A tabletop with a display of the bean counting game Bohnanza.

The Virtue of Bean Farming

  • Featured RPG Designers

    Funeral Rites

  • Bohnanza is a game about trading beans. It’s also a game about bartering and arguing and pleading your case. It’s about frustration, disagreements, arguments, threats, concessions. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and shouting that threatens to lift you off your feet.

    Except, in my case, when it keeps you grounded.

    Bohnanza is a game about friendships and mutual benefit, agreements and finding the middle ground. A trade cannot benefit a single party. It must provide a boon to all involved. A blue bean for a red bean sounds superfluous, but it represents two people with two disparate goals meeting in the middle. A parlay brought about by a desire for a plentiful harvest.

    About a month ago I was diagnosed with depression. Inside, I had known about it for years, but an official, doctor-written diagnosis really hammered home that I needed to seek help. I felt embarrassed about my condition, foolish that I had so little control over my own emotions. This conceit did little to assuage my unease, but through the support of my wife and family I began taking medication.

    The first weeks of anti-depressants are a physical and emotional roller coaster. The unmediated ups and downs from before are simply exaggerated, and a near-constant pain grips your stomach, threatening, via surrender, to undo the admittedly small amount of progress you’ve made. Again, my fragile emotional state suffused me with self-consciousness. I didn’t speak of it to any friends, and very few people outside of my family knew about my new status as “officially depressed Sam.”

    Until Thanksgiving weekend, that is. Every year, our group of friends gathers for food, drinks and board games. It was then, during buzzed conversation, that I told everyone about my new medication, about my depression. I was taken aback by their reaction. Not because they offered sympathy or condolences, but because they offered understanding and support. The conversation lasted only minutes, and then we played several rounds of Bohnanza.

    We had played a lot of Bohnanza in the past; it’s become our go-to party game. The goal is to plant as many of one type of bean as you can for a most bountiful harvest possible. This is done through trading with other players on your turn. Historically, our games have always turned to shouting matches and creative insults as we curse one another for hording beans or refusing to barter. And this one was no different.

    Looking around the table, I saw no difference between this game or any of our other sessions. The game felt natural, like we hadn’t skipped a beat. Like I hadn’t shared a deep secret that had haunted me for ages. It felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off of me. It was the single greatest game of Bohnanza I have ever been a part of.

    I still have a long way to go to come to terms with my depression, but I owe my friends and my wife a great deal of gratitude. Their show of normalcy helped me see that I can cope. It feels kind of foolish writing these words in the context of a 500-word board game piece, but it also feels like a necessary step towards understanding myself. If a game can help me do that, then I will gladly write about its impact on me. I will gladly write about the time a game about trading beans left an imprint on my life.

    Games, Review