Game review: Hanabi as metaphor for intelligent life

It has taken me a shamefully long time to crack open the copy of Hanabi I picked up after hearing it recommended in a podcast by the Three Donkeys crew. Despite playing it first on January 4, I knew within a few games it was going to be a near-certain personal Game of the Year for 2014. I’ve since played it for hours with my partner, chasing a perfect game (so far our best score is 23, 4 actions short of perfecting all 5 fireworks – so close!), and that opinion has only been cemented.

Hanabi‘s core conceit is simple: players are working together to try and play cards in various colours in sequence, but each player cannot see their own hand, instead relying on information from other players which is controlled by a very strict economy. In other words, the only person who can actually do anything with a card (play it or discard it) is the person who can’t see it.

Hidden information in games is nothing new – it can more or less carry an entire game, as is pretty much the case with poker. What’s so ingenious about Hanabi is that it not only forces us to confront the unyielding reality that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, as any such games do, but to do so in the framework of having to collaborate with those people.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the problem of other people’s unknowability in a competitive or even hostile framework – the resentment that our more basic natures reflexively feel towards the things that make us exert ourselves meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards that have been played or discarded, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Feeling antagonistic towards them only distracts you – and probably them – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

The way the information economy works is also ingenious, but I would rather leave the review at this point than further explain the rules or focus overmuch on the technical. They are simple to learn, and I hope the mystery will encourage you to pick up the game.

So let me simply conclude by saying that I highly recommend that you play Hanabi, and take care to honour the spirit of the rules about communication, not just the letter. It thoroughly deserves the Spiel des Jahres[1] it won, but more importantly, it is not only deeply pleasurable: it is rewarding.