The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Designer Spotlight: Uwe Rosenberg

by | published Friday, January 6, 2017

Since 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of Bohnanza, it seems fitting to look back on the career of its designer, Uwe Rosenberg. He has designed several classic Euro games, and with last year’s A Feast for Odin shows no signs of slowing down.

Rosenberg is the kind of designer who, when he’s found something that works well in a game, likes to tease the idea out and spin out many variations. Thus, I think of Rosenberg’s body of work as consisting of three “dynasties” interspersed with standalone designs. This spotlight will focus on the dynasties, since they constitute by far the largest number of his designs.

  • The Bohnanza Dynasty (1997 – present): Bohnanza was not Rosenberg’s first design (according to BGG that honour goes to either Times or Marlowe, both published in 1992), but it is the one that put him on the map. It is at heart a trading and set-collection card game. Players are bean farmers trying to make money by planting and then harvesting sets of cards of the same type of bean. Some beans are rarer (hence more valuable) than others, so harvesting two red beans gets you a coin, but it will take four yellow beans to make any money. The more you have in your pile when you cash it in, the more money you make. One neat twist is that the coins you get for harvesting are from the bean cards themselves, which flip over to become coin cards; this means the number of cards in the deck steadily decreases as the game goes on. You can only ever have two (or, if you choose to buy one later, three) “fields” (piles) going at any given time, and the last thing you want to do is cash in a pile before it makes you any money.

The two things that originally set Bohnanza apart and make it a classic still played today are a unique twist on hand management and a whimsical, even bawdy graphic design sensibility. Bohnanza is the first card game I know of where the order of cards in your hand (a) matters and (b) cannot be changed, ever. And because you must always play/plant the “top” bean card in your hand at the beginning of your turn, you have a big incentive to trade away stray beans in your hand which don’t fit into your plans. Sometimes it’s even worth giving them away for nothing rather than keeping them, which means Bohnanza avoids the problem in other trading games (like Catan) of players who insist on going it alone. You cannot win in Bohnanza without engaging with the other players.

As for the graphic design, the illustrations of the various kinds of beans has always been part of the fun, from the noxious piles of poo that are the stink beans to the frenetic multitasking of the coffee beans to the burlesque naughtiness of the puff beans. They unquestionable add to the funhouse atmosphere of the bean trading.

Bohnanza was a huge hit in Germany and, because of the language-independence of the cards, was an early export to North America soon after its release. Rosenberg then proceeded to spin off variation after variation using the mechanics of the base game. Here are just some of them:

 

  • High Bohn (2000): A wild-west theme with buildings you can purchase with your coins that give you magic special trading and harvesting powers.
  • Al Cabohne (2000): A Chicago gangster theme which can be played with two or even solitaire. I played the heck out of this one and still enjoy it.
  • Bean Trader (2002): With a board, because some people will only play if there’s a board, I guess.
  • Bohnaparte (2003): You want a Risk-like variant using a modular card-based map? Here you go.
  • Würfel Bohnanza (2012): Because there needed to be a dice version?
  • My First Bohnanza (2015): A kinder, simpler version for the kiddies.

So as you can see, Bohnanza bean berry berry good to Uwe. The original game is deservedly a classic, and if you haven’t played it yet, why not?

  • The Agricola Dynasty (2007 – present): “Worker placement” is a mechanic whereby players each have a limited supply of pawns representing…um…let’s call them “workers” (although they can also represent: wizards; minions; spaceships; prospectors; gunfighters; kittens; and/or unicorns) which are sent out over the board to perform various game-related tasks. The earliest design on BGG that uses worker placement is apparently an old wargame called After the Holocaust; the oldest Euro to use it was 1991’s Silverton. Caylus (2005) was the first game I played where worker placement was front and centre. But it was with Agricola that Rosenberg took worker placement, ensconced it in a friendly-looking world of farming and stock-raising, and established his second (and arguably most-successful) dynasty.

In Agricola (Latin for “farmer”) each player begins with a two-room wooden hut and a family of two. The initial range of possible actions is limited, but grows by one each turn over fourteen turns. Actions include gathering resources, making babies (which grow into workers, which grant you more actions per turn), building fences, renovating your house with higher-quality material, and playing cards from your hand representing occupations and improvements which give you magical special abilities and bonus VP. Every few turns, regular play is paused and all players get to harvest their planted fields, breed their stock, and feed their family members. Not enough food? Then begging you must go, costing you VP. After fourteen rounds your farm earns VP’s in twenty-three different categories (kidding; only seven) for things like how many areas are fenced in and how many cattle are roaming about. Toss in some points for the size of your family and the size and quality of your house and subtract points for unused areas on your board and any begging. Whoever has the most VP’s is the bestest medieval farmer ever.

You can tell from the above that Agricola is not a casual game, despite its pastoral theme. Figuring out where to send your workers, which Occupations and Improvement cards to play, and how to grow your farm at the optimal pace is quite taxing. As if that weren’t enough, there is a variant where you draft Occupations and Improvements before the game starts—which gives you even more strategic options. Agricola is an extremely deep game where winning requires both short-term and long-term planning. It makes one’s brain hurt—but it is also the sort of game where even if you come dead last you can feel like you accomplished something if you manage to bring your family and farm through without undue hardship.

Agricola was a sensation when it came out, and its continued success encouraged Rosenberg to organize and release various decks of alternate Occupation and Improvement cards over the last ten years, adding to the game’s immense re-playability. An expansion, Farmers of the Moor, was released in 2009 which adds heat to the list of things you have to worry about (as in “I better burn enough peat to heat my house or my family will freeze”) and is really only for those fifty people in the world who find Agricola not challenging enough as it is. The game was also ported to iOS, introducing it to a digital audience.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg was not done with the basic ideas and mechanics behind Agricola, and the Dynasty includes the following games:

  • Le Havre (2008): More of an economic game focusing on buildings and refining resources. Players can use each other’s buildings, at a cost. You still have to produce a certain amount of food every turn or take out loans which cost you VP’s if they are not repaid before the end of the game.
  • At the Gates of Loyang (2009): You are still a humble farmer, Chinese this time, but now you can (er, must) sell your foodstuffs to customers to earn VP’s.
  • Ora et Labora (2011): Back to Medieval Europe, this time as monastery monks. Goods appear on a personal rondel. This time some of the spaces on your farm monastery land must be cleared away before you can build on them.
  • Agricola: All Creatures Great and Small (2012): A two-player distillation of the original game, Agricola:ACGaS has become a mini-dynasty of its own, with expansions and an iOS app of its own.
  • Le Havre: The Inland Port (2012): A two-player version of Le Havre, also with its own app, not as critically favoured as Agricola:ACGaS, although I quite enjoy it (though I’ve only ever played the app).
  • Caverna: the Cave Farmers (2013): Agricola meets Minecraft? This time players are dwarves carving out an existence below-ground and going on jaunty little delving jaunts for swag. More forgiving and slightly more random than Agricola, Caverna is arguably better off for it.
  • Glass Road (2013): Some would say that this game does not belong on this list because it lacks worker placement. I argue that it belongs here despite this by virtue of its resource refinement and building mechanisms (which it shares with Ora et Labora) and its theme.
  • Fields of Arle (2014): Specifically designed for two players, Fields of Arle is not a mini-game like the Agricola or Le Havre spinoffs, but instead a meaty sprawling game with a huge table footprint and many (many) (MANY) action choices and paths to victory.
  • A Feast for Odin (2016): The most thematically-rich game in the dynasty, AFfO is a love-letter to Norse culture (complete with extensive historical notes which, I have on personal authority, were a total bitch to translate from the original German). AFfO takes Fields of Arle’s action/VP salad and adds a puzzle-like element as players use differently-shaped goods and relics to cover their player boards.
  • Agricola: Family Edition (2016): The title says it all, really. This version removes the Occupation and Improvement cards, and has a smaller variety of resources than the original. The scoring system is also more forgiving.
  • The Patchwork Dynasty (2014 – present) is the newest and therefore tiniest of the Dynasties, but if Rosenberg’s oeuvre is any indication, we’ll be seeing new heirs in the years to come.

Patchwork is a two-player game where each player is assembling a quilt composed of polymonio tiles (you know, Tetris-shaped thingies) drafted from a common pool. You are trying to cover as much of your 9 x 9 board before the game is over. There are two currencies in the game, which are used to purchase and place tiles: buttons, which appear on certain tiles, and time—measured by how far your scoring token has moved on the timeline track. As long as your scoring token is behind your opponent’s, you can continue buying tiles and expanding your quilt. Or you can pass, move your tile ahead of your opponent, and collect one button for every square you’ve moved up. Sometimes, this is the only thing you can do on your turn, because the available tiles are all too expensive. Larger tiles generally naturally cost more buttons and/or time, so you often have to choose between taking a couple of punky little tiles OR one juicy and valuable whomper, which will mean your opponent will get to take several turns in a row. As your scoring marker passes certain milestones on the timeline track, you earn button “income” from your tiles. There are also a couple of special one-square bonus tiles you can collect if you reach certain points first on the timeline track (these are useful to plug up holes in your quilt). The first player to completely cover a 7 x 7 square on their quilt grabs a bonus token worth 7 VP at game end.

When both players have reached the end of the timeline track the game is over. You get points for leftover buttons and lose points for uncovered squares on your board. Factor in the 7 x 7 bonus token (if it has been earned) and you have a winnah.

Patchwork is a colourful, tight, and elegant game which is approachable to beginners (and a great “first date” game) but plenty of interesting decisions and meaty cut-throat play for experienced players. It has been ported to iOS (very well, I may add), and I believe it forms the beginning of another Dynasty because last year Rosenberg released Cottage Garden, which takes the central mechanism of drafting polynomi Tetris pieces and opens it up to up to four players, who are planting gardens instead of sewing quilts.

* * *

Uwe Rosenberg is a very talented designer. Bohnanza, Agricola, and Patchwork are undeniably classic games; just those three span a great array of mechanics, themes, and game experiences, and would make a tidy game collection if you owned no others.

Rosenberg has built two huge dynasties (and is potentially starting a third) where many designers are lucky to do it once. The thing I often end up thinking about after playing one of his games is: how many variations on a design do I, as a player, need to play?

 


6 thoughts on “Designer Spotlight: Uwe Rosenberg

  1. Cain says:

    Great article. You’ve really clearly articulated the things I love about Rosenberg’s games.

  2. Joseph says:

    A Feast for Odin includes the polynomi pieces from the Patchwork Dynasty, so I would say it is a perfect hybrid between the Patchwork and Agricola Dynasties. This begs the question: what other elements of his previous games will he find a way to shove into Patchwork?

  3. Oskar says:

    How is Caverna more random than Agricola?

  4. […] in January I bemoaned the meh-ness I felt about Cottage Garden, which attempted to take the core mechanics of […]

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