By Adam Thomas
Last week, I watched this video (from PBS’s Game/Show) about Monopoly, a game I have loathed for about 15 years. Until I started playing Euro games in my twenties, I couldn’t quite voice the reasons for my disdain, but I sure as heck didn’t want to play Monopoly. But Game/Show’s video made me curious, so I asked my wife Leah if she’d play an experimental game with me – for science! The question at hand: Is Monopoly as bad as I’ve always thought, or was I just playing it wrong all those years ago.
Turns out – after our highly scientific process of playing it once – that both are true. And yet (and I am the last person I ever thought would say this) I actually had fun. So, how did I have fun playing my least favorite board game? I’m glad you asked.
Before I get to the actual reasons, here’s a spoiler. We finished a four-player game of Monopoly in under 2.5 hours. I’m sure that increased my happiness. Okay, here are the other reasons.
First, our twins were asleep in their snug little beds, which means Leah and I had some together time. That doesn’t have anything to do with Monopoly, but it’s important to my fun quotient. Interacting across a table playing a game is so much more fun than just watching TV.
Second, we played the Star Wars Limited Collector’s Edition of the game that I got at Toys-R-Us in 1997. I know the year I purchased the game because the receipt was in the box (plus it was the 20th anniversary of A New Hope). It cost $29.99, and I bought it on March 16th from a cashier named Vee. (I was 14 at the time for those of you keeping score.)
Playing the Star Wars version was way more fun than normal Monopoly because I care a lot more about Hoth and Tatooine than I do about Atlantic City. Leah and I each played two characters. She controlled Chewie and R2-D2 and I steered Boba Fett and Darth Vader. The die-cast tokens in this collector’s edition are super nice. Leah kept commenting how cute R2-D2 was.
Third, we played with no house rules. Free Parking was just Free Parking. Money that went to the bank stayed in the bank. It did not go in the center to be collected by the lucky player who rolled a ten after just visiting jail. Thus, money was sucked out of the economy, rather than being pumped back in over and over again. This led to a scarcity of resources and allowed the game to move towards its natural, if excruciating, conclusion.
Fourth, the four Star Wars characters we were controlling actually sold each other properties, thus allowing monopolies to occur. If players do not get all the properties of particular color groups and then start improving them, the game WILL go on indefinitely. The base rents are simply not high enough to bankrupt everyone. If you want the game to take a sane amount of time, be prepared to negotiate. (But don’t do what Darth Vader did and sell a railroad to R2-D2. That was stupid. Never sell railroads.)
Fifth, Leah and I bought every single property our characters landed on. We spent our money aggressively for the first large chunk of the game, and it was only when rents started rising that we tried to hold some cash on hand. I think players are often reticent to spend their money early. This also leads to incredibly long games.
(Side note: I read the rules, and I had no idea that if a player lands on a property and declines to purchase it, it goes up for auction. How come that never came up when I was a kid?)
Sixth, and this is the absolute most important reason the game only took 2.5 hours: We didn’t use the paper money. We set up an Excel spreadsheet to track credits and debits, and I guarantee you that saved us a good two hours of counting and passing bills.
(I was at Target yesterday and I saw that you can buy an electronic version of Monopoly, in which you swipe a plastic card to make transactions. This is unnecessary if you even have a basic understanding of spreadsheet software.)
So what happened? R2-D2 (Leah) won after bankrupting both Chewie (Leah) and Boba Fett (Adam). Darth Vader (Adam) managed to move around the board three or four times with lucky rolls, avoiding a heavily improved Endor (green spaces), but the inevitable happened, and our favorite Sith Lord landed on the most expensive green space and could not afford the $1,200 rent. Turns out that hotels on Hoth just weren’t going to bring in enough capital to compete with the little astromech droid’s real estate empire.
As I said earlier, the biggest mistake was Darth Vader selling a railroad to R2-D2, who already had two of them, and then managed to land on the fourth to collect the set. In the early to mid-game, the rent on a full collection of railroads is exorbitant, so R2 stayed fairly flush throughout the game and was able to muscle out the less fortunate Chewie and Boba Fett.
In the end, I had fun (mostly because of the Star Wars flavor and the hanging out with my wife), but I don’t think I’ll be playing Monopoly again for a long while. I have scratched that particular itch for now.
As we were brushing our teeth after the game, Leah asked me what I would change about Monopoly to make it a better game. I thought for a moment: I don’t like games that include players getting knocked out, so that would have to go; I don’t like rolling dice and moving around a board because it feels both too random and too fatalistic; and I don’t like the avaricious emotions that Monopoly instills, even if in game form. The trouble is that you can’t fix these things about Monopoly because all three are central to the game’s identity. So that’s how I answered Leah’s question.
How would I fix Monopoly? By putting it back on the shelf and playing Power Grid instead.