Friday, May 10, 2013

Bohnanza: No Mouth to Scream

1967 saw the first publishing of noted science fiction writer Harlan Ellison's dark future vision "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." In it a brutal supercomputer rules over the last 5 living humans, torturing and mutilating them to suit its insane whims.

I often contemplate this story during play of Uwe Rosenburg's modern gaming classic Bohnanza. Sometimes more casually referred to as "The Bean Game,"you will find the bright yellow box of this simple card game on just about every gaming shelf. Still in print, too!

Like the pitiful human remnants in "I Have No Mouth", the players in Bohnanza face a difficult predicament. They are bean farmers, you see. Their objective is to plant beans into 1 of 2 fields, represented by cards. By repeatedly playing the same type of bean, players collect sets which can then be harvested for gold coins. The man or woman with the most gold coins at the end of the game of course wins. Whatever winning means in this case.

Like the malicious artificial intelligence "AM," the game structure of Bohnanza only exists to create a hostile and abusive environment for bean farmers.

A bean farmer would ideally like to choose what beans get planted in the fields. But this is not so! Each  mewling human is instead dealt random bean cards. The cards are arranged in the player's hand in an inalterable queue, in the order they are dealt. You can NEVER change the order of your queue. When you draw fresh new cards, they go to the back of the queue. The cards slowly march across your hand to their eventual fate.

Each turn, you must plant new bean cards. Each of your 2 fields can only hold 1 type of bean card. There are 9 different types of beans in the game. If you have a bean card to plant and 2 fields with other types of beans, one of the fields has to be dug up and you must start all over again.

Hopefully you are able to stack a few bean cards before you tear them back out, in which case you get to keep a gold coin or two to save up for the end game.

But left to your own devices, you are most often going to be digging up beans, planting new beans, and then digging them up right away again next turn before they are able to earn you anything.

But then comes TRADING!

Of course the one reprieve from this eternal torture comes in the form of your fellow humans. While you can NEVER change the order of cards in your hand, you CAN trade cards out of your hand for cards from another player.

You give them cards, they give you cards. All these beans cannot go back in your hand (the queue is verboten!) They must instead be planted immediately, necessitating the possible excavation yet again of current bean fields.

So every turn you draw new cards. You cajole people to give you their cards that you want in your fields. You beg people to take cards out of your hand you don't want to play. And then you tear up your bean fields and plant more random bean cards.

This goes around and around, until you've gone 3 times through the deck of bean cards.


In the story, the super computer AM fills its days by physically and mentally torturing the last existing humans. Eventually most are able to kill themselves and escape into sweet oblivion before the computer can heal them. Only the narrator remains, who is promptly mutated by the computer into an unkillable form. As the title indicates, the narrator finds himself in a position where he desires to scream, yet is an immortal blob without a mouth.

Bohnanza ends once the central bean deck has been depleted 3 times. Whoever has succeeded as the best bean farmer…in spite of the extensive anti-bean-farmer laws of the game…now becomes the winner.

Unlike "I Have No Mouth" there is no rebellion, and I can only assume the immortal bean-planting blobs in Bohnanza simply go on to another set of bean fields in an eternal dysfunctional dance. The winner receives no lasting reward other than the irrational envy of the other players.

I really don't mind playing Bohnanza. But that is pretty damning praise for any board or card game. I will play just about anything. I will not suggest it to others. If I leave the decision-making process to my friends, I find Bohnanza makes its way to the table about once a year. And that is plenty for a grim dystopian bean-planting future.

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