|From: Amigo Cost: $9 Players: 3-5 (up to 7 with the expansion set) Playing Time: 45-60 minutes Type of game: Card Complexity: 4 Skill level: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 4.4 (16), Fall 1997|
6/7 player expansion set
La Isla Bohnita expansion set
This is the game which had people buzzing at the last Gathering of Friends. It doesn't look like much— a simple card game in a tiny box. Not the kind of thing to set serious gamers afire. And yet, even though there was only one copy available for most of the weekend, most people seemed to manage to get a least one game of it in. And it vanished from the prize table instantly.
The first thing you need to know is that "bohn" is the German word for "bean," making the name a decent pun which even translates well. The punny bean theme is carried through the cards which depict visual puns for various types of beans— black-eyed beans, sour beans, soy beans, etc. Each bean is repeated in the deck a different number of times, from 6 to 20.
Over the course of the game, players plant beans into their two fields (a third field can be purchased later). Each field can hold an unlimited number of beans, but they must be of the same type. A new type can only be planted by harvesting the beans already there. If enough beans are harvested at once, they can be sold— the more beans, the more they're worth. And money is what wins the game. The cards are smartly designed with a "beanmeter" at the bottom of each, showing how many beans are required for each payoff.
Players are dealt five cards to start with, which they must pick up in the order they're dealt. Throughout the game, the order of a player's hand cannot be changed— they must be played in a first in, first out queue. This takes a little getting used to, since sorting one's hand is second nature to most people. But it's crucial to the game's mechanics that cards be left in their natural order.
That's because each turn, players must plant one or two cards, starting with the oldest ones in their hand (the ones at the front of the queue). If the player has no empty fields and is forced to plant a bean which doesn't match the types already growing, he must harvest from one of the fields so it will accomodate the new type of bean. This can cause a player to harvest before enough beans were planted to earn money, or before he has the chance to increase their value by playing the other matching beans in his hand. Even worse, if one field has a single bean and the other has more than one, you must harvest the more populated field. This makes managing your hand a crucial aspect of the game, which is accomplished through trading.
After playing a card, a player turns up two more from the deck which he can either keep or trade (together or singly). Cards from players' hands can be traded to sweeten the deal, and he can even offer to give cards away. If, despite the player's efforts, he's unable to get someone to accept one or both of the flipped cards, he must take them himself.
Any cards players receive as trades are not put into their hands, but are set near their fields. When all trades are finished, players must plant all of these cards. Since this can force a premature harvest, players will often make sweet deals to get rid of unwanted cards. The simple mechanism of those two flipped-over cards encourages trading, resulting in a constant flow of cards from player to player. A player finishes his turn by drawing three cards and adding them, in order, to the back of his hand.
When the deck is exhausted, the discard pile is shuffled to form the new deck. It will be much smaller than it was originally, though. The back of each card shows a coin. When players harvest beans, they keep one for each coin in the payoff, turning them over to the coin side. So when the discards get shuffled, there are fewer of them each time. When the deck gets exhausted for the third time, players harvest their fields for the last time and count their coins to determine the winner.
The truly great thing about Bohnanza is that it's not like other card games. Lately there have been a rash of games which riff on the Hols der Geier and 6 Nimmt! mechanics, and I'll be quite happy if I never see another trick-taking game. The mechanisms in Bohnanza are not only fresh (I can't think of another game where you're forced to play your cards in the order in which you receive them), but they work well.
The jury's still out on the value of buying a third field. With three players, it's easily worth the 3 coin cost since you'll have longer to use it. With five players the cost drops to two, but it will take a while to earn enough to pay for it and there's less opportunity to capitalize on it. The four player game is the hardest call, since the cost remains at two but the chances to plant in it decrease from the three player game. If you can get it early, it can be worthwhile to be able to collect an extra variety of bean, giving you more time to gather larger sets.
Less so than in most collecting games (thanks to the frequency of trades and the ease with which players can be involved in them) it's better to avoid gathering the same types of cards as your right-hand neighbor, since other players will be able to trade their cards to him first.
Bohnanza's a great example of the versatility of the non-collectible card game format. In a genre full of clones and subtle variations, it's great to see something with an identity all its own. How wonderful for us that it's fun to play. [ Editor's note 5/9/99: Two expansion sets are now available. The first allows play with up to 7 people, adding three more types of beans. The second, La Isla Bohnita, adds two new beans, pirate ships, merchant ships, and trading with a neutral island.]