In designer board game culture, Monopoly is something of a red-headed stepchild. It feasts next to other bastards such as Comic Sans, from house Graphic Design, and MySpace, from house Social Media. But seriously, awful Game of Thrones references aside, why is there such a stigma surrounding Monopoly? With over 200 million games sold in its history, it's the best-selling board game of all time. Most games don't even come close to shoe sort of numbers. So why is it whenever you utter the cursed name of Monopoly, you can make a whole room of gamers cringe or scoff? While this may seem like a trivial question, a game designer needs to be able to analyze the mechanics of a game and determine why a certain mechanic works or doesn't work, depending on how it interacts with other mechanics implemented in the game. This is the first step in creating a balanced and enjoyable experience for your player. All too often, I see Monopoly games come an inch away from table flipping.
In my research to uncover the truth, I actually found out that I (and most of the world) was playing the game incorrectly. An article entitled The Campaign For Real Monopoly went viral around a year ago. It explained two house rules that supposedly make the game time significantly shorter: the commonly known "free parking" house rule, and an auctioning rule that forces players to auction unwanted or unbought properties instead of being allowed to skip them. The author argues that passing over properties instead of auctioning them off extends the already incredibly long game.
My quest for truth led me back to the original board game itself. I unravelled my ancient copy of Monopoly from a corner of my closet that had been ignored for what seemed like a lifetime. It felt strange to have Uncle Pennybags staring me in the face for the first time in years. Opening the ragged box, I remembered all the hours that I had poured into this game as a child. Then, I played.
My experience didn't change very much.
I was sort of sad. I was really hoping that the new rules would be an answer to my old complaints, but in the end, my experience didn't change nearly enough for me to free the game from its corner in the closet. Here are the main things that I believe make Monopoly deserving of its reputation:
I've never been a huge fan of the trading system in Monopoly. Trading always seems to end in a stalemate with nothing ever getting accomplished. Maybe it's justthe stubbornness of the players that are unwilling to make a deal, but I believe that the problem lays in the mechanic itself. The reason why resource trading in games like Settlers of Catan works is because each resource is worth the same approximate value. There is some wiggle room with the dice/number mechanic in Catan.
One resource may be more scarce than another in a certain game, but another thing that Catan's trading system has over Monopoly's is hidden resources. When players trade in Catan, they may not have exact knowledge on whether or not they're helping their opponent. Monopoly's mechanics work the exact opposite way. Players have an intimate knowledge of every commodity that each player has in their possession. In addition, each property in Monopoly isn't even close to being worth the same. No player that wants to win is going to be trading Baltic Avenue for Boardwalk anytime soon.
Saying that Monopoly is luck based is like saying that water is wet. It's no surprise that Monopoly relies a lot on luck since a central mechanic of the game is rolling dice, That's fine and dandy in and of itself, but what is tethered to that is a severe lack of choice. In a typical game of Monopoly, your only choice on your turn is whether or not to buy the property you just landed on. Occasionally, you get to decide whether or not you want to trade with someone, or if you want to buy a house/hotel, but those are the only real choices you get to make in the game. The house rule of auctioning DID help on this front a bit, since if a player doesn't decide (or can't afford) to buy a property, you get some activity outside of your turn. Adding one choice to the whopping three others, though, doesn't really increase the fun factor too terribly much.
Never have I played a game of Monopoly and thought at the end, "Man, I had no idea who would come out on top." There becomes a point in Monopoly where players think, "There's no way I can come away a winner from this." There is no great equalizer mechanic in Monopoly. Granted, the run away leader is a problem that a lot of games have. The problem with Monopoly is that players can start having this feeling midway through the game. After the player has accepted defeat (not always graciously), they still have half of the game to finish. Which brings me to my next topic...
Another thing that I think really turns players away from Monopoly is the endgame. It's a grind, to say the least. Even with the new and improved rules, the game still took a short lifetime to finish. It's really a blessing whenever a struggling player is taken out because, in my experience, it's a relief for both the winning and the losing player. All too often, I see Monopoly end in a hand shake, with one player admitting defeat. That just shows that Monopoly's endgame just isn't fun, which is supposed to be the goal of board games.
Now that I've thoroughly listed what I think is bad about Monopoly, I'll try to pull everything together with some of the nice. I don't want to post purely hate posts in this development blog. I mean, yes, I don't care for the game, but with so many copies sold, they must have gotten something right. For one, its mechanics are simple. Even with the flaws I listed above, the overall gameplay is simple enough for a younger player to comprehend. If you excuse me for being a hippy for a moment, I believe the game shines in bringing families together. I personally love the idea of family game nights. My family practiced them often when I was young. Games like Monopoly fit into this category extremely well, and outside of the designer board game culture, I daresay it thrives. It's a game that young children can comprehend once they're past the Candyland phase of board games, but has mechanics other than "roll this die" to keep them semi-interested.
You may think that Monopoly is the greatest game in the world. If you do, email me and we can discuss why you're wrong. Just kidding. I just can't find a lot of mechanics that make Monopoly a quality board game. With so many other great board games out there, I don't think I'll be taking Monopoly out of the closet again for some time. But what do I know? I haven't sold over 200 million of anything. Maybe we can all learn something from Monopoly from a marketing standpoint. It has to be one of the most re-themed things on the planet. Want My Little Pony Monopoly? They've got that. Disney Monopoly? They've got that too. Curdled Milk Monopoly? They admittedly don't have that (yet), but you can make it with one of Monopoly's make-it-yourself kits. It's a running joke that Monopoly has themed pretty much everything. Say what you want about the game, but Monopoly is in almost every house, whether it's shoved in the back of a closet or gets played every holiday by the whole family. That makes it a success.