Singing the praises of Hanabi


Hanabi has been briefly mentioned in a list of tabletop games to use at work, but this brilliant little game deserves a post of its own.

Hanabi (“Fireworks”) is an award-winning card game designed by Antoine Bauza. It’s a cooperative game, meaning that all players are on the same team, playing against the game itself. It’s a nearly abstract game (the “theme” is that the players are creating the best possible firework show for the emperor) and as such relies on few simple rules that create difficult decisions.

Being a card game instead of a board game means that it’s cheap and fits on a small box (compare it to, say, Gloomhaven, which weights more than 20 pounds). It allows from 2 to 5 players and takes about 30 minutes to play once people know the rules; it can take more if there are new players.

Basic Gameplay

The goal is to lay out cards of the same color in numerical order, from one to five. Each card is a point scored; the better the score, the most epic the win.

Cards that do not fit the sequence trigger an explosion. If the team explodes three times, they immediately lose the game and score zero points.

A final state of the game might look like this:

Cards grouped by colors: yellow 1 to 3, green 1, blue 1 to 5, red 1 to 3 and whte 1 to 2. Cards are square, and all show the same night scene of Mount Fuji with different fireworks, each color with its own shape.
14 points: an “okay” result according to the game’s scoring table.

Now, you realize there’s going to be a catch and that is that the players don’t see their own cards.

One player points towards the cards the other is holding, three other people watch, smiling. Cards are laid out on the table.
Cards are held facing the other players.

Information in Hanabi is limited (as opposed to the perfect information about the state of the board in Chess, for example) and communication between players is restricted (no table talk allowed).

A player in their turn must take one of three actions:

  • Give a hint to another player and spend a hint token.
  • Play a card.
  • Discard a card and gain a hint token back.

Hints take a specific format: the player must point out every card of a certain color OR number that the receiving player has.

4 Hanabi cards: a green 3, a white 1, a yellow 1 and a yellow 2
Example hand.

Legal hints to a player holding the above cards would be:

  • First card is “Green” (player can point to the card)
  • First card is “3”
  • Second card is “White”
  • Middle cards are “1”
  • Third and last cards are “Yellow”
  • Last card is “2”

Note that if the team needs to single out the yellow 1 (in case white has already been played), they must give two hints.

At work

Software development is very much a cooperative game and I had the opportunity to experiment with several actual games at DBServer (including the one that spawned this blog). Hanabi was the one most consistently used, during employee orientation, team building exercises and hiring interviews.

A group of men and women play Hanabi
Hanabi at the office

There are plenty of cooperative games out there (BoardGameGeek lists over 7000), but Hanabi is ideal for the workplace due to a number of characteristics.

  • It’s easy to learn. Many otherwise excellent cooperative games use variable power mechanic, where each player’s role is slightly different, or have many different components.
  • It has zero setup time.
  • Even though it only goes up to 5 players, it cheap enough to buy extra copies.
  • It’s challenging to score really well, but it’s rare to actually lose at Hanabi. The team will be able to score at least some points. There are coops much more punishing.
  • The clear focus on communication makes it easy to relate to workplace dynamics.
  • It makes everyone participate equally. Coops with free table-talk and complete information are often dominated by one player (the alpha-player problem). In Hanabi nobody has the full picture and in the end the decision belongs to the individual.
  • It requires the team to pay attention to each other, rather than work on separate tasks for a common cause. Strategy in Hanabi is often driven by figuring out who needs help, understanding and complementing what the previous player was going for, and realizing how one’s current play is going to impact the next player.
  • It requires trust in oneself and in others.

On the other hand, some points to consider:

  • It’s not accessible to the blind
  • Some editions reportedly are less colorblind-friendly than others
  • It requires memory and logic (one could argue that for a software house that’s exactly the point, but hey, there are other skills)

The aforementioned blog post touches on some accessible games. The site Meeple Like Us has a ton of accessibility teardowns (and incidentally, really dislikes Hanabi, for a different perspective). There are also companies such as 64oz Games that sell accessibility kits for a number of games.

When we played Hanabi during orientation, folks often reacted with some unease at the news that they were going to play an unknown game. Yet, consistently, everyone was into it by the second round. In addition, hardly anyone had been familiar with the concept of a cooperative game, let alone played one. Thus Hanabi provided us with a paradigm-shifting experience.


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