Geekly Essential means that something is so good that it deserves to be discussed long after it was released. It may be 10 years old, but it is still worth your time.
There is a moment in every tabletop gamer’s life when they realize that the game they’re playing is fundamentally absurd. This is (hopefully) followed by the realization that a little absurdity never hurt anyone, and probably adds to the fun. Still, it’s a bit surreal to think “I’m playing a game about power plants in Germany?” or “you want me to pretend to build a castle for King Philip the Fair? Who is that and why does his castle have so many rules?”
For me, that moment came when I played Bohnanza, a game about bean farming. Yes, you read that correctly. It is about bean farming. My peasant ancestors toiled away in the fields so that I, their descendant, could play a card game in which humorously illustrated beans make light of their struggles. It is a strange, strange world in which we live.
As with most modern German-style games, the subject matter may be a bit bizarre, but it doesn’t really infringe too much on the actual game play. The beans are there for flavor (no one can tell me that pun was not awesome), not to direct the mechanics; you don’t really need to know anything about beans–or power plants, or King Philip–to play, except to get things started.
To start: you are a bean farmer. You have two fields. You must plant beans in those fields. Those beans will make you money. End of narrative.
Now for the game play, and thus the complications. There are eleven kinds of beans, but players can only plant one kind of bean at a time in each field, with more beans meaning more money. And, to make sure that this isn’t just an elaborate and expensive game of Go Fish, you must plant them in the order in which you pick them up–unless, of course, you can get someone else to take them.
The game is competitive, but lends itself to cooperation, since it’s in everyone’s best interests to help each other, even if everyone is trying to help themselves most of all. It’s also extremely interactive, with each player forced to make deals and compromises lest they lose their precious crops. Yes, that crop of garden beans will become precious to you, and you will find yourself yelling and arguing over it, accusing others of sexual congress with goats or insulting their mothers’ honor for not believing that it’s worth at least three wax beans.
It’s is a pretty easy game to pick up and to teach (and get quickly passionate about)–most people can learn it in about five minutes, and get a handle on it within the first 5-10 minutes of play, even if they aren’t gamers. It’s decent for two players, but it really works best for 3-7 players, since the real fun is in the scheming and trading. The game offers slightly different deck builds to scale for the number of players, which is an extremely helpful feature. This keeps the play time usually within 30 minutes.
There are no pieces or moving parts, just cards. The points system even utilizes the playing cards–when you score, you turn the bean cards over to reveal a coin on the back of each, and use those as your money/points. I appreciate the economy: not having to fiddle with a million pieces, like in Powergrid or Small World, or having to shuffle and separate a bunch of different cards, like in Dominion, is a refreshing change. It also keeps the cost down–you can usually find a copy from $20-$25. Plus, it will make your peasant ancestors proud.