Life lessons from board games: Hanabi

Just as we can analyze fiction for its meaning and implication on our lives, we can also analyze board games. In some cases, the analogy is direct, if the board game is heavy on narrative and flavor (“You are investigating strange occurrences in Arkham, closing portals to other realms while the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber”). However, a lot of meaningful content could be extracted from the underlying mechanics and rules. Hanabi is a card game with virtually no narrative at all (it’s about making a fireworks show), and yet it says something deep about the nature of communication.

A Hanabi box stands in front of some tokens, and cards with colored numbers on them. The box says 'Race the clock... Build the fireworks... Launch your rockets!'

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, where players, as a team, seek to play cards in the right order. The problem is that players hold their cards backwards, and thus each player can only see other players’ cards, not their own cards. You can’t just tell other players what they are holding, you have to provide them with a limited number of clues, each clue obeying certain constraints. The game is thus all about efficient communication.

Hanabi is easy to carry around and teach to new players, so I’ve played a lot of games with beginners. I will discuss a common beginner’s mistake, and what it says about communication.

Suppose that Alice, a beginner, has a red 2 in hand, but of course she doesn’t know it. The team needs Alice to play her card. The problem is that on Bob’s turn, he can only give her one clue, either saying the card’s number or color. So Bob tells her that she’s holding a 2.

Now, Alice looks at the table and knows that the team wants to play a red 2. However, if it were a green 2, then playing her card would be a big mistake! So she doesn’t play any cards, patiently waiting for someone to tell her the card’s color.

Alice’s mistake is to ignore subtext. There were a lot of clues that Bob could have given, and it stands to reason that he chose a clue that he thought was important. If Alice had a green 2, it would be a waste of a clue to tell her anything about it. Thus, Bob’s clue not only tells Alice that she has a 2, but it also tells her that the information is important.

Interestingly, this limits the kind of information that Bob can give. Suppose that Alice has a green 2, and for some reason Bob wants to tell her about it. (These situations very occasionally occur in an ordinary game of Hanabi.) Well, Bob basically can’t tell Alice that she has a 2, because then Alice would guess that it’s red and play it. Even though Bob’s clue would be 100% accurate, Alice would get the wrong message. Well, tough luck. That’s information theory for you.

The lessons of Hanabi apply to real-life contexts whenever communication channels are limited–that is to say, always. Most especially, political slogans and identity terms are necessarily short, and must communicate more information through subtext and connotation than they communicate through literal meaning. Furthermore, it is very easy for identity terms an political slogans to convey unintended meanings.

To give a current example, many people have responded to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” with another slogan, “All lives Matter”. The latter slogan is defended on the grounds that its literal meaning is true. But a slogan that intends to convey only its own literal meaning is simply a bad slogan. Not gonna win any Hanabi with that attitude.

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