On Monopoly, Part 1: Home Sweet House Rules

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 lot to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

It was true for me as a child, and it is true today.

Look at this Suave motherfucker

When you’re a kid you don’t usually appreciate the subtleties of a complex board game. Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Cooties, Hi-Ho Cherry-O, these are your choices. They teach us simple things like counting, pattern recognition, colors, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit about probabilities and a lot about luck. They are designed to entertain children, and give families an activity to share. Monopoly does these things, but ask your parents if their goal in playing Monopoly was to teach you about savvy trading, auctioneering, probabilities on dice rolls, return on investment and cost analysis. Their goal was to keep their kids from chewing the house down. And the things that make that more effective are; lengthening the game, not eliminating players, not punishing kids who will throw fits, and generally keeping the “game” as an activity to share, not a cutthroat endeavor to reduce your opponents to nothing but pocket lint and a scowl.

I loved this game as a kid. I’d rope anyone willing to play into a game. I have very vivid memories of dragging my brother Ryan into a game, watching him get totally bored, and throw the game so he could do other things. I loved hitting Free Parking and raking in free cash. I loved that everyone could gather around the game and be a family. I don’t remember how most games turned out, but I remember a lot of smiles.

If I had to teach young me how the game was really played, I’d probably hate myself.

My uncle Sammy (actual uncle, not the guy with the flag suit) played games with the kids. He would’ve taught me how the game was truly played, if doing that didn’t harm his chances of defeating the kids. He played with a rule that, if you built, you didn’t “get to roll.” It’s in quotes, because rolling dice is super fun for a kid, why wouldn’t you want to do it all the time? Well, the same reason jail is super sweet late game: movement is a liability. If you can build one house a turn and stay anchored, holy shit balls, do it! He’d also fake dice rolls, fast-move pieces and grab the dice to cover his tracks, not pay you rent if you didn’t ask for it immediately after he landed (whoops, already rolled, not paying now), and do what it took to win.

What a fuckin’ shitheel.

Nobody in the family talks to him anymore. Still, I learned about shrewdness from him. I also learned about cheating. Not the cookie-cutter black-and-white “cheating is wrong kids!” stuff you get from Sesame Street and after school specials. I got the more subtle, more real-world lesson: Cheating is fine, if you have no shame. If you get away with it, you have nobody but yourself to answer to. And it’s a truly wretched endeavor.

But Monopoly is an iconic piece of Americana. It has an interesting and storied history, and has become an internationally recognizable game played by millions. It has seen dozens of iterations, and decades of play-testing, and continues to be updated. The Luxury and Income Tax costs have changed to reflect the U.K. version, and a speed die has been added to current prints that, well, make the game go faster (It was used in the 2009 National and World Championships). Nearly everyone you know has played Monopoly at some point.

And nearly every last one of them has never played the original rules.

So it wouldn’t be until years later that I would finally get the full rules, and their importance for the game. Common complaints about Monopoly are 1)It’s boring, 2) It takes too long, 3) eliminating players sucks, 4) it’s completely random. There are more, but most are variations on those ideas. So let’s address house rules, and how some of them pertain to these complaints.

Free Parking money and double salary for landing on GO are common house rules. They add money to the system, and in a game where bankruptcy is the end condition, giving more money to players prolongs the game. A more nuanced change it makes is that cheaper Monopolies lose their potency, as their rents become more inconsequential. If the game goes long enough, there could be so much money that nobody’s going to go bankrupt, and nobody has the wherewithal to just stop. It’s the main reason gripes 1 and 2 exist. But kids love luck, and parents love a lack of mayhem, so keep those dice rolling!

Another rule that you’d have to be a sado-masochist to try to teach children is that of the auction. When a deed is landed on, and that person doesn’t want to buy it, the deed goes to auction. Without this, deeds don’t get purchased as quickly, and the game drags. Some savvy players will push the deed to auction even though they want it, so they can try to snag it cheap. Or they’ll try to finagle other players into buying it at higher prices to sap their opponents’ cash. But try to get a kid to sit still for that.

Did you know that there’s a reason there aren’t enough houses and hotels for every deed? That’s on purpose. There are 32 houses and 12 hotels in a Monopoly game (plus a couple extras for when your kids lose or swallow a couple of them). When they’re gone, they’re not available until someone sells houses or builds hotels to free some up. While we’re at it, properties must be built up evenly. When you build a house on a new monopoly, the next house has to be on one of the undeveloped deeds. The third must be on the remaining slot. Then it starts over. It’s a bit lofty an idea for a kid; some adults refuse to get it. My favorite tactic in Monopoly, when I can do it, is to obtain cheap monopolies, say the light blues and pinks or oranges, and the dark purples (brown in the new set) if I can, and buy as many houses as I can. Even if an opponent gets their monopoly, they can’t improve on it, and I just have to wait it out. But try explaining to a kid the those extra houses aren’t for sale, and no, they can’t have any even though other people do. Or if they have houses, but can’t have hotels, because they can’t build the one more house to get all their deeds to four, so hotels are out of reach. Then explain even building to them. Then listen to them yell about it not being fair. Then try not to eviscerate anyone in the household before blowing your own head off. Or hell, just take the other Monopoly set you have because the first one got wet or bit or something, and use those. It’s just going to be easier.

As for gripes 3 and 4, well, yes. Eliminating players sucks. Most Euro games don’t have player elimination, because making your friend sit out while everyone else gets to play sucks, or worse, they get to have fun elsewhere while everyone else is stuck in a game they don’t like and won’t quit for some weird reason (maybe they were taught as kids that quitting is bad, and the thought of leaving a game nobody likes is somehow the same as that). The game is random, but within a set of probabilities. Dice rolling frequency is basic knowledge any gamer should have, and it’s not too difficult to teach kids. Catan teaches it far better than Monopoly, but Monopoly applies it in a different, more tactile manner. And the official rules keep the game moving, allow for more interesting choices, and make the game a more “game-y” experience than most people remember from their youth.

But Monopoly remains the same at its core; get rich, reduce your opponents to bankruptcy, feel kind of awkward about it when you’re done. That hasn’t changed, and as my recent play-through with hard-core gamers and a hard-core rules update, it’s still exquisitely bitter-sweet. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Knowing Just Enough To Completely Screw Up

Imagine you’re visiting a city you’ve been to before, but not in many years. You recognize some streets and landmarks. You have a vague sense of where things are, but you still need directions on how to get around. You decide that for dinner you’re going to go out to a restaurant you went to once before. On the way, you realize you don’t quite remember where that restaurant was, but you have a vague sense, and you recognize some of the buildings nearby. Rather than stop and look at a map and reassess where you are and where you think you’re going, you rush in the general direction of things that look familiar. Your actions are bold! But, if we’re honest about this scenario, your actions are also likely to find you hungry and eating whatever fast food is around when you realize that you’ve been lost for the last hour and a half.

“Ok, so if we’re at downtown crossing, and we’re trying to get to the Aquarium…”

Sadly, I’ve had this experience recently in boardgame form. Let me explain:

Over the past two weeks when Brandon and I have gotten together to play board games, we expanded from the two of us to a small group of 4 or 5. And with the varying levels of skill and relative newness to board-gaming among the group (Brandon and I being huge nerds, John being an experienced player, Dan and G having played a few games but still relatively new to Euro style games) we decided to go with one of the classics: Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is one of my favorite intro games because it has a lot going on but has the relatively simple mechanic of role selection. In addition, it seats 5 and has very little in the way of directly screwing someone over for the sake of screwing someone over; these are all things that I think were beneficial knowing the personalities of all who were in attendance. And while I hadn’t played PR in years (2009 is my best guess, but it very well could have been 2008), I had a sense for the general flow of the game and only needed a quick refresher on the rules. After all, I had played a great deal of Race for the Galaxy in the interim, and Race is basically just Puerto Rico in Space… right?

Amusingly enough, what I had done was set myself up for the opposite scenario as to what I did so well in my Ticket To Ride post. Rather than re-examine the game with a fresh set of eyes, I tried to follow strategies I had floating around in the back of my head. Rather than focus on the tactics of what other people were doing, I focused on what I thought they should be doing based on my flawed strategy* based on vague recollections from years past.

Turns out, Puerto Rico is a game based on a strategy of getting money early to develop an engine that gets you victory point chips late (if you want to read waaayyyy too much on the strategy and tactics of a game of Puerto Rico, I highly recommend that link).** And while I did build an engine, it was clunky and slow and by the time it got going, I was easily outmaneuvered in the late game. My very first play of the game was builder so I could get a building that I remembered to be strong (everybody’s gonna be jealous that I got the hacienda!) was a poor one, and by the time I had gotten some goods worth trading, no one was trading anymore.

Relative newbies to the field of boardgaming had figured out the underlying pitfalls of focusing on shipping much faster than I did. I had knowledge from Race that not only did not serve me, but blinded me when it became clear to others. Knowledge is power, but having only a little bit of knowledge and making assumptions off of it is dangerous.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. – William Shakespeare

In sum: When playing a game, getting stuck in a routine rather than reexamining where you are won’t win you many games. And just like revisiting a foreign city, its best to double check the map before you go, and if you can’t find that favorite restaurant, you might be able to find a new path towards a good meal.

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*Quick note on terminology here. I’m using strategy to mean a long term philosophy that can be followed over the length of the game. Tactics are individual moves based on the current (and a few upcoming) turns. So for example, both PR and Innovation are tactical games, but Innovation does not lend itself to much strategic planning.

**In doing a little reading on Puerto Rico for this post, I ran across this and have a lot to say about it. Its coming in another post.