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Game Criticism and Player Nerfs vs. Game Nerfs

June 30, 2008

“in Monopoly, what if it were another player that made you pay fines, caused you a luxury tax or inflicted property tax upon you?”

That’s what I was thinking about this morning. Before I get in to that, though, let me say that my relationship with Monopoly can be described as complicated.

It’s a terrible game because:

  • Players make no choices
  • It’s phenomenally predictable
  • Its endgame takes a full semester
  • There is no strategy and hence no tactics to be had

Monopoly is a good game because:

  • It is so commercially successful it makes WoW seem small by comparison
  • It is accessible to a wide variety of players
  • It promotes social interaction by default – since there are no choices to be made, people talk a lot while they play
  • It responds well to home rules (i.e. free parking, etc.)
  • The board and bits are well built and have a good feel

That’s the challenge with game criticism today, really. So many factors go in to understanding what a game is, who it is for, how well it succeeds there, and whether one should elevate commercial success above design success. How do you factor in the cultural impact of this game which has crawled its way all over the world and spawned over a 1,000 different versions of itself? The IP is 10x more prolific than Mario.

All that said, I can’t stand to play it. I find the play of Monopoly akin to hostage situation where I am asked to watch how random chance plays itself out for hours. I could do it in Excel in about 10 minutes and tell the family who won. Then, we could play Bohnanza or Puerto Rico, right?

In Monopoly, the player lands on a variety of spaces we all know well that force us to pay luxury tax or forfeit $200 or 10% of our holdings. From a design point of view, each of these events has three possibilities:

  • The game can do it to them (1 event, 0 people) – this is useful when the players may not receive a nerf so well. Perfect for young kids games where people might not want to deliberately trash their fellow player or be able to develop any sense of strategy about why they’d want to do X at Y time or what it means to use N defense at any given time. There is no thought. X just happens.
  • They can do it to themselves (1 event, 1 person)- this is the classic prisoner’s dilemma situation players find themselves in. Sometimes, it’s high risk, high reward and high consequence. Which route will you go? These decisions are the bread and butter of single player games. The player has the info she needs, and she makes decisions based on it. If something happens, she knows why. If not, the player might gets ticked off at the game or confused at best.
  • Another player can do it to them (1 event, 2 people) – this is the gold of pvp games. Now, we’ve got one event, and we’ve involved two people in it. Having the opportunity to trash your friends and to form defenses against said trashing is the stuff of good gaming. There’s a lot of potential decision making, tactics and strategy that can go into something like this. This type of game isn’t for everyone, but it is, I think, what Monopoly’s audience could handle.

This brings up yet another point – what would have been culturally acceptable at that point in time when the game was developed? Would women have felt comfortable playing a card against another man or their husband during a public game? Would the man have felt comfortable doing the same? All that would factor into a sufficient critique of the game, and I don’t know the answers to all those questions (though the answers to some are likely in a book I’m planning to read, The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle).

So, in thinking the question that started this post, I was wondering if I would like the game more if it gave me one of those “1 event, 2 people” moments, and I still don’t know if I would.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2008 10:07 am

    “Players make no choices”

    That’s not entirely true. Players may choose not to buy a particular property, in which case it is sold at auction to the highest bidder. Players may also choose when to upgrade which properties by adding houses and hotels.

    Despite these choices, Monopoly does come across as mostly random. Randomness appears to dominate, and probably does.

    As for house rules… I have a friend who invented the rule that a bankrupt player may remain in the game by using his index finger instead of a token to keep track of his position. Keep your finger on the board at all times, or forfeit the game.

  2. July 2, 2008 7:54 am

    There’s another board game called Fast Food Franchise. I don’t know if it’s currently in print, although it has had several editions. Playing for comparison to Monopoly is instructive, because both use highly similar roll-and-move mechanics. Differences include:

    * Random event cards that hit everyone at the table, and have lasting effects, forcing players to change their strategy mid-game.

    * The ability for players to affect the board. Some spaces start out blank, but can be filled with “advertising” which costs a player some money up front but forces everyone who lands on it to advance to your property.

    * The inside of the board (the space in the middle of the outer track) is not blank. It’s divided into a grid, and businesses grow inward from the outside of the board. In this way there’s a separate game being played out, where the businesses are playing this territory-control game in the middle of the board and the pawns are playing Monopoly on the outer ring.

  3. gmunster permalink
    July 2, 2008 2:12 pm

    I actually reeeally like Monopoly. Perhaps because I like to try to swindle my little sister out of prime real estate. I feel like there is a whole other layer to the game that some people don’t experience. And maybe its because the game falls short, but I know that there is a whole “making deals” and betrayals to it that my family and I add to it. I tend to be a big backstabber in games like that – haha.

    I like the idea of Fast Food Franchise, I may have to play with that. It certainly adds more to the game of Monopoly. I know in your class, my group made a board game that was based off monopoly, and I still think if we would’ve had better, more clear rules written out, it would have been a lot of fun. It was fun for us because we knew the rules, and the play testers loved it because we told them the rules. I mean, how could you go wrong with Monopoly and Dragons and Warriors!

  4. July 2, 2008 6:14 pm

    I always thought that there was only one choice in Monopoly. That is to buy, buy, buy! Buy everything worth buying! Though it is analogue to monopoly in real life, it makes the game boring.

    Perhaps if the players had less money, they would have to spend it more strategically. And if incomes/taxes were better balanced, the game would not protract for an eternity.

  5. July 3, 2008 5:10 pm

    I just wanted to contribute that the designer of “the Landlord’s Game”, Lizzie, was building an educational game, designed to teach the evils of real-world monopolies, back in 1904.… it’s my favorite example of the proud history of edutainment.

  6. July 7, 2008 4:20 pm

    The strategy to Monopoly is far too simple, and I stand by this even more than before. Buy Park Place and Boardwalk. That is what my friend did when we played a couple days ago, and despite the fact that for a good half hour nobody was landing on it, he used that time to put a Hotel on each. As soon as I landed on it, I was out of the game due to other rents due in the Orange and Red areas. Of course, my mortgaged properties in Yellow didn’t cover the expenses. So what was I left to buy shout out F* This Game

    I see Monopoly’s main problem as a problem of balance. For example, if you randomly win a beauty contest, you get $25. Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo, I owe this guy $2,000 for landing on Boardwalk. The strategy of what you’ve bought doesn’t do squat in the long run. The values of properties increase disproportionately to the rest of the game. You’d think that after building a hotel on Mediterranean Avenue that you could get more than the $200 a player has randomly earned for passing Go. There should be some benefit to owning the low-cost housing, otherwise you can pretty much win the game instantly.

  7. July 7, 2008 5:30 pm

    @Dan – Actually, buying PP and Boardwalk isn’t strategy. It’s luck. You better get lucky enough to land on them. The very limited strategy in Monopoly is how you will spend your money. Cautiously?

    Someone else mentioned earlier that the choice in Monopoly was about whether to buy or not. Or not. It’s not a choice. It is not a question of “which one of these good things do I want to do?” It’s a question of “do this one thing, or don’t.” Usually, it’s so phenomenally obvious which one you should do that it hardly warrants any energy to figure out.

  8. July 8, 2008 3:22 am

    Ok, I don’t think it is the greatest of games, but you can enjoy it still a lot with good company. An important part of the fun comes from Schadenfreude. It’s just so cool to see people going bankrupt. And it’s even cooler when you are the one who does it. And after all: who doesn’t like to get the bucks and count them in happiness? 😉

    I think Monopoly’s mechanisms just create what its name suggests: a monopoly. The mechanics are geared toward only letting one player standing on its feet at the end of the game. It happens quick rather than slow. The mechanics magnify gained advantages. Luck is an important factor, but still you have strategic choices of investment. It is also sort of a tile-matching game, because you get more out of your properties if you can get certain of them under your possession (like all train stations, or those with the same color. Then there is diplomacy included (bargaining for property). Strategic choices aren’t too trivial: should you go for more property or for more houses? Also in each new game dice&luck will change how the properties will be “populated” and you need to adjust to the emerging conditions as you try to follow your strategy.

    I think all these factors make it a versatile and enjoyable game. No violence in the “known” sense and typical middle-class goals and values make it a game for “children” and “family” too.

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