This discussion of the card game Hanabi is the one of a series of articles looks at different games that contain valuable lessons for business teams. Enigmatic Events believes that teams that play together, will grow together. Not every play experience has to be a big production. By introducing board games to the team, you can build valuable soft skills.

Hanabi – the game of hungover pyrotechnicians

In Hanabi, players are hungover fireworks designers working together to put a display. There is a deck of 50 cards in five colours, numbered 1 to 5. There are copies of the lower numbers, but only one of each ‘5’. These cards represent the fireworks. There are also 8 Note tokens and 3 Timer tokens. Each player is dealt five cards to start with. All the they need to do as a team is create five piles of five cards. Each pile must contain the same colour fireworks and must be ordered from 1 to 5. Simple?

Hanabi Cards, 5 suits, 5 ranks
Hanabi Cards, 5 suits, 5 ranks

The difficulty is, you can’t see what cards you have in your hand. You hold the cards with backs facing you, and the front side with the firework information facing out. Each turn a player can either give a hint to another player; play a card from their hand to the display; or discard a card and draw a new one.

So give me a clue…

Giving hints is useful, but there is a limitation on what players can say. Players either tell tell one player which cards they hold are of certain colour, or of certain rank. For example “these three cards are blue”. Players are also limited that for each clue given they have to turn over a Note token. Discarding a card gives them a Note back, and is a way of getting rid of cards that are not useful any more.

Playing cards is the real aim, but if the card doesn’t fit the display, it’s discarded, and they lose one of the 3 Timer tokens. Once all 3 timers are gone, the game is over and the display starts, however good it looks. Cards fit the display if it’s the next highest rank for the colour. So a 1 is safe to play if the colour has not been played yet. But, playing a Blue 1 when there’s a Blue 3 at the top of the pile, the players lose a timer token.

Don’t run out of Notes or Timers!

The game ends also ends when the deck runs out of cards. The score is the sum total of the highest card in each suit. 25 is a perfect game, while 20 is a pretty respectable score. I’ve never seen a perfect 25, but I’ve heard rumours about it happening.

Hanabi is good for teams because…

Some co-operative games suffer from alpha leader syndrome. One player thinks they can take in all the information and solve the puzzle before them. They then try to run the game themselves, ordering everyone about. This can create a negative experience for everyone else. Even when not doing this explicitly, sometimes players will defer to others to ‘take the lead’. In this game, everyone only has a partial picture of the game. Thus, no single player can run the entire the game. Everyone has to get involved, and the team will win and lose based on their collective skills. And being part of the whole team creates some trust bonds, even if you don’t do so well.

A successful firework display (game doesn’t actually explode into colours).

Between games teams can discuss strategies. The information you give out is as important than the information you DON’T provide. You can infer information. Players can agree conventions between yourselves on what you will and will not give out as info. This can start to stretch into how you keep the information. No rule in the game says you must hold the cards in a certain way. Players can rearrange their hands between the ranks, holding some between two different fingers. Or perhaps holding all known cards sideways. Teams that will start to create a process and shared practice on how card info is kept… as sharing what you know can help people avoid giving out redundant clues.

Take small risks

Often, someone will need to take a small risk to move things forward. Time is running out, so they gamble… and when it pays off, the team as a whole can share the triumph. Small wins worked on as a group are another good way of bonding and building trust as a group. When team members have a shared emotion, they build links. Links that help them in their day-to-day jobs.

The game also rewards deductive and inductive reasoning, skills which are useful when problem solving. A lot software development is bug solving, and bugs solving requires reasoning skills and eliminating possibilities. Flexing those synapses as a team can keep things tuned in.


Hanabi is an easy-to-learn, co-operative game. There are several valuable skills associated with playing it. It fits as a great lunch time game for small teams to play. Players can stretch their soft skills with a little reflection after each round.

You can buy a copy of Hanabi from your local, friendly board game store. Or you can buy it direct online from Amazon.

(Note: This is an affiliate link, and Enigmatic Events will receive a small payment if you decide to purchase through this link. We really appreciate the support).

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