Tag Archives: Games Magazine category winner


What the heck kind of name is Bohnanza (Rio Grande Games, 1997)?? “Bohne” is german for “bean,” Bohnanza is a pun for “bean bonanza.” Glad we got that out of the way – on to the important stuff.

bohnanza box

This is perhaps one of the most interesting, and well-disguised, rummy games I have ever come across. At its most basic, players are simply trying to create the largest sets of cards they can, in order to then cash them in for coins. Whoever ends the game with the most coins wins the game…BUT… it isn’t that straightforward. The creators of Bohnanza deserve a lot of credit for keeping with the “bean” theme while allowing for a very unique and interactive game.

There are 11 types of bean cards – as opposed to the four suits in an ordinary deck of playing cards – and each bean type has a different number of cards (each card is labeled with the total number of its type): for example, there are 6 “Garden Beans” and 24 “Coffee Beans,” and each Garden Bean card is labeled with a 6, and each Coffee Bean card is labeled with a 24. Each card also has an amusing depiction of that type of bean, and at the bottom there is a range of coin values.

As players earn cards, they “plant” them (i.e., they play the cards in front of them), but they are initially limited to planting two fields only – so they may play only two types of bean in front of them. At some point a player must “harvest” a crop of beans they have planted. The number of cards in the harvest then earns them the number of coins listed on that card; 4 coffee beans earns a player one coin, while 10 of them earn three coins, and so on.

Interestingly from a design perspective, the game does not come with separate coins for scorekeeping; rather, coins are depicted on the card backs of each bean. This is important to the game play because as bean cards are harvested, most of them go to a discard pile that is recycled for continued play. However, the first few cards of that stack are turned over and become coins, owned by the harvesting player, and are thereby eliminated from the game.

bohnanza layout

Once players have started earning coins, they have the option of purchasing a third bean field for three coins – allowing them to plant, then harvest, a third type of bean. A third field comes in handy because the rules force players to make some tough decisions when it is their turn…

Players start with five cards. The cards MUST remain in the order in which they were received. Wow, that’s different; it also affects everything else about the game. Players can see their hands, and hold them so that others cannot, but they may not rearrange the hand. On a player’s turn, he or she MUST plant the top card, and may also plant the second. Then they draw two more cards and turn them face up; they have the option of donating, or trading these cards, or they can keep them for planting. Finally, the player must draw three cards, adding them one at a time to the back of their hands.

The trick here is to plant bean fields that might earn the most coins, and that determination is made by seeing what else is in one’s hand, and also what other players have planted and have negotiated for. Often a player is forced to harvest one field in order to plant another, even though the harvest yields little or nothing. Thus, during the draw phase, it is important for a player to initiate shrewd trades and gain the beans they have already planted. One must also be active in trading during other player turns, for the same reason.

There are a lot of nuances in a game like Bohnanza that I won’t go into here, but there are a great many fans of the game all over the world. In fact, there are at least 17 editions of Bohnanza, some incorporating new rules, and some with new cards or new themes. The Fan-Edition uses art work from players everywhere (see pic above).

It’s not hard to recommend Bohnanza to any gaming family, or any group of people who like games in general and card games in particular. It comes in a reasonably small box, and is as easy to travel with as any large deck of cards. It encourages interaction, risk-taking, probability, and planning, and would be great for any players aged 10 and up. It’s officially recommended for 12 and up, but I think a bright youngster can figure it out.

Now, go play!

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Gheos (Z-Man Games, 2006) is an interesting, attractive, and relatively small and affordable game, easy enough to learn quickly – but quickly complicated by the range of options available on every turn.

Players are divine entities rearranging parcels of land in an effort to maximize the size of their following. The parcels themselves are triangular tiles, featuring one or more land masses bordered by water, which join to make “coastlines” or “continents” – continuous stretches of land. Players take turns placing one of their two randomly drawn tiles into empty slots, or replacing existing tiles, in order to construct continents to their own advantage or to the opponents’ disadvantage. Once a tile is played, a player may designate a “following” by placing a colored disc onto any empty continent. They may alternatively take a cube – a “follower” – of any color that is in play (a color that has already been played onto a continent, that is). The goal is to earn points by amassing high-value followers.

The triangular tiles in Gheos have one of several icons on them, in the form of circles, temples, and pyramids. Pyramids simply identify tiles that cannot be replaced – they are the only tiles that will remain in place once they are put on the table. Temples and Circular icons depict cups, wheat, and swords. Cups and wheat confer points, and swords are used to determine the outcome of a “war.” When identical logos are combined, through tile placement, on the same continent, any following on that continent will be stronger.

Once a continent is claimed by a following, no other following may be played. However – and this is where the game becomes really interesting, if slightly complicated – because a player may replace an existing tile, one continent can be broken into two new ones (split), or two separate continents can be merged into a new single continent (merged). In a split, the follower has to follow the wheat – they must be placed on the new continent that has the most wheat. If there are equal amounts of wheat icons, the player doing the splitting decides. In a merger, if both continents have followers, the one with the most swords remains and the other simply goes away. In the case of a tie, the player doing the merger decides.

One other very important part of Gheos is the scoring, which occurs inconsistently throughout the game, through three different mechanisms. When a temple tile is played and the land has a following, a player gets points for the number of round icons that match the temple. When a “scoring chip” (see the round cup-icon chip above) is played, the player gets points for the number of cups and the number of followers on a continent. Each player has the opportunity to play up to three scoring chips. When an “Epoch” tile, instead of a regular land tile, is drawn, a scoring round occurs. Follower cubes and the number of pyramids on a continent determine the number of points scored by each player.

The scoring mechanisms are hard to keep straight, and it is quite hard to think ahead in any effective way. The tiles vary so much and the potential to totally revise the board in one or two turns by replacing tiles really makes this a game of quick reaction and intuitive timing. Knowing which followers to grab and when to cash in a scoring chip is crucial to the game, because the game can change so fast otherwise.

Gheos would be good for most lovers of abstract strategy games. Despite its complications, it is simple enough for kids as young as 10 – but it is sophisticated enough for much older and serious players. I would recommend it for any game enthusiast, as well as any game player who likes other tile-laying games such as Carcassonne.

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Wits & Wagers

So…you have about 20 people over and it’s kind of boring, no one’s really talking about anything interesting and people aren’t too familiar with one another. What do you do? You break out Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 2005), that’s what!

Billed (accurately) as “The trivia game for people who don’t know stuff,” Wits & Wagers is a trivia game in the sense that you have to answer questions – but rewards don’t come from knowing the answers, they come from placing bets on the players who do know the right answers.

Now in its second edition, the game includes a 28-inch-long felt betting mat, poker chips, trivia cards, player betting markers (2 each in 7 different colors),7 dry-erase pens and mini-boards, and a sand timer. Up to 21 people can play, forming as many as seven teams (individuals may play alone as well).

The goal of the game is to finish with the most points after seven rounds. On each round, a “question reader” reads the appropriate question on the card – the first question for the first round, and so on – and each player or team comes up with their best guess at the answer. The questions always have a numerical answer, typically one that very few people will know outright (see below). Teams have 30 seconds to record their answers, after which the answers are revealed and placed in order of magnitude (lowest to highest) on the large betting mat.

Players then have 30 seconds to place up to two bets on any of the answers, hoping to win one of 4 payoffs (2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1). Players may also bid on an eighth space, for a 6:1 payoff, labelled: “The correct answer is smaller than all given answers.” Players then identify their bids by placing their colored betting markers on their bets, and then the answer is revealed. The answer that comes closest to correct without going over is considered correct, and all players who bet on this answer receive the corresponding payoff. The player whose answer was chosen also gets 10 bonus points. If all answers went over, there is no bonus given, and only players who bet all answers were too high wins a payoff.

When I first played Wits & Wagers, we had a group of over 20 people (at a board-gaming event), and more were attracted by the laughing and fun. Since then it has not failed to please.

I recommend Wits & Wagers for any family or group that is likely to get larger than, say, 8 people. The more the merrier with this game, but it is still plenty of fun for 6 or more. It is intellectually stimulating, but, as advertised, one need not know anything about trivia to enjoy or even win the game. It is sufficient to know the right people to bet on from turn to turn.

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Spy Alley

If your kids (8 and older) are starting to act like they’re pretty clever, then Spy Alley (Spy Alley Partners, 1992) is an excellent way to challenge them, to see if they can outwit you. It is a simple game, but for such a simple game it is remarkably well-balanced, and it is just as complicated as the players themselves make it.

In Spy Alley, each player secretly takes on the identity of one of six spies: American, English, French, German, Russian, or Italian. The goal of the game is very simply to be the first to acquire the four items that each spy needs (password, disguise, codebook,  and key), make it back to their own embassy on the board, and reveal their identity. It is almost as easy as it sounds, but here’s the rub: if another player can accurately identify your nationality, then you are out of the game. Here’s a further rub, one which really complicates things: a player who misidentifies another player is out of the game.

The really unique part of Spy Alley is the pegboard that serves to collect each “item” (see below). As players circle the board, they have the opportunity to purchase different items, which are represented by black pegs inserted into corresponding holes in the appropriate spy column. To win, a player must have each item under his or her own nationality represented with black pegs. But if other players guess at the identity correctly, that player is eliminated. Therefore, bluffing is an a critical part of the game’s strategy. It is accomplished by purchasing objects and placing their pegs in the columns of different spies, leaving the other players to guess at one’s actual identity.

Players take turns rolling the dice, or else playing a “move” card, in order to circle the board and accumulate money and spy items. Once they have collected all of their items, they are free to move through “Spy Alley” and try to land on their embassy in order to reveal themselves and thus win the game. There are spots on the board where players win money, or free items, or “move” cards, and one where players may guess at another player’s identity without the risk of being eliminated. Play moves fast, and something could happen on every turn, so there isn’t a lot of waiting around in Spy Alley.

The best part of the game is obviously the bluffing, and it’s remarkable how much that levels the playing field between kids and parents, or older and younger kids. Games do not last too long, and those that do are fun enough to watch because of their excitement. I can only remember one game where a player actually bought items for only his spy, and then proceeded directly to the embassy to win. The rest of us were sure he was bluffing, and by the time we decided to put an end to it, it was too late. he made it to his embassy and the game was over.

I definitely recommend this game to anyone with kids 7 or over. The best thing about it is how it automatically scales itself to the audience, and everyone has a reasonably good chance to win. Adults don’t have to dumb down too much to allow the kids to compete – and that’s worth a lot on family game night.

Apples to Apples

apples to apples boxOnce a decade a game strikes just the right chord with the public and flies off the shelves. Apples to Apples (Out of the Box, 1999) is such a game. This game has been played and enjoyed by so many people, and their friends, and friends of those friends, and so on, that people all over the world who “don’t play games” have loved it. It defied all odds and sold a million copies in the US without ever having been on the shelf of WalMart (as of that point in time).

Apples to Apples is a social game; it stimulates conversation, elicits laughter, moves fast, and keeps every player constantly involved. It is comprised of two decks of cards. One deck is green; green cards each have an adjective listed, along with a few synonyms. The other deck is red; red cards each have a noun (person, place, or thing), along with a brief – and humorous – description. One player acts as judge each round, and turns over the green (adjective) card and reads it. Each other player must choose the red (noun) card from their hand of seven that he or she thinks is best described by the green card. The judge takes the submitted red cards without looking at them or knowing which player submitted which card, and then judges them; he or she will decide which of the red cards really is the best match to the green card (see pic). The player whose card is chosen wins the green card; The first player to seven green cards wins.

apples layout

In the example above, the foreground player needs to determine which of the seven red apple cards is most likely to be chosen as ‘expensive.’ One could argue for car crash, or even for hockey, because they are both expensive in their own way, but Paris, France is expensive in many, bigger ways, so it is an excellent choice – but will the judge think so?

apples judges choice

After all players have submitted their red cards, the judge has to choose one. The key is to submit a card, if you can, that will resonate with the judge. In the example above, even though they might agree that Paris, France is a very expensive city to visit, or build, or whatever, they might have had a recent emotional experience with a hospitalization so the cost of an operation is what they think of when they see the word ‘expensive.’ The judge could also be more impressed with the cost of lobster, or skiing, or even paying taxes. And so it goes. The judge chooses which red card they like the best, and the players who didn’t win usually let the judge know exactly why their cards were better choices…and the conversation continues. Arguments are defused by the cards being anonymously submitted, and by the explicit rule that the judge can use any way of determining what is the best card.

Apples to Apples is easy to learn, and everybody plays at once (which is typical of games by Out of the Box). Game play typically lasts about a half hour, but any number of rounds can be played. Rounds are so quick that you can get a few done in very little time. It is very common to simply play the game without regard to a winner; people just like to play for the fun of it.

There are a number of expansions and variations available. Expansions ($19.99) are basically the same game with all new cards, which is nice to have because they can be mixed together with the original cards. There are at least 12 stand-alone variations on the basic Apples to Apples game, including Apples to Apples Jr (Out of the Box, 2002), which will be reviewed elsewhere.

I absolutely recommend this game to just about anyone in the market for a game, especially if looking for a game to appeal to a mixed-age group. It’s great for families, groups of friends and coworkers, and is safe as a gift to just about anybody.

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