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131 out of 142 gamers thought this was helpful

The baleful lowing of a sacred cow

At the time I write this, there are 14 reviews of Hanabi on this site, all of them positive. The cooperative card game won the Spiel des Jahres 2013, everyone loves it, and so it must be good right? Right?

Right. Sort of…

There are plenty of things to like about Hanabi; the low cost, the small form-factor, the novel hold-your-cards-the-wrong-way-around thing and the pleasing notion that you as players will be creating a fireworks display. Who doesn’t like a fireworks display? Other than pet dogs, no one, that’s who.

And yet I have had mixed experiences with Hanabi that suggest that at certain tables and with certain people it is going to stink the place up. Here’s my personal list of reasons why.

This card is green. No, wait, it’s orange. Green… Oran-Green!

On the version I have, the artwork on the cards is plain enough; a number and a firework burst. It’s the colours that are the problem. I am colourblind and the green and orange cards are indistinguishable. This won’t affect every player, but even my friends whose brains are wired correctly struggle with this to an extent in poor lighting conditions. This makes the game much harder than it needs to be, and can lead to having to ask other players to help you out identifying which cares are which when giving out clues. I understand that this has been corrected on some editions with the addition of symbology. Well caveat emptor because confusion in Hanabi is bad because…

There’s definitely a reason, but which of these cards did you tell me it was on?

It’s a deduction game. Players need to determine the hidden meaning of the clues they are given about the cards in their hand. Then they need to remember them. In practice this equates to one part deduction to two parts memory test. This proportion diverges the more you play with the same people as you will develop codes and standard inferences to the clues you are given. This negates the deduction element and makes the game largely what you can remember being told about your hand. If your (or someone at the table) memory sucks, so will Hanabi.

The Curse of the Cooperative

And I’m not talking about a haunted supermarket. Coop games famously suffer from alpha gamer syndrome where the guy at the table who has ‘worked the game out’ knows what everyone should do and tells them so. Loudly. Hanabi doesn’t suffer from that problem as much as it does from inadvertent (or advertent, which I’m sure isn’t a word) cheating. When you are about to discard a card, certain players will be unable from doing something to indicate that you are about to make a mistake. Humming, screwing up eyes, shaking heads, tapping nails on the table; all of these are skills perfected by my wife. She just can’t help herself. If your group contains someone like this, Hanabi is doomed.

It’s my turn! I guess I have to discard

There can be a real problem of player agency in Hanabi. That is to say that a game, any game, is often defined by the choices presented to its players. Quite often Hanabi presents its players with no choice and only prescribed actions. The fun in the game comes from determining who needs to be given what information about their hand at what time. In order to do so, players spend a token. If all the tokens are spent then you must either play a card or discard from your hand. In games with few players it is common for one player to give out all the clues, and another player(s) to be relegated to playing cards and passing the turn back to the clue-giver. In larger games it is quite possible that a player will know nothing about their hand, have either no tokens left or just a single one and be forced to discard completely blind and risk ‘losing’ the game. Oh, and on ‘losing’ the game…

Damp Squibb

Victories in cooperative games should be sweet. Wins are hard-fought, odds overcome, teamwork triumphant and the payoff, whether thematic or otherwise, should be worth the effort. Did you successfully carry the One Ring to Mt. Doom? Did you thwart the forces of darkness besieging Camelot? Did you defeat the ghosts plaguing your village?

In Hanabi the game stops. You count up the points achieved and think “16 points… I guess we could get 17 next time.” It’s flat, lifeless, pointless, which is ironic given that points is all you will have to show for your effort. Even when you ‘win’ it is just a matter of having the most points possible.

So there you have it. You will see that I have rated Hanabi as better than bad. It isn’t bad. It’s just in my opinion (and yours might vary!) it isn’t great either.

Go to the Gravwell page


22 out of 22 gamers thought this was helpful

Gravwell is a lightweight puzzle and race game with a paper-thin sci-fi theme. The heart of Gravwell is a combination of card drafting, variable player turns and an unusual movement mechanism that involves player’s pieces moving in relation to each other, rather than to the board.

The components are solid, if not stellar, with board, cardstock and small spaceship player pieces all nicely done. The aesthetic of Gravwell is underpinned with clear and attractive graphic design, with the board and cards neatly laid out and featuring simple iconography. The art direction of the graphic design offers a colourful, nebula-like feel and the board features a couple of player aids including representation of the distribution of cards in the deck. My only negative comment on components and packaging is the empty space that is wasted in the box, whose height and width are dictated by the physical dimensions of the board but is several inches deeper than it needs to be. This, I’m sure, is down to the publishers having selected a standard box size, but results in the game having a literally lightweight, somewhat rattly feel when you pull it off the shelf.

The game depth is lightweight, but deceptively so. You could set this on the table in front of your non-gamer friends, your grandmother (yes, the space theme is that thin – or undaunting, depending on your perspective) or your children and explain how to play in under five minutes. After presenting players with one example resolution of how fuel cards and movement work you will all be playing in no time.
But this accessibility in terms of rule depth hides some really satisfying richness in how the game plays.

The partially-hidden information of the fuel card draft, the variable turn order and the distribution of movement types and move values across the 26 cards in the deck provide a lot of interactions that create complexity for players willing to seek it out, without excluding those that aren’t. There is a healthy dose of take-that inherent in the variable turn order, some of which can be intentional but some of which will unintentionally disrupt the plans of the most avid strategist. This levels the playing field to a degree, and means that players of all abilities are in with a shout of victory.

After a couple of plays Gravwell might seem too random, too luck-dependent, too chaotic. And whilst the game does become more chaotic with more players, with a higher chance of your carefully-crafted plan coming undone on the flip of the cards, Gravwell is not really about playing the mechanisms as much as it is about playing the other players. As players begin to understand this the perceived randomness or chaos is a result of players misreading each other and the board position as the partially hidden information of the fuel card draft means that each player has a good notion of what the others are holding.

In each round players have to use each of their six fuel cards, three of which will have been drafted blind. This leads players in to having to determine the optimal timing for each of their cards to be played, planning as far as they are able.

Coupled with the knowledge of at least some of what the other players are holding, this creates a delicious decision with each fuel card selection. Should you play that high-movement value pull card with a letter late in the alphabet in the hopes that when your card resolves the nearest piece to yours will be ahead of you? Or perhaps you should opt for a smaller move with a letter towards the start of the alphabet and get the jump on your opponents?

Then you realise that each of your opponents is having the same conundrum and you begin to realise that you are second, third and fourth-guessing each other about what each of you should and will play.
And there’s the flaw in Gravwell, small though it is. You will plan what fuel card to play each turn based on what your opponent should play given their situation. If all players ‘get it’, then everyone will progress around the board with the occasional surprise averted by use of the Emergency Stop card. But playing the players goes out of the window if one or more players either don’t or won’t play their hand rationally.

Gravwell circumvents this dilemma to a degree with a fixed limit of six rounds. The game is unlikely to go beyond 45 minutes. I have yet to have a game last beyond 25 minutes, which is perfect for a game of this depth.

Gravwell asks to be played back-to-back. Tense finishes with the last card flip settling the game between all four players are common. It is easy to get to the table, and doesn’t stay too long.

This is not a game for serious strategy gamers who baulk at the idea that their plan might come undone at the first card flip, hard-core sci-fi fans expecting a rich theme, or power gamers looking for a complex multi-hour brain buster. Puzzle fans, people who like playing people and everyone else should give Gravwell a look for a fun gateway game.

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