If all goes according to plan, I will never ever play Monopoly again.
This post was originally published on February 13 2017
Don't get me wrong. I don't hate Monopoly. In the first ten years of my life, the board game I played more than any other was Monopoly. I understand the frisson of rolling the exact number you needed to avoid the plague of hotels and potential bankruptcy, or the frustration (or relief!) of rolling a third double and landing in jail. I love the top hat and the racing car and think the addition of a cat is a travesty upon the game. I've traumatised friends with frenetic negotiations and futures trading (under our liberal house rules interpretation).
Monopoly is not the worst game in the world. (I once had to play a privately published board game that took the worst aspects of Monopoly, Backgammon, Twister, and Trouble, and wrapped it up in a pirate theme...but the most piratey thing about it was the cosplayer they hired to spruik it at the Toy and Games Expo. But I disgress.) Anyhow, if I had to multiply suffering per units sold, Monopoly wins hands down.
That might seem a strange thing to say. After all, for most people, a board game means Monopoly. It means rolling dice, and moving in a circuit around a board. It means exchanging money, picking up cards, and playing cards. For better or worse, Charles Darrow's Monopoly, published in 1933, though neither the first, nor the best, has left a lasting imprint on the board game world.
But entirely like Kings Quest I-IV, ET, and Vince McMahon's XFL—and entirely unlike anything nominated for the Spiel des Jahres—Monopoly is an example of extraordinarily bad game design. Here's why.
You've had this experience. You play Monopoly, and inevitably one person is eliminated after about 45 minutes. They sit around twiddling their thumbs for another half an hour, hoping for someone else to be eliminated so they can have a quick game of something on the side. Meanwhile, the last two players are still playing after 3 hours, exhibiting sheer bloody-mindedness, as one player slowly gains the upper hand, and one player sits around hoping to be a David against a monopolistic Goliath. The end of the game is a long, drawn out, unpleasant affair.
Player elimination is a pox upon any modern, enlightened board game—I'm looking at you, too, Risk—and if a game doesn't keep you in all the way to the end, letting you make meaningful decisions (even if it's only king-making), then it's an unpleasant way to be spending an afternoon for all but the winner.
If you think about it, the moral of Monopoly is that as aggressive property developers buy up more and more property, the rich get richer by crushing the little people underfoot, until they can no longer afford to pay rent. Now perhaps that's an accurate reflection of the Sydney property market, but me, I play games precisely because they aren't real life. There's a finite amount of variables, and decisions. There's a happy ending which doesn't have to be a sad ending for everyone else.
Also, Monopoly is effectively a zero-sum game. Everyone starts with $1500; all but one person ends with $0. Only one person gets to build an empire; everyone else's is slowly dismantled, or destroyed before they can even get started. Hands up if you've played a game of Monopoly where you haven't been able to complete a single set, and you futilely proclaim the virtues of utilities and stations whilst secretly wishing you could only get your hands on Old Kent Road, because owning the purples is better than nothing at all.
Compare that to Sid Sackson's 1964 classic, Acquire (still in print). Everyone starts with $6000, and will end the game with $20,000-60,000 in value. Everyone wins, everyone grows their portfolio and net wealth, and the winner is the one who grows their companies faster and best. Or Settlers of Catan (1995), where everyone ends with an empire of towns and cities and roads. Or the 2008 Spiel Preis winner, Agricola, where the person with the best farm wins, but everyone develops their plot of lands from subsistence farming to a working farm with grain and vegetables and sheep and pigs. Or Ted Alspach's Simcity-esque Suburbia (2012), where everyone builds up their suburb into something living, breathing and unique. Or basically 99% of modern board games with good game design. You may not win, but you have accomplished something, and that in itself is satisfying. It's a far more pleasant experience than having your property portfolio slowly dismembered, piece by piece, until all you have is Water Works, and Free Parking.
Finally, there's the chance aspect. Those damn dice. Lots of good games have chance, to some degree or another. But in Monopoly, the structure of rolling dice to move, and movement deciding your available options means that you simply cannot plan. You can't decide on a "stations strategy" because you might land on King's Cross on turn one, and never land on a single station again, until they're all snaffled up. You take what the dice give you, whether it's Chance, Free Parking, or Park Lane. Compare this against the modern classic, Settlers of Catan. Even though the game is still reliant on dice, by placing my towns next to certain resources, I know what I can plan to build, once the dice decide it's time for me to receive what's mine.
Monopoly has been superseded a thousand times over. It wasn't even cutting-edge in 1933, due to Charles Darrow's plagarism from a little game called The Landlord's Game. In 2017, there are thousand better options, and a thousand games that are better designed, and when it comes down to it, more fun.
In fact, the internet's premiere boardgaming database, BoardGameGeek, lists 13,371 games that are more highly ranked than Monopoly. In fact, the only family board game ranked lower than Monopoly is The Game of Life.
When I play games, I want to play games that are fun. Acquire is more fun than Monopoly. Settlers of Catan is more fun than Monopoly. Suburbia is more fun than Monopoly. There are all better games than Monopoly, and more fun than Monopoly.
Next time someone suggests a friendly game of Monopoly, just say no.