On Monopoly Part 3: Monopoly Streets

I love Monopoly. This puts me in the vast minority of people in every gaming group I’ve been in since I was thirteen. And while I do enjoy the game, and defend it at every turn, I do also understand that it’s a pretty shite game. I have a great deal to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

And I’d like to know whether or not the digitization of the game holds up.

So yes, this is a board game site. And Monopoly Streets is a video game (for all the major consoles). But it IS Monopoly, and Monopoly is a board game. So I can talk about it. You can’t stop me.

Monopoly has come out in many forms. Novelty Monopoly re-skins aside, the game has had many iterations, including releases on every major console since the NES. There are card games, dice games, electronic banking versions, and new designs to the board (my personal favorite is the Onyx Edition, though the deeds and money are a bit too small). But the board game itself has not changed much since the modern version hit the shelves more than 70 years ago. When an edition of Monopoly came out for the Xbox I was thrilled. My good friend and fellow Monopoly enthusiast Nick lives in Florida, and this could have been a fantastic way for us to play Monopoly together.

Except it had no online support. Bull. F***ing. S***. Why the hell would you get a Monopoly video game you can’t play online? What is this, the eighties? And who would sit around and play Monopoly on the Xbox? You may as well break out the board, you’re bound to have a copy laying around. The game went back almost immediately (some in-game achievement hunting aside).

Fast forward a couple years. Monopoly Streets comes out, and delivers online play. The $30 price tag is a bit steep to buy out-right, but I rent it and put it through the paces. So how does it match up? Let’s get into the nitty-gritty and compare the minutiae of this digitized version of the classic game.

If Monopoly was a city I’d vandalize it

The Grand Splendor

One of Monopoly Streets’ biggest selling points is the different boards. You can play on the classic board, or in a 3D cityscape version. They also have a space-age board, cheese board, ice board, etc. They look kind of cool, and for a game lauded as much for its iconic imagery as the game itself, it bears mentioning. But collecting digital versions of boards (and some cost real cash) isn’t at all like owning a physical copy. And the boards have no effect on gameplay.

It’s neat watching your characters march around the board, wearing or riding their pieces. They, and Mr. Monopoly, all have voices, which I promptly muted 30 seconds into the game. When you just want to play the game, these sorts of things need to be skip-able, and thank God, they are. With the exception of the intro and end victory screen, all movement and dialogue is skip-able and mute-able (mutable means something completely different).

The updated boards and pieces (again, some cost real cash, what a rip-off) are a neat addition, but it’s not what interests me. I wanted to see how this stacks up against a live game. The rules, and the people.

Nuts And Bolts

The game itself plays pretty smoothly. You can play with the avatars that each piece has (the battleship has a captain, the top hat is worn by an infant Richie Rich, etc.), or use your Xbox Live avatar, which I recommend, because the in-game voices are annoying as hell, as is Mr. Monopoly. As I mentioned before, you can skip most dialogue, but you’ll still hear the character voices before each roll, so it’s best to turn the voices all the way off and be prepared to hit the B button a lot.

The rules for auctioning deeds in Monopoly isn’t exactly standardized; the auction can be run any way the players wish, though when the auctioneer also has a vested interest in the bidding there’s a conflict of interest. In Monopoly Streets the system is pretty sleek; there’s a 20 second (adjustable) time limit, during which players raise and lower their current bids, all viewable. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, raising to beat someone, lowering to make sure you’re not caught with the deed, trying to get the best value for the purchase. It’s quick, which is critical, but the sliding scale doesn’t have a lot of control; just pressing up doesn’t increase the bids quick enough. There are buttons to increase and decrease the bid by $10, and most times I would just use those, but it would be nice to have a more robust bidding system. The AI can change their bids rapidly, human players should be able to as well.

Trades can only happen with the current player, and then only once he’s rolled the dice. This is again designed to speed the game along, and I like it. It would be nice if players would use mics and chat about prospective trades to speed things along further and minimize downtime, but that doesn’t happen often.

Building can also only happen at the end of your turn. I like this change too; ordinarily you can build at any time, including during other players’ turns (but not between dice rolls and the movement). This has the potential to grind the pace of the game down as folks chime in, and it can cause conflict when there’s a housing shortage. Ordinarily the houses have to be auctioned off, but the rules for that aren’t very well defined. Here there’s no confusion, and it forces you to make a tactical decision before you relinquish the dice. It also speeds things up, which I’m always a fan of.

Overall the game plays very smoothly for a digital version of the original. The original rules are preserved, and a great deal of customization is allowed to accommodate favored house rules, new versions, or little tweaks you think would improve the numbers (houses sell back for less, or more, jail can last more or fewer turns, etc.).

But the question remains; how does it work with other people?

The Humanity

$#!^*@%

There’s online play. And you can still play with people locally on one console/TV. Oddly enough, you can’t combine the two. That seems awfully unfair to me, but what do I know about programming?

When playing an online game, if somebody leaves before they’re bankrupted, the game sends you back to the menu. There’s not a lot preventing people from pissing off and ruining your game. I’ve seen it happen a number of times: system crash, people get tired of watching trades happen, somebody’s just losing and doesn’t want to stick around to their end. Sometimes a bot comes in to replace them, but if the host leaves you’re chucked back to the lobby. It’s a very irritating setup.

It’s kind of funny, the way the lobby is set up. There are ranked matches, which must follow one of the pre-defined rule sets, of which there are many. There are custom matches, where you can play with custom rule-sets, and presumably they don’t apply to your online ranking. And you can sort the games in the lobby by; players in game; alphabetically by rule set; max number of players; and alphabetically by user name. But the funny thing is that there’s never enough games to merit such organization. There’s often not any games at all. Also, you can see the name of the custom rules set someone has set up, but not the rules themselves. And since nobody chats online, you can’t ask; you just have to figure it out as you play. You also need to be careful not to hit “ready” if you don’t want to jump into a two-player game; the game starts when everyone is “ready.”

One unfortunate thing about the game is there’s no enforcement to get a player to end their turn. There’s a time limit, but it gets reset when a player chooses to either build/mortgage, or conduct a trade. Even if they don’t do those things, the clock still resets, so there’s nothing to stop a player from constantly offering trades when nobody is interested, or simply stall the game. And if someone gets frustrated and leaves, it’s back to the lobby. Monopoly can cause raw feelings, which can lead to poor sportsmanship, and that coupled with anonymity usually leads to aborted games.

The Verdict

The game can be easily summed up as: if you like Monopoly, you’ll probably like Monopoly Streets. Still, the Devil is in the details. The graphics are neat if you like that sort of thing. The game implementation is solid, and only frustrating at times. The community is pretty weak, but not yet dead.

It doesn’t fit the scenario I specifically want, that me, my girlfriend, Nick and his wife could play a game together, since the hot seat/online play doesn’t blend (not that Katie likes the game at all, but I feel this would be the best place for her to give it another chance). If it had a better community I’d love it, but that’s something no game designer can simply fix.

UPDATE: The last time I played a match two guys with remarkably similar screen names ended up trading mid-game, before anyone was in trouble, so one guy got everything. The disc was immediately (after submitting Code of Conduct violations to Microsoft on both names) returned to its Gamefly envelope and sent back.

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Playing for second

Friends of mine would probably never describe me as conservative. I unabashedly call myself a feminist. My headshot for a theater group I was in had me reading Marx. If you let me, I’ll tell you my criticisms of Obama from the left, and hell, my twitter handle is @TheSocialest.

Recently, however, I’ve been noticing that when it comes to games, that instead of playing to win, I’ve instead been playing not to lose. Semantically, they’re pretty similar, but in actuality, there is a significant difference in the manner of play.

Everyone who plays games with the frequency that I do is going to lose games, but by playing “smart” you can generally avoid big losses and put yourself in a good position to win by the end. Or so I’ve been telling myself. But I’m starting to think that playing not to lose is less about winning and losing and more about avoiding embarrassment. It means playing conservatively, sticking to a strategy I’ve seen work before and one that I know will get me a respectable score, if not the winning score. Its the football equivalent of 4th and 1 and punting even though you’re on the opponent’s 40. Its the type of decision that coaches make to avoid criticism. Its the safe call rather than the best call. And not for nothing, but it goes directly against the way I played in the All Trains Go To Helena game that I’m so proud of.

Even worse, playing overly cautious means that you expect your opponent to screw it up. (Which isn’t effective even when you think they’re screwing it up) Playing for a victory via opponent error is not only a bit disrespectful, but also isn’t that much fun. (This isn’t to say you can’t have fun if you’re losing, or that winning is the only important part. But in a game where the competition is taken “seriously”, the serious doesn’t have to be tournament level, it just means you care about the outcome.)

And that may be the true crime in all this and why it merits a post. Its not fun to lose most of the time, and yes, coming in last can be embarrassing, but if you aren’t stretching your brain a little, why are you playing? Its just a game! It is there to be enjoyed! Playing for second is like being the wallflower at a dance party. Sure, getting out there on the dance floor can a little scary, but only by putting yourself out there and taking that risk are you going to have a good time.

Too Many Ingredients Spoil the Soup

I hear about looking at the past through rose-colored glasses with movies a lot, but it happens with board games too. It’s a part of why I still love Monopoly. Solarquest, a similar game but in space (not space-themed Monopoly, the rules and board were different), held a lot of my childhood attention, but quickly faded in college when I realized how broken the system is. Some games hold up; I still like Settlers of Catan, and Risk is alright for what it is. But one game that has not held up so well, as evidenced by a recent play-through with a couple friends, is my previously loved expansion to Settlers; Cities and Knights of Catan.

This old tarnished box contains the set of Settlers, Cities & Knights, the 5-6 player expansions, strategy notes, and 13 years of memories.

Overview

Nearly everyone is familiar with SoC. Not a lot of people have played with expansions. C&K is a nice idea on paper, expanding previously nebulous concepts into larger game mechanics. Specifically, development cards and “largest army” are replaced with progress cards and knights. Cities now produce commodities for certain resources, and those commodities buy city upgrades. These upgrades provide players with a chance to earn progress cards in one of three categories; commercial, scientific, and military. This is where the previous development card powers go; monopoly, road building, year of plenty, etc., are now expanded into a number of different powers, some good, some great, some not so good. They’re earned by using a third die, the “event die,” which shows what type would be produced, and a red d6, which represents what level of that upgrade you need to earn a card.

Knights are no longer one-shot cards. You build knights, feed them, and place them on the roads you build. They can block cities, sever longest road chains, displace other knights and oust the robber baron. They also serve to protect the island of Catan; that event die has 3 spots that show a barbarian ship. After 9 total rolls of that, the barbarians show up, with strength equal to the number of total cities on the board (everyone starts with 1). All active knights become inactive, and you compare cities vs. knights. If the knights equal or beat the barbarians, the one who contributed most gets a victory point. If there’s a tie for contribution, those players get a progress card. If the knights aren’t enough, the one who contributed least loses a city, replacing it with a settlement. For ties, everyone who contributed least loses a city.

There’s a lot more “player interaction” in the game. By that I mean there are more ways to screw your opponents over. Knights can bounce the robber baron around, and a number of cards take resources, cards, or even knights from other players. The delicate balance of social interaction is negligible here, because everyone generally has what they need, and trading isn’t nearly as useful. The barbarian ship is a rough addition as well. If you’re in a position to get knights, chances are you have a lot. It’s not uncommon then to be in a position where you could activate all your knights and get the static victory point, or just contribute some and let the barbarians destroy somebody else’s city. If you’re lucky you can get multiple cities down, and everyone losing a point and a city is way better than gaining a point that doesn’t do anything.

Recap

We talked a bit about “tactical bitching” in a previous post. I’ll admit I was in a good position early on, but not so good as I thought I should be targeted. In retrospect, most of my bitching was of a calculated variety. I ran away with the game, which is what usually happens in a C&K game. There are ways to screw your opponents, but it’s generally a “rich get richer” setup to the game. Once I got one of the super-powerful commodity upgrades (produce a resource of your choice when a roll gives you nothing) I probably should have been hit with every card, baron, and trade designed to block my progress. And it would have been miserable. As it is, I got hit with every spy and many theft cards. And it wasn’t enough to stop me, not even close. And I still felt pretty put upon.

I remember the game as a super-fun addition to a game I already love. More toys, more powers, and more interactivity make for a better game, right? When it was over, I enjoyed myself, and I won, but I also felt bad, almost guilty for winning. Josh and I discussed it afterward. One thing he said stuck out:

“Nobody likes it when their stuff is torn down. In Catan you build roads, you work towards a goal, you have that feeling of progression. In C&K your stuff can get torn down, and nobody likes that.”

I think that’s a big part of it. There are a couple other little things I could point to. The Progress cards are imbalanced; some are crazy powerful, some are flat-out useless except for specific situations. The game has many avenues for points, so the game goes to 13, but it’s much more obvious who’s going to win earlier than that. In the end, the overall issue with me is that, where SoC is more often than not a slow-burning, close race throughout the game, C&K is a vicious scramble in a sand pit, with a king of the pile sussed out early, and a number of people getting bulldozed over the course of the game.

Final thoughts

I think it’s a shame that the C&K expansion isn’t out for the Xbox Live version of the game (it exists on other online sites that use the rules but eschew the licensing issues). But there’s a reason it doesn’t exist in a larger arena, and why there aren’t tournaments for it. The expansion is fairly imbalanced, not quite broken, but in the end it isn’t worth it to lash a bunch of pieces to a simple game.

I still think the expansion is neat, but yeah, it’s a lot of components that clog up an otherwise elegant game. The new stuff isn’t balanced, in game power or game pace. The game takes longer, and those extra minutes aren’t filled with a lot of joy. I think it’s going to be a while before this gets pulled out of the box again.