I played my 500th game of Hanabi
today. (Well, technically, I played it yesterday
, since it's past midnight.) And I think that I have another 500 in me, if not more.
I think that's an extraordinary achievement for any game, much less a $10 card game with a custom deck. The only other games that I've played anywhere near as much--and I have to say games
, plural, because it's a family rather than a single title--are trick-taking card games, mainly Bourre
thanks to being from south Louisiana, but also plenty of Contract Bridge
I have a lot to say about Hanabi
, but I don't want this post to be overlong, so I'm going to hit a couple of points that I believe make it such a compelling experience. (For those of you unfamiliar with the game, a quick description: two to five people cooperate to play five suits in order from 1 to 5, much like solitaire; the main gimmick is that you cannot see your own cards, only everyone else's, and the ways you can tell people about their cards are tightly constrained.)
Point the first: Randomness is longevity's friend
. Every time I think I've seen basically every iteration of strategies in Hanabi
, we get some quirky deal that forces me to think of new ways to finesse cards out of my friends' hands. The fact that I'm still having to think of new strategies five hundred games in honestly delights me; I remember thinking, somewhere around my tenth game, that we would almost certainly
burn out on the game somewhere around our fiftieth play, having exhausted every possible outcome. How very, very wrong I was. The cardboard can come up with many, many new ways to challenge, or ruin, you.
Point the second: True cooperation is fun
. I know several people who will disagree with this point vehemently (+Aaron Joyner
comes to mind), but everyone in Hanabi
wins or loses together, so it becomes more about being angry at the cardboard than at the other players (or yourself) for the situation that the game puts you in. I said true
cooperation up there because, unlike many cooperative games like Pandemic
or Samurai Spirit
has no real way for one player to "alpha" the game and force everyone to do their bidding. Due to the information disparity--you know everyone's cards but your own--everyone is making decisions from a different viewpoint, and the game constrains your ability to force plays, which means you have to genuinely cooperate
with others. And this is good, because...
Point the third: Smart people are awesome
. The idea of playing Hanabi
with random people gives me hives. As simple as the game is, playing well requires both a high level of strategic nuance and a willingness to trust that the other people around the table know what they're doing. I'm fortunate in having a solid core of players-slash-friends (+Daniel Newell
, +Jeff Conway
, +Joel Ebel
, and +Enoch Moeller
the most prominent, in rough order from "most games played together" to least) that are all really, really smart, which means I can skip the worrying about what the hell they're going to do on their turn and spend my time thinking about how best to make use of everyone's collective intelligence. Jeff's in danger of throwing away a key card, but we can both see that Daniel has an obvious play, so of course
I can just trust Jeff to do the right thing and tell Enoch something instead.
These last two tie directly into point the fourth, and final: Winning is euphoric and addictive
. When you manage a perfect game, it feels fantastic; you and your friends melded minds, played cards, and beat the cardboard in a way that is fundamentally much more satisfying than "my strategy beat your strategy because [it was marginally more efficient|the dice loved me more|you're new to the game and I've been playing games like this since I was eight]". There's something almost... spiritual about a well-played game of Hanabi
, watching the cards hit the table one after the other, watching a pair of finesses pull just the right plays at just the right times, seeing the grin on someone's face as their complex plan pays off.
I have what probably strikes some people as a strange habit whenever we win a game of Hanabi
, particularly a hard-fought one: I shake the hands of the other players. I do this because I honestly believe that each game is something of an adventure, or a trip, that we all went on together; at the end, we've learned about each other, about the world, and about the fundamental processes of communication and logic, and come away better for it. I think that deserves acknowledgement.
And probably a rematch.