you can play the blue 2, and so on. Five groups of firework cards, five numbers in each set. That’s 25 cards you need to play in sequence, to get the perfect score. You’re aiming to achieve this either before the deck runs out, or before you make three mistakes. Sounds easy, right? Trust me, it’s tricky little game – because there’s more than one twist in this tale…

Perfect Your Claw Hand – Don’t Look At Your Cards!

Hanabi comes with eight circular Note chits (plus a ninth, which is a spare). Place these eight Notes in the middle of the table, white-side up. There are also three Thunderstorm chits. Place these face-down; again, next to the Notes.

Separate the 10 multicolour/rainbow firework cards from the main deck. These are for an advanced variant – so, steady on! Let’s learn how to play a standard game of Hanabi, first. Put those fancy fireworks back in the box, meaning you’re left with a deck of fifty cards.

Shuffle the deck and deal everybody a hand of cards. If it’s a two- or three-player game, everybody gets five cards each. If it’s a four- or five-player game, everybody gets four cards each. While you deal these cards out face-down, now is the time to stress to all participants the following rule! Twist number one: you’re not allowed to look at your hand of cards! You hold them back-to-front, so they’re facing outwards, to the table, for the world to see. Everyone playing, except for you, can see your hand. Of course, everyone does this. So you too can see everyone's’ cards, but not your own.

I appreciate this breaks all kind of muscle memory that you’ve ever absorbed when playing a card game. It’s the most natural thing in the world to pick up a face-down card and look at it. But no! If you do that here, you ruin the game. If you’re teaching Hanabi, you might have to – as a recurring joke – remind the other players not to look at their cards. Before everyone’s picked up their hand, establish a first player to kick things off. You’re ready to play!

Safety Nets And Banana Skins

Now, you’re a smart cookie. You’re thinking, at this stage: “Tom, your maths is a joke, mate. You told us earlier that we need to get five sets in order, one-to-five. 5x5 = 25. But that’s a deck of fifty cards? What is this? Amateur hour?” Well, hold your horses. It’s a 50-card deck because this deck has duplicate numbers in it. This is both a safety net to you, trying to place the cards in order. But it’s also a potential banana skin.

There are five firework colours: red, yellow, green, blue and white. (The fireworks themselves have accompanying symbols to assist colourblind players, which is handy.) In this deck of fifty, there are ten cards for each colour firework. Each of them has 3x ‘1’, 2x ‘2’, 2x ‘3’, 2x ‘4’ and 1x ‘5’. As a result, there’s more 1s floating about, while 5s are elusive and valuable. (Why will become apparent, soon!)

So, you have a hand of cards you cannot see, but you can see your teammates’ cards. You all have had asymmetrical starting information. You’re the first player. What are your options?

Your Turn: One Of Three Actions

On your turn you have to do one of three possible actions. You can give a clue to an opponent about their cards. Or, you can discard a card from your own hand. Or, you can be brave and play a card into the firework display! You take your action, and then play continues with the player to your left. Hanabi continues from thereon in until one of three end-game conditions occurs. (Either you complete it, you lose all three Thunderstorm ‘lives’, or the deck runs out.) Let’s look at the actions you can take on your turn in more detail.

Give Us A Clue

Option one is you can give someone else a clue about the cards they have in their hand. To do this, you have to ‘spend’ one of the Note chits, and turn it over. (For pure dramatic effect, I house-rule it that players place spent Notes in the shallow box-lid. Seeing the number of Notes diminish from the pile makes it feel somewhat more intense!) You can only give a clue if there are Notes to spend in the first place.

A clue, you say? Great! But hang on, there. Time for plot twist numero duo. You can only give certain types of clues to your opponents. You’re allowed to pick any player and tell them a clue about one type of colour in their hand, or one number – not both.

Your opponents should all have their cards fanned out, so you can see them. Let’s say you want to give Craig a clue. Let’s also pretend his hand is: one red 2, one red 3, two white 2s, and one green 5. Using this example hand, you could tell Craig something like: “This is a 2, this is a 2, and this is a 2.” (In which you’re referring to the red 2, and the two white 2s.) Or, you could tell him something like: “You don’t have any 1s.”

Hints About Colours Or Numbers… Not Both!

You’re allowed to point or even touch Craig’s cards when you give him this clue. You have to state all cards of this number when you give the clue. Giving Craig this clue might have been because another player has already revealed the white 1. Of course, the white 2 is the next card that needs to sit on that white 1, to progress the firework display. The problem is: Craig knows a bit about his hand, now. He knows he has three 2s, and which of his cards are the 2s. But he doesn’t know what colours they are…

On a later turn, using Craig’s hand as an example again, you (or another player) could give him a different clue. You could give him a clue about the colours of cards he holds. You could tell him: “This is a white card, and this is a white card.” Or, you could tell him something like: “You don’t have any yellow cards.” If Craig’s memory holds up, he should know now that he’s holding two white 2s, and which cards they are, among his hand.

Giving clues sounds great, doesn’t it! The issue lies in that you only have eight Notes. Once they run out, you can’t give clues out, either. And that’s a concern! Because then you’re all in the territory of having to actually play cards from your hand…

Clench And Discard

Option two is you can discard a card from your hand – and in return, you get back a Note. You’re the sacrificial lamb, in a way. You’re doing this so someone else can, later on, spend the Note, to pass on a much-needed clue. The problem is, you have to pick one of your cards to throw away! If things have gone well thus far, you might know something about your hand. You might know that you have duplicate card(s). (Such as, say, a coloured number that’s no longer needed.) You could discard this, safe in that knowledge, and earn a Note for the group.

But… If you don’t know what cards you hold, you’re in a tighter spot. You’ll have to gamble and pick one to throw away. At this point, I should say that Hanabi only works if players are honest. If you’re in the said pickle of a spot, you’re not supposed to run your hand over your cards. You’re not allowed to wait for a reaction from your opponents. A not-so-subtle cough, when you touch a ‘good card’ to discard. People should close their eyes if that’s the case, so no one ‘cheats’ in this way!

You’re always allowed to check through the discards at any time. By now you may have deduced the danger in discarding. If you throw away the blue 1, that could be okay. Because there’s two other blue 1s out there, somewhere. (You might even be able to see one of them, in your opponent’s hand). But if you throw away the blue 5, that’s the only blue 5 in the deck. It means you can’t get the perfect score of 25/25!

When you discard a card, you then draw a new one from the deck. So you’ll always have the same number of cards in hand. Remember, when you draw a card, don’t look at it! Pick it up in a fashion so the rest of the table can see it, but not you.

The Show Must Go On

Option three is you can play a card from your hand, into the ‘public firework display’. This entails you picking one of your cards and playing it face-up onto the table. You need to ensure you’re confident about doing this. Early in the game, as a group, you’ll need to play a 1 of some colour. It’s fine if there’s more than one colour set getting completed on the go at once. In fact, this is a good thing, because it increases your options!

But if you play a card and it cannot sit on any of the firework cards right now, that’s Bad News. You have to flip one of the Thunderstorm tokens. Make three mistakes and boom! It’s game over!

What’s an example of a ‘wrong’ card? It could be playing, say, a green 3 onto a green 1. The green 2 hasn’t come into play yet, so this counts as a failure. Or, it could be, say, a red 2, but another red 2 is already sitting in the public display. If it’s a ‘wrong’ card, it joins the discard pile. Either way, you draw a new card afterwards. If you play the 5 to complete a set, you earn a much-needed Note back as a reward!

“Are You Saying Boo, Or Boo-Urns?”

Hanabi ends in one of three ways. If you’ve made three mistakes in placing cards into the sequence you’re out of Thunderstorm tokens. Rain stops play! The gods are not impressed with these fireworks. They fizzle out in a damp squib. You score zero points!

People tend to play Hanabi with caution, though. More often than not, the game ends when someone takes the last card in the deck. This triggers the last round of the game. Everyone – including the player that took that last card – gets one more turn. Can you finish the display in time?

Of course, the third way the game ends is if you manage to play all 25 cards in sequence before the deck runs out! In which case everybody should leap up, fists balled, and a freeze-frame occurs with you all mid-jump. Roll credits. Cue rapturous applause…

The scoring system at the end gets judged by the International Association of Pyrotechnics. It corresponds to how many cards you placed:

  • 0-5 – Oh dear! The crowd booed.
  • 6-10 – Poor! Little to no applause from the crowd.
  • 11-15 – Okay! The crowd have seen better, though.
  • 16-20 – Good! The crowd seem pleased.
  • 21-24 – Very good! The crowd is enthusiastic!
  • 25/25 – Legendary! The crowd will never forget this show!

Can You Score 25/25?

There’s no shame whatsoever in not getting 25/25, though. In fact, it’s rather hard! It takes a few games to get into the swing of how to play. Also, if you play with the same group a few times, you’ll start to build a semi-telepathic link! (It’s a bit like The Mind, in that way.) The key to performing well in Hanabi is stretching your clues out so they provide the most amount of use.

Sometimes it’s what you don’t tell players that signals them the state of their hand. As in, if no one’s giving you clues, it means your cards aren’t of a priority right now. (There’s also an element of chance involved. If some of the lower numbers don’t come out until later in the game, that’s tricky.) Either way, Hanabi provides addictive, collaborative gameplay. Are you up to the challenge of scoring 25/25?