Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What doesn't work - Monopoly as a case study

I've been reading a lot lately about what makes a game a hit.  While contemplating the factors of success in game design, the mathematician in me immediately wants to consider the counter-example:  What makes a game a disappointment?

Image courtesy of Hasbro
 One game that virtually never gets played in my house any more is Monopoly (designer Charles Darrow *, publisher Hasbro).  The over-riding reasons that Monopoly draws an inevitable veto in my house are that "it takes too long" and "it's just not fun."  These valid criticisms beg obvious follow-on questions:  What exactly is it about Monopoly's design that makes it take too long?  And what makes it "not fun" (at least to some)?  Perhaps investigating these questions can help sharpen the definition of what makes a game a disappointment, and therefore help to delineate the limits of a successful design.

[Now, we have to keep in mind that Monopoly is the best-selling boardgame of all time, a consideration that I will entertain in another post.]

What makes Monopoly take too long?  The game-ending condition is, frankly, merciless:  The game ends when all players but one have run out of money.  This characteristic brings to mind the original Risk, also lengthy because it demands conquest of the entire map to end the game.  In the case of Monopoly, there are other factors that serve to perpetuate the game as well.  The number of developed monopolies that players build will drive the pace of the game.  If there are too few monopolies, people end up moving around the board paying small amounts of rent and collecting $200 at every "Go."  In that case, the total amount of money in play can gradually increase for everybody, and nobody approaches bankruptcy.  By contrast, several high-rent monopolies on the board will drive people to bankruptcy quickly; so once players start building houses and hotels in earnest, sooner or later, somebody is going to go under.

Why isn't Monopoly fun (for some people)?  First, I have hinted several times that I am not fond of player-elimination games.  If the intent of playing a game is to have fun as a group, then excluding people one by one from the game leaves some individuals out of the action while others continue to play.  That works fine in a serious competition or tournament, but not for a social event.  We have a house rule - when I can con my family into playing Monopoly at all - that once the first player goes bankrupt, the game is over, and the person with the most money (cash+property) wins.  With this house rule in force, when the game is over for one person, it's over for everybody - which addresses both the game length and the player-elimination problems.

My father-in-law pointed out a second aspect of Monopoly that he doesn't like that can be summarized as "the runaway leader problem."  If one person is lucky enough to acquire and develop a monopoly long before anyone else, he can develop a commanding lead, to the point that no one can do any serious damage to him, and everyone else will be unable to develop their own monopolies or go bankrupt trying to do so.  The game becomes an exercise in inevitability - watching one real estate empire swallow up all the little guys.

A third reason that Monopoly can fail to be fun is that it often devolves into a long series of roll-and-move with no serious decision-making.  In the early game, players roll and move to acquire property with no real thought required.  In the mid-game, as players assemble monopolies, they face decisions regarding how many houses to build vs. how much cash to keep in reserve. But once everybody's property is fully developed, the game boils down to one of dice luck - I win if you land on my hotels before I land on yours. If most of the game is dice luck, it becomes a laborious version of Chutes and Ladders.

But I think there's more to the game than that.  I've come to realize that Monopoly is a game of property valuation.  Once players decide that obtaining a monopoly - and especially, being the first player to obtain a monopoly - is the key to winning, then trading becomes very important.  And therein lies the crux of the game.  If I offer you Boardwalk and you already have Park Place, what do I demand in return?  What should I be willing to give up for Mediterranean Avenue if I have Baltic Avenue?  Should I take my opponent's cash reserve into account if the deal gives him or her a monopoly on which to build houses?

Once these deals are made, then the real estate landscape is in place, and your rent-collection profile is a product of the way you valued the property you took vs. the property you gave up.  But again, at that point, once all the deals are done and everybody has reached an equilibrium point, we're back to dice luck.  Who lands on whose property first?

Settlers of Catan, the quick, fun
barter-economy game
That got me thinking about Settlers of Catan, a barter-economy development game that is eminently enjoyable and is certainly not a game that takes too long.  That game ends when one player has built up to a certain number of points.  Is there a way to translate that concept to Monopoly, so that I can declare a winner just based on who reaches a certain "tipping point" in development first?

Let's consider what that "tipping point" might look like:  If a player owned all the property on the board, the highest revenue configuration of 12 hotels and 32 houses would be hotels on the dark blue, green, yellow, and red monopolies and New York Avenue, and four houses each on Tennessee Avenue, St. James Avenue, the violet monopoly, and the light blue monopoly.  In that configuration, the total rent for all property on the board would be $20,802.  It might be reasonable to expect that if one player achieves half that revenue potential, then the game is close to a foregone conclusion. 

So perhaps a new game-ending victory condition would be if any player achieves a total rent of $10,400 across all owned property.  I haven't playtested this idea, but it might serve to make the end-game a little more merciful. 

What started this essay as a consideration of perceived design flaws led to an idea to tweak a time-tested popular game.  The fact that Hasbro managed to make fundamental improvements to Risk (discussed in a previous post) suggests that even the best-selling games might bear changes to fix the most compelling complaints.

*Although Hasbro lists Charles Darrow as the sole designer, there is significant research to suggest that Darrow based his submission to Parker Brothers on designs by several other people of a number of similar games, most notably The Landlord's Game by Elizabeth Magie Phillips.


  1. Great analysis, Paul! I can only imagine that Monopoly got so popular in its time because there wasn't a lot of competition for people's leisure time.

  2. That is a really valid point, Kathy. Perhaps in a future post I'll do a survey of games listed on boardgamegeek that were in print at the time that Monopoly really began to take off for Parker Brothers. (Perhaps Parker Brothers was the first "player" in the "boardgame business game" to achieve the market equivalent of a "monopoly" and accomplish that "runaway leader" condition that no one else could match ... that is, until Hasbro bought them out.)

  3. Paul,
    Yes, I think that you have summarized why I don't play "Monopoly" anymore. I wonder when "Paul-who-shall-not-be-named" stopped playing the game.

  4. Interesting analysis, Paul. I think some of the versions of Monopoly for younger players address these shortfalls.

    Your "tipping point" might be hard to calculate as the game is being played. In fact, that's another minor annoyance in Monopoly, the Income Tax option of 10% is tedious to calculate.

  5. For those who do not know, "Paul-who-shall-not-be-named" is a good friend and gaming buddy who prefers his games realistic, with no floral whiff of Eurogaminess to distract from modeling real-world decision-making. It was he with whom I played Stonewall Jackson's Way as described in a couple of earlier posts.

    Pete, yes, come to think of it, when my children were younger, we picked up Monopoly: Diggin' Dinos, which simplified and shortened the game nicely for children. But the real estate trading and valuation aspect of the game was lost in that case, of course.

    As for difficulty in calculation, you raise a point that Dr. Lewis Pulsipher made in a blog post not too long ago - that a game designer should avoid making the players do arithmetic. So if I were to work on this idea of a "tipping point" in earnest to make it practical, perhaps I would give properties, houses, and hotels a certain point value - or identify an easily identified condition, like having five monopolies - such that it is much easier to determine when the "tipping point" has been reached and the game can be considered over.

    Thanks for commenting1

  6. "A third reason that Monopoly can fail to be fun is that it often devolves into a long series of roll-and-move with no serious decision-making. In the early game, players roll and move to acquire property with no real thought required."


    And I've discovered an advantage to being two years behind on commenting on a blog -- opportunity to read all the comments at the same time.
    Answer: about age 8? Certainly before my first Avalon Hill game age 10.

  7. Wow, you started AH rather young, too. I think I was 12 when I first bought Midway.