Today on The Eleven, I want to take a look at the career of a designer who was the first to tackle the thrilling world of bean farming…
Uwe Rosenberg is a German designer that has been making games since 1992. His career to this point can be divided into two distinct halves. In the beginning, he was mostly known for light, inventive card games. However, in 2007, he became much more known as a designer of heavy games. In this post, we’ll take a look at 11 games from over the span of his career.
I’m not exactly sure what Rosenberg’s first game was as there are two games listed on BGG as being published in 1992. We’ll talk about Times here as it’s higher rated and there’s (slightly) more information about it. Players have cards and time frame tokens. You have to set a time frame according to when you think an event happened, and other players can challenge or narrow that time frame. If you were correct, or if you correctly challenged someone, you can discard a card. Discard all five of your cards, and you win.
I’m not sure I’m hitting all the nuances of the game, but from the BGG description, it sounds a bit like Timeline with more interaction. The game was never published in English, and is likely long out of print in any other edition. Rosenberg’s other 1992 game was Marlowe, a murder mystery game that also has never been printed in English (or reprinted after its original run, as far as I know).
Bohnanza is the game that put Rosenberg on the map. Published in 1997 by AMIGO Spiel (Rio Grande in the US), this game is all about bean farming (“bohn” is bean in German). Each player is dealt a hand of five cards, all of which must be kept in the order they were dealt to you. On your turn, you MUST plant the first card in your hand and MAY plant the second. You have two imaginary fields to play into, and each field only holds one type of bean, so you may have to harvest before planting. Harvesting (hopefully) earns you money. After planting, you draw the top two cards of the deck and see if anyone wants to trade with you for them, or for anything out of your hand. You end your turn by drawing three cards. After the third time through the deck, there’s one final harvest, and the player who has earned the most money wins.
I avoided this game for a long time, partially because the theme sounded horrid and partially because of other reasons I will discuss later. Once I played it, however, I instantly loved it and now have my own copy. It’s a great gateway style game, with lots of interaction and very clever mechanics. The theme even doesn’t seem as bad to me now because the bean illustrations all have such a great sense of humor to them.
Bargain Hunter is a 1998 game originally published by Queen Games, with an English edition later published by Valley Games. Bargain Hunter is a trick-taking game, where each player is dealt a hand of eight cards from a deck of 108 cards. There are six suits, and two of each number from 1-9 in each suit. At the start of each hand, you choose an appliance (represented by a number) to collect. Every appliance of that type that you collect is worth a point, while all others could be worth negative points. Play out a standard round of trick-taking, then clear out your odds and ends – dump a value, then add some to your bargain pile. After 4-6 rounds, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.
Bargain Hunter is an interesting take on trick-taking games as you’re scoring particular types of cards, but not others. So you have to weigh each trick to determine if you want to win it or not – you don’t want too much junk, but you do want those extra appliances to increase your score. Unfortunately, it’s not currently in print after Valley Games imploded, but maybe someone else will bring it out again sometime.
Mamma Mia! came out in 1999, published by ABACUSSPIELE (originally distributed by Rio Grande in the US). This one is a cooking based memory game where players are trying to fulfill recipes. In each round, players will take turns either placing ingredients or orders into a common pile. Once the entire deck has been drawn, the common pile is flipped over and ingredients are revealed. When an order is revealed, if all necessary ingredients are present, they are discarded and the player who played the order scores it. After three rounds, the player who has completed the most orders is the winner.
Mamma Mia is incredibly quick, and nearly impossible to strategize. Ingredients are played so quickly that it’s really hard to remember them. The best thing you can do is take an educated guess as to when you should play an order – the worst that can happen is that you were wrong and you get your order back. It’s a frantic game, and a lot of fun. The game is still in print, though I believe the ABACUS English version is the only one you can get these days.
Babel is one of Rosenberg’s few co-designs, done with Hagen Dorgathen in 2000. This game was initially published by KOSMOS as part of their two-player line, and distributed in the US by Rio Grande (later by Z-Man). In the game, you are placing cards as workers in order to build temples. You need a certain number of workers to claim each temple, and though there are five nationalities, you don’t need one specific type to build a temple. If you have at least three of a nationality at your temple, however, you can use a special ability – demolish an opponent’s temple, steal an opponent’s temple, force your opponent to discard all workers of one type from a temple, skip levels of your temple, or steal your opponent’s workers from a temple. When one player gets 15 points, he wins as long as the other player has less than 10. Otherwise, it’s the first to 20 that wins.
This game is very different from most other games in Rosenberg’s catalog in that it is VERY confrontational. I haven’t played it, and don’t think I particularly want to. The art is quite lovely, and the gameplay does seem clever and engaging if you’re into that kind of thing – which I’m really not.
Following Babel, Rosenberg went through a period of time where he was primarily working on expansions and new versions of previous games, particularly Bohnanza. There were a few new games here and there, but nothing terribly successful. Then, in 2007, he rocked the gaming world with the release of Agricola (published by Lookout Games with Z-Man distributing in the US). It marked a turning point in Rosenberg’s career, where he started to become better known as a heavy game designer. Agricola is another farming game, but instead of a light trading game, this is a relatively heavy worker placement game. Over 14 turns, players must try to build up their homes, develop fields and crops, cultivate animals, and make sure all of their family members are fed. Variety is rewarded (you lose points if you don’t have enough of a particular type of thing), and the player with the most points after 14 turns wins.
Agricola is famous as being the game that dethroned Puerto Rico at the top of the BGG ratings. It remains a very popular game to this day. Many people respond to the heavy decisions that need to be made, as well as the variety of cards and different paths to victory. As for me…Agricola is the reason I did not seek out more Rosenberg games as I was coming up through the hobby. I played it, and thought it was fine, but the more I tried it, the more it felt like work and less like fun. I feel like there’s just so many things you have to do to get your engine started and if one person takes an action you needed, it will be several turns before you can get that engine going again. I recognize that it’s a very well designed game, I’m just not a fan. And as a result, I didn’t particularly want to try out anything else by Agricola. But I finally played Space Beans one day, and really liked it. Then I played Bohnanza, and I was on the Rosenberg bandwagon.
In 2013, Caverna was released, which was a reworking of the Agricola system. Many people like it better – it has surpassed Agricola in the BGG rankings (so has Puerto Rico, I’m happy to see). But Agricola’s still #8, so that speaks to its enduring appeal.
Le Havre was the second game in Rosenberg’s so-called Harvest Trilogy, published in 2008 by Lookout Games (Z-Man in the US). Le Havre is another worker placement game, though this one is centered around the shipping industry. On each turn, a player first distributes new supplies, then takes an action. This could be to construct a building, or to use a building’s ability, or to take supplies. After seven turns, a round ends and players must feed their people. After a set number of rounds, the game ends, and the player with the most points wins.
To me, Le Havre is vastly superior to Agricola in a number of ways. For one, while there are a ton of things to possibly do (maybe even more than Agricola), I never feel like I’m completely out of options for completing my current plan. There’s always something that you can do that will advance your game. Plus, I get more of a sense of building towards something as I play, rather than frantically not trying to die all of the time. Take that as you will.
At the Gates of Loyang is the third and final game of the Harvest Trilogy. Published in 2009 by Lookout (with Z-Man once again distributing), this one took place in China and largely involved the growing and trade of vegetables. Each round, you harvest vegetables from your fields and use those veggies to fulfill orders and trade for new veggies. You can also use helpers that will give you all kinds of benefits. After nine rounds, the player who has scored the most points is the winner.
For all of these heavy Rosenberg games, I feel like I’m oversimplifying what’s going on. There really is a lot to think about, but there’s not much point in talking about it in this short format. It’s really something that needs to be played to appreciate. At the Gates of Loyang was heavily criticized when it first came out for being light on interaction and with not many scoring opportunities – you really only tend to score 1-2 points per round, with a 3-point round being pretty exceptional. As time has gone on, it has grown into a well respected solo and couples game, with people really appreciating the interactions within the cards and the puzzly nature of the game. I’ve only played online, and once I understood what was going on, it became one of my favorites.
Ora et Labora is a 2011 game published by Lookout Games and Z-Man Games. In this one, players are monks trying to acquire lands and construct buildings. The game uses a rondel to track resources that are available, and each player has a personal game board they are trying to develop. Terrain restrictions limit what can be built where, and you have workers that can enter buildings to use their abilities. It’s a points game, and the one with the most at the end is the winner.
Ora et Labora is probably the Rosenberg game I know least about, but I wanted to mention it since it is another Top 100 game (#59 when I wrote this). It seems to be similar to Le Havre in idea, but I think that resource rondel probably sets it apart. It’s one I’ve wanted to try, just haven’t had a chance.
Fields of Arle is a 2014 game from Feuerland Spiele (Z-Man in the US). It’s another farming game (shocker). This one lasts for nine half-years (summer and winter), and each half-year has three phases – preparations, where you set up the round; work, where you place four workers on the game board; and inventory, where you take stock of your belongings. There are fifteen different action spaces to use when placing workers, and they are different for each half year. After the ninth half-year, add up your points to see who won.
Fields of Arle is set in the region where Rosenberg grew up, so it was kind of a personal project for him. It’s also a hefty game that is only for 1 or 2 players. I’ve heard really good things about it, and it’s honestly the Rosenberg game I’m most interested in trying next.
Patchwork is another 2014, this one from Lookout Games and Mayfair in the US. It’s a two-player only game where players are trying to build their own quilt. Players buy patches by using their two currencies – buttons and time. The game uses a time track, so the longer you take, the longer your opponent has to potentially buy several patches. Every now and then, you’ll earn more buttons, and the object of the game is to have the most buttons when both players reach the end of the time track.
In a way, Patchwork is a return to the old Rosenberg. After years of him exploring heavy games, it was nice that he came back with such a delightful game, showing that he can still pack some punch into a lighter, smaller game. Of course, his 2015 release Hengist (another two-player only game) is pretty universally derided, barely cracking the Top 12,000 at BGG. So who knows where that will go.
That’s the list, folks. If you’ve never played an Uwe Rosenberg game, I highly encourage you to try. Don’t be turned off by the dry themes – he has some truly great games to his credit. Thanks for reading!