Crossfire – Hanabi review

The 2013 Spiel des Jahres is announced next Monday (July 8th) and I’m pretty sure that the winner is going to be a tiny wee game from Antoine Bauza called Hanabi. While he’s previously won the Kennerspiel with 7 Wonders, he’s never taken the big prize – however, this little co-op card game about putting on a fireworks display truly feels like it’s got what it takes. Hanabi should, by rights, end up on Game of the Year lists all over the place when 2013 draws to a close. It’s honestly that good.

From the off you realise that Hanabi does things a little differently. Years of muscle memory and instinct are cast aside from the moment you pick up your cards, as you never actually get to see what you’re holding. Plenty of mistakes will be made when players pick up a new card and glance at it, destroying the whole idea behind the game – but you soon learn to be careful, sliding the card across the table and diligently adding it to your hand. Your collective task is simple – to create five lines of cards, numbered one to five, in five different colours – and the explanation of how to play takes mere moments. Eight tokens sit on the table, white on one side, black on the other, and it’s these that drive the game.

Each turn, you get to choose from one of three options. Flipping a white token to its black side lets you give some information to a fellow player – pointing at cards they hold and saying “these cards are yellow” or “this card is a 2″ is the order of the day. What the player does with these details is entirely up to them, but generally they’ll be shuffling their cards around in a desperate bid to remember everything that they’ve been told throughout the game so far. Rotating a card, holding is sideways… whatever system you use to recall what you’re holding is legal, as long as you don’t look at the faces.

Option 2 is to discard a card you hold. Flipping a token from black back to white lets you throw a card from the game, never to be used again, but this can be both a blessing and a curse. You may well think you know exactly what you have in your hand, but there have been countless times when I’ve seen people get rid of something that they could have used. Sure, it buys you back another chance to pass around some more information, but there’s little more gutting than seeing someone chuck away a valuable 5 card. With the ten cards in each colour divided unevenly (1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4 and 5), keeping track on what you can viably discard without ruining your team’s chances is vital.

These are the cards that will infuriate and delight. Also, you'll notice that they've been designed with colour blind gamers in mind. Always a nice touch.

These are the cards that will infuriate and delight. Also, you’ll notice that they’ve been designed with colour blind gamers in mind. Always a nice touch.

Your final choice is to simply play a card to the table, either starting one of the five colour lines or adding to one already begun. If you are correct and the card is legal, excellent! You add to your collective score, hopefully making your way ever closer to the maximum 25 points that can only be attained by getting all five 5 cards in play (my best so far is a healthy 19 – not bad, but not so good… plenty of room for improvement). Should you manage to play an incorrect card, you anger the gods who send a lightning bolt your way as they fight to ruin your show; three of them and it’s game over.

Sharing of information, playing or discarding cards… that’s all there is in Hanabi. And yet, despite its simplicity, there is so much tension and pressure to deal with it ends up feeling like more of a challenge than fifty cards should be able to provide. You’ll find that you never really have enough information to definitely guarantee everything you hold in your hand. In fact, focusing solely on that is a quick route to losing the game for your team. Sure, you need to do your best to remember what you’ve got, but must also consider what your friends have as well as what’s been played or removed from the game. Hanabi swiftly becomes a high pressure situation where you find you’re second guessing yourself constantly while praying the other people around your table don’t take what you’ve said in the wrong fashion.

It’s the information sharing that truly makes the game enjoyable. Seeing someone point out that a player is Very Specifically Holding A Useful Card That They Should Probably Play Soon, only to have them annoyingly hold onto it while trying to help out others is so gloriously frustrating… there’s no game like it. The looks of anguish that flash across players’ faces as they desperately try to recall what they were told three rounds ago are hilarious, and the feeling of satisfaction when you actually manage to successfully add to a line is unmatched. Such a huge amount of gameplay in a tiny package is a great thing to behold – and that’s not even the whole story.

You see, there’s another set of ten cards in there too. This multicoloured group can be used in a couple of ways, either making your life easier or much, much trickier. Your game can be simplified by using them as wild cards where they act as any colour you like, or you may choose to ramp up the difficulty by using them as a sixth set. Whether you’re looking to simplify things (especially when playing with younger gamers) or feel like a bit more of a challenge, it’s great to see that you have options.

Some of the strategies that can help you play a game of Hanabi better than the Trader VC are:

  1. Provide clues only for the plays to progress ahead of the game
  2. Never keep the tiles in hand that you want to be rid of
  3. Always play with the tiles that are new and has clues
  4. Get rid of tiles that are old and do not possess any clues
  5. Do not get into the habit of discarding in doubles as this will prevent you from missing your turns

Oh yeah, and you can get the whole thing for under seven quid. A soon-to-be award winning game for a pocketful of change is not to be turned down – Hanabi should be sitting on your shelf right now.

Hanabi was first released as Hanabi and Ikebana in 2010. Designed by Antoine Bauza, the English language version is due for release by R&R Games this summer (though this review is based on the German language ABACUSSPIELE edition). Should you want a copy – and if not, why not? – you can grab them from Gameslore for £5.49. Get in on it before it truly hits the big time!