Good Morning Everyone!
Welcome to Morning Table Talk where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.
This week let us dive into a game that is an American classic and has been highly criticized: Monopoly.
Monopoly is a popular game that millions of families have played throughout decades and has received a fair amount of criticism from the Table Top Community as an example of a unbalanced, long, and often divisive game to play. Before we pass judgement on Monopoly, however, let us look into it’s historical background and the reasons behind its popularity.
Starting with the history, Monopoly is a game where players are prospective land Barons (or Baronesses) moving around a board buying up and developing real estate to try to run the other players out of business. Monopoly was originally one of two rule sets for a game called The Landlord's Game developed by Lizzie J. Maggie in 1902 (see citations). The rules were either anti or pro monopoly, long story short the pro-monopoly version became the hit it is today. This is where I think people first take issue with Monopoly, they are not looking at the full game or the intent of the half that became popular. In the original rules Maggie's intent was to show that monopolies were dangerous and that having healthy competition was optimal for an economy (which she did in the second set of rules). If the intent of the game was to show that monopolies were dangerous then don’t the mechanics help enforce that metaphor? Take for instance the fact that the currency is also the scoring mechanism with a completely free market in Monopoly the person with the most money has the most choices of actions they can take. This seems like poor design on a first glance (and for many cases it is) but if you think about it with Maggie's intent of in mind then it becomes a lesson to help enforce the metaphor. How many times in playing did you think it was unfair that the person with the most money could afford to pay rent, upgrade their properties, and offer a trade while you had to had to auction the properties you landed on since you cannot afford to buy them? In short, the way I see a lot of the design is that it is not complete, it wasn’t meant to be the more popular set of rules the anti-monopoly set was.
But why is Monopoly so popular despite its design? Personally I believe Monopoly is popular because it plays into a fantasy and it's relatively simple to teach and play. First the idea of pretending to have a lot of money and having a lot of properties is appealing, it is different from the average life someone may lead of working a day job or attending school, it is the potential of going from rags to riches. Second, the basic game-play is simple: roll dice, move that number of spaces, and do an action depending on what space you land on. As a friend of mine who doesn't play Table Top games regularly pointed out: "All you need to play Monopoly is basic math and reading capabilities." This low bar to entry makes it (appear) to be an ideal family game if you haven't had played a lot of other games (or don't want to invest a lot of money).
If anything the fact that Monopoly has been as massive of success as it is, indicates a few things to me as a designer. What I take away from this is that Monopoly has its success because of its theme playing into a player’s fantasy, the Mechanics enforce that theme, and the ease of learning to play the game.
This doesn't mean there aren't issues with Monopoly, there are plenty. To enumerate all of these issues would be another discussion, but a few of them include: the overall length of the game (setup/cleanup), some very ambiguous wording in the rules (not that writing rules is simple), some spaces that have higher intrinsically higher value than others (I'm looking at those Orange Properties), and the rules around of Jail.
All of this is just food for thought so take some time, sip some of your morning beverage, and have a great day!
2.Pilon, Mary (February 13, 2015). "Monopoly's Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn't Pass 'Go'". New York Times. February 11, 2017.
3. A U.S. patent was granted in 1904 but in the autumn of 1902 an article describing the game was published in The Single Tax Review. See http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html