Hanabi: Beginner strategy guide and tips

Hanabi has simple rules but reaching a good score is not easy. Most players will never see the fabled 25 points and may even dismiss the possibility. But everyone can do well at Hanabi, it just takes a little bit of strategy. Knowing when to discard, why play a card over another or how to get the most out of the available information are three invaluable tips we need if we want to win.

COMMUNICATION

Hanabi is a game of communication. This might seem strange at first. After all, you are not allowed to talk with other players. However, the core of the game lies in telling others what they need to know to play their cards and hear the same from them. Doing this with only a few clues is challenging, but it can be done. We only need to remember this principle: Clues are given for a reason.

If we understand why someone would give us a clue, we can figure out how to proceed. Most of the time, they’ll ask us to play a card. For example, a clue for “2” probably will indicate to play that card if the matching 1 is on the table. The second most common scenario is to discard: If 2s are no longer needed, then we are probably meant to discard. Lastly, a clue can protect a card, like a 5, so we don’t accidentally get rid of it.

When giving out clues, we should have a goal in mind. Do not give information at random, it’s unlikely to be useful. Rather, try to help them figure out which cards come next, which ones they should protect or simply which ones are fine to get rid of. Having a clear goal will help everyone. Don’t worry about them being the most useful, being consistent is more important than efficiency.

Note that clues can and will be given in roundabout ways. Imagine you are sitting on a 3 because you don’t know if it’s the red one you need. You see a teammate tell another they have a 4. What does that mean? Well, given the 4 cannot be played without a 3, there’s an easy explanation: Both cards are red and it’s safe to play both of them in succession.

However, what should we do when several cards are covered by the same clue? Which one should we play then? When in doubt, there are three principles to keep in mind: Play the newest, discard the oldest and check both the scoring and discard plays for additional information.

PLAY THE NEWEST

When given a clue that marks several cards, play the newest one. I usually keep my cards in the order I draw them to help with this. New cards are more likely to be relevant. After all, if you just drew a card and I give it a clue, there must be a reason. Giving priority to the newest card allows us to react to them as they join our hands and prevents them from being clogged.

For example, if you are given a clue of 4 but you have three cards with that number in hand, play the one you got more recently. If you just drew a card and I give a colour, it’s probably the next card in that pile and so on. It can’t be any simpler and it will make all decisions easier. Knowing you’ll play the newest card helps other players as they can adjust their clues accordingly.

Note that this applies only to cards with the same amount of information on them. If you know more about an older card, play that one instead! As a rule of thumb, it’s better to take your time playing the safest cards first and then gamble on the ones you know the least about. This gives other players time to give you a second clue, if needed. Don’t rush if you don’t need to!

DISCARD THE OLDEST

When discarding, you should discard the oldest card in your hand that has no clues on it. Cards with clues are more important than those that don’t have them. Similarly, the oldest card is also the safest to get rid of. After all, if you truly had to keep the card around, your teammates would have had plenty of time to tell you.

However, leaving players without clues can be useful. It’s another way of communication. If they are forced to discard, it means we have given our approval for them to get rid of their next card. If it’s not safe to discard, for whatever reason, give it a clue. Players won’t discard cards with clues unless it’s safe to do so.

Newbies are often scared of discarding. That’s understandable, but it’s no riskier than playing cards. Don’t be afraid of doing so! If your oldest card has been sitting there for fifteen minutes, perhaps it’s time to get rid of it. Discarding not only gives us more clues, it lets us trade our useless cards for ones we can actually play.

This is important because failing to do so will put you into a lock. By never discarding and always spending clues they’ll eventually run out, forcing your team to discard over and over just so you can give them clues. This is not only awful for that player, it also means you’ll never refill your hand with good cards.

AVAILABLE INFORMATION

All choices in Hanabi are informed by the cards that have already been played. If you know what other players have, what’s in the discard pile and what has been scored, it will be easier to know what’s in your hand. Checking these cards and even keeping them organized costs very little and will make your plays significantly better.

Keep in mind the composition of the deck. Each color has three 1s, two 2s, 3s and 4s and a single 5 to top things off. In other words, you can only lose one card of each type except for 5s which must be protected at all costs. Hence, if there’s only one Red 3 left, think twice before discarding any card marked as that number or colour.

It’s a good idea to let players know about these cards in advance. Even if it’s not at risk right now, there’s usually little cost to marking them. After all, you will have to play them sooner or later! Protecting these cards will prevent those matches in which you lose all 3s of a colour and end up not being able to do anything to score.

Still, part of the beauty of Hanabi is how communication works differently for each group. Don’t be afraid to explore different clues or to discuss their meaning with your friends after each game. With a bit of practice, the game can become even more fun. Will you reach the 25 point score? Let me know if you do!

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