Years ago, when we were just starting to buy board games, a representative from Snakes & Lattes recommended two games to us: Card of the Dead and Hanabi. One is a game about fighting zombies in the apocalypse, while the other is a game about sequencing fireworks. Naturally, we chose the zombie game, because how could a game about fireworks top zombies? Well, Card of the Dead turned out to be a dud that collected dust on our shelf until we eventually gave it away.
Meanwhile, Hanabi became a runaway smash hit, selling a ton of copies for R&R Games and even winning the prestigious Speil des Jahres award for game of the year. Recognizing that we blew it, I always wondered what would have been had we chosen Hanabi on that fateful day. After a few recent plays with this fireworks-based game, we probably would have been a lot happier.
Players work as a team of pyrotechnicians to put on a fireworks display. The fireworks are represented by cards that come in five different colours and five different numbers. Over the course of the game, players will take turns playing their cards in numerical order based on colours. What makes this much more difficult than it sounds is that each player doesn’t actually get to see their own cards. Instead, each player holds their cards backwards so that everyone else can see what they’re holding.
As one of the available actions, players have a limited number of hints that can be used to tell one player some of the information about the cards in their hand. For instance, you are allowed to point out which cards share a specific colour, or which cards share a specific number, but you can’t tell both with one hint. With enough hints and a strong memory, you should be able to play or discard cards at the right time.
There are three different ways the game can end. One, your team plays too many cards out of sequence, causing everyone to lose the game by blowing everything up prematurely. Two, you score 25 points before the deck of cards is depleted and you’ve achieved absolute perfection. Three, and the most likely scenario, is that you’ll finish the deck with a score lower than 25. The closer your score is to 25, the happier your audience will be with your performance.
The way in which the game limits the flow of information is simply brilliant. It’s so much fun to try and squeeze the most out of your hints while trying to memorize the bits of information you have about your own cards. Since information at any given time is at a minimum and mistakes range from bad to catastrophic, every move feels like someone cutting the cord of a bomb and you just hope it doesn’t blow up in everyone’s face. With time, you’ll get comfortable with making it through the deck unscathed, though reaching that 25-point milestone seems nearly impossible. Having said that, the process of trying to reach that plateau is so enjoyable that you and your friends will have a hard time putting this one down.
Hanabi is a masterclass game in a small box. You can teach this to just about anyone in a matter of minutes, play it as a quick filler or as the main event with hardcore gamers trying to achieve the perfect score. The way in which it incorporates hidden information with a limited hint system makes for a game that is always strategically engaging and thrilling. At a starting price of only $10 for the card-based version, you should have bought this game yesterday. In my case, I should have bought this game years ago. There’s also a tile-based deluxe version that’s notably more expensive, though I might even double dip for the sexier components because I enjoy this game that much.