Let’s Dismantle Bohnanza

Every game you play is a toolbox of mechanisms that you can use. When you play a game, you learn how that game works, and you learn how things like that can work. You build a repertoire of mechanics, a library, a toolbox. With that in mind, let’s look at a game and take it apart, to see what systems it has in place we have to work with.

Bohnanza is an Uwe Rosenberg game, and it’s one of his earlier, smaller efforts; it’s a small-box card game, with no counters, markers, tokens or any of the other things you might associate with the creator of Agricola. However, it’s still a pastoral low-confrontation game with a theme of growing crops, and the lack of extra stuffness makes it a good game to dissect for parts. It’s fine to know how Machi Koro works but if you can’t ship the game with dice, you are a step behind.

For anyone who doesn’t know the rules of Bohnanza, here’s a video explaining and possibly overexplaining, how to play:

With that in mind, let’s dissect:

Game Structure

The Rulebook, available online, provides us with this anatomy:

  • 154 Bean Cards
    • 24 Coffee Beans
    • 22 Wax Beans
    • 20 Blue Beans
    • 18 Chilli Beans
    • 16 Stink beans
    • 14 Green Beans
    • 12 Soy Beans
    • 10 Black-eyed Beans
    • 8 Red Beans
    • 6 Garden Beans
    • 4 Cocoa Beans
  • 7 3rd Bean Field cards

Okay, the first thing we learn looking at this is there’s a huge variance in the numbers of cards. Coffee Beans are six times more common than the rarest Bean. These 154 cards are broken up between eleven types. If you look at individual cards, rarer beans offer slightly higher payouts, and the most common beans offer payouts for low values.

Card Structure

Here’s an example card face (obtained via a google search, then scribbled on by me):

To explain:

  • Card Icon
    This is the symbol at the top of the card. This is useful because when you stack the cards up, you leave this section of the card visible, making it easy to see if a stack is all properly uniform.
  • Card Art
    Also important. Don’t sell this stuff short, it’s what conveys the personality of your game. Bohnanza is a silly game and its art makes it look silly.
  • Card Count
    This tells you how many cards matching this one exist in the game. This lets players make choices about how likely they are to collect a set of a bean.
  • Card Name
  • These names are a lot better than you’d think; because they connect to existing words we know, and they’re reasonably distinct from one another. Soy beans and Cocoa beans and Coffee beans are all common enough nobody’s going to pronounce them super weird, but people are also not going to be lost mixing up what you’re trading for what.
  • ‘Beanometer’
    Sigh. Anyway, this section shows the value of these collections when you cash them in. Clear, visual representation. Nothing fancy or weird.

The card back deserves attention, too:

This means a face-down card isn’t just a hidden card, it’s also represented as an entity with game meaning. You track currency by using face-down cards, which allows for trading and economic value without needing to ship the game with currency tokens or counters.

Rules Structure

This is covered mostly in the above video, so instead we’ll do some quick notes about these rules:

  • Planting happens before trading, meaning you may have to commit to decisions you may not want to
  • Hand order being fixed seems a really easy way for players to make mistakes and damage the game, but also forces players to make choices
  • With the information flying around, it’s reasonably easy to feel you ‘need’ to remember what cards went into people’s hands and when
  • The trading section of the game being open seems a good chance for people to make interesting deals
  • The third field cards are kind of annoying because they’re hard to quantify. I’d assume everyone would want to buy one as soon as they can, every time.
  • The rules assume any time you harvest, you flip one of those cards over and remove it from the game as a currency (until it’s spent). I’m personally not wild about this mechanic, as I feel it’s better to remove cards at random from the top of the deck; this enforces variance but not in any way that lets players assume knowledge.
  • Edit: A very important rule I missed, via Reddit: If a field has only one bean in it, it may not be harvested, unless all your fields have only one bean in them.

    This is an interesting rule that creates forced play between the first rounds after major harvests.

What can we learn from this?

Overview

Bohnanza is a really tight little design. While I can already look at it and see ways I might riff on it, few of them will work as well; particularly, you do need some way to grow but also ways for that growth to be erratic. You need some merchandise that can be traded, things you may want to work on a certain amount before you release them to the wilds and cash them in.

I can see a few retheme ideas though:

  • Tumblr accounts, where each tumblr is built around a theme, and you wait a certain amount of time before you post it for certain amounts of Fake Internet Points
  • Training Buff Characters where different training schedules/regimes make it hard to make consistent progress, but their increased buffness earns rewards, accolades or trophies
  • Building security matrices for software, where the more time you have to work on a project improves it, but you can’t necessarily dedicate that time to each project

Another thought was what if the hands are drafted? That would change the game plan from tracking what you’re doing and make the order of hands no longer important. On the other hand, there’d be a lot less reason to negotiate or trade each turn because cards will be passing around.

And that combines with another thought – what if it’s a draft, but it’s not take-take-take in sequence; it’s take-inspect-take-inspect; so if you pass a hand of cards to me, I don’t necessarily get to take anything out of it, but I can sequester cards out of it, or put them in the discard, or something like that? This seems good if there’s some sort of contraband or smuggling mechanic.

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