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.
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:
Value to society 10/10