Number of Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 30 min
Designer: Antoine Bauza
Hanabi, an award winning cooperative card game, sets up 2 to 5 players preparing a fireworks show via playing sequences of numbered cards. The game adds the unique twist of playing with your hand facing out, requiring a player’s teammates to fill that player in on what cards must be played from their hand.
While the game has many strong points, it also has some noticeable flaws in components, theme, and random distribution at lower player counts. Despite its flaws, the game should definitely be an early addition to most board game players’ libraries.
Much like Sushi Go!, Hanabi comes in a bit-sized box for easy consumption. The box is fairly small and would easily fit in a decent sized pocket. The whole game is also around $10 on Amazon.
Inside the box you get a stack of cards, a rulebook, and some cardboard punchout circles. There is a cardboard divider piece in the center of the box to separate the cards to fit flat in the box.
While the compactness of the components is commendable, the parts themselves are a bit of a letdown. The cards feel a little cheap, a bit thin and flimsy with a plain black and white firework on the backside. In addition, the colors on the front of the cards are sometimes tough to distinguish in certain light. For example, the blue and green cards can be easily mixed up (and color is an important mechanic in the game).
The cardboard tokens are fine, the art is not particularly impressive but they work as intended. The game also comes with extra rainbow colored cards to add a layer of difficulty if desired.
The goal of Hanabi is to score the highest score — 25 in standard games. A perfect score is incredibly difficult to achieve, so players must work cooperatively in efficiently playing their cards in ascending numerical order to score points.
While each player draws an equal number of cards to their hand, they make sure to keep the cards facing out, that is, with the numbered/colored side facing the other players. Therefore, at the outset, each player knows the hand of all of their teammates but nothing about their own hand.
Each turn, the active player has several action choices: play a card, discard a card, or give a hint to another player. Playing a card means they choose a card from their hand and play it on the table. They then draw a card to replace it in their hand.
If the card “fits,” the play is successful. To fit, the card must be in the right current numerical order of its particular color i.e. if you play a green 3 card, there must a 2 green currently in the play stack for the play to fit. Otherwise, the card is discarded and the fuse timer (also marked by cardboard circles) ticks down (you can only miss on a play 3 times before the game is over).
If a player decides to give a hint, they use up a clue token, of which there are a total of eight. After spending the clue token, the player can then tell one of the other players either one color of their cards in that players hand, or the numerical value.
For instance, if the player has a red 2 in their hand, someone can point to the card and say “this card is a 2.” Alternatively, they could say “this card is red.” If there are multiple 2’s or red cards, the player must point to each one and note it as such.
Lastly, a player may discard a card voluntarily. Discarding a card then returns a clue token to the usable pile. Thus, after the 8 clues are used up, discarding becomes necessary to get some clues back on the board and avoid misplays that result in a shortened fuse timer. They replace the card by drawing a new one from the deck.
The game then turns into the players trying to order the cards in their hand with various memory mechanisms – turning them upside down, holding them at a 90 degree angle, holding them in two hands — in order to try and mentally remember how each card was hinted to them. You never get to actually look at your own hand, and only see a particular cared after it is played or discarded.
Each card correctly played gains the players one point. Thus, if the players correctly play the right order of cards in each of the five colors they get the full 25 points (playing cards numbered 1 to 5 of each of the five colors).
The last twist is that there are a limited number of cards: there are three of each 1 card, but only one of each 5 and two of each of the other numbers. Therefore, accidentally discarding or misplaying a 5 card means that the top score is no longer attainable because there is only one 5 per color (and this happens frequently). It also means that if both green 2’s are discarded, the green pile can never be higher than 1 and thus four points are gone (the 3, 4, and 5 cards cannot be successfully played without the 2 card already on the pile).
The game does a great job of integrating the interesting mechanic of hand management without the ability to see your own hand. Through the clues, the played/discarded cards, and seeing other players’ hands, each player must deduce what cards are which in their hand.
Given the restrictions on information, but given that the game is cooperative, the game quickly develops a sub-strategy of subtle hints or signals. For instance, in our games, it quickly became a strategy to say “this card is a TWO” with the emphasis intended to convey to that player it was safe to go ahead and play that card, despite that player not knowing the color.
Despite my difficulty in typing out the rules, in actual practice, the game is incredibly easy to explain and get playing. Sometimes players mess up in saying a color and a number. However, because it benefits all players, its mostly forgivable and no one is really bothered.
The game also plays fairly quickly once players are familiar with the basic rules. Given the limited actions, which typically just come down to giving a clue or discarding a card, the game is often completed by the stated 30 minutes or less.
Given the quickness, accessibility, and size, the game is perfect to bring to social gatherings or other places where you can setup the deck and begin playing. It has a minimal footprint and no fiddly bits to worry about.
Finally, the game contains a set of additional rainbow cards that count as every color. Therefore, when you say “these two are red” as a hint, you must also include all rainbow cards in that hint, despite the fact that rainbows are their own color i.e. must be played correctly and numerically in their own pile. This adds a level of difficulty to the game for experienced groups, but also adds to the total point possibility as 5 more points are now in the pot.
Hanabi has an element of frustration when a player forgets a past clue or misplays one of their cards therefore potentially missing out on a point. Because its easy to point a finger at the one at fault, this might be a slight turnoff to the less confident players to make plays.
The game is also subject to some random distribution difficulties as is inherent in any card based game. For instance, if one color’s 1 cards are toward the bottom of the deck, the higher cards of the same color will sit in the players hand, likely to be discarded to get clues back. This result is more likely in games with less players as there are less cards in play at any one time with less players.
Thematically, the game presents itself as a crew of players preparing a fireworks show. The cards show various fireworks in their respective colors, and the fuse timer is suppose to denote the fuse to start the fireworks show. Overall, the theme here is unique but incredibly weak. Playing through the game did not evoke any connection to fireworks preparation or really anything to do with a fireworks show.
Finally, I was not particularly fond of the endgame satisfaction. It’s great to beat a previous high score, but once you’ve scored in the 20’s with a group, its tough to get motivated to try with the base set of cards again. If you have a score of 22 for instance, it requires quite a bit of luck to really improve that score. The cap on skill affecting result dampens the motivation a bit.
Overall, I have enjoyed the various rounds of Hanabi I have played. It’s been a great game to quickly get up and playing with a variety of different skill levels and board game familiarity.
The deduction and risk elements built from the lack of personal hand knowledge add a surprising amount of depth to each decision despite the relative simplicity of the game. The difficulty in getting high scores also promotes replays (even if posting a high score might slow some groups down some).
While the components are on the flimsy side, and the theme fails to present itself strongly in the gameplay, this unique cooperative card game should be a part of any game collection. I mean, it did win the Spiel des Jahres, considered the board game industry’s top award. Definitely worth a pick up with its low entry point, ease of accessibility, and unique mechanics.
+Cheap, easy, and accessible
+Unique mechanics for a new twist on card games
+Works deduction skills based on board state
-Components were lackluster
-Theme was weak
-Subject to more variability at lower player counts