Review - Hanabi
Designer: Antoine Bauza
Artist: Albertine Ralenti
Publisher: Cocktail Games
Player Count: 2-5
Hanabi is a small box cooperative card game with a unique conceit. Players play the entire game with their cards facing away from them, towards the other players. As such, players have no idea what cards they are holding. In Hanabi players sort through cards representing fireworks, putting them in the correct order to put on a spectacular firework show. Players can give each other simple clues about the cards in other players hands but each clue costs precious time. Players play cards when they think they have the right one at the right time. However, too many mistakes will lead to the fireworks going off and the game ending early.
How to Play
Hanabi is very simple to setup and play. Start by shuffling the five regular firework suits (there is one additional suit for use with variants) of 10 cards and deal each player four or five cards (depending on the number of players). Place the eight blue clock tokens within reach of all players. Stack the three fuse tokens with the explosion token on the bottom of the stack. Players pick up their hand of cards without looking at them and point the hand away from themselves (so other players can see the front of the cards, but each player can only see the back of their own cards). The game is now ready to be played.
The goal of the game is to play cards from your hand to the centre of the play area in ascending order. A separate pile is made for each suit and they can be added to simultaneously.
Each turn, players can take one of three actions. They may give a hint. Players spend one clock token, placing it back in the box, to give one hint to one player. The hint can be either, to point out the all the instances of one number that a player has in their hand, or all the instances of one colour. For example, a player could tell another player that they have three ones in their hand, pointing out which cards are ones. Players must indicate all of the type of cards associated with the hint. For example, if the other player has four yellow cards, the player giving the hint must indicate all four yellow cards, they cannot say these are three yellows and only point to three of them. This is important as implied information from hints, not just the obvious information, is important in this game (more on that in the gameplay section).
The second action a player can take is to discard a card from their hand in order to take a clock token back from the box. Players need to be careful what they discard as there is only one instance of each five in the deck. After discarding, a replacement card is taken from the deck. The third action that players can take is to play a card. If the card is a one of a suit that hasn’t been played yet, it is placed in a new pile at the centre of the play area. If the card is the next number in ascending sequence, of a suit that has already been played, it is placed on top of the previous card. Finally, if the card does not fit either of these conditions, it is discarded and one of the fuse tokens is returned to the box. After playing a card a replacement card is taken from the deck.
The game ends if the explosion token is revealed, if players manage to place the five of all firework types successfully, or if the last card is taken from the deck. At the end of the game players calculate their score by adding up the highest value card for each suit.
The unique mechanic at the heart of Hanabi is that you see everyone else’s hand of cards but don’t look at your own. This can make your first few rounds of Hanabi feel very strange. Until you get used to the idea that you can’t see your hand you’ll find yourself constantly fighting the impulse to check your hand. In several games I played muscle memory kicked in when new cards were drawn from the deck and players accidentally looked at their new card.
That said, it’s the mechanic that makes Hanabi special. Being forced to play and discard cards blind or based on minimal information gives the entire game an interesting tension. Every time you go to put a card down a part of you will hesitate and wonder if it’s the wrong card. Even players forgetting, or misremembering information given to them can lead the entire table to groan in unison and laugh about it after the game. Equally, seeing that a player has a five in their hand and not having a chance to warn them before they decided to discard a card is stressful in the best way. The entire table will stop breathing, except the player discarding, as their hand hovers over each card, deciding which will go.
At first, the hint system that the game employs seems very simple and maybe even unfit for purpose. You might think that it will be impossible to win giving such simple hints unless you’re very lucky. That is until you realise that a hint of “you have one blue card” could mean you have a blue card, or it could mean you have the blue card we need. In Hanabi it’s not just the face value of the hint that is important, it’s the subtext. That gives you control and makes Hanabi feel like a really interesting puzzle. The game is looking around the table and figuring out how to maximise every hint. This relies on the hint giver being creative and the player receiving the hint understanding what they meant.
Most importantly with a game like Hanabi, mistakes rarely feel unfair. Most of the time a mistake is caused by a bad hint, an unnecessary risk, or forgetting which of your cards you got a hint about. If you make a big mistake it’s ok, games are quick.. A game can be played in around fifteen minutes once players know what they’re doing. This means playing multiple games is easy and developing an understanding between players happens quickly too. The rules overhead is minimal so, if you’re playing it while waiting for everyone to show up to your game night or meetup, you can get new people up to speed quickly.
The rules say that Hanabi works with two to five players. I initially thought that this wouldn’t be the case, and that a two-player game would be pretty awful, but the game functions fine at two players. The game is probably better with more players, but it still works at two. One problem at two or even three players is that some players can get stuck in a role of doing one action (discarding cards or giving hints every turn) which can be frustrating.
At higher player counts there is more information (since more hands are visible to each player) and players are less likely to get stuck doing the same action over and over. Having said that, there is more downtime at higher player counts and players may feel like they have less control over the game. My experience was that higher player counts made the game more challenging but also more satisfying.
I don’t think I would buy Hanabi for its two-player experience but if you’re getting it to play for a larger group, definitely try it with two.
The rulebook describes four variants that you can play the game with. However, these don’t do much to change the gameplay beyond making the game easier or harder. Most revolve around the sixth suit that comes with the game and ultimately they can be summed up as play with a sixth suit, play with only one of each number for the sixth suit, play with a sixth suit that is a wild (can be used as any colour), or there are less end conditions but you only win if you have the perfect display.
As such, every game of Hanabi is essentially the same. Over time players will learn strategies and ways to maximise the information given as hints. Scoring is simple and always the same. As such, while the variants do add new difficulty levels, the game probably has a shelf life for each game group. However, the core gameplay of Hanabi is so good that that life is probably quite long.
Hanabi’s theme is certainly unique. Players are racing to build and sort fireworks whose components have been mixed together. Players are racing against the clock to complete their work before the start of the fireworks display, aiming to create the most impressive display possible.
Despite being a small box card game with minimal components, Hanabi does a good job of selling its theme. This is obviously helped by the artwork on the cards but the game also adds a few small things to remind players why they’re sorting cards numbered one to five. The first thing being, the fuse tokens. Mistakes lead you reveal a shorter and shorter fuse until you reveal an explosion, signalling that your mistakes have caused the display to start prematurely. The second thing that the game does to remind you of your goal comes at the end of the game. When you score your display not only do you receive a score out of twenty-five, there is a legend in the manual which explains the score in terms of the impression left by your display on the crowd. Reading that your score of fifteen was an “honorable attempt, but quickly forgotten…” is scathing and sells the theme while encouraging players to play just one more game.
It would have been so easy for Hanabi to rely on it’s interesting mechanics and forget about theme entirely. But it doesn’t do that, Hanabi repeatedly reminds players of what they are thematically doing. This adds something to the game and makes it more enjoyable.
Art and Components
Hanabi’s art style is simple but elegant. Cards depict the type of firework, not just as different colours but also as different shape of explosion on the cards. The colours chosen work well together, fitting the setting and theme while remaining clear and easy to differentiate at a glance. One minor quibble with the art is the clock tokens. The clocks on the tokens are orientated to give a minor 3-D effect. However, this doesn’t quite work and the tokens just look like they have been printed off centre unless you look at them closely.
The quality of components for Hanabi are perfectly functional. Most importantly, cards are of a decent quality and shuffle easily. Tokens are thick and durable. The box is exactly as big as it needs to be meaning that you can easily fit it in your pocket to play on the go.
Hanabi is a great smallbox game that you can take anywhere, play with anyone, and works with a bunch of different player counts. It has a mechanic that feels unique so you don’t feel like you’re just buying a different version of a game you already own. It’s also quick, which makes Hanabi the perfect game to play at the end of a game night when things are starting to wind down, at the start of the night while you wait for other people to show up, or on a bus or train (since the game has such a small footprint). That’s not to say you shouldn’t just play Hanabi in its own right. Its minimal variability means might get tired of it eventually but it’s cheap and before you get bored of it, you’ll have a great time with it. As the rulebook would say Hanabi is“excellent, crowd pleasing.”