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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Playing Fireworks Blind

Most co-operative board games have the players working against the clock or the game itself, sometimes with a traitor amongst the players trying to thwart their efforts. Battlestar Galactica, published by Fantasy Flight Games, and Grosso Modo Éditions’ more recent Nosferatu are typical of cooperative games with a traitor mechanic, whilst Z-Man Games’ Pandemic and Indie Cards and Games’ Flash Point: Fire Rescue are typical of co-operative board games without a traitor mechanic. These games have made the co-operative style of play popular and accepted, the board game Pandemic having made the breakthrough in 2008. Most co-operative games revolve around the players attempting to cope with limited information that they all share. In Hanabi, the players must share information about what each other has on their cards, but they will never know exactly what they have on their own cards.

Named for the Japanese word for fireworks, Cocktail Games’ Hanabi was the 2013 Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year Winner. The players are apprentices who are attempting to put on a firework display for the emperor, but have managed to mix up the powders, fuses and rockets. To succeed, they must launch the fireworks in the correct sequence, and if they do, they please not only the emperor, but their master too.

Designed for two to five players, aged eight and up, Hanabi consists of five sets of coloured cards—red, blue, green, white, and white, plus three red tokens and eight blue tokens. Each set consists of ten cards, each containing three cards numbered one, two numbered two, two numbered two, two numbered two, and a single card numbered five. The red tokens are failure tokens, indicating a poorly displayed firework; the blue tokens are clue tokens, used to impart information to another player about the cards in his hands.

A complete firework consists of a single colour that contains cards played in order, from one up through two, three, four, and finally, five. Completing a firework gains the players a blue token; playing a card out of sequence onto a firework, for example, playing a white-4 card onto a white-2 card, would earn the players a red token. If they gain all three red tokens, the game is over.
At game’s start, each player receives a hand of cards, either four or five, depending on the number of players. A player cannot look at his hand, but instead holds them face out so that the other players can seem them. Thus each player can see everyone else’s cards, but not his own.

On his turn, a player can undertake a single action. He can discard card to gain a blue token; he can play a card, either to an ongoing firework or to start one if there is not yet one of that colour; or he can expend a blue token to give a clue; giving clues lies at the heart of Hanabi. To give a clue, a player points to another player’s hand and imparts certain information about that hand. This can be about the cards of a single colour in a player’s hand, such as “You have a green card here” or “You have two white cards here and here”; or about the cards of single number in the player’s hand, such as “You have a three here” or “You have a four here and here”. The clues given must be complete—so if a player has two four cards, the informing player must indicate both of them. If a player discarded a card or played one onto a firework, then he draws a new card.

Play continues until either the players have acquired all three red tokens and thus lost the game; or all five fireworks have been completed in the correct order and the players have scored maximum points, or the deck has been exhausted. In the case of the latter, points are awarded based on the fireworks completed, the top card on each firework adding to the final score. A maximum of twenty-five points can be scored, with scores of between sixteen and twenty-four at least being memorable.

Hanabi is as simple as that. During play, a player is free to arrange his cards how he likes and to an extent can talk about his hand in general terms—only the other players can be specific about his hand and only after having expended a blue token. For a game as simple as Hanabi, it requires a great deal of thought and no little care, because it is a game about memory and deduction, that is remembering where your cards are in your hand and deducing which card to play next from the clues previously given. Essentially though, it is a game about communication and understanding that communication, and about remembering that communication. Get the communication wrong and potential points are lost as the wrong cards are discarded or played onto a firework.

Hanabi is also a filler game, play being expected to last no longer than twenty minutes or so. Unlike more recent filler games, for example, Coup or Love Letter, this one is not combative. Indeed, in comparison to many other co-operative games, Hanabi is benign, the players are not really playing against a game that is set up for them to fail, as in Pandemic or Battlestar Galactica. Even its subject matter is benign, but despite that and its benign mechanics, it is actually more challenging than your average filler game because it is asking the players to think and communicate. Also, where another co-operative bears repeat play by increasing the difficulty level of the game the players have to beat; Hanabi bears repeated play if a group wants to improve its score.

Despite its simplicity, Hanabi is clever because it gives us a new playing experience. One that emphasises communication and deduction to support its co-operative play.