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.
This weekend was no exception.
Lots of people in the world love Monopoly. Some like it for its artistic merits, some appreciate the history (did you know that Monopoly games sent to POWs in World War II had hidden cash, maps, and tools to help soldiers escape?), and some crazy individuals are really excited about playing the game itself. A couple of friends named Noel Gunther and Richard Hutton got together with some friends around 1985, and realized why they stopped playing when they grew up. The game has issues; too long, too much luck, too much dead time. They set out to create a list of rules changes that would give the game more skill, more risk, more challenge and, ideally, more fun. They published a book in November 1986 called Beyond Boardwalk and Park Place (and you’ll have an easier time finding the book at your local library than that Amazon link), which codified their rules changes, added some history and a few gags, and made out to change the face of Monopoly. I’m told it didn’t sell well.
Cut to 2009. My friend and fellow games nut Toby (name changed to protect him) sends me a PDF of a book he found at the Worcester public library. I’m hooked on the idea, but I can’t get anyone to play the damn thing until years later, and that breaks bad due to a massive divergence in investment at the table. But I never lost hope, and this last weekend, in a campground it Pittsfield MA with a group of like-minded nerds, I finally got the session of Beyond Boardwalk I wanted. The results were mixed, but positive overall. I think.
Gentlemen, I’ve brought you here to discuss a proposition…
I’ll assume you know most of the rules of Monopoly, but I’ll highlight a few overlooked ones. We didn’t use every rule Beyond boardwalk states, but we did use most of them. I’ll explain them here, as well as why I think they work so well.
1) Deeds now cost twice their list price to purchase outright. Otherwise they go into auction, starting at half the list price plus $10.
In Monopoly everyone starts with $1500. The total cost for every deed in the game is $5690. There’s enough money in the system to buy everything, and there’s very little consequence to buying everything you land on. This changes that. It Introduces a lot more auctions, yet gives an option to buy the deed with no contest. This way, every purchase you make is important. Buy too much too soon and you’re busted. The auction base price insures nobody can buy a deed for less than its mortgage value and sell it for a quick buck. On that note:
2) No mortgages. Deeds can be sold back to the bank for half price.
The way most Monopoly games work is, once you have your winning Monopoly, everything else gets mortgaged for cash. $10 and $20 rents are insignificant at that stage. So the board looks like a wasteland with a few high value locations designed to crush an opponent. With this rule, you need the cash, you have to lose the deed. And since you probably paid more for it than what you’re getting, it’s a loss some cannot afford to take.
3) $1 bills are gone; round all fees up to the nearest $5.
Everyone was all for this. Sometimes it’s fun to gripe over 2 dollars, but Monopoly has never been decided by single digit fees.
4) While in Jail, you cannot build, you cannot bid on deeds, and you only collect half the rent to which you’re entitled.
In the late game, Jail is super awesome. There’s nothing to buy, the Go money isn’t significant, and moving only increases your chances of hitting an opposing player’s monopoly. Not moving for up to 3 turns is great, usually, so this rule makes it much more of a risk.
5) Fees from Chance, Community Chest, Income and Luxury tax are paid into a Free Parking Pot. Hit the spot, get the pot.
This is in there because money exits the system so quickly, so this is a way to put some back in. Plus it’s fun to hit, honestly. Nobody landed on it, so it’s irrelevant.
6) You can only by houses immediately before you roll on your turn.
The optimal strategy in Monopoly is to build right before an opponent who could hit your spaces rolls. You minimize risk of getting hit with rent you can’t pay, and maximize the chances of that invested capital paying off immediately. Now there’s risk. It also speeds the game up, and gets around house auctions when there’s a housing shortage.
7) Uneven building
This house rule has been floating around for a while, and for a game with little disposable cash it’s a good strategic and pragmatic inclusion. Basically, once you have the monopoly, you can build freely. This means you can get a 3-house hard hitter without buying the other stuff up. It allows for another strategic element and, mini-spoiler, if one of the players used it better he would have won soundly.
8) Cash on hand is hidden information
The standard rules of Monopoly state that money is on the table, and if someone asks you are obligated to tell them how much cash you have. For a game with a lot of auctions, it’s important information, especially when you play with aggressive players who like to bluff you with up-bidding when they’re effectively broke. It’s another strategic element, and benefits those who are paying attention.
9) Trading options are expanded beyond assets.*
Officially, you can only trade deeds, cash, and that the “get out of jail free” card. This game allows house rule trades. A few quick examples are; immunity, short or long-term; forcing opponents to not trade with others; split income for Monopolies; etc. This can lengthen the game, but the wheeling and dealing is a critical component of Monopoly, and this has the chance to reward savvy players greatly. Our own addendum to this: trades and deals were fully binding. No promising free rides and reneging.
We didn’t use a rule that made the utilities part of the railroad system, because we felt it made railroads too powerful. We also updated the Income tax and Luxury Tax costs to current Monopoly standards ($200 and $100 at all times, respectively), and we were off.
The Four consulted the Codex, and did consign themselves to the Fates. The Game had begun.
Before The Storm
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
–Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
There were four of us: me, John Fraley, Auston Habershaw, and John Serpico, in that order. A prototypical game many months prior showed me that Fraley and Serpico would play with the kind of high-level competitiveness I was looking for. And based on stories of past games and what I knew of the man, Auston would be a strong fourth. He was also willing to play. Early on a small fight about starting pieces leads me to believe that I have picked the right men. Right next to us a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity was being played. The massive juxtaposition of these games, in play and in community, did not escape me, and while laughter was had, my stalwart companions and I silently agreed to solder through this gritty expanse that is a Monopoly game.
I try not to discuss strategy too much when playing a game. If someone is new, and they ask my opinion, I’ll give it, but not otherwise, for many reasons. One is that it bogs down the explanation of the game. Another is that it’s usually un-welcome; you don’t sit at a game to have it played for you, and God Damn it if I can’t get that thought through to some of my hard-core gamer acquaintances. And unless you’re trying to sweet-talk and subtly manipulate other players into doing what you want (a somewhat dirty, but totally legal tactic; I call it Silver Tongue, and Ted Vessenes is a master of it) it hinders your chances of winning. The Beyond Boardwalk game I envision is full of cutthroat men eager to leverage every asset they can bring to bear. So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I kept mostly silent when I saw some dangerous early mistakes being made.
Everyone at the table seems to think that, now that deeds cost twice their list price, that they’re actually worth that. Auston plows through with the habit of buying everything he lands on outright, while auctions see deeds going for very close to double the list price. That’s all well and good when these are deeds you need, but nobody really needs them. If you land on a deed, send it to auction, and buy it for less than twice the list price, you saved yourself some money. But if someone else landed there, and you dropped that cash , you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. So it was that I held back, hung on to my cash, and waited for people to drain themselves. Auston was tapped fairly quickly. Serpico and Fraley lasted longer, but their purchases were too unfocused. I fought to get a couple of the light purples and little else. To be fair, they never panned out.
At one point I have one yellow, Serpico has the other. Someone lands on the third, and Fraley and Auston bow out of the bidding quickly. Up until now deeds have been going for hefty costs. So when Serpico bids around $200 for Ventnor, low by any standards, I simply let him have it, to some confused looks. Now I decided it was time to discuss a bit of strategy.
“Anyone know why I did that?” I ask, in my best educator’s voice. Silence. I’m not hiding my money that well, so they know it’s not lack of funds. “Serp and I already have the yellows. Whether he or I have the third, we still have it between us, and one is just as good as two.” Auston picks up on what I’m getting at, Fraley gets it a minute later. I hope I don’t sound condescending in my explanation; I genuinely want the people I’m playing with to learn Monopoly and play it better.
I wasn’t bragging. I swear.
Somewhere along the line Serpico gets Boardwalk. When Park Place gets hit, Fraley and Auston aren’t in any position to bid. I convince Serp to let me have it for the low price of $250, and in exchange I give it to him in exchange for the yellows. It’s good news for me and Serp, bad news for Fraley and Auston.
All I have for deeds are two light purples that didn’t pan out, and the yellow Monopoly. And I couldn’t be happier. In plain Monopoly, you can buy deeds crazily. Even when you don’t need them, the trading fodder is a wonderful thing to have, and the ability to simply block Monopolies is often reason enough to sit on a deed. But what many people don’t realize is, once you have a monopoly of sufficient strength, everything else is ancillary, if you have money to develop it. And all my not-buying is paying off now.
With uneven building I decide to spread a few houses between two deeds. It’s early enough that I could spend heavily on development and not worry about hitting a big rent, but also early enough that too many deeds are out there to be out of bidding power. Still, I try to take advantage of the situation; a couple of players are coming up on my area, with a 6 and 7 putting them on Atlantic and Ventnor respectively. The timing is too good to ignore. I don’t recall if it paid off the first time, but it did at least once, and in a game as cash-strapped as this, once is enough.
Fraley and Auston are suffering, but they have potential between them. I have cash to develop, but I wait. And it’s a good thing I do; the third Orange goes up to bid. Auston can’t get it, but if Fraley can they’ve already talked out some trades that give them monopolies. So I do what might be the most tactical and vicious thing I do this session; I buy it. I have the money to outbid, and I have every intention to sit on it. Without that lynchpin to make the trade, Fraley and Auston don’t have a deal to make.
My yellows begin to pay off. The writing’s on the wall for Auston. Cards Against Humanity roars on in the background providing numerous raunchy laughs to everyone, but here in Atlantic City we’re settling in for the grind.
It’s hard to determine when Serpico is feeling down, or when he’s trying to garner some sympathy through tactical bitching. What’s tactical bitching? Flashback…
BBQ’ing in Serpico’s backyard, a bunch of nerds are talking nerdy stuff. A discussion of the game Small World comes up. Erik is telling a tale of a friend who would whine and moan every time he was attacked. “Oh come on,” “Aw Jeez,” and my all-time hated one, “I’ve lost now,” all come spilling forth. Until the last turn.
“Okay, I’m going to attack [REDACTED].”
“Aww, damn, I… oh wait, I’ve taken all my turns, never mind.” His whining is that calculated kind of manipulation to throw people off his scent. I’ve known players like that. I hate players like that. Serpico hates players like that. So imagine my surprise when…
“The game’s pretty much done, I’m screwed. I just wanna build my house, just to be part of something.”
Here’s the thing; whether or not you think you’re out, you’re not out, so I don’t buy it. We know the score. You stamp three houses on either dark Blue, you’re not out. The one thing that throws me, however, is that he builds on Park Place, not Boardwalk. My guess is that, at the time, a 7 would’ve landed an opponent there, and once he committed to building there he stuck with it. But Boardwalk isn’t that much different from getting hit, probability-wise. In fact, it gets hit more, on account of the Chance card that sends you there. Hindsight is 20-20, and a couple of people did hit Boardwalk while it was still undeveloped. That would’ve been the turning point for Serpico. And while he moaned about being out, I was quick to note that he only needed one person to hit him and he was essentially the victor.
Therein lays one of the problems of Monopoly. You only feel good when other people are getting screwed. Every time someone skirts by your properties it’s a kick in the teeth. No matter how much you tweak the game, at its core you’re still at the whim of the dice.
Feels this way sometimes
Things are looking down for Fraley; he hits Serp at Boardwalk for a decent amount. But now is the perfect time to enact another one of Beyond Boardwalk’s more interesting rules
10) Voluntary Bankruptcy
The way it works is, at any time when you’re not in debt you can voluntarily declare bankruptcy. You turn in all cash and deeds to the bank. You then get Baltic, Mediterranean, and $800. If anyone owns them they get $120 per deed, plus full price for any houses and hotels on them. Auston gets $240, Fraley passes go and has $1000 to work with. He doesn’t build on the Browns (another change in the new Monopoly sets; the “dark purples” are now brown).
It’s a funny scenario. There are now a bunch of deeds in the bank that nobody but one guy can afford. He’s able to buy the same deeds that got him in trouble, but way cheaper. It’s like Freddie Mac all over again.**
Auston bankrupts on my spot. There’s a bit of argument as to what happens with his deeds. The official rule is this: when a player bankrupts on a player, all his assets go to the player who took him out. I get the deeds, but I don’t have the cash to improve on them. Not letting others have them is good enough.
Fraley can’t get a monopoly. Serpico finally hits my yellows and has to break down his dark blues. That’s effectively game end, so we call it. I win, and I thank everyone profusely for the game.
The win doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I think it’s because Monopoly is a game about crushing your opponents, and it doesn’t feel great to do that. You want everyone to have fun, and it’s hard for everyone to have fun in Monopoly; it’s usually just the one guy at any given time.
One exchange Fraley and I had during the game I found very heartening:
Fraley: “Hmm. I learned something during this game.”
Me: “…Uh, are you going to tell us what that is?”
Me: “Hmm. Well, let me ask you this. Are you not telling me because it’s information you hope to use against me in a future play of this?”
Me: “Well that’s way better than knowing what it is you learned. I look forward to our next game.”
I still love Monopoly, from the stretches of tedium to the brief moments of triumph and defeat when that one (un)lucky roll hits. I’m becoming more acutely aware that I may be the only one, or at least one of a few, too few in my circle to get a game going. But I won’t stop fighting for it.
* Auston told us that when he used to play with friends they would sell die rolls. Like, if another player needed that 7 to hit a deed they wanted, and another player rolled it, they’d look at the dice, look at the player, and say, “for $100, that could be YOUR seven…” It never occurred to me that your roll could be a sell-able asset. I think I wouldn’t like it, but it’s a neat idea.
** It’s not like Freddie Mac