Friday, November 6, 2020

Free Parking

The other day, I was having a conversation about board games and the question arose, "Does anyone actually like playing Monopoly?" It's an engaging question, because, despite the widespread belief that Monopoly is a poorly designed and, more importantly, unenjoyable game, it's also, I believe, the best selling board game of all time. Ask almost anyone, even confirmed haters, if they have a copy of it and there's a very good chance that they do. And, with the proliferation of so many downright bizarre themed versions of the game, it's not at all unlikely that many people have multiple copies of the game. I think I own three copies myself, though, in my defense, all of them have been exiled to the garage, alongside old paint brushes and the bottle of coyote urine I use to keep raccoons out of my recycling bin.

Leaving aside the more specific question of why nearly everyone owns at least one copy of the game, I sometimes advance a theory about the broader question of why most people seem to hate it – two theories, actually. The first and perhaps less contentious theory is that Monopoly is no different than Candyland or Mouse Trap – to cite just two more terribly unenjoyable games – in that it was designed for children. Children's board games have different design goals than games geared at an adult audience. To expect that a childish entertainment should be able to hold the attention of adults is both absurd and unfair (and likely explains why so much of contemporary pop culture is awful, but that's a topic for another day). On this theory, most of the people who vociferously hate Monopoly are adults or older children, who are not the intended audience of the game.

My second theory is a bit more contentious and even I will admit that it's not without its flaws. I contend that the reason Monopoly is unfun is because almost no one plays it correctly. Most of us never bother to read the rules of the game, because "everybody knows" how to play it. You need only do a very quick search online to find many articles pointing out which aspects of the game's actual rules people either misunderstand or don't use at all. All these various house rules and folkloric interpretations contribute to making the game a tedious, tiresome slog that no one in his right mind would call entertaining. It's my feeling that, if the game were played as intended, it wouldn't be nearly so abhorrent. To be fair, I've never tested this theory – and, honestly, don't have much enthusiasm for doing so – so I could well be completely mistaken. However, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that, if game is widely played in ways that are contrary to its actual rules, one cannot then blame those rules for being terrible or poorly designed. That's not to say that Monopoly is, in fact, a good game, only that, to make that claim, would have to play the game as written and vanishingly few people do.

Naturally, all of the foregoing is a prelude to several issues near and dear to my heart, namely, the nexus of game design, house rules, and "everybody knows" interpretations of the rules as written. Squabbling about these matters is a time honored tradition of the hobby, one that's been going on since its inception (and, arguably, contributed to its birth in the first place). I don't see these squabbles as fruitless and in fact believe they're a good source of insight into both game design and what we, as individuals, want out of a game. 

They're also an entry into explorations of the "culture" that inevitably grows up around any communal human activity. Over the years, I've played RPGs with many people, some of whose early experiences are similar to my own and others whose experiences are not. For instance, some, like me, were inducted into the hobby by a mentor, while others taught themselves to play simply by reading a rulebook. That seemingly small difference has far-reaching consequences and I find those fascinating. Then there are regional differences in style and content, as well as temporal ones and probably many more besides, all of which explain why it is that gamers don't always understand one another, despite ostensibly playing the same games (I find myself reminded of the apocryphal Shaw quote about Americans and Englishmen being divided by a common language).

20 comments:

  1. I've heard the concept that playing by the rules makes Monopoly more palatable. We tried it and it did solve the chief problem with the game; that it goes on far too long. Playing rules-as-written does cut the play time down and it becomes a more reasonable way for three or four people to pass an hour or two together.

    The other thing that gave me a glimpse of what Monopoly could be was playing with my sister-in-law, who drove the negotiation aspect of the game more successfully than anyone I've ever played with. She would mortgage properties one turn, pull them out two turns later, broker deals, and generally re-focus the game away from mindless dice rolling and onto working the table. It was impressive.

    However this aspect only really comes into play in the mid-to-late game, once everyone has enough property to work with. I enjoyed seeing a level of play that I'd never seen before in Monopoly, but game design has evolved far beyond Monopoly and my own shelf holds several games that deliver those aspects in a far batter package.

    I consider myself lucky that my sister-in-law has no interest in playing Illuminati.

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    1. I play like your sister does and I thoroughly enjoy it. But once I started consistently winning I found I had trouble finding people to play with.

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  2. Jeffro posted about Monopoly by the rules a long time back:

    https://jeffro.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/your-first-task-deconstruct-monopoly/

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  3. "...some, like me, were inducted into the hobby by a mentor, while others taught themselves to play simply by reading a rulebook."

    I have never met anyone who got into RPGs by just finding and reading a rulebook. Every TTRPGer I've ever know was _Shown_ how to play by a mentor or a group. I'm not saying that this never happens or anything, clearly it has happened for some people, but I'm really curious as to how common or uncommon it is.

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    1. I suspect it is largely a generational divide. OD&D is (at best) vague without a mentor. But later editions are much more meticulously (some would say painfully) planned out. You can teach yourself and your friends one of those editions by reading the book. And the wide availability of pirated books online means you can read quite a lot for no cost.

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    2. I learned from a copy of the Moldvay Basic rules, without knowing anyone else who played the game.

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    3. I learned on my own from Mentzer, Moldvay and Dragon Magazine articles.

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    4. Learned on my own from the three LBBs, but I'm definitely from a different gamer generation in that. I do think it was a lot more common back in the day, but the mathematics of it means that learning from someone has to be more common. I introduced at least 15-20 people to it between my Middle School and High School groups.

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    5. My two best friends and I received a mix of Mentzer and Moldvay boxed sets for Christmas and figured it out on our own. We were all around 13 at the time and didn't know any older gamers.

      The intro to GMing in Mentzer and the opening section of Palace of the Silver Princess were invaluable to us for learning how to play and set us on the right track.

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    6. I first heard about D&D from someone a little older than me at school, but he was never a mentor. I was never invited to see, let alone play, in a session.

      If I had a mentor at all, it was the book "What is Dungeons and Dragons?", which I noticed in our local library, next to the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I learned the basics from that.

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  4. We put all taxes on the board. If you hit free parking you get it.

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  5. This argument comes back every couple of years, and the first times I heard it I was intrigued - what was the golden rules that everyone was missing?
    But from what I can tell the argument is mostly based on people assuming that because they forgot a rule so must everyone else, and now it strikes me as a rather wild claim that the millions of people who have played and been disappointed by Monopoly have all missed out on the same rules. And is seems especially wild to collectively forget the rule that creates fun. If we look at our hobby, it appears that
    a) there's a lot of people who are very keen on knowing the rules, and
    b) groups tend to modify rules to make them more appealing (to the group), not less.

    My counter-contention would therefore be that a lot of people actually follow the rules and many of those who don't would like the game _less_ if they did, rather than more.

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    1. The golden rule that everybody is missing is that if you land on an unclaimed property and don't buy it, it goes up for auction. I've talked with a lot of people about this very subject in various forums over the years, and that's always the one that they didn't know...and many didn't believe existed until I showed them in the rules. I have run into a couple people who *did* know that rule, but never encountered anybody at all who said they knew that rule but didn't use it because it was more fun to have properties acquired by pure luck. It's the single thing that transforms the game from Candyland to a game of strategy, as well a drastically cutting play-time. I don't know why it's that rule in particular, unless it's just that some Ur-players thought it wasn't worth trying to explain auctions to the six-year-olds they were trying to play with.

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  6. It seems like my take on Monopoly is a bit eccentric, because... I respectfully disagree with most of the opinions mentioned in this post!

    On the one hand, I find Monopoly adequately enjoyable, even without having ever played it by the rules-as-written. Specifically, I like the negotiation and trading, and the tactical considerations about what to build up and when. (And my preferred style of play is something best suited to older kids or adults rather than young children!) On the other hand, I have no interest in choosing it when so many *better* games are available, and from what I hear, the original version was a didactic exercise pointing out the abuses and excesses of robber-baron capitalism rather than an actual game-to-be-enjoyed.

    Let me note in passing that the reason so many people have, or have bought, Monopoly does not seem to be that they like it, or aspire to it (as may be the case with chessboards), but that it's a safe low-effort gift. The proliferation of novelty sets points to this: "Don't know what to get someone? Are they interested in X and also sometimes in the same room as a board game? Are you only willing to spend sixty seconds thinking about possible gifts? Grab an X-themed Monopoly set!"

    And to be honest, I feel like this blog's avowed disinterest in actually spending the time to playtest "RAW" Monopoly is proof that the game just isn't that fun. Shouldn't the thought of tinkering with a ruleset to see how it is best played be *exciting* rather than "meh"?

    I get that Monopoly appears in this post more as an excuse to talk about RPGs, than as Monopoly-to-be-discussed, but... why not lead with an RPG issue? By definition, readers of this blog will have already found a tabletop game that engages them more than the original slumlord simulator. ;p

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  7. For better or for worse, I was one of those who taught myself, and then taught others so I’d have people to play with. I got a copy of the Holmes box set with the dragon in a Hobbytown for $10, and read the hell out of it for about a year before I ever played it with a friend. Same with AD&D, although that was admittedly harder since it’s convoluted.

    I’m of James’s generation. While I’m sure there were older kids playing it, I didn’t know any at all. Whether I ran the games well or not, or whether I’d been better off with guidance...well that’s a different issue! Ha

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  8. Monopoly was not designed for children, it was designed by Quakers as an illustration of how private property results in, well, monopolies and ruin for the majority.

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  9. I'll also check in as an ur-player who learned from a rulebook and originated the culture of play in their area. In my case, it was a copy of Holmes, purchased at a local drugstore.

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  10. I wrote an article the other year for a pop culture site talking about Monopoly being peoples first experience doing Braunstein gaming. Wheeling and dealing outside the rules was roleplay. It’s what made it fun.

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  11. I think that it boils down to two issues, one of which you identify and the other alluded to by Nagora. It's absolutely true that nearly nobody plays Monopoly RAW, and that if you apply the actual rules about auctioning off unpurchased properties, Free Parking doing nothing at all, housing shortages, etc., the game goes much faster.

    But I think there's also the matter of Monopoly intentionally being not fun on purpose. Nagora is partly right but mixes two things: the game was invented by a Georgist named Elizabeth Magie to demonstrate that private land ownership and the collection of rents by individuals is pernicious and unstable, and was subsequently adopted by Quakers who dropped the pedagogical side of the game and turned it into a financial slugfest where you passively-aggressively try to financially ruin your friends and family for fun.

    The thing about that pedagogical element (leaving aside the fact that pedagogical "learning games" are hardly ever fun*): what kids are supposed to learn at the end of a game of Monopoly is that this really sucked and the only person who enjoyed what just happened is the kid who managed to hoover up all the available real estate and chisel their friends whenever they landed on a space. You're not supposed to play The Landlord's Game (Monopoly's direct ancestor) and walk away saying, "Boy howdy, unrestrained capitalism, land-grabbing, and the monopolization of real estate is awesome." You're supposed to leave the table thinking land should be held as commons and passively collecting money from other people just because you own it and they work it or live there is fundamentally unfair, inequitable, and unsustainable.

    In short (too late!) I think it's a bad game on purpose. Which somehow didn't come across when it became a popular pastime among a religious sect who are noted for spending most of their time trying to be nice to everybody.



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    *There's occasional exceptions. E.g. I had a friend who back in the late '80s owned a '70s boardgame intended to teach little kids about natural selection that turned out to be a really fun wargame on its own terms when played by high school students between D&D sessions.

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  12. Monopoly really is a negotiation game. If you miss that, and simply move around the board and wait to see what happens, then of course it's not fun.

    Another aspect is that the flow of money is a crucial resource to control. The Free Parking rule is one of the main reasons the game never ends - money keeps being injected into the game, so of course it never ends ...

    Another rule that many ppl play wrong is that you have to build 4 houses before building a hotel. You cannot upgrade to a hotel from 0, 1, 2 or 3 houses. Keeping 4 houses on property (and possibly locking up 12 houses on one coloured series) is a known tactic of the game.

    But anyway, no matter how much I loved Monopoly as a kid, it has been over 30 years since I played a game ...

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