Category Archives: Tabletop Gaming

Monopoly: You’re Doing It Wrong

So I’ve been writing about video games mostly.  But sometimes I also play board games. I’m particularly fond of Dungeons and Dragons, which, while not a board game per se, has board game variants.

Whenever I tell people this, sometimes I add that there are conventions for board games; there are board game enthusiasts.  The response of the average, non-gamer person is “You mean, games like Monopoly?”

…Sure.  Except not really.

By all accounts the American obsession with Monopoly is pretty odd.  For one thing, it’s a “serious game,” one of the first games with a social agenda to penetrate the mass market (although nobody thinks about Monopoly that way, by some accounts the original intent was to create a game that showed the problems with monopolies in an economic system and how them driving people to bankrupcy is a bad thing).  For another thing, it’s not really a great game. It’s adequate, but most people who play it then complain that it has problems, such as lasting too long, and taking too long to get interesting.  A larger problem with it, which fewer people mention, is that it’s an elimination game, meaning that it isn’t over until one player remains, leaving early knockouts from the game out in the cold.  Maybe they can play Catan while they wait.

Of course, since Monopoly is the first board game people think of when you mention a board game, when you say you like board games, the thought process of the person you are talking to seems to go like this…  1) Board games = Monopoly 2) Monopoly is sort of dull 3) Why would anyone like board games?

People…  A big part of the problem with Monopoly isn’t Monopoly. It’s you.

Zack Hiwiller discusses this on his blog, right about the time I was getting in to regular conversations about it.  You can read that to get the gist of what I’m about to say, but, basically: most everybody I know plays Monopoly with two variant rules. 

1) When you land on Free Parking, you get “the lottery,” which is typically a large sum of money. The most common thing to do here is have everyone who pays an income tax throw that money in to the center of the board instead of the “bank,” then it becomes the lotto prize for hitting Free Parking. In my family, we also threw $50 in there to start to sweeten the pot.

2) When you land on an unsold property, and you don’t want it, just pass.

These aren’t the official rules.  Both of these house rules cause balance issues that actually weaken the game.  The Free Parking rule allows for an exciting “come from behind” scenario, but this leads to players who should be knocked out of the game to continue to play, which causes the game overall to be longer.  Being able to pass on properties means properties are sold more slowly, which also isn’t in the rules: passed properties are supposed to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

This is why it intrigued me to learn about the new, electronic Monopoly that is being made without dice or paper money.  My number one question about it was “Does it make you play the game by the actual rules?”

Apparently it does.  After a fashion.  It does seem to enforce the auction rule, which most people don’t use or know.  (I get why; it’s awkward to run an auction without a pure neutral arbiter, and maybe the computer will help with that?)  I would also bet that, therefore, it gets the Free Parking rule correct.  (There’s actually no reward at all for landing on Free Parking.  One of the great mysteries I have personally never understood is where exactly that Free Parking “lotto winner” rule came from in the first place, since pretty much everyone seems to play the game with that house rule and everyone who does just learned it from their families.  Who started that, and, since they don’t understand game balance and actually made a bad rule, are they still alive to be punished?)

Places the electronic Monopoly seems to differ from the standard rule set is that 1) it adds random events, such as auctions or races (according to the NYT article) and 2) It, apparently, does away with one of Monopoly’s best and most important rule sets, the ability to negotiate with other players for trade and sale of properties, Get Out of Jail Free cards, etc.  Being able to sell your properties to other players is in fact part of Monopoly’s rules, and one of the only rules that makes the modified version that most people play playable at all.  It’s fairly unlikely, after all, that you will just stumble across a perfect Monopoly of three (or two) matching properties while negotiating the board yourself.  The “you give me that one and I’ll give you this one and fifty bucks” kind of trading allows players to build up their properties without relying on bare random chance.

It will be interesting to see if this new Monopoly does well. In a perfect world, while everyone might own a copy of Monopoly for the nostalgia (mine is Nintendo Monopoly, natch), they would also realize that there are other board games worth their time and might check a few of them out.  Maybe they might find a new household favorite.  Balderdash, which is very social and a little educational, was always popular in my family, and that’s before I knew that they made games in Europe.

Or, I guess you could just play Scene It.

Augh, augh, augh.