SdJ Re-Reviews #35: Hanabi

  • Designer: Antoine Bauza
  • Publisher:  ABACUSSPIELE, R&R Games, Les XII Singles, Others
  • Players:  2 – 5
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  25 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 100

Hanabi Cover

Hanabi: From a limited print run of 1,000 copies, to more than 1,000,000 copies sold…

The story of Hanabi begins in 2005, when Antoine Bauza—then primarily a designer of role playing games—started designing a competitive push-your-luck card game called Ikebana.  He like the prototype, and he showed it to a small publisher of role playing games, Caravelle.  Wanting his product to stand out in the marketplace, Bauza designed a second game using the same components, hoping to include the rules for both in the box.  The second game was also a competitive game, and he called it Hanabi.  Caravelle agreed to publish the duo, but the company closed before they could complete the project.  

Later, in 2010, Bauza showed the design to Les XII Singles, another small publisher that was in the RPG market.  They liked the game, but the CEO was worried that the two games in the package, Hanabi and Ikebana, were too similar to each other.  

When rethinking the design, Bauza got the idea to have the cards face outward, with the players requesting information from their opponents about what was on the cards.  This new concept was also used in a competitive game.  Playtest results were mixed, but everybody enjoyed having the cards face outward.

Bauza’s wife came up with the idea of doing a cooperative game.  As Bauza would later write in Boardgames That Tell Stories, “Those words blew my mind!  Why had I not thought of that?  Of course I had to do a cooperative game, the hand of cards facing backwards would work very well!”  The design was finished quickly after that revelation.  

Les XII singles printed 1,000 French-language copies of Hanabi & Ikebana in 2010.  The graphic design was done by Bauza’s wife.  Though Bauza admits that the games are abstract, the theme arises from two arts of the Japanese culture: fireworks (Hanabi) and flower arrangement (Ikebana).  The ideas of flowers is present in both the word for fireworks (Hanabi) and the word for a floral arrangement (Ikebana).  Today, copies of the Les XII edition of Hanabi & Ikebana are relatively difficult to locate.  

Later, Bauza got the CEO of Cocktail Games, Matthieu d’Epenoux, to play the game.  He loved it, and he started looking for ways to export it to other countries.  He wanted to keep Hanabi, but cease publishing Ikebana.  Bauza was reluctant to separate the two, but he agreed.  Cocktail Games redid much of the artwork, but Bauza disliked it, so he asked his wife to once again be involved.  The Cocktail games edition sold out quickly.  Cocktail’s German partner, Huch! & Friends, did not pick the game up, so Matthias Wagner from Abacusspiele sought to publish it.  Hanabi received its German release at Essen 2012.

The game received wide critical acclaim, and it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2013.  Bauza learned of his nomination while browsing the internet, and he said he was both honored and excited.  He posted about it on his blog.  Bauza thought Augustus would win, and many in the hobby agreed: there had previously been a consensus that a small card game could not win the award.  Nonetheless, in July 2013 Hanabi was announced the winner.  The jury praised the unprecedented mix of cooperative, communicative, and deductive gameplay elements.  

Hanabi also won the 2013 Fairplay À la carte Award, and it ranked 6th in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting.  

As of February of this year, Hanabi had sold more than one million copies.  It had been released in more than a dozen different languages, and there are numerous versions of the game.  Hanabi can be played online at Board Game Arena.

Antoine Bauza continues to design games.  He is perhaps best known as the designer of 7 Wonders, 7 Wonders Duel, Ghost Stories, Takenoko, and Tokaido.    

[Author’s Note: Antoine Bauza has written on the history of Hanabi on his blog and in the book Boardgames that Tell Stories.  He answered a few questions for this article, for which I owe him my thanks.]

The Gameplay

Hanabi is a cooperative game in which players try to create a fireworks display by placing cards on the table in the proper order.

The card deck in the basic game consists of five different colors of cards (red, blue, green, yellow, white), numbered 1–5 in each color.  There are three 1s of each color; two 2s, 3s, and 4s; and one 5.  

Hanabi Components

The cards are held outward, meaning you can’t see them, but the other players can.  To play cards into the fireworks display, 1s must go down first, then 2s, and so on.  

On a player’s turn, they may do one of three things:

  1. Give a clue (sometimes called “hints”).  This involves telling one player either a “number” clue or a “color” clue for all of the cards of the chosen number or color in their hand.  One of the clue tokens is then flipped over.  (There are eight clue tokens in play at the start of the game.)  The current player points to the card(s) in the player’s hand that have either the chosen number or a chosen color.  They cannot skip over cards that match the clue.
  2. Play a card into the fireworks display.  The player announces this, and if the play is legal, the player puts it into the display.  If not, one of the fuses (sometimes called “storm tokens”) is used.  The team only gets three of these before they lose the game.  If a 5 card is successfully played, the team gets a clue flipped back over.
  3. Discard a card.  This card will then permanently leave the game.  The team then gets a clue flipped back over.

This continues until the team either wins — by getting the 5 card in all five colors — or the game ends.  The team can lose by running out of fuses, but the game can also end if the deck runs out.  If the deck does run out, all players get one last turn before the game ends.  

For games that end without all of the 5’s on the table, players can score their game by adding their highest card of each color.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

To say that I love Hanabi is an understatement.  I have it in my Top 10 (currently at #7), and it is probably my most played game of all time.  I’ve played dozens of times with my family, and I’ve got a few dozen more plays on Board Game Arena.  I’ve never had a dull play.

Hanabi is a tense game, and I always enjoy the brain-burny deductive challenge of aiming for a perfect 25.  While I don’t normally like games to have memory elements, this aspect of Hanabi has never bothered me.  Hanabi is one of my favorite cooperative designs, and I admire how the game fixes the  “alpha gamer” problem present in so many co-ops.

The game’s best feature, though, is how it forces you to see the game state from the perspective of other players.  Hanabi rewards repeated play with the same persons.  If you talk to people who play a lot of Hanabi, you’ll frequently find that they have one or two other players that they just love playing the game with.  For me, it is my sister: the two of us can get a 25 a shockingly high percentage of the time, a feat I’ve never been able to replicate with anybody else, even highly-ranked players on BGA.

Hanabi is one of only two games where I collect the various versions (the other is Tichu), and I admit to owning too many copies of the game.  I currently have Hanabi & Ikebana; the standard U.S. edition; the standard German edition; the R&R Games Hanabi Deluxe edition; the Hanabi Extra edition released in Germany; the Hanabi Fun & Easy edition released in Germany; and Hanabi Pocket.  My favorite edition is the R&R games edition, but I also really like Hanabi Fun & Easy.  The R&R games edition — though pricey — features exceptionally high quality game pieces that resemble mahjong tiles.  Hanabi Fun & Easy is great for teaching the game to new players since it removes part of the memory element of the game: it comes with chits for tracking clues.  

All of that said, this is another game where I’ve gone through a cycle about how much I liked the game.  When I played it in 2013, I became hooked, determined to get that perfect 25.  I loved the game, but at the time I wouldn’t have put it in my top 10: I found it frustrating.  I hadn’t yet organized a coherent strategy for victory, and when I finally got to 25 on New Year’s Eve 2013, I said I’d never play the game again.  I thought getting to 25 was too dependent on luck.  Then, several months later, I tried the game online and became hooked all over again.  Online play opened my eyes to new conventions of play that I hadn’t dreamed up, and I started playing regularly.  I now see Hanabi as heavily skill based, and my appreciation for the game grows with each play.  

Is Hanabi for everybody?  Certainly not.  If you dislike cooperative games, you probably won’t like Hanabi (unless your only problem with co-ops is the “alpha gamer” issue, which is fixed here).  I also see how early plays of Hanabi can feel frustrating, and it does take a while to work out a coherent system of strategy.  But if you do like cooperatives — and if you can invest a few games in figuring out a good strategy — Hanabi can present an intense and rewarding gaming experience.  

Would Hanabi win the Spiel des Jahres today?  I think it’d have a good chance.  The game is a true original: a few games have attempted to replicate Hanabi’s formula over the past couple of years, but none have been successful.  The game hits many of the notes that the SdJ jury appreciates — it is fun, family-friendly, and approachable — and I think it’d be a strong contender in any year.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (15 plays): I’d played a number of cooperative games prior to Hanabi, and I’d enjoyed them at essentially the usual rate – but none of them stuck for me; I was never the one to suggest playing them.  Hanabi was the game that broke through that for me.  Though unlike Chris’ theory, this wasn’t because of the lake of an “alpha gamer” issue, but instead because it felt from the start like everyone was doing their own thing.  I never really ran into the problem of one player dominating cooperative games, but they also never felt like they offered the opportunity for players to do something clever.  Hanabi changed that; the clever play might not be a greedy play, but it was still an individual play, not a negotiated or agreed upon play.

I should also say, though – one of the keys to enjoying Hanabi for me is to play with different groups.  At a minimum, I aim not to play with the same group too frequently.  And I won’t play with conventions.  With this, I’ve played Hanabi more than any cooperative game before it.  Two other cooperative games have since passed it in my eyes, but they each take their own path; neither feels like an attempt at a “better” Hanabi.

Patrick Brennan: 191 plays and counting. It’s a tense co-op using just a pack of cards. You’re reliant on other players spending turns informing you about details of your hand (ie these are 1’s, or this is green). But you only get so many shots at this before people either have to play correctly to a pile (make 3 mistakes and it’s game over) or discard a potentially needed card in order to replenish the supply of chips which allow the team to do a helper turn. The game elevates to you trying to provide / glean the maximum amount of information with the fewest possible hints, so you somehow need to build a series of conventions where the same hint means different things in different situations. The game is fun in a quiet, slow, stricken way and is aimed purely at fans of deduction games. It gets replay if you enjoy the challenge of defining and then refining a set of protocols that consistently enable you a chance at a perfect score. The real downside is that there’s no room for game chit-chat or shared emotion that are the usual drivers of co-operative games (this may be what makes it more appealing to non co-op lovers), as anything you do can be construed as providing clues above and beyond what you’re allowed to provide. It can be wrenching watching someone draw the wrong conclusion from hints given so far and reach for the wrong card; to keep a straight face and not groan out loud, or make a face, or cough or simply yell out “nooooooooooo”. I’ve enjoyed the evolving discovery process and seeing how nailable this is with repeat play with the same group of players. Our protocols have developed to the point that we now set ourselves the challenge of playing with just one copy of each wild card in the deck, where wilds are truly wild (ie not a sixth suit) and so must be called as part of any colour you call. Which makes the game a bit more deck dependent, but sets us the challenge of having to find ways to give us at least 2 but hopefully 3 or more plays/discards per clue as much as possible. In summary, the game has stood up nicely and provided tremendous value for money.

Mark Jackson: 2 plays. I like cooperative games – a lot. But Hanabi leaves me completely cold. (Patrick does an able job of pointing out the lack of emotional connection that makes this feel so icey.)

Michael Weston: 100+ plays. I’ve loved Hanabi from my very first play when it first came out and it’s still one of my absolute favorites. Unlike Joe, I’m all for playing with the same players many, many times. Where he sees conventions, I see the group learning how each other think and approach the game’s problems and internalizing that knowledge, allowing our clue-giving to evolve due to better predicting multiple actions of the other players. It’s groupthink in a positive sense, as we are working towards the common goal. Like Patrick, we’ve added the multi-color cards as wild when wanting the extra challenge.

Greg Schloesser:  Quite the addicting game, with that constant “let’s play again” feel, whether the group was successful or not.  The game is very challenging, and without discussing strategies, tactics and subtleties with the group prior to play, it is almost impossible.  There is a considerable group-think required to play well and be effective, and players must constantly be reminded (or remember) what information they already know.  Sometimes this requires a dominant player to assume that role, which may be a bit off-putting to some. Still, I think is a wonderful game and quite original.

Larry:  There are only two cooperative games that I will happily play: Space Alert and Hanabi. Both games very cleverly avoid the issue of the alpha player, in two very different ways. In addition, they don’t suffer from another common problem with co-ops: essentially being a solitaire game played by multiple players. Space Alert achieves this by being a real-time game with extreme time pressure. Hanabi does it with its outwardly exposed cards, which is quite brilliant.

I both admire and like Hanabi, even though I’ve only played it a handful of times. It’s one of the few games I know that can be effectively played very casually or at highly skilled and very intricate levels. That alone made it an inspired choice by the SdJ jury.

All of my games have featured very few conventions. I’d like to try the game with a group that has some intricate conventions, just to see how it plays. I’m sure it would be fun and challenging. The thing that might make this problematic is my poor memory. Just keeping track of the results of what I and all the other players have asked on previous turns is difficult enough for me (I often require assistance from my teammates); I can only imagine how tough things would be if I also had to keep all the conventions and their ramifications in my head at the same time. It’s these memory issues that keep me from exploring Hanabi more. They also keep a game I might conceivably love at an “I Like It” level, at least at this point in time.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Erik Arneson, Patrick Brennan, Michael W.
  • I like it. Joe H., Greg Schloesser, Craig V., Larry
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…  Mark Jackson
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One Response to SdJ Re-Reviews #35: Hanabi

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    Kudo to the Jury for finally blowing the whole “card game can’t win” theory out of the water. Hannibal is a very original card game that deserves to be the game that did it. And it was nice to finally see a co-op game win, as those types of games seem to fit the SdJ mantra of drawing attention to games that attract casual gamers to the world of board games.

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