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Sunday
Apr132014

Praise for "Hanabi"

I’d like to take a moment to discuss a particularly brilliant card game that’s caught my attention recently.

To not get bogged down in the details of the full rules, I’ll describe only the crucial details of Hanabi:

  1. Hands are reversed; each player can see every other player’s cards but not their own.
  2. Players cooperate to complete a solitaire-type task, building piles of cards in a set order.
  3. The sharing of information is carefully regulated and limited by the rules.

The thing I think is most interesting about the game is how well it reflects a key concept in Japanese culture, the distinction between honne (heartfelt desires) and tatemae (proper public expression).

In Hanabi, it is sometimes possible to give another player enough information to be sure a given move is good or bad based entirely on logical inference.  But the rules are strict enough that successful communication must often rely heavily on subtext.  For example, “this is your only red card” might not be enough information to conclude that the card is a valid play.  But pointing out a single card often has the subtext of “play this next”.  “These two cards are your 4s” doesn’t say anything about the cards’ color, but if there are two or more piles on the board topped with 3s, you might infer that either is a valid play.  Then again, not everyone chooses to express subtext in the same way.

There’s an interesting tension between desire to achieve goals and desire to not annoy with impropriety.  It’s interesting to observe how often players come to the correct conclusion about subtext only to second-guess themselves when a bit of errant table-talk sows the seed of self-doubt.

Once, when discussing this, I suggested that the game becomes more beautiful and fascinating when the rules are strictly adhered to, the game passing rapidly with stony faces and relative silence.  Another player astutely argued, “I think the ideal game is one where a player might say, ‘Maybe I’ll do this,’ and the other players might respond ‘maybe’ or ‘well…’ but no more.” Which does indeed remind me of Japan!

When the game’s creator, Antoine Bauza, was asked:

What kind of “conventions” can players legally use in Hanabi? Or, more importantly than the rules, what do you envision an ideal round of Ghost Stories [another of Bauza’s games] look like? Hanabi?

He responded:

Hanabi is all about communication and non-communication. Some like to play it the hard way (just give the information, with a neutral tone), some like to play it the soft way (making small sign, changing tone, using eye contact). It’s an experimental design, so I ask the players to make a move and choose their conventions.

For me a perfect round in Hanabi or Ghost Stories is not one with a formal outcome (a nice move, leading to a brilliant victory, for example), it’s one players will be remember later because it was a great gaming moment. Maybe it was a very bad move, who cares, the point is to have a great experience at the table!

In conclusion, I suggest playing this one if you get the chance.  It’s a great cooperative game, with simple rules that produce challenging and interesting play.  It’s also a great example to look at if you’re interested in game design.

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