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Did you ever want to be the Lord Ruler of the Beaniverse? Well, neither did, but now you have the chance to reach such stellar heights with a sci-fi addition to the Bohnanza universe: Uwe Rosenberg's Space Beans (Rio Grande Games).

I'll get the obvious questions out of the way first: Is this game similar to the more popular Bohnanza? Well, yes and no. Yes, it is a bean game. And yes again in the sense that some of the mechanics work the same way. As in Bohnanza, players are planting beans in bean fields, only this time in space, which are then converted into points later in the game. The similarities end pretty much right there, as there is no trading or negotiating in the game.

The gameplay involves collecting cards in any of the seven suits, er... types of beans. Cards are acquired by drawing two at the start one one's turn, though this draw is not required unless the player starts the turn empty-handed (see below). The collections are planted in front of the players, with each participant limited to one open field (face up) and one secret field (face down). In other words, at any given time, players can be collecting at most two types of beans. Like Bohnanza, if a player is unable to add to a current field, he must trash a current crop and start a new collection. Beans can be converted into points if and only if the number of beans in a field matches the number on one of the bean cards in that field (from 1-9, with the value indicating the points given). For example, if I have 3 cards, and one of them is a 3, then I can trade it in for 3 points.

The twist in the game is that once a player finishes his turn, he then has to pass his hand of cards to his right (meanwhile, the play proceeds around the table clockwise). So a good part of the decision making in the game involves keeping an eye on what your right-hand neighbor is doing... you really do not want to pass him any cards that will help his current position. While this does sound like a neat trick at first, it leads to a very serious problem with the game. Let me explain...

When we first started playing Space Beans, the players were all pretty fast and loose with their turns; just everybody drew cards on their turn, and a large number of cards were circulating around the table. But then, over the course of several games, one by one we started seeing the problem with such an approach: it helps your neighbor a bit too much. The ideal play, we learned, was to starve your neighbor by only drawing cards when you absolutely had to. By giving your neighbor as few cards as possible, you force them to trash their bean fields without getting any points from it. Eventually, we all started adopting this strategy and the game turned into a fairly boring affair with very few cards working their way around the table and a player's success or failure often being decided by their draw of two cards at the start of their turn.

You can see this problem in action by inviting a newbie to play with several experienced players. The newbie is likely to go after a lot of cards but end up passing most of those to their neighbor on the right, who will win the game. Just watch.

With such a serious shortcoming, it's hard to recommend the game strongly. It was fun at first, but it's just one of those games where the optimal strategy is just a bit too, well, optimal, leading to boring and predictable gameplay. As a light game for non-serious gamers, it might work well, as those involved would probably play a looser game, but the moment the players catch on to the winning strat, the game will lose a lot of its enjoyment.

The game isn't a total waste, however. It is pretty easy to get into, and the beans based on famous sci-fi characters are pretty cute (I like Darth Bean myself, as well as the Battlestar Galactica bean) and quite likely to appeal to your non-gaming friends. The problem, as I said, is what happens to the game once the winning strategy is discovered. If you can overlook that one flaw, give Space Beans a try.
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