It's Full of Stars

Review of card game Space Beans by Pevans

Space Beans is Uwe Rosenberg's latest little card game featuring caricatures of beans - in this case masquerading as characters from TV and film science fiction (2001, Alien, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars and one odd character who turns out to be from a German TV series of 1966 vintage called Raumpatrouille Orion). This is a stand-alone game, not a further extension of Bohnanza, but clearly draws on the earlier game.

The game consists of a deck of cards. There are seven suits (colours, characters) with numbers 1-9 (one each of 1-3 and two each of 4-9). The object is to gain 'trophy' point cards by collecting sets of a single suit. The game ends when someone reaches thirty points and the person with the most points wins. As the first player to 30 gets a bonus, they are likely to be the winner as well.

As with Rosenberg's other games, the gameplay is little intricate. You are allowed to collect two sets of cards at a time (the first one open, the second hidden), but can only play to one in your turn. In fact you must play onto one set: if you can't add to a set already started, you have to cash in your face-up collection, reveal your hidden collection and start a new, hidden set. You have to decide whether to cash in a set before playing a card. You score by having a card in the set you are cashing in whose value is the same as the number of cards in the set. You get to keep this card as your trophy points. To illustrate: if you have 1, 4 and 8, the set is worth nothing. However, if you add to this to give 1, 4, 8 and 9, you can cash it in for 4.

The first thing you do in your turn is decide whether to draw two cards and add them to your hand. The last thing is to pass your hand to the player on your right - play still passes to the left. So, you only get one chance to play from a hand. Then you get a new one and have to think about what you can do with it.

Some obvious tactics come out of this. If there's a card you can play in the hand you are passed, you don't need to draw any more cards. And if you don't, you'll be passing a smaller hand to the next player, reducing her opportunities. As you can see one set that the player on your right is collecting, you won't want to pass him any cards of that suit. Especially if it would allow him to cash in the set. You can often deduce their hidden suit, too, from knowing what cards you've passed them that they then play from.

The game gives players a few, simple decisions to make each turn. As you have the opportunity to evaluate your new hand before it's your turn, the game should move quickly. This does not seem to be the case. In practice players take time to review their hands - especially if they draw cards - and play slows down.

Interestingly, the game has gone down much better with youngsters - my early teens niece and nephew, who played the game over Christmas - than with gamers. The youngsters enjoyed the game and wanted to play again. And again. With gamers, my experience is that most sets are discarded without scoring and it takes too long to arrive at the game end condition.

I think what is happening is that gamers see the need to restrict the choice of the other players and so draw cards only when they have to and will play rather than pass on a card of a suit that they know the next player is collecting. If you get passed a single card that is not of your open suit, the odds are that you won't be able to play it. The chance of being able to play onto an existing set after drawing cards is still only 50%. And if you are passed no cards, the odds are worse. So a lot of the time players have to throw away sets - since you have to play - and start again. The game becomes one of luck. Sets don't get to be very big, nobody scores many points and the game outlasts its welcome.

Which is a shame because the basic idea seems sound. It just doesn't work well in practice.

Space Beans was designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published in Germany by Amigo and in the USA by Rio Grande Games. It is for 2-6 players and takes 45 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 5/10. (Thanks to Katharina Nimeth of Innsbruck University in Austria for identifying Raumpatrouille Orion for me.)
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 140, February 2000.

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