Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quick Impressions: Bohnanza

When our friend Alan came back from a family reunion having seen not one but two groups of friends independently playing Bohnanza, we knew we needed to try it, and Alan bought his own copy immediately. On its surface, Bohnanza is a card game about trading, planting, and harvesting beans--and before criticizing it for missing the obvious "Beananza" pun, designer Uwe Rosenberg already thought of it, except in German, where "Bohne" means "bean".

That's the same Uwe Rosenberg who designed Agricola and Le Havre, so despite the game's cartoon graphics and family-friendly mechanics, Bohnanza is no slouch in the strategy department. Its basic mechanic is that you plant various types of beans in your field, and the more of the same type of bean you stack in the same field, the more points you get. The difficulty comes in that you can only plant two or three types of beans, and if you get stuck with a lousy one on your turn, you might be forced to harvest a more lucrative field prematurely. Fortunately, you're able to make trades, or straight-up give away cards to other players, to prevent such a disaster.

Where the game really sets itself apart is in one little restriction--the order of beans in your hand matters, and you must play the cards in the order you drew them. It's a little like Killer Bunnies in that sense, except that Bohnanza emphasizes making clever deals with other players to dump the dead weight from your hand. The possibility of asymmetric trades is another distinctive feature; unlike in Settlers of Catan, where each trade needs to resolve as soon as it's proposed, Bohnanza allows players to do each other favors in hopes that they'll net some positive karma and have a favor done for them eventually too.

I got destroyed in the only game of Bohnanza we've played, and it's because I didn't trade aggressively enough. It's easy to avoid trades in trading games, especially because you don't want to do something that results in your opponents netting advantages. Bohnanza, though, basically mandates that you cede advantage to the other players some of the time with the hope that they'll remember the kindness and cede it back later in the game.

Bohnanza's rules are incredibly simple, but it's so overwhelmingly social that it's probably impossible to "solve" it. There's certainly optimization decisions to be made, but the game much more strongly hinges on who can swing the best trades and land the most lucrative deals. It's easily picked up by a group of new players, and the pace is fast enough and the mechanics interactive enough that it's tough to get bored during the game. We'll be playing this one a lot, especially as a nice change of pace from ultra-complicated strategy board games.

2-7 players, 45-60 minutes, $20 at a gaming store or $15 on Amazon.