Bohnanza Board Game Review


Bohnanza board game box cover

Year Published: 1997

Players: 2-7

Playing Time: 45 Minutes

I have a game group that meets on occasion that exists solely due to Bohnanza. Huddled nervously at club night, in that slightly awkward way where 3-10 people shuffle around the game pile and try to determine what to play without seeming too pushy, I tossed out Bohnanza as a possibility for the 7 of us milling about.

One girl seized upon this opportunity, eyes wide, and picked up the box. “YES! And everyone better be ready to make deals or they’re going to be wiped off the table!”

I was intimidated and excited in equal measure. She and I are now good friends. What followed was the most raucous session I’ve had of Bohnanza where I was probably the 4th most vocal at the table (this is rare; usually I’m among the most outgoing in any given group of gamers).

At the end, about half a dozen of us exchanged numbers, realizing we’d found something special.

This is not something that happens with a lot of games. I’d even go so far as to say it couldn’t happen with many games. But Bohnanza lets you peer directly into a person’s personality in ways that expedite the process of getting to know them at a game table. It might take me 10 sessions of another game to get to the level of familiarity that a single session facilitated for our group.

So let’s talk about how that happens.

Bohnanza Overview

Bohnanza is a trading game wherein you usually have two bean fields (you can optionally purchase a 3rd). You play beans into these fields from your hand of cards, trying to group beans of a particular type together, which will score you points.

The problem is that there are a lot of types of beans, and you can’t rearrange your hand of cards, and must play from the top of your hand. So if the perfect bean exists in your hand, but it’s buried beneath three others, you need to figure out a way to get rid of those three cards before it gets around to your turn.

This is where trading comes in, which can only be done with the active player. But that active player can make as many trades as they want with others. So an active environment of accumulation and trading occurs where you try to cultivate the most lucrative bean fields.

Cutthroat Bean Farming

In this way, you have to cooperate with other players, giving them what they want for what you want.

But in practice, it feels anything but cooperative, because you’re also trying to angle for situations where you get to extort players for beans they need or beans they need to get rid of.

At the extremes of this, you’ll even see players offering cards from their hand for absolutely nothing, simply because they have to get rid of them desperately.

I call this extreme, but I’ve never had a session of Bohnanza where this didn’t happen at multiple points.

The Human Puzzle

This is a socially demanding game, no beating around that bush. If you enjoy puzzly games where the proceedings are very mechanical, look elsewhere.

However, if you enjoy puzzles where other players are the active ingredients, hello, may I introduce you to Bohnanza?

Ostensibly, you could play this game in a logical manner, making roughly equal trades and trying to keep everything more-or-less equitable between players. But that’s of course not what happens. You need to get rid of your Chili Bean, NOW, and so you’ll move heaven and earth to get it out of your hand over other trades. Weasel your way through enough of these in short order, and soon enough you’ll have players giving you a side eye.

This is all par for the course, and grand fun in the right group.

It’s also accomplished with rules that can be taught in 5 minutes or less. I sometimes call Bohnanza “Table Talk: The Game” because the mechanical structure gets out of its own way exceedingly fast. What you’re left with is those human interactions.

The Brilliance of the Peanut Gallery

Bohnanza does one other really clever thing. Despite being able to trade with the active player at any point, sometimes you simply won’t have anything to offer them, or vice versa, and you’ll sit out a particular player’s turn.

This, however, isn’t an excuse to disengage from the action. Rather, it’s an invitation to step back and look at the game holistically before you re-engage with it.

Because realistically, someone is winning. Like, right now, they’ve made more advantageous trades than anyone else. Or they got away with murder in a particular trade a few minutes ago.

And it’s your duty to point this out. Maybe that lopsided trade is even happening at this very moment. Complain! Cry foul! Don’t let it go through unnoticed!

This is the thing you don’t get to do in trading games that are played simultaneously. You can’t weigh in on someone else’s trade nearly as often (if ever), lest you miss out on opportunities yourself. Chinatown is like this, a contemporary of Bohnanza, having also come out in the late 90s. It’s a good game in its own right, but trading phases are a free-for-all. Which is its own fun, but it doesn’t facilitate the backseat commentary that makes Bohnanza so funny.

And make no mistake, you can complain but the trade may still go through. But you’ve now painted a bullseye on one or both of the players involved. You’ve adjusted the entire table’s mental map of who is supposedly winning.

Unless you overplayed your complaining, and someone throws it back on you and suddenly you have the bullseye on your back. Regardless, the table will be more hesitant to deal with whomever they perceive as the strongest.

The Game Above the Game

But it’s that word, perception, that matters. You’ll know approximately who’s doing well (or not) but rarely exactly so, because part of that equation is also what cards are in players’ hands, not just the points they’ve scored thus far. So the meta-strategy of managing perception is part of the social experience of the game.

This will again represent a line in the sand for some gamers, who would prefer the mechanical elements to dictate gameplay. Here, it’s the social elements that are driving the bus, so to speak. Or driving the field plow, to keep us on theme.

Either way, if you don’t enjoy the metatextual elements of games, Bohnanza won’t be for you. For me, it mentally codes as close to many party games as it does to traditional strategy games. The design intent of party games is to facilitate interpersonal interactions. This, arguably, is Bohnanza’s primary design intent. It’s a strategic trading game as well, yes, but this is almost the secondary function of its design.

It again means that Bohnanza will attract and consistently delight the most gregarious, feisty gamers out there. It’s categorically not for some. But for those of that personality type – the type who will shout defiantly like my friend at the mere mention of the game, or even just families that enjoy mixing it up with one another – it’s one of the quickest routes to the types of gaming interactions that will form (and hopefully not break!) friendships and bonds, and create laughter and memories.

Like my reviews and want to read more? Good news, I’ve written hundreds! Check out my other reviews and game musings!