Game Design Analysis – Bohnanza

Written by Alex Harkey

BohnanzaWe like to conclude each group of monthly topics with our Design Analysis series where we can dive into some of our favorite games from both past and present. Our most recent series we covered game design topics such as Satisfaction, Pacing and Game-Defining Concepts. This week we’re going to take a look at Uwe Rosenberg’s bean trading classic Bohnanza.

Bohnanza has been around for the better part of two decades and while it wouldn’t appear to be a candidate we can learn a lot from, it does apply some great ideas that have yet to be improved upon. What can we learn from Bohnanza and what ideas have we been overlooking all these years?

Innovation – Game Defining Concepts

A Reputation That Precedes It

Image courtesy of BGG User Lilianerf

Years before I ever had the opportunity to play Bohnanza I was already aware of its most defining trait; the inability to reorder the cards in your hand. Without more context this limitation sounds like a frustrating gimmick, when in reality it is the primary catalyst for tension and the driving force behind all the wonderfully agonizing moments in the game.

Of course the inability to organize your hand is just an abridged explanation of mandating a first-in, first-out (FIFO) queuing in card play. Other than a special event (such as executing a trade) cards are played in the same order they are drawn.

Realistically, Bohnanza would lose much of its character had it followed all of the tendencies and traditions of card games that came before it. The inability to reorganize your hand combined with the limited fields results in an ongoing urgency and the canvas to generate creative deal making.

Innovation – Building Game Defining Concepts

Merging Essential Ideas

While not as closely associated with the identity of Bohnanza, one of the other great ideas utilized is the multipurpose cards. The cards function as two types of assets; your bean inventory during the game which is later converted to gold for scoring purposes. Even among simple games on the market, it can be common for components to include several different card types, a few different groups of tokens or some various bits needed to operate a scoring track.

I’ve always been impressed with how Bohnanza manages to do more with less, and there are some interesting game play dynamics and timing that come from which beans get removed from game play when uprooting a field. We’ll touch on a few of those ideas later on.

Theme – Thematic Execution

Image courtesy of BGG User esoember

Our introduction to theme article involved classifying games based on how the theme contributes to the player experience. Bohnanza would be best classified as what we call “supplementary theme” as it serves the purpose of giving players distinguishing terminology (the various types of beans) and an explanation for what players are doing (planting beans in fields). Negotiation in games can take many forms, so framing the objective of the game as bean trading or bean collecting is probably among the most straightforward and descriptive methods to provide context to new players.

Theme – Integrating Theme

Bohnanza is an interesting case where the game isn’t particularly thematic but still has a great choice of theme. In whatever discussions of theme took place prior to publishing, the final result reflects the very strength that Bohnanza relies upon: retaining simplicity.

While cartoonish and silly, the artwork is an ideal approach for a game whose unwritten mantra could be “don’t take this game too seriously”. Negotiation can be an intimidating feature in a game for people who prefer to avoid very direct competition. An implementation of Bohnanza with a 16th century Mediterranean trading theme would probably be an even tougher sell to a group of these players. The friendly style of artwork in Bohnanza can help to sway the hesitant and bridge the uncertainty gap new players can experience with unfamiliar games.

The second benefit of the artwork style is the simple card characteristics also help to help relax the expectations of the game. Three simple traits (name, quantity/scarcity and rate of return) help keep the experience streamlined. Players are able to spend less time evaluating and comprehending cards and spend more time thinking up creative deals.

Dimensions of GamesDowntime

Our discussion of downtime focuses on effective solutions to keeping players engaged in games even when they might have limited interest in the events that occur outside their own turns.

Bohnanza falls into a classifications of games that deviates from a traditional Active/Passive approach, where one active player takes an action while others witness it, to an Active/Attentive approach, where other players have incentive to be invested in the current player’s turn. By nature, this interactive strength arises in many games that feature negotiation; everyone has a heightened interest in your turn because they might have a motive related to it.

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Here is where a byproduct of the restricted queue hand management of Bohnanza generates true value. Since players are fully aware of how the controllable elements of their upcoming turn will play out, they have the luxury of spending what would otherwise be “planning time” to focus on the actions of their opponents.

Dimensions of Games – Pacing

Acceleration – Bohnanza has a wonderful tendency of seemingly picking up speed as it approaches the end of the game. This is really just driven by our observations of the end game condition: when the deck runs out three times the game is over. When Matt first taught me Bohnanza he reminded the group after the first depletion that the game ends once the deck runs out too more times. I remember thinking “Wait, seriously? I thought this was a short game.”

What I wasn’t yet considering was how cards are removed from the deck without them the time between reshuffles decreases. Even though the game moves at a consistent rate (and a predictable number of turns), the benchmarks for how players might anticipate the end of the game shorten over time. Although just a trick of the mind, the perception that the game is moving faster has a wonderful effect.

Image courtesy of BGG User spearjr

Emotional Highs-and-lows – Fluctuations in tension and interest are some of the most valuable tools in game design. The most common use of this feature is letting players build up, lock-in progress and start anew. This avoids the game-long buildup which can potentially become emotionally fatiguing since players must constantly be “on edge” for fear of missing out on something in the game. That “emotional fatigue” can make it challenging to truly enjoy a game.

Bohnanza usually allows players to build up their fields, score them and then basically go back to square one several times each game. Receiving your second or third bean in your coffee field can be a nice feeling, but it probably isn’t as interesting nor as motivating as the moment you get your sixth or seventh card. The obvious reason is the latter beans result in an even higher gold value, but you are also likely to gain a sense of attachment as you’ve spent the extra time and made additional sacrifices to grow the fields. If you manage to achieve maximum value for a field it can be a very gratifying moment.

Checkpoint Objectives – Speaking of maximum value, that serves as an useful benchmark for new players. We’ve written in approachability about the idea of providing players some visual indications of their level of success. Each bean type has a set collection quantity which provides the owner the greatest return. This number benefits new players by functioning as both a short-term goal and a long-term objective in scoring.

Points of No Return – It could be argued that reshuffling the cards for the third time fulfills the idea of a point of no return in Bohnanza; a moment where the variables and decisions of the game change. At this point not only are we rapidly approaching the final turns of the game, but we often make different sorts of decisions. Any cards removed from the game will no longer re-enter the game, so tearing up your coffee fields before or after this final reshuffle is a matter of significant timing for your neighbor who is three beans into a coffee field. Additionally, If I can estimate that I have one more turn remaining, I become very interested in opening up my standards of negotiation on cards still in my hand I would never get a turn to play.

Dimensions of Games – Player Control

Player control is our topic on how things like player experience, randomness, luck and other factors can cause players to feel a loss of control over their personal performance in games. Fortunately this is hardly a problem in Bohnanza because while the order the cards come out can be turbulent, almost everything is up for negotiation in the game.

Image courtesy of BGG User upozhk

Player Skill – As far as player skill affects the game, an experienced player who is a shrewd negotiator probably has an advantage, but probably also not a significant one. On the other end, while an noncompetitive player can make unfavorable trades and swing the outcome of a game toward a particular opponent, this effect can be mitigated by encouraging competition to restore a balance. The most likely execution of this is probably seen this in the form of “Don’t trade with her, she’s winning, trade with me.” Bash-the-leader can carry a considerable weight in negotiations.

Player Count – One of the neat benefits of scalability in Bohnanza is that as the player count increases, more fields are available as a potential home for your unwanted cards and thus it isn’t uncommon to see a jump in trades as the cards in your hand have higher asset liquidity. Interestingly, buying a third field has a similar effect, and while it seems to be a toss-up decision for many players, it would seem to have greater value in a games with fewer players..

Population Dependent Strategies – One observation I wanted to emphasize is how well Bohnanza allows players to handle competition. As the Laissez-faire of negotiation games, it presents players very few restrictive elements in regards to whether players can enter or exit a certain bean type. What we see in games with set collection is a loss of effectiveness when multiple players pile into collecting one type of good or plan the same strategy. You could also see it in a game like Ticket to Ride where if two players both try to connect cities around both Miami and Los Angeles, they tend to get in each other’s way and make each other less competitive in scoring. As a result, any other players in the game tend to prosper.

In Bohnanza players don’t face the permanence in decision making or significant barriers to entry and therefore can sort out unfavorable competition quickly. If you and I are both collecting green beans and our third opponent continues drawing the green beans we need, they can leverage our needs against us. But after a few turns, one of us will probably cash out of green beans and find a more lucrative bean type. Trading leverage usually don’t last more than a few turns and players who get into that advantageous position often won’t be able to win the game just because they were in the right place at the right time.

Satisfaction – Generating Satisfaction

Image courtesy of BGG User Caesar!

Empowerment – Bohnanza thrives on a constant shift of power between players at nearly every moment of the game. The phase that predominantly drives this ongoing power struggle occurs every turn where a player is forced to improvise trades to find a home for two randomly dealt cards.

Let’s say several players in the game happen to have planted blue beans and on your turn you flip over two blue beans. Instantly, you have leverage as you can seek a nice offer among competitors. This is a tremendously gratifying moment as you’re the center of attention and practically any outcome is favorable to you.

Alternatively, lets say you’re deep into planting blue beans and stink beans and you flip over two bean types that no one else wants. Suddenly you’re on the other end of the situation and you’ll have to the give the cards away (or perhaps pay someone to take) just so you don’t tear up your lucrative fields. The mixture of both strength and desperation in every game of Bohnanza goes back to our pacing idea of emotional highs and lows. This emotional rollercoaster is a potential ingredient to the idea of “player engagement” we’re often looking for as game designers and probably why sessions of Bohnanza can be so memorable long after the game has been played.

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Image courtesy of BGG User greatsage

The Perfect Turn – While not as action packed as either example above, it can be just as gratifying to flip over the exact bean types that match your current fields. So many areas of stress exist in this game and if you’ve been under pressure to make deals over and over in the past few turns, it can be nice to sit back, watch your fields grow and pass the turn to the next player.

Positive Reciprocity – Bohnanza features at least one more area of satisfaction from our list earlier this year. The game can certainly play out with a bitter “what else can you do for me” tone, but often success is found in being the deal maker; the person who can make something happen. Being a salesperson who can close deals and find mutually beneficial bean trades not only is a nice confidence booster but also bodes well with your future trading partners.

Satisfaction – Avoiding Dissatisfaction

Zugswang – Typically the experience of being painted into a corner and forced to make a move is an unpleasant one, but in Bohnanza it functions as the driving force behind the functionality of the game. If no one were ever forced to play their first card, the could stand by and do nothing for most of their turns. Bohnanza turns the compulsion to move into a foreseeable problem-solving event. Unless you intend to play each of your next four or five cards, you always have something you need to be working on.

Conclusion – Rating Bohnanza

Alex’s Review:

I use an unnecessarily complex set of seven categories which reflect my personal preferences. Three categories carry additional weight (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four more represent my preference for a number of other aspects of games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability & Parity).

Originality: The word “originality” in gaming is often tied to its perception of “uniqueness” in mechanics and ideas. Alternatively it could be an ageless question of “how replaceable is this game in my collection?” Bohnanza has aged brilliantly and although many of its mechanics and ideas exist elsewhere, I’ve yet to encounter another game that fulfills the same purpose with the same level of success.

Theme: Do I feel like I’m a bean trader? Not really. Do I feel motivated to trade something? Absolutely. While Bohnanza doesn’t fulfill the entire thematic concept, it is at the very least mechanically thematic.

Pure Fun: This is a subjective category but I love this game simply because it relies on skills I don’t ordinarily use in many other games.

Replay Value: After playing with a group of cutthroat traders and then a group of pleasant negotiators, the replay value is far greater than it initially seems. While you end up making many of the same types of decisions, there are plenty of opportunities to make unorthodox deals that you’ve never tried before. In hindsight, the game comes to a similar conclusion every time but the journey each person takes to get there is why this game is so special.

Strategy to Luck Ratio: Bohnanza never misrepresents what intends to and with so much of the outcome controlled by pure negotiation, it would be difficult to take someone seriously who says they lost entirely because of luck.

Player Scaling: A game of this type should be flexible to accommodate a wide range of player counts. 3 players can be a little more restrictive and 7 players has its own style too, but both work and is scales wonderfully in-between.

Parity: I’m usually so entrenched in the game play of Bohnanza that nearly any player could be the potential winner at the end of the game. Scores are often very close together and it reaffirms the idea that one or two trades could have been the difference between victory and defeat.

Alex’s Verdict: 4.0/5.0. The first Uwe Rosenberg classic and still one of the very best negotiation games ever made.

Matt’s Review:

In our first articles in the Design Analysis series, I described my system for rating games, focusing on aesthetics, flexibility, fun per time, strategy, and mechanics in largely equal measure. In response to some insightful reader feedback from last time, I’m going to use the same categories to shape my rating but focus more on a holistic score and less on a category-based summary score.

Aesthetics: There’s not too much to this game visually, but there doesn’t really need to be for it to work. The cartoon art on the cards give the game a sense of levity. You could probably re-skin the game with any sort of trading or commerce theme, and it would still make sense, but at least the theme gives the players a common language to speak about what’s going on in the game.

Flexibility: Once you go through the motions of removing or adding certain sets of beans, Bohnanza plays equally well with three all the way up to seven players; the two-player variant feels forced and doesn’t do much for me. Bohnanza can be as straightforward or as convoluted as the players want it to be; some of my favorite Bohnanza experiences have come from wildly imaginative emergent gameplay like three-way trades, bribes, and even threats.

Fun per Time:The beginning of each game of Bohnanza drags a little, and the size of the deck looks intimidating at first, but things pick up toward the middle of the game. I’ve played two or even three games in the same sitting and not felt burnt out. The trading mechanics do a great job of eliminating downtime even if it’s not your turn. Bohnanza is a game that’s very easy to get into and have an absolute blast with.

Strategy: Bohnanza isn’t the deepest game in terms of strategic options. You COULD try to plan your strategy ahead of time (only planting high-value beans, getting into and out of each particular bean type as quickly as possible, etc.) but ultimately Bohnanza is about (literally) playing the cards you’re dealt and assembling a strategy on the fly. This design will appeal more to fans of 7 Wonders than fans of Puerto Rico.

Mechanics: Uwe Rosenberg’s sneaky-brilliant “fixed card order” mechanic drives everything about this game, and the relative lack of rules about what’s allowed in a trade allows the player interaction, rather than the rulebook, to shine. For whatever reason, new players seem to have a tough time remembering to draw cards to the back of their hand after their turn; some illustrated player aid or thematic justification might have been nice here.

Overall rating: 4.0/5.0. I would almost never turn down a game (or two or three) of Bohnanza to start an evening, and though it all-too-often gets pigeonholed as a lighter game or a “palate-cleanser,” there’s actually a lot of decision-making here that should satisfy more hardcore gamers. It’s amazing how influential Bohnanza has been on set-collection and trading-based card games, and while it’s certainly not the beefiest Euro around, there’s still a lot to like almost twenty years after its release.

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Special thanks to all the incredible photographers who helped make this article possible!
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