Monopoly — a follow-up post that’s five years late

Nearly five years ago I wrote a post about the board game Monopoly, which is by far one of my most popular posts, judging by the number of comments it’s gotten. My theory is that every so often it gets linked by a board game community somewhere, causing a new flurry of visitors. I’ve gotten a lot of passionate arguments on both sides of the debate, and most of the comments go into refreshing detail about why the commenter either agrees or disagrees with me. Both the original article and the comments therein are a pretty good read, if you haven’t already. Here’s a link:

It may seem weird to have a follow-up article to a five-year-old post, but since it is one of my most popular articles and there are clearly a lot of people invested in the discussion, I thought I would (finally!) take some time and respond to a few of the comments. Also, I literally have not played a single game of Monopoly since I wrote that post in 2009, because none of the nice people who agree with me about the game’s potential live within Monopoly-ing distance. =(

Know why that’s OK? Because in other games, I’m making choices the whole time. The reason I hate Monopoly is the total lack of choices involved. Why would I play a game where I am essentially feeding one piece of information back into the game (buy/don’t buy), and it’s always better to buy than not to? For the pleasure of rolling two dice over and over again?

I don’t really understand this criticism, because “buy/don’t buy” is not the only choice you make in Monopoly, and it’s certainly not the most interesting one. If you’re playing a proper game with good-faith players who are all trying to win, most of the interesting decisions will come in the form of wheeling and dealing. Who should you trade with? When? What advantages are you willing to give them, and what should you ask in return? I agree the game is boring if you just roll dice, buy property, and pay rent. But the game isn’t designed that way, so why would you play it that way?

The trick is to find people that want to play for fun, not to destroy their opponents and piss on their ruined corpses.

In Monopoly — as in most competitive board games — the goal is to dominate your opponent and eventually win. If you aren’t out to “destroy your opponents” then why are you even playing? The mentality that it was nicer to let people stay in the game is what led to all the house rules in the first place, which in turn led to boring endless games of Monopoly, which in turn led to my snarky blog post.

Not everyone likes a cutthroat game, and that’s totally cool. I own lots of board games that are not as competitive as Monopoly, either because they are cooperative (such as Pandemic or Red November), others because they are far more luck based (such as Yahtzee), others because they are more “social activities” than actual games (such as Apples to Apples). This strikes me as an argument for finding a game that suits you as a player, not changing a game to be something it isn’t.

The namesake of the game, and the primary winning strategy, is to lock up control of all the green houses. There is a fixed number of houses for a reason, and once you control (the exact number escapes me, but roughly..) 24 of them, no one else in the game can build hotels. You now have a monopoly on housing and almost cannot possibly lose.

Because the monopoly is so easy to get, and so difficult to lose once you’ve got it, Monopoly is just a poorly balanced, poorly designed game. The only reason it’s so popular is that probably fewer than 3% of players know the winning strategy.

I like the way this guy thinks, but I disagree with his conclusions for two reasons. One, I am not convinced it’s as easy to get a housing monopoly as he suggests. There are thirty-two houses in the box, and a player needs to control twenty of them to make sure nobody else can develop to hotels. That means you need to get two full color groups before anyone else gets one — an uncommon occurrence in a three- or four-player game.

And two, even if there were a surefire winning strategy, I don’t agree it would ruin the game. If there really is a killer strategy, and every player knows it and tries to employ it, that just means the game is being played at a higher level now. Any game is boring if you’re the only person at the table who knows how to play.

You know who’s to blame though? Definitely not the players. It’s Parker Brothers. Have you seen the rule book? Even playing by the rules takes forever, because every turn, someone asks “can I do that?” and you have to spend 10 minutes looking for a simple statement that applies to the current situation.

This is true of literally every board game I’ve ever played, the first time I play it. Of course the rules are going to be confusing to a group of people who are not familiar with them.

Monopoly is old technology. Someone complaining about others not liking Monopoly is like wondering why people don’t use wax cylinders instead of MP3 players or photostat machines instead of full color computer printers.

A common thread amongst the anti-Monopoly crowd was “Why would you play Monopoly when you could play something newer?” This particular commenter helpfully linked several of his favorite modern board games, as though I had never heard of or played any of them.

I reject this argument out of hand. It’s not as though new games obsolete old ones. I was not required to throw away my Monopoly set the day I bought Ticket to Ride. Why can’t I own and enjoy lots of games, both old and new?

Most of the conversations I have about games involve video games, not board games. In all those many years I don’t think I can recall anyone saying, “Super Mario Bros. is old and bad. Why don’t you play Super Mario Galaxy?”

1. Luck. If you play Euros at all, you will know that luck is something that becomes minimal, if non-existent, with them. Rolling the dice and all of a sudden landing on Boardwalk to complete that monopoly is lucky. There was no skill involved. You didn’t make decisions prior to the game to get to that point. You just landed on Park Place previously in the game and now Boardwalk. You have a big advantage by having these two properties, right? Not really. Because again, it’ll be based on luck if someone lands on your spot to pay you any money. Luck is not fun.

I love this comment because I agree wholeheartedly with its sentiment but disagree with its conclusion. As a rule, I despise luck-based games and avoid playing them. I find them boring and frustrating. Fortunately Monopoly’s luck-based elements are just one facet of the game, and do not define it. Yes, getting Boardwalk and Park Place early is an astounding lucky break — but that is balanced by those particular properties being very expensive to develop. Other players at the table who did not have your luck can counter your good fortune by dealing aggressively with each other. If the game were just about rolling dice and paying rent, yes, it would be all about luck and therefore be really boring. But there’s a lot more to the game than that.

The reason why I dislike Monopoly is the way it stagnates the boardgame industry.
Hasbro manufacture these because shops stock them, shops stock them because they sell, they sell because no one sees anything else & thus we have a vicious cycle.

I think this commenter is factually incorrect. This may have been true during the 70s and 80s, when Hasbro and Parker Bros. were the only game in town, but that just isn’t the case anymore.

the only thing better than monopoly is the equally hated scrabble, and I love both. Thanks to my daughter for sending me this great article. My desire to play and smash my opponents has been renewed. But must get my nipples pierced first.

I like this individual because it’s always nice to see someone who has their priorities in order.

Length of game is NOT the #1 reason so many people hate Monopoly. #1 reason adults hate monopoly is that they have memories of being repeatedly driven to tears by an older sibling or cousin as a child. Chance of a 7 yr-old beating a 12yr-old is about 5%, chance of that 7yr-old growing up to hate Monopoly is 100%. Every person I have ever met who wants to play Monopoly was the oldest sibling in their family.

I think there’s a lot of validity to this sentiment. I was the older sibling in our household (though not by much) and I would do everything in my mortal power to win every board game we ever played, even if it meant making up crazy rules on the spot. Ah, childhood.

It doesn’t logically follow that you should hate the game forever, though. Rather, you should give it another chance now that you know how to play it properly.

What do you think of people doubling as the bank and a player? It’s the role I’m always stuck with simply, because everyone is too lazy to count. Aside from the potential for cheating do you have any major quips with it?

I’ve actually never considered that the banker might not be a player. I’ve pulled double-duty quite a lot over the years. I’ve also played games where the first player who gets knocked out takes over as dedicated banker for the rest of the game.

I don’t really factor in the cheating angle, because I like to assume everyone at the table is playing in good faith. It’s not really that difficult to cheat in any tabletop game, but it’s also not much fun. Why even play, if you’re just going to cheat?

What makes Monopoly boring is when there are only two players left, each controlling half the board. This is usually mitigated when it comes down to the last three, each holding a third or so of the board, this is when corporate mergers tend to occur, two players pool their holdings to crush the remaining player.

This is a serious flaw with the game, because yeah, two-player Monopoly is pretty dull. (Even moreso if it started as four-player Monopoly, and two players have been knocked out.) There’s not a lot you can do about this, though, but accept that the game is almost eighty years old, and therefore was not informed by the many decades of game design that came after.

I’ve only EVER heard people defend Monopoly as “worth playing” if they have never played — or heard of — ANY of the games in the top 100. If you’d have asked me back in the day, when the only games I had played were Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit et al, I’d have given the same response. But then, I didn’t know what I was talking about. Interesting idea for an article, but the reasoning behind it is deeply flawed I’m afraid.

This is a pretty fresh comment — less than a week old! — so I’m curious to see what this person thinks when they learn that I have indeed heard of board games invented in the last ten years. I do not, in fact, live under a rock in a desolate wasteland with no contact with Amazon or BoardGameGeek. I have Blokus and Carcassonne and Red November and a dozen other modern games in addition to the classics like Risk, Clue(do) and Parcheesi. I own so many board games that my wife actually incorporates them into the living room decor; they sit quite attractively on our bookshelves and under our endtables. First-time visitors often comment on them.

I would call this guy a board game snob, except I would expect a snob to have more respect for the history of gaming.

I simply do not perceive any correlation between my enjoyment of a game and that game’s release date, or its level of popularity, or whatever. I have both old and new games that I enjoy, and both old and new games that I do not. Apples to Apples is a modern darling, but you’d have to pay me to sit down and play it. Munchkin is fast-paced and has endless variety, but I find it to be insipid and pointless. Mansions of Madness is a wonderful experience, but has a crippling design flaw in that once a group has played it like ten times all of its variations have been exhausted.

The flip side of this point is that a lot of the old, timeless classics are timeless for a reason. You can’t beat Jenga for simple, visceral fun. Clue(do) requires the kind of deductive reasoning usually reserved for much more complex games. Dismissing these games because they’re not on a Top 100 list is just plain silly.

My point was never that Monopoly is objectively better than Puerto Rico, or whatever, so arguments that I should play the latter to the exclusion of the former automatically fail. I can play both! When played well by people who like the game and actively try to win, Monopoly is exciting and fast-paced. Conversely, Puerto Rico happens to be an irritating mess when half the players are disinterested and don’t know the rules or the proper strategy. Such is the nature of board games.

So my original suggestion still stands: if you haven’t tried Monopoly lately, and only remember it as being a frustrating disaster as a kid, try it again with an open mind and strictly by the book. I recommend this in addition to feasting on the bounties of the modern Eurogame renaissance.

If you can’t bring yourself to try playing the game again, at least enjoy this excellent YouTube video of a dude wtfpwning seven CPUs in the NES version of the game, which is even older than my original Monopoly post is.

Thanks to everyone who read that article — and this one!

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