Is Hanabi a beautiful firework, or a dud?

Box art of Hanabi shows fireworks exploding over a temple

Hanabi is the winner of 2013 Spiel des Jahres Award so like Ron Burgundy, it’s kind of a big deal. It’s a cheap 2-5 player cooperative game, where you and your team are putting together a firework show – drunk. The main mechanic of the game has you facing your hand of cards outwards, so that while you can’t see them, your friends can. I’m sure being drunk isn’t the official explanation, but I can’t fathom another reason as to why you’re unable to see your own fireworks.

How to Play

There are five sets of coloured cards: white, blue, green, red, and yellow. Within these sets are cards numbered from one to five. The objective of the game is to create a stack for each of the colours with the numbers one to five in that order. The fine print is that, as mentioned above, everyone can look at your hand – except you.

The holy trinity of actions you can take per turn include: giving a clue, playing a card on one of the piles, or discarding a card.

Clueing someone comes in the form of telling another player either “You have so many of , and they are here and here” or “You have this many , and they are here and here” never both.  Giving a clue reduces your clue tokens by one which could leave you in the dark later. A firework pun. Nailed it.

These clue tokens don’t regenerate over time, but do come back when a player discards a card. Given you might not know what you’re discarding, this could be damaging to your teams final score. So be careful.

The last activity you can do is put a card down onto a pile already on the table, or start a new pile if you are putting down one of a new colour. If the card can be legally placed somewhere on the board then it shoots up into the sky illuminating in a brilliant explosion. Otherwise, if it’s not a legal placement the card blows off your finger. Once you lose three fingers you lose the game, as well as the ability to give high fives.

A player holding a hand of cards backwards, the card backs show fireworks exploding
What could be in my hand?

The Good

Hanabi has one of the best starting moments of any board game. No one around the table has any information as to what they’re holding. So instead they’re looking at you and you’re sheepishly looking back, when finally, someone says: “Ok, what now?”

From that point it becomes flexible, there’s a looseness to the rules that allows this to be both a light filler, and a brain burner at the same time: Schrodinger’s game. Depending on how cavalier your group is with the communication rules, you can find yourself having fun skirting the laws yet still messing up and having a laugh. Alternatively, you can be extremely rigid with the rules, and then create systems to maximize the information shared with each clue.

My group fell somewhere between these two extremes. A simple sample system we used was when giving a clue you always point to the one that they should play first then pause for a second before revealing the other cards. While we didn’t go much further ourselves, I’ve read stories of people who go Rain Man on this game, creating systems within systems chasing the perfect score.

Either way you play it there are a lot of good moments that rely on logical decision making. Deciding if to give a clue, and then what to give and who to give it to. Or knowing when to discard or place a card. At any time, you have a lot of information about the game state to back your decision, however you have the same problem a blind man has at a fish market: what the heck is in my hand?

As the game goes on the information about your hand dries up, and as it does the need to remove cards from your hand increases. This creates pressure and leads to players taking risks based on limited to no information. As the non-active player, you can clearly see the player taking these risks, and know the outcome but are not allowed to do anything about it but cry – and even that’s against the rules. This leads to some super fun moments where everyone groans, or cheers depending on the result.

Finally, a huge plus for Hanabi is the price point. It’s so cheap that even if you only have a cursory curiosity about the game, and think you might like it, it’s worth picking up.

Shows the six suits of cards in Hanabi, plus the fuse, and hint tokens.
All of the components laid out to bear

The Bad

I have a few issues with this game, the first of which is that every time I pulled it out my dog would start whimpering and hide under the couch. I joke of course, as one of my complaints is that this game’s theme is barely present. Which shouldn’t be a detractor, it’s an abstract game. However, the bigger my collection gets, the more value there is in what I’m calling ‘shelf appeal’. That is how likely I’m going to play it, and how easy it is to get others to play it, just by looking at it on my shelf. A thinly themed game about Japanese fireworks with simplistic art is becoming a harder and harder sell, especially against more modern games.

Another dumb complaint is that you always hold up your cards. Which would be fine if you weren’t a hairy middle-aged man who for some reason replaced his sweat glands with a faulty water pipe. It’s a problem solved by sleeves or card racks, but it’s something that could have been resolved in development.

Unlike other games, Hanabi provides the players all the information needed to get a perfect score. It’s only when restricted by the rules that players start to fail. It’s at the time when the pressure of getting good score clashes with the pressure of being an honest rule abiding citizen. The game doesn’t provide a framework around this and requires the players to police themselves.

From the games I’ve played there comes a point where people can’t help themselves but to break the rules, even doing it subconsciously through body language. This really dilutes the logical puzzle and makes the game too easy at times. It did however, teach me that my Mum can’t handle the pressure. If the police ever interrogate her, despite my complete innocence, I’m getting 25 to life.

My last issue is that the game only provides a soft win condition. It follows the school of thought that everyone’s a winner, and if you’d seen me in high school you’d know this isn’t true. It could be argued to set your own win-loss condition, but this feels like a cop out from the designer, much like the rule to make up your own rules around communication. I shouldn’t have to make any rules, I didn’t design the system, or spend the time playtesting. I’m not a game designer, so why should I have any effect on the rules?

All the components are packed away in the box.
The power of the firework, in the palm of your hand

The Verdict

I propose that in Star Trek: Discovery it should not be Kal-toh that the Vulcans play but Hanabi. A logic and deduction based game that excels when people show no emotion. It’s perfect. For the rest of us though? Personally, I enjoy it enough to be up for a game, but not enough to grab it from the shelf. Therefore I’m not recommending it, however, understand that there is a large amount of people who do love it.

That said, I’ve heard – but not played – about the game Beyond Baker Street. It sounds like Hanabi but with a theme and hard win-loss condition.  Given my gripes, this sounds right up my alley, but it doesn’t come close to matching Hanabi’s price point. Even though I’m not sold on Hanabi, I had enough fun with the mechanic to be interested in giving Beyond Baker Street a go.

Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one glorious list. You can see Hanabi’s initial ranking below.

Initial Rank: 9

Fireworks are very nostalgic, and I think as we grow older we lose some of the wonder we had as children looking at the sky exploding. For me, the last time I saw fireworks in real life was around October. When was the last time you saw them, and what was the occasion?

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

9 thoughts on “Is Hanabi a beautiful firework, or a dud?

  1. Just recently got this and I’ve enjoyed it so far. Like you said, the player-policing kinda works against the game since its a co-op so collusion helps everyone technically. Easy to play, but might get worn out after several plays with the same group.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have the Deluxe edition of Hanabi and LOVE it. It solves that awkward holding-the-cards-while-trying-not-to-look-at-them thing because it uses beautiful tiles that stand up on their own. The light theme doesn’t bother me for abstract strategy games so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Price point-wise, Beyond Baker Street is approximately twice as much as Hanabi. But aside from cards, you get an actual board, wooden markers, and a whole deck of “character” cards that allow for some clever game-enhancing abilities. For what you get – value-wise – I’d say it’s comparable to Hanabi!

    Liked by 1 person

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