Hanabi: Grands Feux ★★★

Hanabi Grands Feux Cover

Hanabi is a cooperative deduction game in which you can see the cards held by your teammates, but not your own. Limited to small clues as your only form of communication, it’s a challenging exercise in contextual logic.

Grands Feux, the newest edition, brings us the best version of the game yet and three great expansions. Let’s have a look.

HOW IT WORKS

The goal of the game is to stack coloured cards in order. There are five suits, each with ten cards ranging from 1 to 5. You must start with a 1 and then play the 2 and so on, with each stack being separated from each other by colour.

On your turn, there are three possible actions. The first is to give a clue, telling a player how many of their cards belong to a colour or have a certain number on them. The second is to play a card from your card, incurring on a penalty if it wasn’t a legal move. Finally, you can discard a card to get a clue token.

These clues are your only form of communication. You are not allowed to openly discuss your moves, so all plays must be made on very small strands of information. Giving and understanding small logical hints is what Hanabi is truly about.

Whenever you play or discard a card you draw another one, ensuring you’ll always have a need for more clues. Most cards in the deck are duplicated, but the 5s at the top are not, making it risky to play them willy-nilly.  When the deck runs out, you have just one more turn to play your cards before comparing your score. You also lose if you make three illegal plays over the course of the game.

TRICKY CLUES

What makes Hanabi tick is the wide range of possibilities. You can convey information in different ways, depending on the circumstance or what your teammates will recognize. Over time, you’ll develop a common language, certain plays that always communicate the same meaning.

You can try to be precise and carefully point each colour and number. That works, but it requires so many clues you won’t be able to afford it very often. You can do the opposite and try to mark several cards with one clue, but then it will be harder to know which one is the right play.

Often, not giving a clue can be every bit as revealing as doing so. For example, telling which cards are red has the implicit message of the rest of your hand being other colours. And I’m also telling you it’s this red card that matters, not the other colours. If you can guess what I have in mind, you can guess which cards you have.

This interplay between positive and negative deduction is what keeps the game interesting. It’s not possible to play the game in a purely logical manner, you must take small leaps of faith based on the actions of your teammates.

Part of the fun also lies on clues being time sensitive. If you have just drawn a card and I tell you it’s red, chances are it’s the red 3 we have been waiting for. If a card has gone unmarked for the whole game, it’s not going to be very important.

I also like that there are two layers to the game. The first is the deduction aspect, knowing what cards you hold in your hand and recognizing clues. The second is being able to tell others which cards to play and when. There’s a trade-off between the quality of information and efficiency. If you want the best of both worlds, you must risk being misunderstood.

FEAR AND FUN

The issue I have with Hanabi is that losing is not fun. The possibility of failure is engaging, but actual mistakes come across as more painful than entertaining. It gives me a feeling of others “playing it wrong” that rubs me the wrong way. Compared to The Mind, Hanabi might be deeper and more technical, but nowhere as charming.

I suspect the reason is that the game is not so much about understanding your teammates as it is about creating and following a code. You should not guess what a clue means, you should know based on what the other player expects you to do and your common shared language. In that sense, the game punishes deviance more than it rewards understanding.

This unpleasant feeling is compounded by the narrow scoring of the game. It’s relatively easy to score 20 or 21, but very difficult to score higher. This means that you either coast to a good score despite your mistakes or restart because the higher score you were looking for cannot be obtained.

Hanabi is a rather cold game. The limitations on what you can say or do means that expressing emotion can turn into unintentional cheating. Playing too fast or being wary of discarding the wrong card can be game-breaking clues. Sometimes I cheat a bit just to be able to talk openly.

GRANDES FEUX

Still, I always end up playing Hanabi three or four times in a row. The appeal of trying to get it right next time is very strong, and the short play time makes it quite tempting. There’s depth to the game. It took me a long time to obtain my first perfect score and I’ve gotten less than a dozen of them since I started playing.

Hanabi expansion

The newest edition of the game, Grands Feux, includes three expansions. The previously released Avalanche de couleurs expansion, which adds 10 multicoloured cards is a fantastic addition that will greatly lengthen the life of the game. It’s a harder, nuanced expansion that makes all clues trickier. You no longer know exactly if a card is red with one clue, for it could be of two different colours.

The second is the rare Master Artisan expansion, which replaces the bonus you get for placing the last card in a colour with random tiles. While its impact on the game is small and makes for a slightly easier experience, it makes it worth it to keep playing even if you make a mistake because now you might recover some cards from the discard pile.

The third addition is Black Powder. These colourless cards must be played in inverse order, from 5 to 1, and, like the multicolour cards, make all clues harder and more interesting. It’s a lot of fun, very, very difficult and probably the best addition for Hanabi veterans. They make discarding a much harder choice as neither 1s not 5s are safe anymore.

The production is great. Nice, vivid colours provide great contrast while the plastic tokens and card holders are very welcome additions. The latter is particularly important because it lets you focus on the game rather than keeping your hand visible.

Hanabi components

The only issue I have is the weird shape of the cards. They are very tall and narrow, and I can’t imagine sleeves will be easy to find. It makes sense for them to be like this, otherwise they wouldn’t fit on the holder, but their glossy finish also makes them prone to marks so sleeves are a priority.

Lastly, Hanabi can be played for free on Board Game Arena. Unlike other online implementations, this service is approved by both designer and publisher. It’s a great way to play the game on the go, or with a distant friend and also an invaluable tool to sharpen your skills. Playing with strangers is much harder than with your friends!

Despite its coldness, I’ve come to appreciate Hanabi. Its simplicity and true cooperative focus make for a great experience. And while the two-player game is a bit wonky, adding one additional card is enough to make it shine at that player count. It might not be my favourite cooperative or deduction board game, but it’s a good one.

HANABI: GRANDS FEUX (2019)
DESIGN Antoine Bauza ART Gérald Guerlais
PUBLISHER Cocktail Games LENGTH 20 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 2-5 (Best with 3-4) SCORE ★★★

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