Why you should care
Because where else can you build a fireworks show indoors?
You and your friends can put on a fireworks show right in your living room. Japanese fireworks, to be clear, and as part of Hanabi, the 2013 board game of the year. Sure, you’ve played Monopoly, Risk and Settlers of Catan, but chances are you haven’t experienced Antoine Bauza’s cooperative card game that will challenge your problem-solving skills and most certainly bruise your ego.
With Hanabi, two to five players are “absent-minded,” perhaps drunk — in the game and possibly in real life too — and think it’s a great night for pretend pyrotechnics. Your impairment: You can only see the cards your fellow gamesters are holding, not your own. It’s the opposite of the “draw a card and look at it” standard in board games and one of the many quirks of Hanabi, which costs about $10 for a set. The person with the most colorful clothing begins the game. You’re responsible as a group for playing cards in the correct order (from 1 to 5) in a variety of colors. To help out, teammates can give a limited number of hints about your hand. But if you play the wrong card, the fuses of the fireworks — which are actually small discs with fireworks printed on them — get shorter and shorter until the show blows up in your face.
Hanabi demands every player’s full attention every turn because each move decides whether you’re fireworks fodder or not.
“It’s simple,” Bauza says, and the rules are easy to pick up. Mastery, on the other hand, takes longer and a perfect game is nearly impossible. Plus, Hanabi demands every player’s full attention every turn because each move decides whether you’re fireworks fodder or not. Gameplay is short — approximately 25 minutes — and no two games are alike, with players exploring different strategies, depending on how their teammates gel. Play with the same people often enough, and you’ll develop your own language. My favorite part? If the group does terribly, it’s easy to blame the person to your left.
When Bauza designed Hanabi in 2010, it wasn’t a cooperative game, a genre that’s becoming increasingly popular (Pandemic and Samurai Spirit are two of the best-known cooperative board games). But it was hard to be competitive without being able to see your own cards, so he made the switch. Tony Mastrangeli, publisher of and writer for Board Game Quest, a board game review site, says that Hanabi’s cooperative style of play works even better than other games because the smartest (or loudest) player can’t take charge. “The alpha gamer, quarterbacking problem is fixed,” says Mastrangeli.
Even so, the game has its flaws. While the fireworks element adds quirk and a layer of stakes, Mastrangeli says it doesn’t actually feel like you’re setting up a pyrotechnics show. “You could be organizing boxes,” he says. And cooperative games don’t appeal to everyone. Plus, in today’s crowded game market, where Kickstarter opened the floodgates to non-publisher entertainment, Hanabi has stiff competition. “The cult of the new,” Mastrangeli says, makes becoming everyone’s favorite game — like a Monopoly or Risk — nearly impossible when gamers are more interested in playing once, shelving the game and then trying a new one.
Still, Hanabi’s uniqueness and simplicity set it apart from the rest of the market, Bauza says. In the past two years, more than 200,000 copies have sold in North America alone. Not bad for a relatively small publisher. It’ll take a lot to catch a game like Settlers of Catan, which has sold more than 18 million copies worldwide, but this fireworks game might just blow up.