Monday, November 3, 2014

Game Stories: Hanabi

When I talk about games having story elements, I don't just mean having unique characters, like in my previous posts. I don't even necessarily mean an involved narrative. Sometimes, a story element in a game comes from the way it promotes a certain mood around the table. The classic parlor game Werewolf is one simple example of this, but it's not the only one. When it comes to games that use simple mechanics to create a particular mood, few do it as well as Hanabi, a hilariously bewildering game.

Hanabi is a game where, according to the rules, you're all playing "absent-minded pyrotechnicians". Though really, given how the game plays, I'm more inclined to say that everyone's drunk. It's a cooperative game where everyone's trying to share information with one another so that they can rebuild the fireworks that have gotten all mixed up. Everyone has cards that range from 1 to 5, in five different colors. The objective is to get five stacks (one of each color) of firework cards, in the correct order.

Sounds good so far, right?

Unfortunately, you can't see your cards. You hold them backwards, so that everyone else can see your cards, and you can't. And the fun begins. You're not allowed to tell people what their cards are, because that would make it too easy. Clues are something you have to spend before you can tell people about their cards. And you can only tell them which of their cards have a certain number or a certain color. So, you could tell them "these cards are your blue cards" or maybe "these cards are your 5s".

The effect is rather like that of fumbling around in a dark room with a single flashlight, trying to assemble IKEA furniture. It's befuddling, confusing, and hilarious. And, of course, doubly hilarious for anyone watching, as they can see you all stumbling about blindly in your attempts to suss out what's going on at the table. Everyone thinks they have a handle on the situation, because they can see every other player's hand, but they're also blind to their own cards, which can be huge if they have just the right cards.

Controlling Information
The key thing that makes Hanabi work is a particular scarcity of information. You don't know what your cards are, and you can only tell one player one thing. You also have to spend a clue to do it. Combined with the risks that come from misplaying (you only get three misplays before you all lose, and when you discard a card, it won't come back), and that generates a lot of tension around the table. The tension isn't so high that it's frustrating, though; you do have enough options and enough information that you feel empowered, even in the midst of struggling.

The part that generates the most humor, of course, is the massive amount of dramatic irony that's inherent in the game. Because you can see everyone else's cards, but not your own, the game is dramatic irony personified for everyone: you know exactly what mistakes everyone else is making, but are blind to your own mistakes. It's funny, because it hits on a very human flaw in that aspect--our inability to perceive ourselves fairly. When you have four people playing off of that dynamic, the outcome turns into something very funny, probably because of the innocuous theme. It's a very clever inversion of the "fog of war" concept, and it's that clever inversion that makes the game work.