Saturday, November 13, 2010

Go Directly To Jail

Monopoly is widely regarded as one of the most popular board games of all time. Everyone knows it; it's seen in promotions for fast food contests, it pervades our popular culture, and it's spawned a remarkable number of international versions and domestic variants. It's also a pretty bad game.

It might seem odd to knock a game that sells more units than any other board game in the world each year, but the fact is that it's a pretty awful way to spend your time. Sure, the first twenty minutes are fun as people scramble to buy up properties, but after that it's more or less a long, lonely drag until everyone but some chump who has all the Green properties wins at like three o'clock in the morning. Let's face it--most games of Monopoly don't reach its proper conclusion. Everyone is too grumpy and tired to care.
 Do not pass Go. Just...don't.

So what is wrong with Monopoly? Not to sound like an elitist prick--even though I am--it's just that board game evolution has passed it by. Looking at the modern generation of board games, and you can see why things are different now.
  • Roll and move is an outdated concept. Sure, you see it in a lot of the board games you played growing up, like Sorry! and Clue, but it's just not very fun or effective, and there are better methods to control player decision-making. In order to be a good game people need to make choices, and roll and move does not permit players to do that--they simply are given the consequences of pure luck.
  • Speaking of--it's a game primarily of luck. If you're lucky enough to land on three colored properties, you're more than likely going to win. If your first trip around the board has you just paying rent and ponying up to the tax man, you're in for a long, unfun night.
  • The game lasts forever. Waiting for everyone to go bankrupt takes a long, long time, especially since there are so many ways--Chance and Community Chest cards, mortgages, house sales--to raise money. Often, players will simply do this to keep themselves afloat until one unlucky bastard lands on the hotel at Pennsylvania Avenue. And--given that most players play with "Jackpot" house rules like putting money on Free Parking, adding more money to keep the game going longer--it's a long way to the end.
  • For a trading game, there's not a whole lot of trading. The rules prohibit players from making certain "creative" trades, such as loans or temporary rentals, which more or less make deals simple straight up property and cash.
  • Unclean rules. Weird rules, such as collecting rent while in jail and the housing shortage, entice players to make perverse decisions. Late in the game when there are plenty of houses and hotels, it's better to stay in jail--you can collect rent without the drawback of landing on someone else's property. Likewise, since there is an artificial number of houses and hotels, players can cause a shortage by building four houses and stop--while they collect lower rents, they deny other players the ability to build hotels. 
Monopoly was revolutionary in its time, but its time has gone.

That said, I actually kind of like playing Monopoly on occasion. I'm not saying I would drag it out every weekend, but it's a nostalgic, familiar game that people are comfortable with. And despite all the bitching I just listed above, it's not a horrible game. It's just that there are so many better games out there.

And yet--Monopoly can be saved! Sort of. It's actually quite easy to mitigate many of the negatives listed above with two main rules and a handful of minor ones:
  • End Game: The game ends when the first player goes bankrupt. Everyone else adds up their value (cash on hand plus value of properties) and the highest number wins. The game doesn't drag on forever and it forces players to keep their value up rather than mortgage everything to stay afloat. It also prevents players from selling all of their properties to someone else for a dollar so they can go home and watch TV.
  • Automatic Auction: When a player lands on a property, it is immediately auctioned off. The player who landed on it does not get the opportunity to buy it first--they have to enter bidding just like everyone else. This way, everyone has a chance to buy properties instead of it being dead luck. It also gives players an incentive to make deals, evaluate the worth of all the properties on the board, and be engaged at every step of the game, at least at the beginning.
With this, you've made this rotten game a moderately decent game by removing a large element of luck and shortening the game even though the end result is still more or less the same. The rules could also be cleaned up regarding jail, trading, and the housing shortage, but those are minor and can be tinkered with.

It's still not a great game--it's going to be won or lost on whether the poor sap who lands on Boardwalk owns it or not--but it can be salvaged. To be fair, though, you're probably better off just purchasing a better game. But it's cheap and familiar, so go with what you have.

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