Tabletop Confessions: Cards that go Boom

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My folks didn’t let me play with fireworks all that much growing up. Something about them wanting me to keep all my fingers, they said. Sure, I got my hands on a box of firecrackers now and again, and yes I survived without losing any limbs or digits, though the powers that were kept me away from the good stuff.

I wanted to join the ranks of pyrotechnic masters, like Michael Bay, or Gandalf. What adolescent male doesn’t love explosions? Being the igniting factor behind such volatile yet vivid detonations just seems like a blast. A few minutes of Google-fu revealed that it is never too late to give up on this dream — one can become certified by the Pyrotechnics Guild International after taking a single class.

Or I could play Hanabi, a game dedicated to building fireworks posthaste.

These explosions come from a modest package. Hanabi consists of a deck of cards and a handful of penny-sized cardboard tokens. There are six color variations, red, white, yellow, green, blue, and rainbow, which functionally represent suits and thematically give a specific hue to the fireworks created during gameplay.

Players are not aiming to outdo one another, no, that would be plain reckless and unprofessional. Instead the game is cooperative, hinging upon teamwork to create the best pyrotechnic display manageable. The cards are numbered one through five, and to build a firework players must place cards so that they line up sequentially and remain sorted by suit.

Turns in Hanabi are designed to induce anxiety. They are also deceptively simple. There are only three potential moves: play a card, discard a card, or, most importantly, inform another player about their cards. Yes, their cards. The core mechanic behind this game is that you hold your cards with their backs facing your chest, meaning you don’t get to see your hand while everybody else does.

Communication is key, for if a card that doesn’t fit on the table (either because it doesn’t belong in a numerical sequence or match the available colors) one of four “fuse” tokens are discarded. Once all four are spent the fuse runs out and the fireworks launch whether you were finished setting them or not. At that point players check for any missing eyebrows and tally up the sum of their display, which is then humorously graded. To quote the manual:

“The quality of the fireworks display according to the rating scale of the International Association of Pyrotechnics is:

0-5: Oh dear! The crowd booed.
6-10: Poor! Hardly applauded.
11-15: OK! The viewers have seen better.
16-20: Good! The audience is pleased.
21-24: Very good! The audience is enthusiastic!
25: Legendary! The audience will never forget this show!”

Another set of tokens budget sharing information with each other. To spend a turn doing so costs one of these tokens, which run out sooner rather than later, but they can be recovered by dedicating a turn to discarding a card. There are also strict guidelines concerning what can be divulged in a single turn. Players may only point out a card number or card color possessed by another individual, not both.

Success is only possible if each member of the team is conscientious enough to remember what others point out while they themselves strategically reveal information about their teammates. The stakes are high, for there is only room to mess up four times before everything blows up.

Hanabi now sits alongside Tsuro as one of my go-to games for mass appeal. It takes five minutes to learn and lends itself toward a frantic experience. Throw in some booze and you’ve got yourself a party; nothing mixes better than alcohol and fireworks. Even when playing just the two of us, Jessie and I found ourselves worried about disappointing our audience. Nobody wants to launch a dud after all.

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Rem Fields
About Rem Fields (25 Articles)
Rem Fields (Managing Editor) aims to tell stories. As an IT professional he should be writing code or administrating systems, yet the only scripting that seems to get done is for his comic books. In between bouts of worldbuilding Rem fights the good fight as a freelance author operating out of St. Petersburg, Florida. His interests range from ukuleles to cryptocurrencies, though really he just can’t fall asleep until reminding his word processor who’s in charge.

Follow along at remfields.com as he tries to bring his own brand of storytelling to the interwebs.

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