Mini Review: Hanabi

I talked briefly about Hanabi in my discussion of Game-like Playable Activities. My overall conclusion was that it is just on the verge of being a true game instead of just an activity, but it’s just missing a lot of the elements I look for.

What

Cards in 5 colors, 4×1 3×2 2×3, 2×4, and 1×5
8 time tokens
4 fuse tokens (but you only need 3)

How

Hanabi is a cooperative game in which players are attempting to play cards in order 1-5 in every color. Players hold 5 cards face out. On your turn, you may only either give information, play a card, or discard a card. You can tell any one other player how many cards they have of a number (and which cards they are) or how many cards they have of a color (and which cards they are). Every time you give information, you lose a time token, and if you ever run out of time tokens, the game ends. You may instead play a card, if you think it it can be added to a stack (or start a new one). If it can be played nothing bad happens, and if it is the 5th card of a color, you gain a time token back. But if it can’t be played, you lose one of the fuse tokens. If you ever lose a third fuse token, the fireworks explode, the game ends, and the players lose. The third play is to discard any card from your hand, and take a time token back. If you play or discard a card, you must draw a new one, and the game ends when the last card is drawn. When the game ends, you get a point for the highest card played in each color, for a max of 25 points.

Strategy involves deciding which cards you can safely get rid of to gain more time, and players may choose to ignore a category in order to complete the other 4. There is no real risk in this or “penalty” per se, because maximizing score is really the only reason to complete fireworks.

Good

The reverse hidden information is a very innovative mechanic. As a designer, I love how it turns the concept upside down (well, maybe turns it backwards is more appropriate). It is a way of capturing the tension from a horror movie or a game show, where the audience is yelling directions at the screen. “No, don’t go in that room! The killer is in there!” “The answer is Cuba! Cuba!!!”. I also like the idea of having the shared group resource of time that players can take a risk and sacrifice to regain it. You take some of the control away from the deck and give it to players, who have only themselves to blame for mistakes, giving everyone an incentive to pay close attention. And it gives you an opportunity to flex some of your logical thinking muscles. There are bound to be some very clever ways you can give information to multiple players just by making a statement to one player.

Bad

But as a player, I’m disappointed in Hanabi. I suppose the approachability of fireworks as a theme means it will be easier to introduce than a pure abstract game, but the theme adds very little to how the game plays. I can see a similar mechanic working even better for something like disarming a bomb, or trying to escape from zombies, monsters, or killers. Think about how interesting it would be if you didn’t know if you could trust the other players. But unfortunately the mechanic limits the choices in the game. You often have to make the moves that other people are planning for you. And sometimes, no matter what you do, your play is no better than a random guess. You need to focus, and your discussion is limited, so it doesn’t really work as a social game. And you need to have a good memory, or play enough to learn some mnemonic tricks. Because even when you figure out how to pass enough information, you are still dependent on every other player drawing the same conclusions. All in all, I don’t feel its much of a game, more of a puzzle that almost (but not quite) gives players the option to fail.

Overall

I don’t think I would want to play as or with a new player. A new player will naturally hold back an experienced group. The player is aware of it and knows that the group is aware of it, too.  “Let’s play, but we probably won’t do well and it will be your fault” is not a good way to engage new players. So I guess that’s why it’s “Hey, let’s play a game about fireworks.” I can’t wait for someone to take the concept of reverse hidden information and develop a fuller experience around it. I would play again, and as a fan of logic, I would find it fun to develop a method to maximize information. I can already see some shortcuts for passing information (legally), but it depends on establishing some rules before play. I finally appreciate Matt Leacock’s idea that a co-op game should be lost most of the time, because that is what gives you a motivation to win. Hanabi doesn’t give me motivation to play enough times to master it, so I predict this game will make a quick flash and then slowly fade away.

[Added July 31:]

And I just read about a game that seems to take the concept and run with it, Bomb Squad from Tasty Minstrel Games. There’s a chance I had heard about this before, and it seeped into my unconscious. There is a good interview with one of the designers by The Inquisitive Meeple, discussing the game. It already looks like one to keep an eye on.

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