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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 21 Next

5. Monopoly

Published by Hasbro

Type: Two to six player financial trading (three required for a good game, better with more)

Depth: Low to medium

Designed by: Charles Darrow, deriving from the work of Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips. (There is some degree of confusion -- even outright misinformation -- concerning the game's origins.)

Popularity: High

Luck factor: Large

Description: Players take turns rolling dice and moving around a square board, first buying properties, then more often paying rent as the game continues.

Once a property is purchased it brings money to the owner every time an opponent lands on it, but the amounts only become significant once an entire group is owned and houses are built on it.

Usually the players will not be able to acquire an entire group by themselves, so trading between players is important. The winner is the last player in the game after everyone else runs out of money.

Play Summary

Monopoly is the most popular commercial board game in the world, but many board game enthusiasts look down on it as being overly ruled by luck and taking much too long to play. They have a good point, but there are also things to like about it.

The game board is square, and cyclical, with various spaces marked out along the edges. Each player moves a token around the edge, according to die rolls. Completing a cycle by passing Go awards a modest money award, called salary. Most of the spaces on the board list the name of a property, along with a purchase value. Landing on one grants the player the opportunity to buy it from the bank (which owns everything not owned by players), granting the player its title deed card as mark of ownership.

Owning a property brings money to the player whenever another player lands on it; if it is not purchased, it is auctioned to the other players. Die rolls basically simulate the passage of time. Early in a game they are a source of opportunity, but later they are dangerous.

Players begin with $1,500 in game currency, and in the true capitalist spirit this money is best spent in order to obtain opportunities for making more. Since opportunities are awarded from landing on unowned spaces, they are quasi-randomly distributed throughout the early game. The intent is to generate interesting trading situations, which are the heart of Monopoly. These situations are the real "game" here; the following hours of die rolling and movement that are a test that proves their quality.

Players may trade properties between each other for any in-game sum agreed upon, including trading properties for properties, or a combination of properties and cash. Properties can also be mortgaged to the bank for funds. Mortgaging can be done at a moment's notice to pay rent, get money for trading, or to meet the purchase (or auction) price of a property.

The deeds of mortgaged properties are turned over on the table; nothing can be built on these properties and they earn no rent. Properties can be returned to profitability by unmortgaging them, paying the bank the mortgage sum plus ten percent. Mortgaging instead of trading keeps one's options open, but mortgages only pay half the purchase value of a property. Mortgaged properties can be traded, but the buyer must immediately pay 10 percent interest and can't make use of the property without paying it off, so they are of degraded value as trade goods.

The gold mine of Monopoly is when, through trading or luck, a player manages to obtain all the properties in a given color group. Then that player may improve the group by buying houses for them. Rents for various numbers of houses are listed on each title deed card, and go up rapidly with houses built.

Even a single house greatly increases the charged rent for a property, but the third house provides a huge increase. The fifth and last house is called a hotel. Landing on a three-house space can be an emergency for a player; landing on a hotel is often fatal. A player who runs out of money and can't (or won't) raise the money through mortgages, house sales or trades is bankrupt, and leaves the game. All his property goes to the player who was owed, who often at this point acquires a game-winning advantage.

What can we draw from this game?

If you read this description and think it sounds more like a condemnation of capitalism than a celebration of it, you might be on to something. The early version of the game Charles Darrow cribbed from to create Monopoly, called The Landlord's Game, was rather more critical in tone.

Monopoly is somewhat burdened by its popularity. Many people who consider themselves fans of the game have actually never played it as intended, saddling it with awful house rules. Offering Free Parking jackpots and eliminating auctions make a long game longer, and a too-lucky game even worse.

Like Backgammon, Monopoly is a game of strategy masquerading as a game of luck. Well that's the idea -- really, Monopoly depends a bit more on luck than Backgammon does. It is easier for a player to be completely shut out by rolls of the dice, unable to meaningfully affect the game, and once a player starts to lose he'll probably keep losing, riding the passage of a multi-hour game down the drain, existing only as a source of funds for the better-heeled players. In this way Monopoly is like life -- and worse off for it.

A laudable design tendency of Eurogames, about which more will be said later, is that they tend to end just before a player begins to unquestionably dominate the game. In Monopoly it usually becomes obvious when a single player pulls far ahead of the others, but because all other players must go bankrupt to end the game this takes ages. The official rules list a "short game" option that gives players starting properties and that ends after the second bankruptcy, and that helps things a little.

Monopoly isn't all bad. One of the better aspects is that the choice of which color group to focus on is not obvious. The lowest-priced properties on the board, Mediterranean and Baltic Avenue, are not necessarily the worst investments, and the highest-priced, Park Place and Boardwalk, are not necessarily the best. The decision must factor in the relative probability of landing on each color group. But the dice are capricious, and different groups turn out valuable in different games.

The biggest flaw with Monopoly that I see is that too much of the game rides on the shoulders of single decisions, decisions that don't even involve most of the players. If two players trade in order to complete color groups before the others can, they can essentially lock them out.

A game of Monopoly in which the players refuse to trade becomes a simple matter of die-rolling and rent collecting. If the players won't unwind enough to trade to allow one player to complete a color group, that state will continue indefinitely. If there are no houses or hotels on the board, the players can expect a slight profit, on the average, on each visit to Go.

If you should get hold of a group that actually cares about making the best out of their situation, as competitive board gamers would, then most of the players will be extra careful about making trades that give opponents complete color groups without receiving a group of their own of at least equal value. This is not an atmosphere that encourages player commerce, yet without it the game is stalled. Because of this, two-player Monopoly is pointless since it's certain that the person you're trading with is your only enemy.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 21 Next

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