It’s 1997, I’m at Dragon Con in the gaming area at a random table I sat down at, and I’m dealt a hand of cards with German words on them and cartoon pictures of these bean characters. Beans. I start rifling through the cards and the guy teaching the game stops me. “No no no! You have to keep the cards in the order you get them, don’t change the order of them in your hand!” Right off the bat, this game is making a bad impression with the silly bean-people and this bizarre rule that defies the natural instincts of anyone who has ever played a card game of any type. My shirtless, leather bracers-wearing friend that fancies himself a modern barbarian leans over and says “Mike, I don’t know about this one.” I promise him that we’ll play Dungeonquest afterwards. I don’t want him to leave me alone at a table of strangers playing a game about bean farming. An hour or so later, we’re in the dealer’s room forking over the bucks for a copy of the game from a vendor that had some import copies.
Of course, the game on the table was Bohnanza, which was Uwe Rosenberg’s most notable contribution to the world of German-style game design until he started cranking out complicated resource management games like Agricola and Le Havre. Unfortunately, his more recent designs have completely shunned this game’s brilliant simplicity, pitched interaction and sharp focus on a core trading mechanic in favor of mostly solitaire exchanges between cards and processes with a VP tally at the end. There’s no heads-down staring at player boards and puzzling over how to make one resource turn into another here, it’s all about planting beans, cashing out fields, and begging somebody to take that Soybean you don’t want.
Everybody gets five cards to start with- remember not to rearrange them. You have two imaginary bean fields in front of you. On your turn, you have to plant the first bean. If you have an empty field, you’re good- any bean can be used to start it. If you have a bean field already sown with that type of bean, you add it and increase the overall cash-out value of it based on an escalating scale that varies between types of beans. If you have two fields each sown with beans not matching that first bean, you’ve got to make room for it by digging one of your fields up and receive its current value by flipping that many cards from the field over to their coin side. This often happens before you’ve had a chance to maximize the value of the field, a major source of grief in this game, and if you want you can buy a third field for three coins. You have the option to plant the second bean in your hand if you want.
After planting, you draw two cards off the top of the deck and put them in the middle of the table. You can take them if you want. Or you can entertain trade offers of one or more beans from other players’ hands who may be in the Wax or Chili bean business when you are looking for Coffee or Stink beans. If all else fails, you can offer the beans as a donation to anyone who will accept them. Or everyone at the table can cruelly leave you to take the beans you don’t want and can’t use. The catch to the trading phase is that any cards acquired have to be planted immediately. The turn ends with a three card draw.
Bohnanza is one of the best trading games ever published largely because like titles such as Intrige or Hols der Geier it is intensely focused on its core concept without a bunch of fluff or folderol. There are no complex mechanics, there are no complicated processes. It is direct and really quite merciless because of the restrictive hand management element, which also creates a very specific sense of incentivizing trade. You want to barter to get rid of beans that are either not your type, so to speak, or to effectively fix the sequence of cards you are holding to get the most profit from your fields.
Strategically, there is also the issue of bean rarity to consider. Some beans are more plentiful than others with the rarer varieties having higher payouts. This effects the overall valuation of trade offers but the funny thing is that even the rarest beans aren’t very valuable to a player with no free field . But that’s all mathy-math stuff, really, and that’s not really the most important part of Bohnanza. The funny thing is that over the course of the game the math goes south anyway as the distribution of beans changes as they are pulled from the deck to be used as money.
The part that really matters is the player interaction, because that is the heart and soul of the game. By playing Bohnanza, you’re mutually agreeing to buy into this ridiculous bean farming concept and then spending the next 30 minutes or so hollering, cajoling, brokering and pleading over these stupid beans. This is a game where smiles and laughs trump furrowed brows and scratched chins. It’s oddly disarming, entirely charming and I can’t say that out of over 100 plays that I’ve ever had a single game of it tank or end with someone not liking it.
But I have played a lot of games of Bohnanza that likely sold one or more copies of the game, which is kind of how it got around back in the late 1990s. You’d have someone introduce it to you, you’d scoff, and then you’d be online at one of the early online game shops looking for your own copy. For years, it seemed like Bohnanza was everywhere. Everybody vaguely interested in hobby games knew it, and Rio Grande’s domestic edition certainly added to its stature. There were a number of expansions produced including High Bohn, which introduces a somewhat odd Western town-building element and Bohnaparte, which finds the players bean sales funding a somewhat perfunctory dudes-on-a-map wargame with a card-based board. Then there was Al Cabohn, Space Beans and the Bean Trader board game. Truth be told, I kind of felt like the beans jumped the shark a bit.
But Bohnanza remains. It’s still in print, still relatively inexpensive, and still plenty of fun. I brought it out recently at a game night after a couple of years’ absence and everybody was like “oh hell yes!” And everyone remembered how to play without us once peeking into the rulebook. We laughed, we haggled, we had a bean-blast.