Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Artist: A collection of 13 artists
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
It’s likely that more people will know the “bean game” than Agricola, despite both being mega hits from the perennial heavyweight designer that is Uwe Rosenberg. While Agricola may have burned brighter for a short period of time, I think it has more or less faded to the background. Meanwhile, Bohnanza is the card game that is ….. just there. It is not loud, not flashy nor hyped, but it is still here even though it was published two decades ago. Yeah, it is enduring, that’s for sure.
I have to say that Bohnanza is quirky, even when viewed from today’s standards. There is really no other card game that is structured quite the same as Bohnanza. Here, you have a wacky but appropriately-themed card game about different trading beans, all sorts of beans, for coin. On the surface, this is just a set collection game and nothing more. Each type of bean card has a payout chart, but in general, the more beans you have in your fields when you harvest, the more coin you get – up to a maximum of 4 coins per type of bean harvested. Of course, some beans are fewer in numbers and hence more valuable, and so they payout more for fewer cards in the set. Likewise, some beans like the coffee bean are a dime a dozen and so are easier to collect, but must require a substantial number of cards to get maximum payout. So, the goal here is to plant beans and harvest them for money, preferably to get 4 coins, but fewer if necessary.
What’s unique of course, is how the sets are collected. Players have a hand of cards that cannot be shuffled or reordered after they are dealt. This is of course most recently seen in SCOUT! and Dealt, but also in other games such as Colors of Kasane. Every turn, you must plant at least one, but up to two beans from your hand. If you have an empty plot of land, then its easy. You just plant the bean in your imaginary plot of land. Each player starts with 2 plots with the option for a third if you pay a one time upgrade fee. If you don’t have an empty plot though, you are forced to harvest a row of beans and plant the new bean from your hand. It would be fine if you could remove your single bean card from the farm and replant, but are not allowed to harvest the one-bean field. Thus, you are forced to harvest the other more valuable bean plots. This rule generates a significant amount of tension as you are forced to consider abandoning the high value plots if you have to plant a new type of bean on your turn. Thankfully though, there are ways to avoid going down this unprofitable path.
What drives Bohnanza besides the silly names and the colorful artwork, is the negotiation and trading phase. During your turn, after planting your beans from your hand, you flip over two cards from the deck and then start the negotiation process. You are free to trade with anyone so long as the trade goes through you, the active player. Importantly, you can trade cards from your hand in addition to the ones in the pool, and this is the only way to trim your hand and get rid of those bean cards you don’t want to plant when your turn comes around. All trades must go through the active player and it is to your benefit to arrange enough trades so that you plant only what you want, and that when you turns comes around the next round, you won’t be saddled with a bean you don’t really want to plan. Sometimes, this means giving away your card for free, if there is a taker. Now, if no one wants your bean card, you will be forced to plant them because at the end of the trading phase, all cards on the table must be planted on bean fields.
Because of how the trading and negotiation is centered, Bohnanza is inherently semi-cooperative in a way that you give away cards that will clearly help you and your opponent at the same time. You can wheel and deal as much as you like, but more often than not, you will end up with cards you want, especially if your player count is high enough – someone will want something. Now you can also try and extract a trade at your advantage by asking for more cards per trade, but I don’t think it takes much to persuade others to trade because it is also in their best interests. Nothing stinks more than having to perform a premature harvest (except maybe a stink bean?) and everyone is trying hard to avoid that scenario.
I am aware that it is possible to play a cut throat game of Bohnanza where you go out of your way to hurt or deny the active player, even though it is to your best interest to trade. By refusing to trade and forcing someone to prematurely harvest a bean field, you can easily cripple the set collection. To me, if you do that consistently, it simply destroys the spirit of the game and makes the game incredibly different, but not in a good way. The closest example I can think of, is Carcassonne. In Carc, players often cooperate to complete cities. Occasionally, one can play spoiler and try to block the process by adding odd or extra tiles to make it harder to complete the city. Now, this is not against the rules and I have played with these competitive players before, and it completely changes the entire tenor of the game. In fact, the cutthroat version is not for the faint of heart, is quite brutal and really not recommended for the family setting. I have had players who refuse to play Carcassonne anymore after a brutal experience. I’d argue that Bohnanza also has the same play style issue except that the game would suffer even more if everyone decides not to trade or negotiate.
The thing about Bohnanza that makes it great is the trading phase. As I said, the negotiation and trading aspect of Bohnanza is truly one of a kind and not replicated elsewhere. It is both a strength of the game, but it can also be a weakness. The rating of Bohnanza strongly depends on the group of people you intend to play with. Perhaps more so than any game in my collection. As a family game, with kids or grandparents, Bohnanza truly shines. It is this fun-filled, pseudo-competitive game that taps into our desire to help others, but also wanting to come up top. Basically, it is this win-win situation that we are looking for because deals can be had where it ends up benefiting all the traders. Yet with each trade that you complete that strengthens your hand, you are also likely doing the same to your opponents, perhaps giving them more of a leg up than you do. It is often times hard to tell who actually comes up on top from these exchanges. At times, this warm fuzzy win-win feeling directly clashes with your competitive desire to get ahead on a trade. Mind you, this is not like a co-op game where you are working together to seek a common victory. When playing Bohnanza, you exist in this conflicted, pseudo-competitive state throughout the entire game. It is unlike any other.
Because of how the game is structured, Bohnanza just doesn’t fit into any niche. The more I write this review, the more it is clear to me that the design is truly one of a kind. The strength that makes Bohnanza…… well, Bohnanza can also be a weakness. It matters a whole lot who you are playing the game with. Bohnanza is just a delight with family and casual gaming friends where playing to win is not the overriding objective. Now, this will come into conflict with hobby gamers who insist that you must always play to win, else there is no point in playing. I can understand and appreciate the sentiment, and it might be possible to do that with Bohnanza, but I just don’t think it is the right vehicle for it. Put it more plainly – when I play Bohnanza, I don’t want to figure out how to win, period. If I so happen to win, great. Likely completely by accident and I am ok with that. I suspect that turning Bohnanza into a competitive, cut throat experience will completely ruin the game for me, more so than Carcassonne.
So ultimately, your love for this game and its rating depends on who you play with. I don’t think this game is going to be suitable for most occasions where you have a bunch of folks eager to beat up each other up to see who takes the crown. There is no point. The game just doesn’t provide the framework for you to satisfy your competitive blood lust – how can it when you must give away in order to receive? Yet, I cannot deny that Bohnanza is truly and uniquely one of a kind and is really awesome with folks are in the right frame of mind when they play the game. Perhaps, Bohnanza should be credited as the first pseudo co-op game where you need to work together in search of a solo victory. As confused as I am about the nature of the game and its place in the hierarchy of ratings, I think it deserves a place in your shelf just because it is Bohnanza.
The biggest question left for me is: Will you please come back and design unique card games, Mr. Rosenberg, and let the sleeping sheep lie?
Final word: Average, good, great. All roll into one depending on the group
7 years 9 months: The game is somewhat slow with 3 players initially. The trading phase always slows things down quite a bit, but having played SCOUT! multiple times, my kid was able to grasp the “no shuffling around the hand of cards” rule. She plays with a card rack to so that all her cards can be held in pace. I have to admit the slow pace of the game probably made her a little less enthusiastic even though she seem to enjoy the set collection part. We don’t really play competitive Bohnanza and occasionally, we do lend an extra helping hand even though we don’t really need to. We never give an inch to our kid for all the games we play, but the way Bohnanza is set up, there is no reason to violate the spirit of the game. Thumbs up for a good design and also reasonably good with kids, though length of game could be a deterrence for some cases.