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#8 — JULY 7th, 2013




Theme is crucial to making a game fun, almost as important as mechanics. Ideally, they should reinforce each other; neglect the story and you're left with an abstract math problem, neglect the gameplay and you have Candyland.

Don't go thinking theme is just artwork, components and flavor text, though. It can be more... or much less. Just a hint from the game designer can be enough to fire your imagination, enriching the abstract system with a narrative. Sometimes, this connection isn't even about what you DO when you play, but how you FEEL when playing it. Hanabi works just this way, and with its recent win at Spiel des Jahres you'll likely have a chance to experience it yourself soon.

A lightweight game with a French designer and a Japanese name (花火, or Hanabi, is composed of the ideograms "Flower" and "Fire")

Before I give away that theme, allow me describe the feel of the game. First off, Hanabi is played cooperatively, and it's HARD. It creates a dynamic tension in the group, requiring everyone's best attention and communication skills; there's lots of eye contact and close listening. Your goal as a team is to complete colorful sets of five cards, one card at a time, and each must be played precisely in order. You fail if a card that skips a number, for example, and the game is over on your third failure.

The most unusual aspect is that all your cards are turned outwards, which is to say you can see everyone else's hand but your own. This means you can only determine the correct card to play via information sharing, which is further constrained by the rules: you may spend a token to tell another player ONE THING about their hand, e.g. "you have two 3s". You have eight tokens, and 25 cards to lay down in order. Go.

Q: How can you know which card to play, when you can't look at your own hand? A: With a little help from your friends.

So what's the theme? Here goes: your team is working in a fireworks factory, putting together a precisely orchestrated show. The notion that you're handling high explosives under tight time constraints meshes perfectly with the fact that even a tiny in-game slip-up is a disaster. This feeling of teamwork under pressure, and how you and your friends deal with it, make the game so much more than a pile of cards and a rulebook.


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Made with love in San Francisco, California.