10 Jul

Hanabi – The only True Co-op Board Game in the World?

Hanabi box cover

Hanabi box coverYesterday I played Hanabi and, while it was too late in the evening for me, I enjoyed it immensely until I collapsed mentally and started doing stupid mistakes.

Yeah, the game is hard, especially if you play with a group that doesn’t have the meta-gaming down pat.

But one of the players said something I thought very curious at the time: that Hanabi is the only purely cooperative game out there, that there is no other game that is as cooperative as Hanabi. I smiled, looked at the backsides of my cards, nodded and thought “no way, there are lots of co-ops out there”. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I’m becoming that he is right.

Quick recap for those who haven’t played it and don’t want to read the rules or reviews: In Hanabi you’ve got to play sets of cards, in order, before the cards run out. Trick is that you only see your fellow player’s cards and not your own. It’s a bit like the poker game where you keep a card on your forehead, you know, the one that the band members play in every bad Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll movie.

Hanabi CardsSo you’ve got to play the cards and you give clues to your fellows but you’re only allowed to say if they have (or don’t have) a certain color or number, and then specify every card that they have of that color or number. So what you’re doing is giving your fellows clues that enable them to play their cards.

There’s a bit more to it than that (quite a bit) but you get the gist.

So why is this the only true co-op in the world? Well, for one, it’s impossible to play on your own. Because you can’t play it on your own you don’t get any alpha player syndrome at all. Yep, you don’t have to deal with the Pandemic Amazon hero who comes up with your moves for you. Which is why Pandemic isn’t a full co-op; it’s a solo game that can be played by multiple people – but you could have done it on your own. That, in my friend’s, and now my, opinion disqualifies Pandemic as a “true” co-op: it is a game that could, without loss of difficulty or weirdness of mechanic, be played by a single person using several “hands”.

The same can be said of Arkham Horror Amazon, Zombicide Amazon and Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Amazon . I haven’t played Mage Knight Amazon but I suspect that it falls into the same category, the, let us call them, “solitaire enabled co-ops”.

This in comparison to the second major category, the “traitor co-ops” like Battlestar Galactica Amazon, Saboteur Amazon and Shadows over Camelot Amazon. If solitaire co-ops suffer from the alpha player syndrome then traitor co-ops suffer from the obviousness dilemma: either you play sub-optimally as a traitor or you risk exposing yourself too obviously. Saboteur is a prime example of that: after the first round or two, if you don’t play your cards to block, the traitors will lose – and it’s very obvious when you play to block. And the loyal miners will immediately smash your lamp, upend your cart and break your shovel. Sorry for the in-joke.

But Hanabi doesn’t have a traitor and suboptimal play is pretty much par for the course (I’ve heard of people getting 25 points but I’ve never seen it). So Hanabi is a game that doesn’t suffer from either problem, nor belong in either category.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with another example, some other “true” co-op, but the closest I’ve come, with my admittedly limited gaming experience (I know people whose experiences stretch into the thousands of games – mine doesn’t), is Space Alert Amazon. Here you’ve got a solitaire co-op that does away with the alpha player syndrome by introducing a real time element – you simply don’t have the time to get an alpha player situation. The trouble with Space Alert is that you still could get an alpha player if you slowed the game down. So my friend would probably argue that if you made Arkham Horror real time (now there’s an idea!) you wouldn’t have alpha player syndrome either – but would it make the game a “true” co-op? In my opinion not. Arkham Horror, at its heart, is a multiplayer single player game. So is Space Alert, and
Escape: The Curse of the Temple and every other “stress-disabled single player” co-op that I can think of.

Hanabi isn’t.

Hanabi, at its core, is a co-op. You could remove the co-op aspects of every other co-op I can think off and still have (some form of) a game, but not Hanabi. You can play Bridge without a partner, but not Hanabi. So now my question is:

Does anyone know of another game that is as dependent on its cooperative aspect as Hanabi?

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