Hanabi (Game Review)


Hanabi (picture from BoardGame Geek)

Today we learned that Antoine Bauza’s Hanabi won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres. The Spiel is the most-followed award in the gaming industry, even though it’s focused on family games in the European market. Therefore, every year at this time we get to hear lots of confusion and anger from serious gamers who don’t care for the latest SdJ winner at all. This year, though, something strange happened: the game that won was actually great for gamers of all skill levels! (Also today, Legends of Andor won the Kennerspiel, which is for games that are more serious, but still on the light side of what I usually play. I don’t expect to play Legends of Andor again any time soon, but I have added some new thoughts to my first impressions from Origins.)

On first glance, Hanabi is a pretty simple game: Everyone at the table works together to play cards in order from 1 to 5 in each of five colors. (There are multiples of cards, giving you the chance to discard for a new one if there is nothing immediately useful in your hand.) The gimmick is that you hold your cards backwards, so that you see everyone else’s hand but not your own! As an action, you can choose to give someone a hint, but you are restricted to telling them only about a specific rank or color in their hand. If you do, you must tell them the location of each card matching that rank or color. (So, for example, if you want to let them know about the Red 2 that is playable, but they also have a Green 2 and a Red 3, there’s no way to point out just that one card.) Hints are a limited resource that must be replenished by discarding. Just remember that discarded cards are lost forever, so don’t give up the wrong one!

At first, Hanabi is a fun, silly change of pace from other games. It really is weird to hold a hand of cards that you know nothing about, while looking around the table wishing you could shout out advice to the others. But it quickly becomes tense and tricky. It’s possible to infer a lot of information from what other people say within the allowed system of hints, as well as how they act when they know your cards.

The reason for Hanabi’s wild success, winning over both the Spiel des Jahres jury and hardcore gamers, is that different groups can experience it very differently. If you’re playing with social gamers or kids, you can allow a good deal of table talk. People can groan or cheer when they see a card drawn, publicly talk about how “you really need to hint to Bob about that card he just drew”, or even put emphasis in their voice to say a little more with their hint. It’s still a fun, unusual game that will make you feel clever when you win. On the other hand, more serious gamers can outlaw all table talk, and even refuse to give reminders if someone forgets an earlier hint. Also, it’s easy to finish the game without losing outright (playing three bad cards), but difficult to complete all five colors, so in between is a scoring system that lets you decide what is a “good” or “bad” result for your group. It scales from a silly game that can make kids feel clever all the way up to a many-layered one with logic and communication conventions similar to Bridge. That’s quite a range! (And then there are extra cards to add a twist when the game gets too simple.)

If Hanabi has a flaw, though, it is that range. With most tabletop games, I can sit down at a convention or with friends of a friend, and know what I’m getting into. Here, subtle differences in players’ expectations can completely change the game experience. If you play strictly but someone shares extra information, the game is basically ruined, but if you like to laugh at silly plays and talk through tough spots, anyone who stops you is spoiling it. Regardless of whether everyone has the same approach, you still probably won’t all agree on the conventions used to legally share information. Even within my game group, there are definite disagreements about what is fair, and half of the discussions about this game on BoardGame Geek seem to be about different expectations.

I think that Hanabi is rarely going to be a go-to game for random gatherings. For a known group of friends, though, it’s an excellent experience. Unique, challenging, and fit for whatever level you want to play. Don’t let this Spiel des Jahres winner pass you by.

Grade: A-

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