Martin Hollis on Monopoly

Director of GoldenEye 007 (N64) and Head Gardener of Bonsai Barber (Wii) Martin Hollis said he wanted to write something about Monopoly on Twitter. Knowing the current market for game journalism well, I offered him £1. In typical fashion, I have not paid him yet.

running dude

MONOPOLY IS A GOOD GAME

I brought you here today to talk about Monopoly.

At GameCamp in London on Saturday I heard somebody say in passing that Monopoly isn’t a good game. I’ve heard this before from game designers. My first instinct is to agree, but the more reflective reaction is to disagree vehemently. Rather than doing so in the context of a pleasant to-and-fro of ideas and contradicting a person who would probably have been shocked and disappointed to be so contradicted I thought well why not write out my thoughts on Monopoly?

The discussion was and the context was: What is the value of games? How can you tell whether a game is valuable or not? Can you waste your time by playing a game? How many years or decades does it take to realize whether a game is valuable? Or invaluable?

These are my thoughts on Monopoly.

Hard though it may be to believe I was once a child of 8 or 9. Monopoly was for me a game my family played at Christmas. I loved it. I was determined to win. Winning involved collecting all the properties and houses. Winning involved depriving everyone else of their properties and houses. You take all the money. From other people. In a gradual sort of way. Initially they don’t notice and believe that it isn’t permanent. But it is. Eventually they have no money because you have the money they had. They thought it was theirs but now you have it, making it your money. You have won and they have lost. Hooray! Money!

Winning was often a long and drawn out process and I have to admit I did notice after a few Christmases that winning was the boring bit. After a few Christmases I did also notice that other members of my family enjoyed this long drawn out part rather less than I did. I was gradually accumulating Old Kent Road hotels, Park Lane houses and a moderately successful utility stranglehold with a view to diversifying into rail. They were gingerly turning over the least loved of their incomplete property sets, reading the details of the crushingly complex mortgage interest rate rules on the back and trying not to cry. Not always successfully.

I suppose I should pretend I was 12 when I grew tired of Monopoly. Let’s pretend I was 12. In any event the early part of the game was the crucial part. I started to notice there was an element of luck. If you happen to land on all three properties of a decent set you were in the money. You were quids in. The perfect first set is I think Vine Street/Marlborough St/Bow Street in an ebullient orange. This is partly because of the bunching of dice rolls and lands caused by various events sending opponents ‘directly to Go’ meaning a good crop of rent. Mostly however it is because it has low house cost but highest rents for the row. Naturally all four edges of the board have a property set with this feature but at the cheap end Pentonville Road has lower top end rent making it more of a short term play and Park Lane has punitive capital costs making cashflow difficult in the early game not to mention it is a two card set meaning more variability, lumpiness and again cashflow difficulty when the selfish bastards never land on your two hotels ever. The point of this technical discussion is that a) I was pretty good at Monopoly and yet b) I could see that luck was huge factor in the early game. Generally your first complete set is whatever you could get together. Total luck.

Monopoly has variants however.

Jail is an important place to be for top-hatted gentry in the late game. Rents do become exorbitant and the last thing you want to be doing is paying them. You should just be collecting them. For three rounds. But we started to play with a variant that you had to use a get out of jail free card if you had one and others meaning jail became less certain, less comfortable and less economical for the very rich.

A more major area of change in my family was trading, haggling and bartering. Initially we played the simpler game where you get the simple choice: either you buy the property you land on or you don’t. Gradually I tried to encourage the social side. I think the rules allow an auction if the player who lands does not want to buy the card or some such device. In any event players are allowed to talk and the normal line of things would be “Well I don’t think I really want Old Street is anyone interested to buy it if I buy it? Yes I’ll take it for 100. Well I’ll take if for 120…” and so on. In this way a property that you did not land on could make its way into your hand in the early game.

The social dynamics were fascinating of course. If you had two of a set and you wanted to buy the third, prices were higher. If you had a lot of good sets and were front runner the prices would sometimes seem vindictive. It was almost as if other people didn’t want you to win. In my opinion the more social you make Monopoly, the better game it is, and all this is pretty independent of the rules as written. I recommend Monopoly-of-Catan as a better experience than straight Monopoly.

It is still a terrible game however. Partly I say this because the mid-game drags on interminably as the needle of advantage gradually yet erratically swings over, but mainly I say it because playing it is a horrific, soul-destroying and divisive experience. Monopoly is a game for all the family but you might not feel like family afterwards. You will however have all the money.

All this is entirely beside the point however. Or better yet it dances around the point, which I shall continue to do.

Monopoly is not a game to be played purely for its enjoyment. The pleasures are few. It is informative to catalogue the creditable here before considered the debit and the account balance. The fun of Monopoly is simple, naive almost, and falls under two entries.

First the capitalistic and consumerist. It is a perfect Christmas game. It is a part of our yearly worship in cathedral shops, a possible pilgrimage to Oxford Street, the merry ching ching of cash machines ringing, a countdown advent calendar to the final climactic ritualised consummating orgy of disrobed objects of desire. Objects that you did not choose, that you do not need, that you fervently desire and that you earned and yea verily deserve by your virtue. You have been good. You are worth it.

The second line of pleasures are arguably less worthy. The joy of victory in the face of misery. Winning is long, winning is slow, winning is uncertain, but if you win you will have the satisfaction of trampling on the faces of your fellows. You have created misery in others, depriving them of their hard won money and the self-esteem that is wadded up with it and that is your triumph. Schadenfreude must be said, but that is a lily-livered milksop word of quiet revelry. Hitler would have enjoyed Monopoly I grant you, but what game would Ghengis Khan have enjoyed more? Or Conan if your prefer the modern reading. To crush your enemies and see them fall at your feet. To take their houses and belongings and to hear the lamentation of their purser. That is the best life.

So, from assets we turn to liabilities. Strangely I find I cannot list them. Let me only assert the following:

Monopoly is a game that is good not because it is good but because it is bad.

(In this light every attempt to make it better by the current owners or the players is a pathetic and futile stab at the heart of an eternal game.)

The game draws you in. It promises so much and you believe the promises. You can build things. People like building. You can collect things. People like collecting things. Sets. People like sets. You can trade. You can buy, and sell. People like trading, buying and selling. You can win and you can lose. People like winning and they like losing.

The hidden torture outweighs the sweetness of course but the sweetness comes first. The box does not say “Turn your friends into enemies and learn unwillingly the danger of oligopoly”. The lobster does not understand the trap and it does not even perceive it, or at least, not immediately.

To close, I have a challenge.

My challenge to you is as follows. Design a game which is appealing to play, which will go on to be a huge commercial success and yet illustrates through its systems the abject and total horror, the inhumanity, the alienation, the banality, the evil, and the hell-on-earth of a socio-political practise taken to extreme. The game must be named honestly. It must be easy to learn. It must be a game for all the family.

Monopoly is a good game.

…..Sigh. As I believe it is customary:

Graphics 7/10
Sound 0/10
Explosions 0/10
Gameplay 4/10
Value to society 10/10

Martin Hollis

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11 Comments

  1. Harry Harrison 05/21/2013 / 12:56 pm

    Now comes the question, what of the summary’s values make any game a good game? Harking back to the “What is game?” question of late.

    Personally I’d say Value to society is a damn good indicator and should be present on ever review henceforth.

    That aside, I can never be bothered to actually participate in a game of Monopoly that I know won’t end quickly. But part of me wishes I could enjoy it as much as you do.

  2. James 05/21/2013 / 4:42 pm

    Sound 8/10 — if you can get your partner to scream “I’M SICK OF THIS STUPID GAME” after their eighth mortgage
    Explosions 10/10 — if you can get your brother to throw the bank at the wall and kick the board off the table when he lands on your Mayfair Hotel with only £10 left.

  3. Josh 05/21/2013 / 4:52 pm

    I may be the genesis of this; I certainly said that Monopoly was a bad game, loud, in public, more than once at Gamecamp on Saturday. Having said that I doubt I was the only one. As far as having-opinions-about-games goes, it’s low hanging fruit.

    I would accept the argument that Monopoly is a good game because it demonstrates how to be a bad game, and how to be a bad person, in one neat package – but for the fact that it seems to have succeeded at neither. We still have rapacious landlords and people still buy Monopoly, in their droves, every year, and play it with their blameless grandparents. What value is there to an unintended metaphor, however perceptive, that no-one gets?

    • hollisu 05/21/2013 / 9:49 pm

      Josh,

      Monopoly is low-hanging fruit as you say, being extraordinarily popular, and increasingly often said to be poor and improvable by knowledgable designers.

      http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/magazine/17-04/mf_settlers?currentPage=all

      In passing I think Monopoly is not a metaphor, which to me evokes a dead (but interpretable) object like a photograph or a statue, but instead a recreation and re-enactment tool – a living breathing process that you can step inside, push and squeeze, test and learn from.

      I am certain Monopoly’s power is intended. Elizabeth Magie created a nakedly political screed which was gradually softened and deepened by her political friends, their Quaker friends, their friends in Reading, Pennsylvania, students and others at universities on the East Coast and finally rebranded and redeveloped for commercial suitability by Parker Brothers. The game was intended by Magie and those closest to her to be a teaching moment:

      http://www.adena.com/adena/mo/mo05.htm

      It is not necessary for a player to know what they have learning or that they are learning. People have implicit memory (psychology) and tacit knowledge which are difficult to transfer, verbalize, articulate or have any introspection on. I believe this knowledge can be inculcated without the conscious mind becoming aware. My feeling is that most knowledge is invisible knowledge of this kind, and the minority of knowledge can be expressed with present language and technology. So it is that a system like a game can teach what is today ineffable.

      Monopoly is a child of the depression era. Elizabeth Magie created it prior and her Quaker friends developed it prior to the worst years, but the explosive success of the board game under Parker Brothers occurred in the 1930s. A game of top-hats, luxury ships, humble irons and down-and-out’s boots would – I speculate – have seemed especially relevant while much of America and Europe was processing the trauma of The Depression. In these hard times the game sold between 800K and 1M copies per year at extraordinarily high price.

      We still have rapacious landlords. We still have toothless monopolies commissions, but the great and grand anti-trust actions occurred after The Great Depression. I am no expert on history but it seems to me the cycle of under-regulation followed by over-regulation followed by under-regulation continues today. It also seems to me possible that a game played by hundreds of millions may have had an impact on public understanding of the otherwise highly non-obvious consequences of arcane rules of taxation, business, finance and society. Certainly I would not have had the understanding I have without the game Monopoly.

  4. MONDONOMY (@Mondonomy) 05/22/2013 / 1:49 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, cheers.

    I’ll just add: to me, Monopoly is also a racing game. You mentioned luck at one point, but essentially before the drawn out middle section it is a race to buy up properties. That’s the first fun part, depending on your luck, the second being the haggling and early developments between players as they reap the rewards of their purchases. However, because it isn’t ‘just’ a race, being the fastest doesn’t necessarily mean you win.

    Lastly Josh, I’m not sure the metaphor you mention is wholly unintended. Monopoly as a cultural institution is, in my opinion, a hilarious deliberate masterstroke outlined in many ways by this article.

  5. hollisu 05/22/2013 / 11:01 am

    That’s interesting Mondonomy.

    It is one of those races where you do feel you have to hurry but you pretty much don’t because the game is turn-based. This is an emotional angle which is not what you meant, but it is relevant because it makes the game thrilling until you finally realize you can take time where needed. I used to get this anxiety-to-move feeling in Drop 7 probably because of years of indoctrination with the superficially similar Tetris.

    Tim Flowers pointed out on twitter that he plays Monopoly with a seismic rule change:

    Monopoly as a race where the first player to reach the pre-agreed sum of money wins.

    https://twitter.com/tfowers/status/336855015803211776

    This will, I believe, destroy the political heart of the game while making it more fun. I say this because all natural instincts mean you love to gain property, houses, money and truly despise to lose them. However you will not ‘lose’ them in this Monopoly-as-race variant because the game ends well before bankruptcy, avoiding the gradual agonizing tooth-pulling misery of many player’s being parted from their possessions.

  6. iainl7 05/22/2013 / 11:07 am

    The most interesting change that Tim’s variant brings is that you’re racing to a liquid cash target. Every investment in property that could generate rent and bring you closer to that target is a short-term step back. How that changes strategy is going to require a fair bit of thinking, I suspect.

  7. Alex V 05/26/2013 / 12:43 pm

    Good article, I wholly agree. But I do recall that there’s a rule that when you’re in jail, you cannot claim rent from players landing on your properties? So there’s no benefit to sitting in jail?

  8. Peter Smith 06/06/2013 / 5:57 am

    The use of family as a term to describe the games audience might be better changed to an alternative – party or multi-player to discuss its value as a game experience. Then the weakness in a game like Monopoly becomes all too evident – the moment the game is understood by one player renders it unattractive to the rest of the party, and it quickly finds itself demoted to an out of the way spot on top of the wardrobe. The article mentions that the luck of a dice roll plays a part in creating different outcomes, but the most telling is surely the order of play – who starts the game has an advantage, who rolls last may often be the first to finish. From a business perspective a toy that nearly everyone owns regardless of how often its taken down from the wardrobe and played is a success. But there is something unpleasant with a game that allows you to beat up your Gran.

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