Bohnanza is a card game for 2 to 7 players. It was created by Uwe Rosenburg years before he published Agricola, an epic worker-placement game, enshrining him in the pantheon of boardgame design.
Bohnanza according to BoardgameGeek:
The cards are colorful depictions of beans in various descriptive poses, and the object is to make coins by planting fields (sets) of these beans and then harvesting them. To help players match their cards up, the game features extensive trading and deal-making.
Bohnanza according to the publisher:
Ever imagined you were a bean farmer. Sure, who hasn’t. You got your Red beans, your green beans, your black-eyed beans, your coffee beans. But where to plant them. In this card game, smart sowing lets you reap big rewards. Plant The beans you do want, and trade the beans you don’t want to the other players. Adding to the realism of the game, The one who ends up with the most money wins.
I recommend the Dice Tower tutorial to get familiar with the game. (Link)
I think the business mechanics behind this game warrant mentally re-imagining it to make the lessons easier to map to microeconomics. When you stare at the down-to-Earth bean farming theme hard enough you ironically start seeing the game more abstractly. Like tacked on symbolism to computer code.
Instead give me a chance to re-skin it to see if the game’s appeal moves you more than the bean-based descriptions.
The Concession Stand Theme
You are operating a concession stand at a professional sports game. You can only serve 2 items at any point in time. Say beer and pretzels. Or nachos and hot dogs. There are many different kinds of refreshments, but you can only serve 2 types. If you decide to sell something else, you must close down one of your product lines, although you may always re-open it later.
The order of cards you are dealt cannot be modified. This looks like a queue as opposed to a typical hand. You can think of this as the line of customers at your concession stand with the bean on the card representing the type of refreshment the person demands. Here’s the catch, if a customer wants beer and you only serve nachos and pretzels you must shut down one of those lines and start serving beer.
This is where trading comes in. You can basically offer to send your customers to other concession stands in exchange for your competitors directing customers you’d like to your stand. In the phase of a turn where 2 cards are dealt face-up, you can imagine that 2 brand new customers showed up and you can tell them to come to your stand and skip the line or you can send them to other stands. Likewise, you can send customers queued at your stand to competitors as well if they are willing to accept them. Why would you do this?
The economics of the game imply that as you sell more of an item your unit economics improve. This creates tension. As you serve more people hot dogs you saturate the demand for people who want hot dogs. So you need to balance when you shut down your profitable hot dog operation to serve the wave of nacho customers you see either queueing in your hand or, if you are doing a good job tracking the deck, can anticipate showing up. Adding another wrinkle is that some refreshments are also higher margin (there are fewer customers but they offer higher profit margins…think of the cocoa beans in the game as the craft IPA at Yankee Stadium).
Why Bohnanza is great
Too much randomness makes a game pointless and too little makes it deterministic. If you prefer that there are many games (ie chess) to scratch that itch.
Bohnanza balances this well. There is randomness. The customers that show up in your queue. The customers that show up to the arena on your turn. But the primary engine of this game is trading customers. Every individual trade is fairly low stakes but the game is long (about an hour) and demands many trades. This creates a very satisfying experience. Being adept at deal-making and surfing the waves of demand maps well to the final scores.
I’ve written about why I think Monopoly is not a great trading game. If you want a fun, satisfying trading experience scoop up Bohnanza. If the bean theme was a turn-off, hopefully I’ve convinced you to reconsider.