Saturday, 16 November 2013


Plays: 5Px1, 3Px2.

Hanabi is Japanese for fireworks. It is the Spiel des Jahres winner of 2013, designed by Antoine Bauza, designer of 7 Wonders, the Kennerspiel des Jahres winner of 2012. Antoine, who also designed Ghost Stories, Takenoko and Tokaido, is certainly a hot designer now. Hmm... there seems to be something about him and Japan / oriental culture.

The Game

Hanabi is a card game and a cooperative game. I must admit this is the first time I hear of this combination. I can't think of any other cooperative card games. What's unusual about this game is you hold your cards the other way round. You don't know what cards you are holding, but you can see what everyone else is holding. The objective of the game is to play cards onto the table in sequential order. There are five suits (colours) with numbers from 1 to 5. The goal is to complete all five columns, one colour per column, with numbers going exactly from 1 to 5.

On your turn you have three options. You can give a clue to a teammate, pointing out which card or cards in his hand are of a specific colour or a specific number. That's all you can tell. Nothing else. When you give a clue, you use one of the eight clue tokens, which has to be flipped over. If at the start of your turn all clue tokens are face-down, you can't give a clue anymore, and must pick one from the other two options. The second option is discarding a card from your hand. This card goes to the discard pile and cannot be used anymore for the rest of the game. When you discard, you reset one clue token, making it available again. You have to be careful with discarding, because if the card you discard is the last card of a specific colour and number that has yet to be played, you will be terminating your progress for that colour. In each colour there are three 1's, two each of 2's, 3's and 4's, and only one 5. The third option is playing a card. Once you play a card, you check whether it can be added to one of the five columns on the table. If it can, congratulations. If it can't, you flip over one of the three bomb tokens. Flip the third bomb token, and the game ends early. The card played is discarded to the discard pile.

The game ends when the last card is drawn from the draw deck, and everyone takes one more turn. Then you score based on the number of cards successfully played, i.e. max being 25pts.

Ivan and Sinbad. I don't know what my own cards are, but I can see what they are holding.

We are currently at 14pts, 4+4+4+1+1. The three blue tokens at the bottom left are the bomb tokens. We have not touched those yet, i.e. no failed card plays yet. The others are the clue tokens. Seven have been flipped to the back side (black), which means we only have one last opportunity to give a clue unless someone discards a card.

The Play

Learning the tactics in Hanabi was refreshing. It certainly is something different. The idea sounds simple, but when I sat down to think about how best to give clues, there was more to consider than I had expected. A simple clue can be interpreted differently by different people. For example, if four 1's have already been played, and someone tells me I have two 1's in my hand. Is he trying to tell me these are the 1's of the fifth colour that I should play, or is he trying to tell me these are 1's of colours that are already out so I can safely discard them? Or perhaps he is only providing partial information and needs another player to tell me the colours of these 1's before I can know what to do exactly.

If you want to think real hard, you can consider the fact that the person giving you the clue cannot see his own cards, so he is giving the clue while having incomplete information. Looking at his cards may tell you a bit more than the clue that he is able to give you. Also you can consider the cards of the other players, which both of you can see. That may give you further hints too.

I imagine that as players play this game together more and more, they will develop some rapport, gradually being able to understand one another's intentions better and better. It may not be wholly a good thing though. Sometimes blunderings and misunderstandings are part of the fun.

There is a constant time pressure. You only have eight clue tokens. When they run out, your team will have less flexibility. So when you are down to the last token, you have to think twice before using it. Even if you have a splendid clue to give, you have to think about the next guy who may be forced to play a card or discard a card because he can't give clues anymore. Sometimes it may be better to do something else, e.g. discarding a card that you know is safe, and leave some unused clue tokens for others.

It's easy to cheat in this game, even if you don't intend to. When you are about to discard a card and you are unsure whether you are doing the right thing, it's hard to resist pausing, and looking at your friends' faces for any sign of alarm as your finger hover over a particular card. Playing this game makes me realise how rich human expressions and body language are. All those meaningful looks, sudden deep breaths, avoiding eye contact, screaming with your eyes, resisting to blurt out any warning, and also silent sighs of relief. Even the casual conversation and the tones used can give away extra information that you are not supposed to give. For example the tone in which you say, "I'm sure he knows what I mean when I give this clue... ". A passing remark of "I can't give her any clues, her cards are bad" in the early game would hint that the player probably has lots of 4's and 5's. You are not supposed to do all these. They are against the spirit of the game. Boardgames usually encourage communication, but Hanabi restricts communication instead. It can be funny to see how your friends try to keep a straight face.

The Thoughts

It's different. It's refreshing. It'll work as a party game, as a filler, and also as a family game. For seasoned gamers this will not be a main course, but it does provide a meaningful challenge. From reading the rules it didn't sound like much, but after I sat down to play it I found the deduction and logical thinking not exactly simplistic. Part of the game involves a lot of working out the logic and determining how to provide information efficiently. That part is quite deterministic and can feel like problem solving. Part of the game is about guessing what your teammates are trying to communicate. There is also a part where you just have to gamble and hope you get it right. Often there is simply not enough turns to provide a lot of information. Playing a card takes up one turn too. So sometimes you are forced to make a wild guess. I quite enjoyed the game and have bought a copy. Let's see if this works with my family.

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