Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Your First Task: Deconstruct Monopoly

I really wouldn’t want to do this, but… since it’s a class assignment, I guess I’ll figure out how. It’s tough, though… sort of like when “Stantz” had to kill the Stay-Puft Marshmellow at the end of Ghostbusters. This is a real childhood favorite for me. I used to spend hours playing it solitaire, even. And I cannot stand how all the game geek hipsters have to constantly badmouth this game. The only way I can out-hip them is by pretending that Monopoly is actually pretty cool, eh? If you force me to actually analyze this thing, then I can’t play that “game” either! Oh the pain!

Spoiler warning: if you intend to take Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s Learning Game Design: as a job or a hobby, then you might not want to read this. Go do your own homework first!!

Okay… I’m going to go the full Jay Meyer here and start with five things I like about this game and five things I don’t like. First, the good:

  1. I’ve got to say, this game’s got it’s heart in the right place. Your objective is to build up a real estate empire and then ruin your competitors. This is delightfully brazen, especially given the origins of this game. I can’t remember seeing “Conan the Barbarian– with Title Deeds” on the game store shelf. This is an awesome premise… and definitely not overdone.
  2. There are some truly iconic game components here. Everybody loves the metal figures… and the houses and hotels are awesome. I can’t remember anyone not liking the paper money. That “loaded” feeling you get when you have a half dozen $500 bills… wow! I know it made me feel like a big spender when I was a kid. It had to be even sweeter during its heyday back in the Great Depression.
  3. This game is set up so that you are… strongly encouraged… to trade with other players. If one person randomly gets a property set, then the other players have to trade (if they can) in order to keep up. It appears to have the same sort of balance mechanism as Illuminati does in order to keep the first person to run away with the lead in check.
  4. As each player makes his circuit around the board… you get this roulette-like sense of anticipation. Anyone can hit the jackpot at any moment. Similarly to Dominion, your choice in which property sets you trade for and where you choose to build up creates an economic engine of sorts. It’s fun to make a bet on what is the best combination you can pull… and then sit back and watch who gets eliminated first and who gets all of their stuff. (Arguably… this is an early form of D&D!)
  5. There is one really cool mechanic buried in the game that everyone seems to ignore for some reason, but which Dr. Pulsipher points out in this assignment. If you land on a property and choose not to buy it, then it immediately goes up for auction. This (combined with the fact that you get nothing when you land on Free Parking) goes some way towards dealing with the most common criticisms of the game. The opening can be a lot more interesting than what you’re used to– and the end game doesn’t have to be something that never actually happens! Play by the rules for once, darn it!

I gotta say… I really wanted to actually sit down and play this game.  I really don’t want slag it without a recent play under my belt. I asked my son if he’d do it and he said that he tried it once, but that it lasts too long. He said he preferred shorter games like Ogre. While I can think of at least one person that would play it with me just for the chance to explore a misunderstood classic, your average non-gaming family member is only going to do this with me while playing the role of some kind of game-martyr.

Eh, it’s just not worth it. So… why is this game causing so much psychological distress, then…?

  1. A lot of people have been traumatized by this game at some point. It takes just too freaking long for what it is even if you know not to put money on Free Parking. People have been playing it wrong for so long, asking to play according to the rules is practically begging for a fist fight. Mainly, though… this thing just has so much competition even just within the tabletop gaming scene and not even counting video games and other available distractions. It was “fired” ages ago.
  2. I don’t know if this whole “go around the board” thing was ever innovative or new or exciting… but it really doesn’t do anything here. To the extent that the risking, investing, building, and betting in the game is interesting… the board gets in the way of it and drags things out pointlessly. Just look at how much Scrabble got improved when the board was removed from it to make Bananagrams.
  3. The trains don’t do anything. This is a crime against game design. The person that owns them should have some kind of movement advantage if there’s actually going to be a board in this. As it stands, they’re really just a distraction from the true battleground of the game. I’d cut them out entirely if my brand didn’t have to gave some sort of train-ish element in it. See the MS-Pipelines in Space Empires: 4X for an example of the right way to implement trains. Heck… see Ticket to Ride for a game that’s just about trains!
  4. Similarly, the utilities don’t do anything for you, either. Whether it’s the energy from something like M.U.L.E. or the uranium from Power Grid, it’s interesting when you have to bid and sacrifice for resources that you actually need to get stuff done. I don’t wan’t another property type generating income…. I want some sort of non-currency resource that actually does something. (And no, Catan does not get this right.)
  5. This is what really ticks me off the most about this game, though. Over the years, getting people to play this… I am always sort of in the role of hosting. And this game always gets to this point where people really need to trade or else nothing is going to happen. And there are some people that just will not deal no matter what. Other people, you have to offer what looks like a real deal… or else it’s just not happening. I’m not sure if people just don’t get it or what, but if the design is depending on people making it fun… this is sort of a situation where the designers have left the actual design wide open for people to just fake on the spur of the moment. It’s like the worst thing about the worst role playing games… except more tedious and painful. (Role players at least have the option of ignoring all the rules and then playing something cool anyway.) So… something has to be done to punish the turtle types that won’t deal. It should be like in Space Empires: 4X where aggression is really encouraged, or at least like in Catan where the guy that is trading all the time is going to be in a superior position even if all his trades are marginally in the other peoples’ favor.

This may not be what Dr. Pulsipher has in mind for this assignment, but here is a rough and untested idea for how I would “fix” Monopoly. I don’t know that anyone would even play it with me and it seems like the sort of thing that would be hard to play solitaire, but here it is anyway:

  • Drop the Board, the Chance and Community Chest cards, the utilities, and the railroads.
  • Keep only the property deeds and the paper money.
  • Shuffle the property cards, give everyone the usual starting cash amount… and play!
  • There are three auction phases in a round. (Players are always bidding on the deed on the top.) There is then a trading phase… and then a building phase.
  • The last phase of the round is the rent phase. Everyone rolls an eight-sided die. These rolls tell you where each person landed, basically– each die should be a different color and each face should have a different property color on them. Everyone pays their debts and then a new round begins. (If the deeds of a color group are split up between players… pay all of them their rent.)
  • Keep going until there’s only one player left in the game!

That’s still a lot fiddly details for not much game. If I could divest myself of the Monopoly theme, I could maybe go leaner and denser… or else focus in on just one aspect of the mechanics. Of course, it I go lean enough… maybe I’d have to add back in the utilities and railroad elements somehow so that there is something there to “game” with. For this thumbnail sketch, though… I’m primarily interested in focusing on the auctions and the stakes while speeding things up.

Later… (after completing the second section in the course): Okay, there is some unsurprising overlap between my criticisms and Dr. Pulsipher’s take on Monopoly. I don’t think I address what he seems to be focusing in on the most, though. I’m just speeding up the game as it is… ejecting some things that don’t help with the point. I’ll ponder this some more, I guess….

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13 responses to “Your First Task: Deconstruct Monopoly

  1. MishaBurnett December 23, 2013 at 7:27 am

    In defense of the board, it is a mechanic that sorts risk and reward by magnitude in a way that a shuffled deck would not. As the game advances, the third side becomes increasingly perilous. While there isn’t much a player can do, strategically, getting past Boardwalk and Park Place to land on GO feels like an accomplishment.

    I suspect that eliminating the board would also eliminate much of the tension.

    Also, I am sure that I read an optional rule that let players who landed on a Railroad begin their next turn on any Railroad space owned by the same player, but I have no idea who proposed it or the exact mechanic.

    • jeffro December 23, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Yeah, I actually like the game and hate to criticize anything about it. Going board-less appears to create its own problems to solve. There’s no way around playing whatever solution you come up with ten times and tweaking things as you go– but there’s no guarantee even then that the resulting game will be any good. (Incidentally, I just realized that the Monopoly board will pretty much fit on a D30. There’s gotta be a variant in there…!)

  2. Alex J. December 23, 2013 at 10:33 am

    You can get way ahead by making two or more deals slightly in the other people’s favor.

    If you start with less money, _all_ of the other aspects of the game take more significance than the land-and-buy part of the game.

    Once, I played a game with the house rule that every property would go directly to auction. People took hipsterish delight in rolling their eyes at the game, so we got seven players. It was deliciously brutal. I got park place for a steal when money was short. Then, I paid double list price for the two dark purples when players wrapped around. This flabbergasted some people, until I started building. I was able to trade money to desperate people for the light blues and boardwalk – which stayed mortgaged, money was tight. My friend Steve traded away everything else to get the oranges and improve them. (It turns out that with 7 players you get a constant stream of people leaving jail.) I remember we called the game just after two people landed on Short Line, and I upgraded to hotels on Baltic and Mediterranean.

    The all-auction rule sucked almost all of the cash out of the game. That made the mid-late game one of constant anxiety and calculation. You need multiple houses to get the big rents, but you also need to keep cash on hand to avoid the need to sell back your houses at half price. The greens, reds and yellows were nearly useless. The dark blues made enough at double-rent to be useful.

  3. Chris Mata December 24, 2013 at 9:42 am

    I don’t know if I hate Monopoly because of my experiences with it, the game itself, or both. I only it played it once or twice past my 12th year.

  4. earlburt December 26, 2013 at 11:56 am

    The unbought-properties-go-to-auction rule IS the game. Ignoring that rule is the cause of 90% of what’s wrong with Monopoly. And adhering to it raises Monopoly from Medicore to Fair. The auction is basically the only source of actual strategy in the game. Eliminating bonus cash (from Free Parking, or landing on Go) also help make the game less bad.

    I suspect that any game that relies on player bargaining has problems with player passivity. But maybe that’s just kind of on the passive players to figure out. I’ve played lots of games with that issue (Catan and Monopoly being the biggies)– where passive players feel cheated or left out, or that the game is unfair. And I don’t know of a solution pother than for them to step up. But, maybe that is poor design, in a sense. Or, it’s maybe just a kind of game not suited to all temperaments.

    Anyway, since learning that Monopoly played as written is Fair, I’ve played when I can. I’ve tried to proselytize and get people to abandon all house rules. But I don’t think a single person has listened or been convinced. People are REALLY emotionally attached to Free Parking.

    • jeffro December 26, 2013 at 11:58 am

      There was an episode of an HBO series about a mafia family where they got together to play Monopoly. One of the hit-men boss types pointed out that Free Parking money wasn’t in the rules. A drunken brawl ensued.

  5. Lewis Pulsipher January 1, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Maybe because I am one of those folks who prefers to read rules rather than learn from someone else, I never played the Free Parking rule as far as I can recall.

    Then again, I rarely played Monopoly even when a kid. Much better games were available.

    Trading games do have problems . . . Catan trading bogs down so much, there’s the card that sends all holdings of one resource to one player’s hand (I forget what the card is called), which practically forces trading to follow. And then it bogs down again. Yes, a lot of people ARE passive players, and more passive now, I think, than 30-40 years ago.

  6. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  7. Dave Vaughan April 22, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    I don’t know of any details that were related to the trains supposed rule, but after your pickle with the essential pointlessness of the trains in the game I thought it could be a good idea if the train station provided an alternate route for an owner of more than 1 of them. the utilities owners could punch the tickets of the people who had developments on their properties, It seems to me that these were most likely thought about in the original prototypes but were considered too complex for a standard family game, in the 30’s. Also, having the out meant that the owner of multiple rail roads could have an overly unfair advantage over everyone else. Who knows. A possible nod to this is the fact that the monopoly logo has a train in it. I haven’t read up on the Landlords (its predecessor) I dare say that trains may have been accessible in this or a similar method.

    My main issue with monopoly was always the endgame being drawn out. It loses its fun, and the dice becomes a slow decent into poverty. Especially with the jail time rules, a game of monopoly usually runs about 10-20 minutes longer than it should. And that’s just for the top two players, if there were 3 or more, it’s almost never going to be exciting enough for anyone eliminated to stick around.

  8. Dave Vaughan April 22, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    One game I thought provided a more interesting time was poleconomy, its very similar to monopoly but the tides can turn much faster and at least for me (kiwi) the game had more appeal as the businesses you bought were all ones found in new zealand. I believe it could be applied to any country/market, just as the early monopoly games had localised street names to add realism.

  9. Alexis Smolensk April 23, 2014 at 7:43 am

    We used to play seven or eight games in an afternoon, averaging 20 to 25 minutes a game. When it was obvious who was going to win, we started a new game.

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