Friday 18 October 2013

Review - Hanabi


Designed by Antoine Bauza.
Published by ABACUSSPIELE (and many others).
For 2 to 5 players, aged 8 to adult.

Games like Hanabi make me glad that I don't do video reviews; because, if I did, I am sure I would offend someone with my pronunciation. (I pronounce Hanabi like wasabi, by the way.)

But the pronunciation of the name is only where the problems start with this game; because Hanabi is evil. I mean, pure, distilled malice. In a deck of cards.

I should explain.

Hanabi isn't like anything else I've ever played. And that's a good thing. The concept is incredibly simple, and also language independent. As a result, I was able to buy and play the ABACUSSPIELE edition, which is entirely in German, and I only downloaded a set of English rules online so I could understand how to include the "Colours" expansion (which I'll get to in a minute).

In the small box, you get a deck of cards, and a small punchboard of tokens. The deck comprises five suits of colours, with numbers ranging from one to five. Each suit has three ones, two twos, two threes, two fours, and a single five. The aim of the game is simple: Lay out five sets of five different coloured cards, each in order from one to five.

That sounds easy, right?

Yeah. Right. I did mention this game was evil, didn't I? I mean the kind of evil that normally gets awoken by reciting passages of forbidden lore from dusty old spell books while sitting in a pentangle.

We're talking Justin Bieber levels of evil.

Hanabi card game
Evil in a box.

You see, each player in the game will be dealt a hand of cards, but... And here's the rub... You aren't allowed to look at your cards. Instead, you hold your cards so you can only see the backs, but everyone else at the table can see the fronts. Honestly, just conditioning yourself to draw a card from the deck without looking at it is enough to fry your brain; and I've lost count of the number of times people have drawn a card and then gone to look at it, only for everyone else to shout "STOP!" It is an unusual game mechanism that really does take some getting used to.

Okay, so you have a hand of cards you can't see; but you can see the cards that everyone else has. Now, you have to work together to put out the five sets of five different colours. That's right: You are going to work together, because this is a co-operative game. It's co-operative in the truest sense of the term. You won't do your own thing most of the time, but then occasionally do something to help another player. Every move you make is totally integrated into a team effort; and yes, if you are bad at this game you will tank your team's efforts. And they will hate you.

On your turn, you have a choice of three actions, and you have to do one of them. The first thing you can do is play a card. You take the card from your hand, and either start a new set, or add to an existing set, before drawing a new card to replace the one you used. Of course, you have to put out numbers in order (without any gaps in the sequence), and you can't put out two identical cards (colour and number). If you reveal a card you can't play, the card is discarded, and the whole team loses a "life." If you end up discarding a card you will need later (like any card with the number five), you won't be able to score the maximum points anymore; and if you lose three "lives," it's game over completely.

That being the case, guessing what card to play is a bad idea. That's where the second action comes in. The team has a certain number of clue tokens they can use. On your turn, you can flip a token over to indicate it has been used, and then you can give any other player one clue about the cards that he or she has. You can point to all the cards of a certain number and tell the player what number they are, or you can point to all the cards of a certain colour, and tell the player what colour they are. The only rules are that if you are giving information about a number or colour, you have to point out ALL the cards that match that number or colour, and you can't openly tell someone exactly what a card is, or where it should be played.

Hanabi cards
Oh yeah, this game is about fireworks... Whatever.

The biggest problem with clues is that you don't get very many of them, and if you don't have any clue tokens left, you can't give anymore clues. Being economical with your clues is important. You have to really think about the information you are giving. For example, if a green one has been played, and someone has the green two, you might want to let that person know the card can be played. But how? If it is the only green card in that player's hand, you could point to it and say it is green, hoping that he or she will take this as a hint that this is the next green card required. Of course, he or she may not be on your wavelength, and may not realise what you are trying to say.


I mean really infuriating. After the third or fourth clue you have wasted trying to get a player to put down a certain card, you will want to vault the table to strangle someone.

Luckily, there is a way to get clue tokens back. On your turn, instead of playing a card or using a clue, you can simply discard a card. You put the card face up, so everyone can see it, and then draw a replacement. Discarding a card is risky, and often you will be forced to do it because you don't know enough about your cards to play one, and you don't have any clue tokens to use.

Realising you have to discard a card is a horrifying moment. You will agonise over the decision; because if you discard a five you immediately tank your chances of finishing the game with a perfect score. However, discarding is a necessary evil. Not only does it give you another clue to play with, it also gives all the players more information to work with. The more cards there are on the table (either discarded, or played into sets), the easier it is to work out what you have in your hand based on the clues other people give you, and what you can see in other players' hands.

Hanabi tokens
Clue and life tokens.

So that's the game. If you get all five sets of cards out, you win. If you lose all three lives, you lose. If you survive the whole game, but you discarded or lost cards that meant you couldn't finish one or more sets, you sort of win (you win, but you don't get a perfect score).

It's simple. Elegant, even. It's so infuriating it will make your blood boil. It will turn your brain to mush if you play it for too long. It will strain friendships. It will crush you.

It's basically genius.

Evil genius.

You will hate it when it's your turn, because you will never feel like you have any clue tokens, you will never feel like you know enough about your cards to play one, and you will never feel like you can safely discard something. It's a punishing, brutal, gruelling experience. And it is an absolute triumph.

I love the game. But here's the thing: I haven't played it properly yet. I'm not sure I would enjoy it so much if I did play it properly.

Technically, the only communication between players should be the giving of the clues. The rest of the time, players are supposed to sit quietly, and they aren't supposed to do anything that could help to guide another player's actions.

It's virtually impossible. Indeed, the game lends itself wonderfully to "accidental cheating," like facial expressions, suppressed gasps, eye-rolling, teeth-sucking, and sub-conscious tapping of certain cards, as well as "creative cheating," like thinking "out loud" in an effort to get a reaction from someone else at the table.

Those little cheats make the game absolutely hilarious. Of course, cheating makes the game easier, and you shouldn't go out of your way to ruin the game with obvious hints all the time; but the occasional cough or splutter at the right time can be priceless, as can springing a question on another player about the cards in your hand and then trying to read that player's poker face. In our games, there is so much laughter (between the groans and curses), and it only gets funnier the harder we try not to break the rules. Sitting around in silence staring at our cards just doesn't feel like the right way to play the game.

And if you do find yourself occasionally "bending" the rules, you can introduce the included colours expansion to make things tougher. This is an additional set of cards that are multi-coloured. They count as their own suit that you need to complete, but also count as every other colour when giving clues. So, if you are telling someone they have red cards, you also have to point to the multi-coloured ones as well. That should throw a decent sized spanner in the works.

Overall, the game is a wonderful way to spend time with friends. If you play it properly, you get a real brain-burning co-operative game that could result in someone coming to physical harm. If you play with people who find it difficult to keep quiet, the game becomes something completely different again. I don't recall ever laughing so hard while playing a game as I did when I first introduced Hanabi to my gaming group. It was something completely new, and completely refreshing. It made us rethink what co-operative games really are, and what working as a team really means.

I guess it is only fitting that a game that forces you to look only at the backs of your cards should force you to look at card games in a new way.


  1. Wow, just found this review out of pure luck and boy, am I glad I did. These are pretty much my thoughts on the game, which was by the way the first one I really liked from this designer, big surprise there for me. I agree the true joy of Hanabi relies in the communication, or the supposed lack of it. Both trying to break the rules in creative, not purely illegal moves as well as the hilarity of breaking them unintentionally make this game a gem for me.

    1. Thanks for reading. I am pleased to hear you enjoy the game as much as I do.


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