Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bohnanza: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

In 1999 or so, back when I had just started to get interested in gaming again, I bought a funny little German card game called Bohnanza. The title is a pun on the English word bonanza and the German word for bean, which is bohn. In the game players must plant and harvest beans for cash, though in order to do this with any degree of success the players will have to trade beans with each other, as there are a limited number of fields and larger plantings lead to bigger profits.

The game was a huge success with my family and friends, and we played it fairly regularly for a year or two. The fact that all the little bean names were in German only added to the charm, and words like rote bohn and brechbohn quickly entered our everyday vocabulary. Eventually we moved on to different things, but the game continued to gain a wider audience and in the U.S. and ultimately an English version was published by Rio Grande Games in 2000.

There were two significant differences between the two editions, however: the Rio Grande edition had incorporated part of the first German expansion into the base game, adding between twenty-six and forty-six cards to the deck depending on the number of players, and including variants for two, six and seven players.

In the past few years I've played the six-player version of the game twice, and I found it to be a bit of a chore. With that many people haggling for trades, progress slowed down to a creep, and what was once a fun little half-hour game became an hour-long slog. I decided that the decision to expand the game to more players was a mistake, but I didn't have anything against the U.S. version otherwise.

However, just this past weekend I played the U.S. version with four players, and I discovered that even when playing with a smaller group at the table the Rio Grande rules compared poorly with the German version. There were twenty-six extra cards in the deck, increasing its size by 25%, and increasing the length of a game by a bit more than that because players go through the deck three times. You might think that if Bohnanza is fun to play it can only be a good thing to increase the length of the game, but somehow the math doesn't work. It might have to do with how the game develops; after a certain point you're simply doing the same things repeatedly, and deferring the conclusion makes things seem draggy. In general, no matter how fun a game is, length has to be justified by depth or some kind of larger development or story arc. A game can have repetition, but some kind of finish line needs to be in sight, whether it be the end of a round or the end of the game, or the tension becomes watered down. There is a delicate balance that has to be struck, because if the game is too short it can feel like everything depended on the turn of one or two cards and that skill didn't enter into it. An example of this might be the Reiner Knizia card game Katzenjammer Blues. On the other hand, if the game goes on too long, the individual plays can feel insignificant. A good example of this would be the Alan Moon board game Wongar. So, it strikes me that it would be more fun to play two half-hour games of the old Bohnanza than one hour-long game of the new Bohnanza.

The point of all this is that if you are someone who owns the Rio Grande edition of the game and ever felt that something was lacking, you might want to try taking out the coffee, wax and cocoa beans and limiting the game to five players or fewer. Why? Because sometimes shorter is sweeter.

6 comments:

Habes said...

Thanks for that Joe. It was one of the first games I played when getting into the Euro scene, and I felt it was lacking for the reasons you mentioned. Maybe I will have to give it a try again with the German rules and 4 players.

Iain said...

I didn't realise the Rio Grande version was longer. I never enjoyed Bohnanza and this explains it.

Chris Brooks said...

And thanks to Iain for pointing me to this post! And for discovering Joe's blog...

Steerpike said...

I have the German version and didn't realise that Rio Grande had changed the balance so much.

Funny they should do that - is there a perception that the American audience is somehow different ? They did something similar on Corsari, changing the scoring mechanism and imho the whole balance and simplicity of the game.

emperorjacob said...

I had forgotten that you go through the deck three times. Depending on how long the game has gone on, I stop the game after the first deck - if there are four players (A, B, C & D) and B ends the deck, I reshuffle the deck to allow B to complete his turn, then C & D take their turns and the game is then over.
We'll get 30-60 min of good haggling.

Gerald McD said...

Oh, I like the English version, with 6 or 7 players. However, we only go through the deck twice. Our family group loves this game, and it is played more than any other in our collection. The trading and haggling is fast and loud around our table, and there is little downtime, unless you've emptied your hand, and even then, we sometimes provide vocal advice to the people who are actively negotiating. We have played it so much, and know each other so well, that the game plays very quickly for us.