In Defense of Monopoly

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Monopoly is every "real" gamer's favorite game to hate. It's random, it takes too long, there are better games to play, people only play it because they don't know better...these are all some of my favorite critiques.

The thing is, as much as you, dear reader, may hate Monopoly, millions of people love it. Millions rush out to buy the variant when it has their favorite property assigned to it (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and soon, Hunger Games I'm sure). Families play Monopoly at gatherings. Families like mine. And guess what? We have fun, despite our "poor" choice of entertainment.

What's amusing to me is that Settlers of Catan, a game far more respected by us nerds, is just as random and frustrating as Monopoly. I'd argue it's more frustrating as it's also more complicated.

I think snobbery and condescension are bad for the growth of our industry. Furthermore, I think by outright discrediting Monopoly, we're ignoring the reasons it is so appealing and therefore, potentially ignoring a way to make our own games more successful.

Why Monopoly is Great

Strong player interaction and social gameplay. Negotiation is fun. Auctioning is fun. Social interaction is meaningful and you would do well to incorporate it into your design. Your players will create rich gameplay for themselves if you give them the tools to do so.

People love rolling dice. Rolling dice is fun and in Monopoly, the act of it is filled with thrilling anticipation. "Please don't land on Pennsylvania!" You know what that sound is? It's laughter because somebody just landed on a hotel and they're in deep, uh...illegal derivatives swaps. It's people having fun.

Monopoly is full of tactile sensation. Picking your unique pawn is fun. Players get to identify themselves with something more than a color. Board games provide a tactile, tangible sensation that other game mediums fail to provide. Monopoly has dice, metal pawns, little houses, and therefore it's a very satisfying game to touch, feel, and play.

Buying property and being a tycoon is fun. It's a fantasy many ponder, few get to experience. Especially in our current economy, Monopoly is more relevant than being a space ranger.

Monopoly is many peoples' first experience with design. Think about it; have you ever played Monopoly the same way at two families' homes? I haven't. Money is paid out for rolling a certain pair of doubles. Landing on Free Parking provides a benefit. You can get out of Jail early if you do thus and such. People create house rules ALL the time for this game that span generations. That's awesome!

The game should play more quickly than you think. For one, every property should be auctioned off if the player who lands on it doesn't buy it outright. I've never read the rules for Monopoly, so when I saw that I realized we've been missing out! That long, random stretch at the start where people grab properties should play out entirely differently.

Furthermore, as a negative component of everyone adding in their own design spin on Monopoly, one of  the first things people do is inflate the economy.

  • Get $400 for landing on Go.
  • Get $500 for landing on Free Parking OR all the penalties put in.
  • Get $500 for rolling snake eyes.

All this does is needlessly inflate the economy and lengthen the game. But, then again, it's fun...

Why Monopoly is frustrating

The game is random. It is very frustrating when the dice do nothing to help you throughout the course of the game. Though successful bidding and negotiation can address that on the build-up front, it cannot help when you're trying to survive one last go around the board.

Fiddly fiddly fiddly. The game's plethora of property cards and paper money makes for a tedious game to setup and play. There's the electronic banking version, but this is still a cumbersome experience.

Long. The game can take a very long time to play. Too long, I'd argue, for the amount of depth it offers. However, this is a great way to consume the evening. When I visit my family at Christmas, we play Scrabble, Dominoes for hours, poker, or Monopoly. It's not so much we're looking to play 8 games, it's that we're spending time with each other while drinking a beverage at the end of the day.

Player Elimination. Unless a game lasts only 15 minutes (and even then), I'm very strongly against play elimination. Monopoly has this and I think it's a very weak spot in its design. (Thanks to readers for reminding me of this omission!)

Why all of this matters

The best thing going for Monopoly that makes it such a powerful brand and experience for consumers is that Monopoly is comfortable and familiar. It's an old friend that's always ready to play. You know the rules (at least you think you know them), nobody needs explanation on how to play, and nobody is intimidated by the experience.

New board games mean rules booklets and explanations. My brother has zero interest in learning new games. He'd rather play the classics (Risk, Scrabble, Monopoly, poker, Dominoes) or just watch TV. My parents are more willing, but it took so long to get the gist of Modern Art across that I probably won't be explaining more games to them any time soon.

The growth of our hobby suffers because we fail to recognize the importance of being comfortable and familiar. We make games that are too complex, take too long to play, or have rule books that are too lengthy. We get so frustrated by all those "bad games" on the shelves at Target that we completely gloss over the reasons they are successful.

I don't play Monopoly often. To be quite honest, I don't really want to do so. But, it's a disservice to our hobby to look down upon those that do. It's not that we know better. It's not that their choices are poor. It's that we haven't given them something yet to replace it.

Comments

I especially like your point about unique pawns. So many games fail to do that, and it’s a big deal.

I haven’t played Monopoly in ages, but I know that if I play again, I will want to pick the terrier dog pawn, because that’s *my piece.* And I know my cousin will pick the top hat. That’s *his piece.* The unique pawns give a sense of continuity from game to game that wouldn’t otherwise be there with just a red dude or a blue dude.

And also, where’s the personality in the cookie-cutter pawns? In Monopoly, you watch players "vrooooom!" around with the car, or make up stories about the dog, or try to wear the thimble on their pinky finger. It gives the game more quirky charm.

Nice article, Grant. I still enjoy the idea of Monopoly and the nostalgia of it. The tactile feel of the game is great, too. I think the thing I dislike about it is the zero-sum nature of the game: one person wins by everyone else losing everything. It's a nasty way to lose.

Also, to your fiddly comment: counting out paper money and making change is my favorite part of the game (which is why I'm usually banker...). The electronic banking edition removes the thing I like best.

I think your most valuable insight here is this: snobbery is not a boon to the hobby. We'd all do better to get rid of our smugness. People like different things, and not everyone has a "refined" palate (if it is indeed refined)--and that's okay. I especially like your challenge at the end: "It's that we haven't given them something yet to replace it."

I appreciate you going where few if any hobby gamers will and defending Monopoly. i think the main idea is that what is enjoyable is largely subjective and that passing judgment based on ones own reference point is folly. You mention how (some) hobby gamers do this, but the reverse is also true. Some mainstream folks or casual gamers look at hobby gamers as nerds (in the derogatory sense) or losers which also is far from fair. It is fine to judge a game, (by all means judge away) but to judge the people playing them is just as shallow as judging them by any other material possession they may or may not have. In the end, openness and willingness to try new things is what will advance this hobby, not people who will only play their own games, or a game on a top 10 list. Well that, and treating other people with respect. Monopoly has it's place, most certainly, as do those who play it. And it can be argued that board gaming would not be what it is today without it. In the end, I think when hobby gamers express frustration with Monopoly, they are really expressing a feeling of frustration that so many people are playing it when they could be playing one of the many games they (and many other hobby gamers) find far superior if only they know about them . But would they find them superior in their own mind? Who knows? The best thing hobby gamers can do is introduce these other games, and it is up to each person to decide for themselves. And it is up to us as hobby gamers to respect that decision whatever it may be. Thanks for the article.

Thanks, Grant. You do raise a lot of good points. While game design has advanced quite a long way since Monopoly was released, it was built on the shoulders of classics like this.

While we must respect Monopoly's heritage and it's unchallenged popularity, we can't take a blind eye to its flaws. We wouldn't have the Ferrari, Prius or H3 today if not for the Model A, and the Model A is still a beautiful vehicle that will get you where you're going, but that doesn't make it a reasonable choice for an informed consumer. What would you think if a friend brought an Apple IIe to a LAN party? It's not our place to judge anyone, but you can't pretend these folks have made optimal choices.

The natural response is often to ridicule, and that's where we (humans) make our mistake. Don't say, "You're still listening to MC Hammer! What, have you been living under a rock?" Say instead, "Hey, I enjoyed wearing jams in my youth too. If you like, you're going to love OK Go." The trick in the context of board games is to share a game that is similar enough to Monopoly that you can actually expect them to understand it and enjoy it. Settlers of Catan is a fine choice. Six-player Cities and Knights is not. Star Wars Epic Duels is fine if they like Star Wars, but Queen's Gambit is not.

While the community could absolutely use more light or transitional games to convert or luddite friends to technophiles like us (to pound this analogy into the ground), there are tons of options. Cash & Guns and Werewolf are two gateway games that come to mind for the party crowd.

One more point you touched on, the reason a lot of people will never play hobby games, is that the average person is not as enamored with learning new games as we are. We crave new experiences and we enjoy the challenge of learning new games. Most people have talents that lie elsewhere and so those tasks actually feel like work. That's why games they can pick up and start playing without reading more than a simple summary, if that, succeed in the mass market where our 2-4 page booklets (and up) have no chance. It's easy to misinterpret that as "keep it simple," but it's more about resonance and intuitive play.

Of course I roll this lone d6 and move that many spaces on this mostly-one-dimensional path. Of course my explorer loses a turn in the nearest cove after he gets fireball'ed. And, of course he got fireball'ed, what else would that red marble rolling out of the big stone mouth and smacking your figure mean? Fireball Island is an example of a game that is intuitive to play (which often—but not always—comes down to having only obvious use for each component) and resonance (red marble = fireball = owie time).

While gamers and deep-thinkers can do well and enjoy a game with abstract connections and purely mechanical rules, it's unreasonable to expect that from everyone else. That, combined with how-intimidating-is-the-rulebook, is a huge factor in determining what games people will even consider trying. Monopoly capitalizes on this big time with mechanics only slightly more complex than Candyland meets buying stuff. The dice and the event cards add excitement while the be-rich fantasy is more universal than slaying dragons. Monopoly's still not a good game by any empirical analysis, but as Grant keenly reminds us, it does a lot of things very right, and it did them first.

Reposting from Twitter as requested:

A factor that I felt was not given enough due is the effect of cultural inertia in Monopoly's continued financial success.

Cultural inertia is the propensity of cultural totems to perpetuate their own relevance across generations beyond what their intrinsic value would predict. When applied to games, it can be expressed in the following parable.

Jimmy receives a gift of Monopoly for his ninth birthday. He is very excited, as this is his first ever board game. Jimmy didn't ask for Monopoly. He didn't even know it existed. Jimmy's parents bought it for him because they recognized the game from their childhoods.

Jimmy plays the game and has fun. This is no surprise, as children are naturally attracted to play for its own sake. He almost never finishes a game of Monopoly, because they never end. At a certain point he and his friends always just walk away from the game.

As Jimmy ages, he starts realizing that he isn't enjoying Monopoly as much as he used to. The game just isn't a satisfying experience for a 12-year-old. He might have played a couple other games, but they all suffered the same general problem of being too shallow for him to want to play regularly. In Jimmy's mind, the act of playing a boardgame becomes equated with Monopoly. Trying out new board games is unappealing, as the few he knows are so boring at this point.

As Jimmy and his friends play these (bad) board games less and less, they also subconsciously associate them with something children do. He never sees his parents playing these games on their own (why would they, they haven't wanted to play games since childhood?). Children want nothing more than to be adults. So in addition to the bad-game-based aversion, Jimmy tacks on the games-are-for-kids aversion. Jimmy turns to more adult forms of entertainment, like sports.

James is now grown up and has a kid of his own, Jimmy Junior. James is shopping for birthday presents for Jimmy Junior in Toys 'R Us and, in a wall of boxes stacked to the ceiling, spots Monopoly. James remembers Monopoly from when he was a kid. James doesn't recognize many of the other boxes. "Settlers of Catan? That sounds wierd. It might even be inappropriate for him. I don't want to take a chance with my kid's birthday, so I'll buy him something I know is good for a kid his age. I'm a responsible parent."

Thus, Jimmy Junior is introduced to Monopoly and the cycle repeats. This is cultural inertia in action.

You might say, "But wait! The fact that James bought it for Jimmy Junior is because the game is so good." Ah, but James isn't selecting a "good" game. He's selecting the only game he recognizes. James isn't about to log onto BoardGameGeek.com to investigate the other choices; he doesn't even know that site exists. Heck, it probably doesn't occur to James that any games exist which aren't on that big box store shelf.

Therefore, James isn't selecting a game for its experience, he is selecting it for it's place in the cultural landscape (ie. his childhood). He doesn't consider that it must be a bad game because it turned him off of games entirely. At this point, he believes it is completely natural for a teenager or adult to hate all board games, because all James knows are the very games that turned him off of board games.

The sinister thing about cultural inertia is that it relies on the existence of something bad enough to prevent exploration of the rest of the genre/medium. If a person was exposed to terrible, unreadable books as a child that are fit only for a child, that person might never realize that books exist which are interesting for adults. This is especially true if such an experience pervades an entire society. The society itself falls under the mindset that "books are for kids". People who write books for adults have almost no market. They can't even get most people to try to read them because most people would say "Nah, I'm too mature for books."

The only hope to break cultural inertia is to build a critical mass of 1) games that are good for the transition from kiddiedom to adulthood and 2) gamers who know those games exist. Once good games are passed down a single generation, then the cycle is broken. That generation will need no evangelists to explain that better games exist. They will like the games they know enough to seek out others on their own. Then cultural inertia will shift from propagating a cycle of games that can't hold a growing mind's attention to making games as natural an avenue for exploration as any other entertainment medium.

"It’s that we haven’t given them something yet to replace it." Isn't that an argument for NOT playing Monopoly and trying to introduce them to something else (even Settlers) instead?

Yes, absolutely. My point (which was clearly too vaguely presented) was that we need more games that are family friendly, accessible, and not too overwhelming. Basically, we need more Ticket to Ride or Catan style games to transition people.

Also, in general, we as the hardcore, obsessed hobbyists need to be ambassadors and set aside super hardcore favorite games in order to introduce new people to the experience of a table game.

Monopoly Deal is a reasonable substitute for gamers who want the theme, but minimal setup and lots of take-that tactics.

A subtle strength of Monopoly that I picked up from the excellent book Characteristics of Games (review here: http://onlinedungeonmaster.com/2013/01/28/book-review-characteristics-of-games/) is that it helps to minimize the negative effects of downtime between turns by having something exciting happen when it's NOT your turn; namely, other players landing on your property and paying you money. That's a brilliant feature that I aim to try to remember for my own designs.