Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 25 mins
Setup Time: 0
Value For Money: High
There are any Spiel Des Jahres winners that owe at least as much to their components as their mechanics, Camel (C)Up would be a good call on that front. Hanabi is not one, a few cards and a few counters and that’s about it, it is a game that wins on the basis of the sheer thunderbolt brilliance of its mechanics. Hanabi is simple, clean, clear and brilliant, and I’m a big fan.
Gameplay is painfully simple, players have a hand of cards which they can either discard for a token or play to the table face up, if all the cards are played in number sequence in their colours then the players win. However, if a card is played out of sequence a life is lost, lose too many lives and all players lose. The big idea that makes the game work is that players hold their cards so that everyone apart from them can see them. The third thing that players can do other than playing or discarding is offer information on the hands of other players, which can be either which of their cards are a given colour or which are a certain number. However, information can only be offered if there is a token to discard. As such the game is a constant balancing act of giving the most efficient information to other players, ensuring that they have a range of safe actions to take rather than focusing on ones own actions, before the tokens run out and a player is forced to play or discard blind. Players can fail by playing too many cards wrongly as mentioned before, or by discarding too many cards needed for a sequence such that it can no longer be completed.
Hanabi is simple, with a couple of choices and a few components it puts a constant mental pressure on its players in the most delicious way, playing with communication and empathy. From the simple act of turning the cards around and controlling how you communicate about them, by forcing players not to ask what they want to know but judge what their fellow players need to know, the game is strikingly, almost shockingly elegant in its simplicity. Many SDJ winners go on to spawn multiple expansions, the award always results in large sales, but there is really nothing that could be added or taken away from Hanabi, it is spare and pure in its design in a very special way.
As a Spiel winner it arguably qualifies for that one moment of turning the cards around, the instant rule breaking nature of that act says everything you need to know about hobby and gateway gaming. There is no reason to assume that cards should be one way around or another, but we all know from standard gaming that I pick up my cards and hide them from you. Simply twisting that one idea is the epitome for me of gateway gaming, showing someone that things can be different.
Hanabi is a pocket-sized piece of genius, and now comes in multiple editions if you need something a little fancier looking. There is no sane reason not to own it, and if you’re in anyway interested in modern gaming or game design it something you should play until you understand why its so smart.