Your opinion on Monopoly is like a rite of passage in board gaming circles. Just the mention of the word can cause some board game aficionados to roll their eyes. Maybe gag a little bit. If your answer to the question “What kind of games do you play?” includes Monopoly, some gamers may gun you down right before they go back to painting their miniatures from the fortieth Kickstarter that they have purchased that year. Okay, not really. More of a tranquilizer dart, probably.
I must admit that I have been guilty of this from time to time. And while judging a person for the games they play is an entirely different issue, I have certainly judged the game itself. I’ve done it on our podcast, I’ve done it in conversations at board game conventions. I have all this hate for Monopoly, and if anyone ever suggests we play it, I immediately respond, “Seriously?!?” and ask to move on to another option.
But why is that? I mean, when we had it as kids, we used to try to play it all the time. We’d scream with excitement as we got all the money from free parking, or we would curse (with whatever passed as first grade curse words) whenever we landed on Boardwalk after our opponent had put up hotels on his last turn. You prayed over the results of the dice, hoping that God really does care about the outcomes of board games, though you don’t remember ever hearing about that in Sunday School.
And when you look at the game, it has some elements to it that we see in other games. There’s land management in the form of set collection – you’re doing your best to try to get all the properties of one color so that you can start developing houses and hotels. Here is where a little ‘engine building’ comes into play – you’ll try to develop spaces around the board that will ‘trap’ other players and force them to fork over all of their hard-earned cash. And then, just like in many good board games, there’s a little bit of luck – those dice can make or break you in some circumstances.
Even with all of those fond memories, and some mechanics that we see in all sorts of games, why are we so quick to dismiss Monopoly? Well, I think there are a few reasons.
A Cultural Thing
Monopoly holds a very interesting place in our culture with a few other games, like Sorry! and Scrabble, in that we almost never learn to play the game from the rules. It almost feels like we’ve always known how to play Monopoly. Like it was part of your daycare curriculum or maybe a story told to you by your grandparents as you sat on their lap. I haven’t the faintest idea when I initially learned to play the game. I do know however, that I played the game in daycare when I was in first or second grade. We certainly weren’t taught by any of the daycare workers, so it must’ve been another kid that taught me, and that’s how it probably was for most of us.
You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
With all of the oral rules delivery happening through the generations, there are bound to be some things that change here and there as people play with rules they like. Because of this, we teach patched together rules that become part of the game. That has led to Monopoly being the game with probably the most ingrained ‘house rules’. It’s the only time I’ve seen a part of the rulebook having to explicitly shoot down a house rule.
The ‘free parking’ rule. When I first started playing as a kid, any time someone was supposed to pay money and it wasn’t too a player, they would throw it in the middle of the board. When a player landed on ‘free parking’, they got all of that money. As I kept playing through the years, we started to boost that up a little bit. We would add $50 immediately to the jackpot each time it cleared out. Then it moved up to $100, then all the way up to $500! Sure, it felt great whenever you hit the ‘free parking’, but there are lots of negative consequences to that change.
But before we get to that, I want to point out a few other things you may never have noticed. Did you know that whenever you decide not to buy a property, it immediately goes up for auction? All players, including the one who passed it up initially, get to participate, and the property goes to the highest bidder.
There’s also the whole issue with ‘jail’. I’ve played this so many different ways. We all know that you have to go to jail if you roll doubles three times. However, it’s getting out of jail that people mess up. You can try to roll doubles to get out, and if you’re successful, you move that many spaces – you don’t move to ‘Just Visiting’. You can also pay $50 to take your turn, but did you know that after three attempts of rolling, you MUST pay the fine? I know that we never did that. Sure, it’s a small little detail, but it’s something that you’ve probably been doing wrong all these years, and something you would probably never check the rules for.
The Real Never-Ending Story
I sometimes wonder if it was frazzled parents that made all these house rules for Monopoly so popular, because most of the changes have made each game last so much longer than it should. More money being added to the pot for free parking means a person who was supposed to go out earlier now has new life. Not auctioning off the property every time it’s landed on means property is not being sold earlier and people are holding on to money longer – the entire system just takes longer to get going.
I can understand wanting to keep people in the game and not hurting their feelings, but think back to the way Monopoly games ended. Whenever you got to the point where a person was about to be out of money, somebody might give them a loan, or you tried to do the mortgage thing that you saw on the back of the card, but you never knew exactly how to do it. Without knowing the exact rules, people stayed in and the game just continued to drag on and on.
Not Everything’s Perfect
Now, I’m not here to nominate Monopoly for any awards or anything. It does have a player elimination component – which is not my favorite – and the dice do play a bit larger of a role than I would prefer. In reality, it’s a little weird that this became a game that kids love to play, because it’s pretty complex. To be successful, you really need to properly manage your money, ensuring that you buy up and develop property while maintaining enough cash to pay for any rent that may occur and also saving up enough money to acquire all the parts of a particular block of property. You also need to be a pretty decent negotiator – as trades are welcome in the game, you need to keep an eye on what everyone’s doing so that you can come up with some nice trade offers. It’s also really sneaky! Did you know that you don’t have to pay rent if the ‘landlord’ doesn’t ask for it? Plus, snitches get stitches – in the tournament rulebook I found that it says pointing out that other players owe rent to someone else can get you penalized.
Look, I’m not trying to argue that we should all throw away our copies of Gloomhaven or Pandemic and just be satisfied with a copy of Monopoly. What I am saying is that if you’re a reader of board game blog posts, then you might be a person like me who has unreasonably judged this as the worst game ever made.
What I would ask is that you give the game a try with the right rules before you start coming down on it. See if the balance might be a little better than you remember. See if the game is a little shorter than a Lord of the Rings movie trilogy watch party. And see if maybe, just maybe, there was a part of a younger, Monopoly-loving you that wasn’t all that wrong.