We’ve met a lot of great people over the last few days, and had a lot of great conversations about board games. One thing has become very apparent – a lot of people are still living under the impression that board games are like Monopoly. I call this “The Monopoly Myth”, and we need to deal with it.
Monopoly is, beyond doubt, one of the best marketed games ever. It has penetrated popular culture to the extent that phrases like “Do not pass Go” are instantly recognizable. It is almost always the first game that comes to mind when board games are mentioned. “No, not like Monopoly” has become a meme (and t-shirt) amongst gamers, a pre-emptive response to the inevitable question. It is the single biggest hurdle to convincing people that board games are actually fun.
So why is Monopoly a problem? For most people, it is their dominant experience of board games, and it isn’t a good one. Most people’s associations with it are negative. It goes on for hours. It causes arguments, especially at Christmas. If you get knocked out early, you have to wait for everyone else to finish.
The only people who seem to like Monopoly are the ones who win at it. And the reason they win at it is because they are the only ones who like it enough to keep playing after everyone else has given up.
Monopoly is not an awful game – it’s okay. But there are so many more games that are better. Monopoly is a very old design, first published in 1935 (which is an interesting story in itself, but we’ll save that for another blog). Board game design has improved enormously since then. Yet such is the marketing power of Hasbro (and Parker Brothers before them) that it has proved impossible to shift from the public consciousness.
And so it stands there, like a huge Cave Troll, guarding the entrance to a wonderful, absorbing, challenging and social hobby and frightening everybody off. Let me stress, I do NOT think there is anything wrong with playing Monopoly. There is only a problem if you think Monopoly is the pre-eminent board game, the game that other games aspire to be. The uninitiated believe this, and do not dare to challenge the Troll that stands in their way.
So my self-appointed task is to take you by the hand and walk you gently past the big, scary troll, and then you are free to explore the wonderful and crazy new land that exists beyond the threshold.
- Monopoly is a Roll and Move game, determined by blind luck
Roll and Move is most people’s idea of what a board game is, probably because most of the games we played as children were like that. You roll a dice, you move your counter and something may or may not happen as a result. This is fine for games intended for children too young to be thinking more than one move ahead, but is extremely unhelpful in a game that requires strategic planning and cost-benefit analysis, such as Monopoly. The Roll and Move part of Monopoly is its greatest weakness, because it leaves far too much to blind luck. (There’s more to say about the role of luck in games, but let’s move swiftly on for now)
Luck is too important in Monopoly, which sells itself as a game about trading and making deals. More often than not, because of the dice, you can tell who is going to win a game of Monopoly by the end of the second lap. Someone will have had better dice rolls, and will be in a more powerful position. Yet the game requires you to keep playing, often for hours, before the person who was always going to win finally does so. But it’s not actually meant to take that long. Which brings us to point 2:
- Monopoly is often played incorrectly
Most people who play Monopoly have never read the rules. They’ve been taught the rules by somebody else, who was taught by someone else… This isn’t surprising – people don’t like reading rule books. That’s one of the reasons we started Counter Culture – to make gaming less intimidating by providing demonstrations. People are a lot happier being shown a game than reading about it.
The problem with passing game rules down by word of mouth is that errors will creep in. Just as in a game of Whispers, what the first person says could be wildly transformed by all the retellings. This isn’t a problem for Counter Culture, by the way, because all our demonstrations and explanations are only one step away from the rule book. But it is a problem for Monopoly.
What happens to money that you pay that’s not going to another player, like Income Tax or Speeding Fines? If you put it in the bank, you’re playing correctly. If (don’t worry, you’re not alone) you put it in the middle of the board and give it to the next person to land on Free Parking, you’re playing wrong. Lots of people play with this rule, probably intended as a catch up mechanism to allow players falling behind to stay in the game. Trouble is, it makes the game longer by keeping money in circulation and delaying the bankruptcies that are necessary for the game to finish. This adds *hours* to the game, by trying to counteract the unfairness that is written into the design.
What happens if you land on a property no-one owns and you don’t want to buy it? If your answer is “Nothing, my turn ends and the next player goes”, you are playing incorrectly and making the game longer. The correct answer is the property goes up for auction and is sold to the highest bidder. I didn’t know this myself until quite recently when I started looking into board games in more depth. It’s hard to see just why this rule was forgotten, as it clearly makes the game longer. Unsold properties prevent anyone completing a monopoly, which means they can’t build houses and hotels, so they can’t charge as much rent, so it takes longer to bring your opponents to financial ruin.
These are just two examples of how people are playing Monopoly wrong, making it into a worse game than it really is. I’m not sure how many more there are, but each one is leaving people with the sad and inaccurate impression that they don’t enjoy board games. Monopoly doesn’t need any help putting people off gaming by leaving out or adding rules. The rules it already has do that just fine. Point 3…
- Monopoly uses player elimination
Most games of Monopoly never actually come to a proper finish. They’re abandoned long before then. Sometimes peacefully, with everyone agreeing that one player is clearly going to win and it’s far too late already. More often with a table flip, tears, tantrums and a tense atmosphere. Neither is likely to make people think kindly of board games. And this is because of another out of date mechanic the game uses – player elimination.
Getting eliminated from Monopoly (often through nothing more than bad luck) is like being a Victorian street waif gazing through the window at the fine gentlemen enjoying their rich food. Okay, maybe not quite like that, but you’re definitely on the outside.
Time with friends and family is precious. Why exclude someone for no reason other than the dice said you had to? Isn’t that just…cruel?
- Monopoly forces you to be cruel
A lot of people are very competitive. They enjoy pitting themselves against opponents, testing their mettle and constantly striving to improve. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this – provided your opponents have a fighting chance, and have willingly placed themselves in your firing line. A boxer joins their opponent in the ring, they don’t just go around punching people at random. Yet this is exactly what Monopoly forces you to do. You might well be intending to lay a trap for your bitter foe (in Jim’s case, usually Beth) by building that hotel, but you have no control over who lands there. It might be the person you wanted to sting, or it might be some innocent bystander. Except as far as the rules are concerned, there are no innocent bystanders in Monopoly – everyone is an enemy to be crushed.
I’m not suggesting there’s always something wrong with being mean in a game – some of my favourite games involve snatching vital points from my opponent, or unravelling their carefully laid plans. But those same games also let me play nice if I want to. If I’m playing at my regular game club, against a table of cut-throat experienced gamers, I’m expecting to play mean. But that might not be the best idea when grandparents are playing their grandchildren. A lighter game would be more appropriate. Ticket to Ride can be played mean or nice. Monopoly gives you no choice – it’s dog eat dog, every player for themselves, taking no prisoners.
The marketing power of Hasbro is so great that they can publicise their Monopoly helpline, designed to resolve Christmas arguments, as a *positive* thing. Let’s not let fights over Monopoly become normalised. Let’s play better games instead.