So Is Monopoly Crap, or What?

by Dan H

Dan H spends more time talking about Monopoly than any sensible person would care to.
Since my last two articles on FB were about capitalism and boardgames, I thought I'd complete the triptych by writing an article about a capitalist boardgame.

Specifically, when I was poking around the internet researching my boardgames article, I stumbled across this blog (which included the line about Eclipse being a dependency management sim), on which I found this post about why the blogger hates Monopoly.

This led me down a crazy rabbit-hole of unabashed monopoly-hate, from this post on Nerd's nest soup to this boardgamegeek thread to this extraordinarily smug and self-satisfied post from a blog by the unfortunate title of “Scatmania”. On the other side there are a few people pointing out that it is perfectly possible to enjoy Monoploly, the most famous of which being this Critical Miss article which spawned a hilarious media response years later from people who thought that the “Campaign for Real Monopoly” was a real thing, rather than just a humorous article title.

The thing that got me thinking the most was this quite interesting boardgamegeek thread. What specifically got me thinking was the final post, which highlights what I consider to be the most important point in the whole discussion – that the way to enjoy playing Monopoly is to remember that it is a player-elimination game, and play it accordingly.

All of this reading blog posts while I was supposed to be writing for Ferretbrain led me to a rather interesting conclusion. I have decided, on the basis of – I freely admit – very little evidence, that the key problem with Monopoly is actually a very prototypical example of ludonarrative dissonance. Specifically, that the reason people think Monopoly sucks is because they try to play in a way that makes sense according to the premise of the game (trying to build a real estate empire and make as much money as possible) rather than according to the rules of the game (trying to eliminate the other players).

A Little History

It sounds like the kind of thing that people would make up to prove a point, but Monopoly really did start out as something called The Landlord's Game. Designed in 1904 by a woman named Elizabeth Magie, it was intended primarily as a didactic tool which demonstrated the iniquity of private land ownership. Several people – particularly those on the “Monopoly Sucks” bandwagon – like to pretend that it is somehow ironic that a game with such a seemingly anticapitalist premise wound up as the staunchly capitalistic Monopoly. It isn't ironic at all, for two reasons.

Firstly, the type of economics Magie was trying to espouse through her game wasn't anticapitalist at all. She was an advocate of the work of Henry George, who believed that all social inequality could be solved by taxing land and nothing else. Now obviously this was early in the twentieth century, but I don't really see anything particularly socialist about somebody who campaigns for the abolition of all taxes, except for those taxes on a class of property they do not personally own.

The second reason there's nothing ironic about the Landlord's Game winding up as Monopoly is that there is no reason on Earth to assume that a board game endorses the core behaviours of its gameplay. I mean, I've always enjoyed a good game of Family Business, that doesn't mean that either I or Mayfair Games are in the pocket of the Cosa Nostra. And in fact, you could argue that Monopoly's status as a critique of free market economics (insofar as it is one) is actually central to its viability as a game in the first place.

When you think about it, what the game of Monopoly demonstrates is that you can start with a completely level playing field and perfect equality of opportunity, but a combination of random chance and ruthless profiteering will naturally lead to wealth accumulating in the hands of a minority. And if it didn't work that way, the game would never end, because nobody would ever lose. If the game wasn't – in essence – a socioeconomic injustice simulator, it would be completely unplayable.

And ironically, what makes many games of Monopoly into tedious eight-hour marathons is the tendency of Monopoly players to adjust their behaviour in order to try to make the game fairer. Even more interestingly, this behaviour often seems to arise from players investing too heavily in the very premise that the game was originally designed to critique. People try to play Monopoly as if they really were trying to build a real estate empire, and this actually leads to the players behaving less ruthlessly than they need to in order to make the game work.

If They're Going to Die They'd Better Do It

The Landlord's Game seems to have been built around the assumption that a Landlord was basically like Ebenezer Scrooge turned up to eleven. Not merely greedy or self-interested, but actively seeking to harm his tenants out of sheer misanthropic evil. Otherwise the aim of the game would not be make the other players bankrupt (bankrupting your tenants gets you nothing, after all) but simply to acquire as much money as you can within some predefined time limit. It assumes that Landlords do not aim primarily to enrich themselves, but to impoverish others.

It is, perhaps, small wonder that most people don't play the game like that. Given a game with such a clear theme (and Monopoly is a highly thematic game, I suspect that one of the keys to the game's enduring appeal is the fact that you get to play with actual banknotes rather than little cardboard money tokens) people naturally want to play in a manner in keeping with that theme. This leads to an extremely peculiar situation in which even though everybody knows on some level that the aim of the game is to eliminate the other players, everybody plays it as if the aim is to acquire as much money as possible. And this makes the game last forever, not least because the longer the game lasts, the more money comes into the economy. If Monopoly was played for real money, the best strategy really would be to drag the game out for as long as possible, because in a protracted stalemate, everybody carries on making £200 every time they go around the board.

This failure to actually play the game to win leads to three key elements of sucky Monopoly play: counterproductive houserules, risk-averse play, and (strangely the most damaging of all) generosity.

Seriously, the Free Parking Rule Sucks

Let's start with the most obvious bugbear. Putting all the tax money on Free Parking leads to enormous random cash injections which help nobody. Yes, they mean that people in bad situations can get a second chance, but all that really does is make the person who would have lost ten minutes from now lose an hour from now instead.

The “double salary for landing on Go” rule is less swingy, but it causes similar problems. It just adds extra money to a game where the whole point is to make other people lose money.

Monopoly is a stark example of the problem that many games – board, RP and video – have with the concept of “fun.” If there is a serious design flaw in Monopoly, it might be that the element of the game that is most fun is not actually the element that allows you to win. For most people, the fun in Monopoly comes from playing with imaginary money. People add extra rules which give you more money, because getting money is fun. It's cool to land on Free Parking and pick up £2420 you wouldn't otherwise have had. But getting that money doesn't actually bring you closer to winning, just further from losing.

I wonder, incidentally, if part of the reason the Free Parking rule slows the game down so much is that even if somebody does get a large cash windfall, they will be unlikely to want to spend it, and other players will be unlikely to let them buy anything even if they did.

In a well-played game (in which people are playing to eliminate rather than to acquire) a sudden cash injection could conceivably be an interesting strategic event. The other players will want to part the fortunate player from their cash (thereby removing their buffer against elimination) while the player with the windfall will be trying to leverage their good fortune to strengthen their relative position as much as possible.

But most of the time, people aren't that willing to take risks. Which leads to my next point.

The Only Winning Move is Not to Play

If you see Monopoly as being primarily about making money, most of the time your best move is not to buy anything or trade anything. The rents you receive on properties are minuscule until those properties are fully developed, and so it is only ever really worth trading if you are going to acquire a complete set that you can build up in order to charge higher rents. Selling somebody a property for cash is almost never worth it, because they might make a set out of the property, and you will be able to make the same amount of cash just by moving around the board a few more times.

Again, the continual flow of money into the game becomes a real problem. If your aim is to acquire money (which it isn't, but feels like it should be) your goal becomes to put off the end of the game for as long as possible, because the longer you go on, the more you will accumulate. As long as there are no really well developed properties on the board, everybody is very likely to make a profit on every round, meaning that it is always better to let the game continue in a stalemate than to risk an opponent getting an advantage that might make your mean profit-per-circuit go from positive to negative.

This emphasis on accumulating as much money as possible, and on acquiring it by low-risk, long-termist strategies is probably also responsible for the – I would argue disproportionate – dominance of the “buy orange” strategy (outlined in this article on Cracked and backed up with some pretty heavy number-crunching here). The theory goes that because of the Jail square, players land on the Orange properties (called – I think – St James Place, Tennessee Avenue and New York Avenue in the original edition) more often than other properties, although looking at the actual data in the second article, the difference is fairly small – a 3.0852% chance of landing on New York Avenue compared to a 2.6260% chance of landing on Boardwalk.

But the Buy Orange strategy is grounded in the misleading assumption that your aim in the game is to maximise your expected income (indeed the page of analysis linked above has a whole table for Expected Income Per Opponent Roll for various properties at various levels of development) when in fact what you want to maximise is your probability of eliminating another player. This opens up far more strategy than the normal pattern of “buy orange, never trade unless it gives you a set” that most people fall into. For a start it makes the most expensive properties far more powerful, because their real strength comes not from the extra money you make out of them (they do – as the analysis shows – take longer to pay for themselves than the oranges) but for the sheer impact of hitting somebody with a £2000 hotel bill. The brown/cheap properties have similar unsung advantages – you can get hotels on both for about £500, and that allows you to start hitting your opponents with large bills that will disrupt their cash flow right from the start of the game.

Once you start to see the game as all about making everybody else lose, it becomes irrational to sit tight and accumulate – all you wind up doing is letting everybody else consolidate. It becomes much more attractive to make deals, sell properties for cash, and make trades that seem one-sided or disadvantageous, in order to shake up the equilibrium and have a real chance of knocking somebody out.

Not Suitable for Children

The campaign for real monopoly pointed out, quite rightly, that part of the reason people play Monopoly with the various houserules that make it worse (like adding the Free Parking rule, or ignoring the all-important Auctions rule) is that the game is normally played by families.

To be honest, unless you're some kind of Edwardian patriarch who thinks children need to learn hard lessons to prepare them for adulthood, playing competitive games with your kids is probably a bad idea. Either you let them win, in which case you're being kind of patronising, or else you don't, in which case you're this Fast Show sketch. Certainly playing games where the whole point is to grind your opponents into utter penury is probably a bad way to maintain a harmonious family life.

Which is why when people do play Monopoly with their kids, they go easy on them. They take a game which was designed to highlight the essential injustice of private land ownership, and they try to be nice about it. They let people off rents, they throw them loans to keep them going through bad patches. All of which means that you put off the moment when you have to make your six year old child bankrupt. Ironically, legal action aside, the Competitive Dad in this sketch is actually being as sensible as you can be when playing a family game of Monopoly. Letting the kid off the £2000 hotel bill would only have dragged everything out far longer. Far better to just declare the game over (it is, I admit, a houserule but my family always played to the first elimination) and count up.

Some Monopoly-bashers seem to think that the (remarkably common) tendency for people to offer other players ways out of debt is grounded in some kind of perverse joy in the misery of others. In my experience, it's genuinely the opposite. Michael Tresca over at the Examiner, having mulled over the problems of Monopoly at some length somehow came to the conclusion that bailing people out was genuinely a good idea. The conclusion to his article on “Why Monopoly Sucks and How to Fix It” ends: “So maybe we should all just get over ourselves, play a quick game that breaks most of the rules, and cheerfully bail out the losers so they can still play.” He seems to have come to this conclusion in a genuinely generous spirit, despite the fact that all it does is trap somebody in a game that they have definitely lost and probably aren't enjoying.

Again, I think it comes back to the one serious flaw I would diagnose the game as having – that the fun parts aren't the parts that make you win. If somebody lands on my property, I want them to give me stuff, but I don't take any additional pleasure in knowing that I have eliminated that person as a competitor, so I am more than happy to take whatever that person can afford to pay. This all comes back to the ludonarrative problem we had earlier. Narratively I want to make as much money as I can, and so I want to keep the other players around as long as possible because they represent a net boost to the game economy, and there will come a point at which their turns make me more money than my turns (which is part of the reason that “stay in jail” becomes a viable strategy later in the game). Ludically, I want to eliminate my opponents because that is the whole point of the game. This creates a certain tension, for obvious reasons.

So Does Monopoly Suck or What?

Honestly, I'm torn.

I don't think it is as intrinsically broken as some people think it is, and unlike large sections of the internet, I don't believe that game design is a technology, so I don't think that newer games are intrinsically “better” just because they were developed later. I do think it's worth remembering that a hundred-year-old board game would have been designed with a very different target audience than modern hobby-gamers and, given that, the enduring appeal of the game is rather remarkable.

That said, I can't honestly say I ever find myself thinking “hey you know what I fancy? A game of Monopoly.” It's not that I think (as many seem to) that there are other games which do what Monopoly does better than Monopoly does it (after all, how many player-elimination property-trading boardgames that double as teaching aids for century-old economic theories are there on the market), just that I tend to prefer my boardgames with more wizards and explosions.

I do wonder if the game would be improved by playing with a turn limit (as I understand Lord of the Rings Monopoly does), or perhaps even being played to some kind of cash goal, thus making the fun part of the game (playing with toy money) an actual part of the victory conditions. It would also have the effect of making the tradeoff between cash and property more difficult to judge, since a player with a strong position but little cash could wind up losing to a character with a lot of cash but a weak position.

Or you could play Space Alert instead.

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Comments (go to latest) at 00:50 on 2014-01-12
Reading all those texts made me realise just how freakishly strange my childhood was, because in my family, we used to play Monopoly by the rules !
I was aware some people didn't, but I didn't think it was the majority case...
Anyway, we had fun in moderate amounts, although our father always managed to put hotels on the most expensive set (dark blues. I don't know their english name) and subsequently win, in spite of our efforts to make him lose.

Anyway, I think Settlers of Catan is a good example of harmony between the narrative (settlers building cities on an island), and gameplay (whoever has the biggest city wins).
Dan H at 01:04 on 2014-01-12
We never played Free Parking, and we always used the Auctions, but we always played to first elimination rather than to last person standing.

I agree that Settlers has far better alignment between gameplay and narrative. Most Eurogames tend to, and thinking about it, I'm not sure I can think of any game that really has quite the same ludonarrative problem as Monopoly.
Melanie at 07:35 on 2014-01-12
to this extraordinarily smug and self-satisfied post

You left out the link there!

I do feel enlightened about why monopoly seems to get so much hate, though.
Axiomatic at 08:57 on 2014-01-12
Shit, I've never HEARD of a rule that you get all the tax money by landing on free parking, or about ignoring auctions.

Auctions are like, the biggest point of the game. They're the only part where you actually get to make a CHOICE, instead of being forced to go where the dice let you go

I guess that must be why I kinda liked Monopoly as a kid. Also, auctions are a brilliant rule, even if you DON'T go for the "everyone be brutal and try and eliminate players" goal, because it lets you help the six year old at the table by letting her snap up properties on the cheap.

Then you can let her win without breaking the rules, because she has all the oranges and the yellows and you are bleeding money left and right.

You can also let the six year old have fun by letting her abuse the FUCK out of the auction system by making YOU pay huge amounts of money, driving up the price by pretending she wants the property you need.
Arthur B at 10:48 on 2014-01-12
You left out the link there!

I'm assuming it's this one?
Arthur B at 11:22 on 2014-01-12
By the way, I would like to record it here and now for the ages that the one Monopoly game I played with Dan, I completely trashrolled him and the other players. It was great.
Andy G at 12:20 on 2014-01-12
Tellingly, in the most recent game of Monopoly I played, the player who did best was the one who owned no property but acted as a moneylender, bailing players out at extortionate interest rates. By the time the game ended in an argument, he had something like £10,000.
Shim at 16:22 on 2014-01-12
Sticking my oar in for the usual comprehensive slating, I would say that Monopoly does suck, categorically.

I don't know whether the eliminate-opponents thing is coming from the actual rulebook or you've made a judgement call, because I don't have a copy to check, but it makes sense to me as how you're supposed to get a, ahem, satisfying game out of it. That being the case, the fact that 99% of the population seems to play Monopoly as a money-accumulating game featuring occasional eliminations, out of the belief that it's how you're supposed to play, strongly suggests the game is fundamentally badly designed.

Moving into entirely subjective territory, I will also claim that player elimination games suck as a whole, and that it's an unsatisfying style of game for all but a handful of specific situations*, because it intrinsically means some "players" only get to participate in a small portion of the game, during which they are doing badly. I think that's bad for learning games and bad for having fun.

Generally you play games to have fun, and that fun tends to depend on being able to participate meaningfully in the game. I've previously argued that games where you do a lot but don't feel any sense of meaning in the actions aren't much fun. Similarly, if you find yourself unable to do anything interesting when your turn comes round, you'll generally have less fun than other players - "miss a turn" tends to feel more punitive than the mechanics might suggest, and RPG mechanics like stuns and paralysis have to be used lightly on player characters. Being quite bad at games, I frequently find myself in this position in games like Risk, and indeed that was exactly my experience with the one game of Risk Legacy we played: after about turn four, my turns consisted of putting three cubes on the board once every ten minutes, which I would take off again during everyone else's go. That's why I don't play those games.

Elimination games are potentially actually better, because you can at least go off and do something you care about, providing you're old and chilled enough to do that. But they do intrinsically mean that you aren't actually playing the game, and often at least one player will be knocked out quite early. On top of the loss of participation, being knocked out also emphasises that you lost. In the case of Monopoly, that's inevitable, because pointing out how crap losing is is the whole point. It really shouldn't be surprising that this is not contributive to fun.

One of the reasons I like Eurogames is that they tend to be built not only without elimination, but also so that everyone can participate constructively throughout the game. Even if you're doing badly, you can improve your position through clever play to at least get some satisfaction, and in many cases there isn't any particular advantage to doing well early on - an underdog can fight their way back. Victory point structures tend to emphasise the success you can achieve rather than marking out some players as losers. Everyone can have a reasonable amount of fun throughout the game, providing they aren't incapable of having fun except by triumphing over others.

I think Monopoly is a fine game, if by "game" you mean "didactic tool for demonstrating the unfairness of life and the perils of the free market, and for instilling in children that sometimes they have to obey arbitrary rules that suck". But only then.

*Like, as an alternative to Rock Paper Scissors for choosing who does washing up after a meal. Or when you need a completely arbitrary subset of your players to go and do something else at arbitrary intervals. These are not common situations. at 22:36 on 2014-01-12

Arthur B at 22:59 on 2014-01-12
Trashroll: to inflict a defeat so devastating it is reminiscent of rolling your opponent about in the trash.
James D at 00:25 on 2014-01-13
Shit, I've never HEARD of a rule that you get all the tax money by landing on free parking, or about ignoring auctions.

Growing up that was actually how I learned it and didn't even know those were house rules. I didn't play with my family either - I just learned it that way from my friends, and that was how we always played it, and we never checked the rules to see if that was how we were supposed to be playing it.

I actually remember the first time I was confronted with the real rules - I was playing Monopoly with my dad and uncle at age 12 or so, and set up the board with the typical $500 in the center to start off the Free Parking Pot. They had no idea what I was talking about, and I got kind of frustrated explaining it to them.

Frankly, even if Free Parking is just supposed to be an empty space, I prefer it as a sort of "jackpot". The other three corner squares do something special - Go to Jail, Jail, and Go - so I don't think it's weird to have the fourth one do something too. It's not like there aren't other things that give cash injections, like various Chance and Community Chest cards. However, the Free Parking thing could perhaps be changed to directly sap money from the other players - say, $50 from each or something - thus possibly helping to eliminate players and not creating new money.
Guy at 12:23 on 2014-01-13
There are some newer editions of Monopoly that try to address some of the larger flaws in the original - there's one called "U-Build Monopoly" which I have actually enjoyed playing. See this review:
However... Monopoly is too luck-based to be a good "heavy game", too ponderous and fiddly to be a good "light game", and - like the music Stravinsky disliked - goes on too long after the end to be a good game of any kind. Whether or not that means that other games are "better" I guess depends on your definition of "better", and it may not be measurable in the way that, eg, the clock speed of a computer being faster is clearly better, but... who'd actually choose to play it, having experienced a few good modern games? at 17:53 on 2014-01-13
Well, this certainly explains why I suck at Monopoly (I sometimes feel reflexively guilty hanging up on automated calls, because I am a neurotic mess) and why I much preferred the game By Jove! which had a board that was a blantant Monopoly knock off (instead of going to jail you go to Hades DO YOU SEE?), but wasn't player-elimination based; to win you had to accumulate a certain amount of stuff including the prize from a couple of mini-games, and while you could sometimes steal heroes or money from other players, you couldn't really eliminate them.

Oddly, I have much more vivid memories of playing endless rounds ofPay Day(most likely because it was at my grandparents' house, obliging my brother and me to spend far more time together without local friends or cable television), which is straight up cash accumulation, although the description sounds deadly dull (except one of the post cards you got in the mail involved someone getting eaten by the Loch Ness monster.)
James D at 23:09 on 2014-01-13
I much preferred the game By Jove! which had a board that was a blantant Monopoly knock off (instead of going to jail you go to Hades DO YOU SEE?), but wasn't player-elimination based; to win you had to accumulate a certain amount of stuff including the prize from a couple of mini-games, and while you could sometimes steal heroes or money from other players, you couldn't really eliminate them.

Oh shit! I had By Jove! growing up too, and definitely enjoyed it more than Monopoly. Honestly having last played it nearly 20 years ago I can't remember much about the gameplay, but I remember the art being really cool, especially of the various Greek heroes you could get to help you out. I suspect the gameplay itself probably isn't complex enough to really satisfy me today beyond nostalgia, but I'd definitely recommend it over Monopoly for kids. Plus, it teaches Greek mythology sort of!
Drew C at 20:51 on 2014-01-14
So checking the version of Monopoly we have (Hull Edition because of course my proud family of codheads (on my mothers side) owns the Hull edition) There are rules for a so called "short game" and "time limit game" It's also got a fact or fiction section which specifically mentions the Free Parking rule.

Oh and yes setting a cash goal does make the game more fun (and shorter).
Michal at 03:47 on 2014-01-17
This I know: No matter how bad one may perceive Monopoly to be, it cannot be as bad as this incredibly bizarre Monopoly clone.

In a nutshell: What if the Monopoly board had 191 spaces? Play to find out! at 06:40 on 2014-02-02
I. . .love Monopoly.

Seriously, my freshman year of university, my best friend and I played the game almost every day. We still play it when we get to see each other. We're a bigger fan of Mega-Monopoly (more properties, Mega-Monopolies (which include 4 properties making a set), bus tickets that let you move without rolling, and skyscrapers). It's pretty fun because it does really change the way the game goes, and it actually makes properties right in front of the end squares more valuable than the oranges.

We definitely do different things to mix it up and make it more exciting. We've created spaces where you can lose money, we've randomly given ourselves property, etc.

Also, if one of us is winning, we do regularly make each other suffer by dragging out the game and helping out JUST enough to keep them in the game for another round. It can be frustrating, but when you're winning, it is a sick kind of fun to watch the other person squirm. I think that's where our fun comes from, really. We're sadists. at 06:42 on 2014-02-02
Also, with just me and my BFF anyway, games are honestly never THAT long. Maybe it's just because we don't play with big groups usually (those definitely take longer). Actually, I think a game that can be longer and more tedious (again, on who you're playing with) is risk. The most frustrating yet effective strategy I've seen played out is one where people just don't attack and keep building up their army until it's crazy ridiculous and attacking them is suicide. I've seen two people go at it in a game with that strategy, I got sick of sitting there watching them do nothing so I basically suicide attacked and lost.
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2014-03-01
The second reason there's nothing ironic about the Landlord's Game winding up as Monopoly is that there is no reason on Earth to assume that a board game endorses the core behaviours of its gameplay.

Assuming for the sake of argument Monopoly were intended as anti-capitalist propaganda, this doesn't track for me. The irony (if any) is not that the game itself has switched from anti-capitalist to a capitalist, but that it has become an object of massive capitalist profiteering. I won't go into whether the game as originally conceived truly is anti-capitalist or not, because that would entail a substantial socio-economic tangent which I don't think anyone would terribly appreciate, and frankly, I'm not that interested. So I'll accept your argument that it's not ironic because of reason 1, but I find reason 2 unconvincing.

Anyway,I've heard that origin story about The Landlord's Game. I've also heard it was adapted by some Quakers, and that version was ripped off from them by a guy at Parker Brothers. That's probably apropos of something, though I'm not sure what.

I've only ever played with the Free Parking rule, and hadn't even heard of the auction rule until my 20s (and even then, I went around for a few more years thinking it was exclusive to The Landlord's Game, and hadn't been carried over to Monopoly). Heck, I even had a computer game version in my early teens, and I'm pretty sure it didn't have the auction option (although maybe I just failed a spot check when it came to the game's settings - wouldn't be unprecedented). I'm pretty sure we always played to first player out, then count the money and whoever has the most wins, too.

I used to own and / or play about 3 or 4 different versions of Monopoly, but as with so many other childhood activities, I've grown completely uninterested it of late. The last time I played was a couple months ago, whilst visiting relatives, and then only because one of the kids - having already roped his mother into playing - really wanted a third player. That was kinda interesting for being board game / smartphone hybrid, in that the smartphone app kept track of bank transactions and had you playing these weird mini-games for like, Chance spaces and the like. We only ended up playing a few rounds in the end, and I wasn't particularly disappointed that we never got around to finishing. I guess Monopoly just is not my game.

I do remember a conversation with a friend in second year undergrad, who also argued that Monopoly sucks - because, as best I remember, he felt there was barely any strategy to it, there just isn't enough space within the game's framework for meaningful choice on the players' parts.
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