Most card games on the market make some attempt at integrating some kind of story into play. Hanabi’s brief made me laugh out loud. The game’s instructions read: “The players… are absent-minded firework manufacturers who accidentally mixed up powders, fuses, and rockets from a firework display. The show is about to start and panic is setting in. They have to work together to stop the show from becoming a disaster!” And thus you are tasked with the difficult and unlikely job of arranging the fireworks appropriately, so that you might put on the most spectacular fireworks show, and avoid dishonouring your guild!
Hanabi is one of those rare co-operative tabletop games where the players must truly work as a team to succeed. So many games – both tabletop and video – are competitive, making co-operative games feel refreshing. Without its core mechanic, Hanabi’s gameplay sounds far too simple. The team of players must work together to complete 5 sets of fireworks – represented by five different coloured cards that must be arranged in numerical order (e.g., white ‘1’, white ‘2’, white ‘3’). The win condition is simply to gather these five different sets. The thing that makes this difficult is the fact that each player must NOT look at their own cards. Instead, players display their cards outwards, so that their teammates can view which cards they have. Players must work together, slowly disclosing pieces of information, remembering the information they are told, and playing cards according to their memory. Each player is dealt either 4 or 5 cards, depending on the amount of players, and the clock and fuse tokens are arranged. Players then take turns clockwise to do one of three actions:
1. play a card
2. discard and pick up a card (gaining the team a clock token)
3. tell another player one piece of information (which costs the team one clock token)
There are 8 clock tokens, and each time a piece of information is disclosed, the player who disclosed it must remove one clock token from the team’s pile. These can only be regained by discarding cards. When players disclose information they have two options. They can either tell another player how many of a certain colour they possess, or how many of a certain number they possess. For example, say a player’s hand contains the following cards:
Player 1 cannot simply tell Player 2 “you have a red ‘1’ card”. Instead, Player 1 must either say “you have two red cards” or “you have one ‘1’ card” and point clearly to the relevant card/s in Player 2’s hand. It is then up to Player 2 to remember this information until it is their turn, and react accordingly. It is up to the team collectively to refrain from cheating and disclose information within these rules. Or as the rules put it, players should refrain from looking at their own cards as it would “dishonour them and taint their reputation as master pyrotechnicians!” Remembering information is fairly manageable for the first few rounds, but halfway into a game of Hanabi, your heart will be pounding and you’ll be stressfully yelling at your teammates as you try to force your brain to remember which of your cards is a ‘3’. The difficulty in remembering card number and colour makes the order in which information is disclosed very important to the strategy of Hanabi. Telling the player to your right that they have a very useful looking ‘1’ might seem like the best idea for your turn, but it might be a better idea to disclose some information to someone on your left, so they can make a more informed action during your turn, which is sooner. What is more important is up to you.
Playing cards is as simple as placing a card in the play area during your turn. If it is a sequentially correct addition to one of your sets, then well done! But if it is not, the first of the four fuse tokens is removed from the pile, and you are one step closer to accidentally letting off all the fireworks before they are ready. This is one way to end the game. It will also end when either all five sets are completed to perfection, or when a player takes the last card from the draw pile. This will trigger the beginning of the final round of play. When the game ends, the team scores points based on how many fireworks they were able to complete.
Despite being advertised as ‘2-5’ players, I would not advise playing Hanabi with only two – it just does not work the same way and is nowhere near as fun. The main problem seems to be that there are far too few cards for the team to work with – compared to a game with more players, and you therefore must waste clock tokens telling your partner which cards to discard, meaning that by the time you draw useful cards, you are all out of clock tokens. Drawing a larger hand when playing with two players could serve as a possible solution to this problem. The only other negative thing that can be said about Hanabi is that if you play it many, many times with the same group of players, your team is likely to develop strategies for communicating the necessary information so well that the game becomes too easy to be fun. However, I think it would take many games of Hanabi before players would reach this point.
When played with 3-5 players, Hanabi is just the right level of challenging. It provides good fun, without being so difficult that younger or less serious players cannot enjoy it. The game manages to create incredible tension within a very short amount of time – quite a feat for a co-operative game, wherein the tension usually is not as high as in competitive games. The other great thing about Hanabi is that, like simple childhood card games such as Memory, it really stretches your brain – likely giving your prefrontal cortex a much needed stretch in this day and age where information is so accessible that we really do not have to remember much information off the top of our heads.