My wife and I were introduced a few weeks ago to the bean-planting game Bohnanza by Rio Grande Games. It was designed by Uwe Rosenberg (of Agricola fame) and retails for between fifteen and twenty dollars at most game shops or online stores.
The concept was initially difficult for me to swallow. We plant and trade beans? How can that possibly be fun? But I swallowed my skepticism. After all, there are a lot of games out there that sound odd when you try to describe them. (Case in point: Puerto Rico. You're a Spanish plantation owner during the height of the slave trade. Not something an American audience would normally latch onto. Yet the game has been selling well since it's release in 2002 and is still played in gaming groups across the nation.)
It turns out, the game is pretty fun, and it teaches some of the principles of free-market economics. Surprise, you can learn valuable lessons from games.
The regular game rules are for three to seven players, although there is a variant that allows for a two-player game, so it's good for married couples that can't always get together with their friends to play games ;) . Players draw cards from a community deck. One of the interesting game mechanics of Bohnanza is that hand rearrangement is forbidden. The cards in each player's hand must remain in the exact order they were drawn, and must always be played in that order.
At the beginning of each player's turn, he or she must plant at least one bean card, although two cards is allowed. (In my experience, it is rarely useful to plant two; one usually suffices.) The forced planting is a curse more than a blessing; you only have two "bean fields" in which to plant beans, each of which can only hold one type of bean at a time. There are maybe a dozen different types of beans, each with a different regularity. For example, there are only eight red beans in the deck, but twenty-two wax beans. Red beans are worth more coins, but are more difficult to accumulate, while wax beans are hardly worth anything, but you're likely to see a lot of them. The goal is to plant as many of one type of bean in a bean field before having to harvest it. The forced planting sometimes requires you to harvest a particular bean field before you really wanted to in order to make way for the next bean in your hand, and you lose out on potential coins.
When a bean field is harvested, some of the harvested beans are flipped upside down and become coins in your coin pile, while the extra beans are placed in the community discard pile. The player with the most coins at the end of the game wins.
After the forced planting at the beginning of his or her turn, the player then flips up a certain number of cards from the deck (the exact number changes depending on how many people are playing) and either plants any or all of the revealed beans or trades them away to other players for favors. Players may also trade away cards from their hands, which is a good way of getting rid of undesirable beans. Don't want to plant that chili bean next turn? Try to trade it away to someone who wants it. All traded beans immediately get planted. There is one final chance to make trades, after which, the next player gets his or her turn and must plant at least one bean from his or her hand.
The game is simple to pick up and play and is very amusing. One aspect of it that I enjoy is how it encourages cooperation. Hoarding beans and only making trades that benefit you will discourage players from trading with you, and everyone will have very low scores by the end of the game. On the other hand, trading freely and helping all the other players will lead to a high scoring game. You may not win, but you will have earned a lot of coins. That's how a good free market economy works. Everyone could just do what's best for themselves and try to undermine the competition, but it just stagnates the cash flow. If everyone is looking out both for themselves and everyone else, the money flows freely, and everybody ends up in the black.
In conclusion, not only is Bohnanza a fun and inexpensive game, but it demonstrates how a healthy free market economy functions best. Ideally, in the game, everyone tries to specialize in their own particular type of bean, instead of directly competing with someone else for the exact same bean. Ideally, in the real world, companies will release unique products and services, rather than copying another company's product or service. Maybe that's why the Zune never caught on? It wasn't different enough from the iPod.
Anyway, we liked Bohnanza. The holidays are coming up. You should all consider picking up a copy of this light but amusing game.