Review: Hanabi

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2-5 players, 25 minutes

Hello, dear readers! I’m back from a rather lengthy hiatus, and in the spirit of catching up, I’m going to review the winner of the Spiel des Jahres… from last year.

For those of you who don’t know, the Spiel des Jahres is the German “Game of the Year” award. It’s a big deal—a nomination can generate hundred if not thousands of sales for the nominee, and winning the award can net hundreds of thousands of new sales. I’ve been told that the winning game will even be found in supermarkets across Germany, and to this day I have no idea if those people were joking.

It’s one of the most respected board game awards around, but before you think that means it’s a “greatest hits” list from 1978 to the present, keep in mind that it favors lighter, European-style games. That generally means a focus on game mechanisms, an abstracted theme, and indirect player interaction. Moreover, the award is generally given to lighter, more family-friendly games.

Last year, the award went to Hanabi, a small card game by designer Antoine Bauza. In Hanabi, the players take on the role of technicians trying to pull off a fireworks display. To do so, they must take turns playing cards from their hands, and each of five colored piles must be built, in order, from one through five. You all lose the game if three mistakes are made. Otherwise, the game ends one full round after the draw pile runs out of cards. Then, you tally up the highest valued card in each pile to get a score.

What makes it tricky is that you play with your cards facing away from you. You get to see everyone else’s cards, but not your own. Players can give hints to one another, but only in very restricted ways. I think this is downright brilliant because, more than any other game I’ve played, it makes the players want to cheat. Let me explain.

Clue tokens are flipped over or moved as they are used—their limitation requires players to give information tactically, and, sometimes, act without quite enough of it.
Clue tokens are flipped over or moved as they are used—their limitation requires players to give information tactically, and, sometimes, act without quite enough of it.

First of all, the game is brutally difficult. There are really two ways you can define victory—simply making it to the end without playing three cards out of order, or the elusive perfect game. I’ve played Hanabi about 15 times so far, and not once have we achieved a perfect score. Victory-by-not-failing feels almost like a consolation prize, but this game needs a consolation prize.

Second, the game is cooperative. If you cheat, technically you’re helping everyone to win the game. Obviously outright cheating would ruin the game for everyone, but there’s this little compulsion to go right up against the line without crossing it, to lean a tiny bit over it, to maybe just let that one thing slide…

Third, the rules are somewhat loose. Technically, you can only give hints by spending a clue token to point out all the cards in another player’s hand that matches a color or a number, but the rules say you can make the game easier or harder depending on what the players allow to be discussed during the game.

The previous points contribute to the feeling you get playing the game, but what really pushes it over the edge is this:

Hanabi is a game that expects you to maintain a poker face, but rewards you if you don’t.

It’s hard to maintain a straight face when you know that, if you don’t, you might accidentally win the game. Say a player’s hand is hovering over their cards, and you smile or frown if you want them to play that particular card or not. Maybe they pick a card, and you either nod along, or grow tense. It’s not explicitly cheating. There’s nothing about facial expressions or body language in the rules at all! Besides, you made an honest effort to maintain your composure… mostly. Well, kind of.

To paraphrase, "I'm a rulebook, not a cop."
To paraphrase, “I’m a rulebook, not a cop.”

Some of the fun in Hanabi comes from the fact that it’s mildly transgressive. Games are all about putting voluntary obstacles in front of a designated goal, and it’s game that reminds you that you are the one enforcing the rules. It’s low-level anarchism, like touching a velvet rope. You feel clever when you find a way to “cheat” the game without going to far, like establishing unspoken rules about the way everyone organizes their hand. It’s like you’re beating the system.

That may make it sound like Hanabi doesn’t have a very immersing theme, and that’s true. It’s very abstracted, and it never really promises much more than that—it guides the art direction more than anything else.

The tokens tracking your errors even look like a detonation cord! The fourth one is actually unnecessary—it's just there to taunt you.
The tokens tracking your errors even look like a detonation cord! The fourth one is actually unnecessary—it’s just there to taunt you.

But, while Hanabi didn’t make me feel like I was helping launch a fireworks show, it did make me feel like I was disarming a bomb. If there are not clue tokens left, you must pick one of your cards, either discarding it to regain a clue token, or to play and hope it’s the next step in one of the piles. Discarding the wrong card can immediately ruin any chance at getting a perfect game, and playing the wrong card can be even worse, as it earns you a misfire. Three of those, and everyone loses. Having to pick a card essentially at random reminded me of those cliche scenes where someone has to pick a wire to cut on a bomb. All that’s missing is a ticking clock—and I may just add one the next time I play.

That said, there are some problems with the game. So far as game play is concerned, if you don’t like games that test memory, this one could be annoying. I don’t like those game elements myself, so we’ve just played loosely with reminders. That said, it’s a bit disappointing when you realize it’s a game you’d have a better chance at winning with a scratch pad for notes on what you know about all the cards—especially since every clue also tells you what all the other cards cannot be, and that’s a lot of information to track. We just tend to reorganize and reorient cards in our hands (or even on the table), and that that does well enough.

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Apparently the fireworks show was being held in the late evening rather than, you know… night. It’s pretty, but not as functional as it could—or should—be.

From a graphical design standpoint, there are some bigger problems. Out of the five colors, four can be hard to distinguish: blue and green, and yellow and white. I don’t know anyone colorblind, but everyone I’ve played with has had some issues when there was dim lighting. It would help if there were geometric shapes added next to the numbers, and some editions do use those—unfortunately, mine uses kanji, whose fine details are harder to distinguish from a distance. One of my friends knows Chinese, and despite kanji being derived from Chinese characters, he had to ask for closer looks at the other players’ hands just as often. The shapes of the fireworks are actually subtly different between the colors, but that doesn’t help much, especially when most of the artwork is obscured when the cards are fanned out in your hand.

Hanabi is my most-played game this year for the same reasons that it won the Spiel des Jahres—it’s accessible, clever, and fun. It’s suitable for children playing just to avoid three errors, and a real challenge for adults to get a perfect score. The worst I can say about it is that its appeal is broader than it is deep—many people will really enjoy the game, but I don’t see it being anyone’s favorite game. There’s a good chance I’ll get bored or frustrated with it by the time I ever get a perfect score—much less a perfect score with the painfully brutal and thankfully optional extra suit of cards. Nonetheless, it’s already more than made up for its cost.

So, if you happen to see the game on your way through your friendly local game shop—or maybe even a German supermarket for all I know—it’s a worthwhile purchase.

If you would like to support Groom Porter, and don’t have a German supermarket nearby, please consider buying Hanabi through our Amazon Affiliate Link.

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