Four Houses on Trafalgar Square

I have, for many years, been quite forthright in my dislike of the classic board game Monopoly.  I am also aware that this is a majority view within the hobby games community, so my view is not exactly shaking the foundations of the establishment.  Another view I have often expressed is that I would far rather play a bad game in good company than vice versa.  So this weekend when I was at a games evening at the local civic hall and I was sitting with a group who fancied playing Monopoly, I figured I should hold myself to my own standards and play the game and try to enjoy it.
Image by William Warmy yoinked from flickr.

The last time I had played Monopoly must be something close to 20 years ago, and I have a feeling that the game was played in the Welsh language (which none of those around the table knew more than a small amount of) and involved quite a lot of alcohol.  Memories of that particular play are somewhat hazy.  Having now tried the game again, I feel I can, and should, think about what does and does not work for it.

Many criticisms of Monopoly centre on its "roll and move mechanic": you simply roll the dice and move accordingly.  I think that this is indeed a weakness, but it isn't as bad as I had remembered.  Sure, you are at the whim of the dice and have no control over where you end up (the only decision you make regarding movement is whether or not to buy your way out of Jail), but the focus of the game is not really movement around the board: this is effectively just a random event generator.

Thinking a little deeper about the dice rolling, it becomes clear that the interest actually comes when you are considering on which properties to build houses, as if you have a limited budget for development, you look at where your opponents are most likely to land on their next turn.  If you can put a house on a space that is seven away from another player, that would be a strong place to build.

That said, you cannot underestimate the level of frustration when you, for the second time in a row, land on Income Tax and have to pay back the £200 you have just collected for passing Go.

The other sources of randomness are the Chance and Community Chest cards.  These just tend to compound the chaos from the dice, and effectively mean that six squares have many different personalities that may help or hinder you on the whim of the fickle finger of fate.

As an aside, there is another old game (the Game of Nations, first published in the 1970's) that I played quite a bit as a teenager, which has no random elements other than a deck of event cards which you can easily avoid all game should you wish.  I was never entirely sure about these cards, but they were an interesting twist in that they only really made sense to use if you were doing poorly, as they gave you a chance to get some bonuses, at the risk of maybe having something nasty happen to you.  They were justified because they were an opportunity for losing players to have one last chance to keep in the game, while very rarely overturning skillful play.  Just saying.

Back to Monopoly, and we're at the point where I have to say that the real core of the game is pretty good.  Buying and collecting sets of properties, having the freedom to cut deals and trade with other players, and increasing the value of properties by building houses, all works well and is a compelling focus for a game.  And the oft-overlooked rule that if a player declines to buy a property then that property is sold to the highest bidder ensures that the pace of the game ramps up quickly and it is not long before most, if not all, of the properties have been purchased.


When it comes down to it, there is only really one strategy: buy whenever you can, and mortgage if you need to as it is better to own a heap of mortgaged properties than for those properties to belong to other players.  That's about it other than to ensure you get a monopoly on a set of properties as quickly as you can, then start building houses.  All else is just minor detail, like many houses is generally better than hotels as it prevents your opponents from accessing the limited pool of buildings.

So there aren't multiple paths to victory, just that one.  And this is not my biggest problem with the game.  The game is long, and can continue for ages after a winner is obvious (our group called an end when a couple of players needed to go home and I got to the point where I was all but unstoppable), and a player can be knocked out way before it finishes, and all that is seriously problematic, but again this is not what rubs me up the wrong way the most.

My biggest problem with Monopoly is that, if you want to win (and you do, right?), you need to ruthlessly bully the weakest player.  You need to force another player into a position where they are forced to give you all their properties.  It's not just about bullying, it is often about looking magnanimous while you do it, but basically you have to be mean to succeed.  In our game, other than myself there was one guy who was playing assertively, plus a couple of women who were a bit less certain.  The other guy hussled one of the women into making a trade against her interests, and she soon ended up having to mortgage most of the rest of her properties to pay him rent, leaving her nothing but hope.  Soon she landed on one of my heavily developed properties and I kindly agreed to take all her mortgaged properties in lieu of rent, leaving me controlling 2/3 of the board and having a huge stack of cash; game effectively over, thanks to my rival getting too greedy and me being able to pick over the bones.

I have nothing against games where play is ruthless and competitive, but this is a game where you need to bully and manipulate the weakest.  Either that or the game goes on for many hours as you all slowly chug along accumulating stuff -- particularly if you are using that terrible Free Parking house rule.  If you are playing in an environment where everyone is equally aggressive in play style and have the same desire to win, that is not necessarily a problem, but in a social gaming setting this seems like the very opposite of fun.  Even as the de facto winner of the game I gained no pleasure from it, knowing that my choices were either to grind the weak into the dust, effectively concede to the other competitive player, or allow the game to run inconclusively into the middle of next week.  I felt like a total shit for taking the opportunities I did, but I felt like the alternatives were no better.

I think that in future, if a similar situation occurs, I will just have to try a load harder to offer alternatives in the form of different games to play.  Maybe it's just me being selfish, but I don't want that sort of experience again.  Mind you, the experience has given me a nice little learning opportunity, so it's not all bad.


My name is Rob and I love playtesting

So here is something new to the blog, though I have been sitting on it since May.  I took another trip to London on Sunday for a Playtest UK meetup (no problems with trains this time, and the bits of the underground I used were running fine) and took along a little game that I call "My Name Is...".  This is something that has only been played once before, during an evening at UK Games Expo, and showed some promise there, but I just haven't really got round to doing more work on.  But this weekend I fancied trying something fresh at the meetup.

The idea is based on the sort of icebreaking activity that you might have come across on training courses, large meetings, theatre workshops, or any number of other places, where everyone is meant to introduce themselves along with a little tidbit of information. Then conversation occurs where everyone is meant to remember the names and information they have been given.

My name is Rob and I design board and card games as a hobby.
Cards for this game happen to be the simplest I've made yet.

In order to turn this into a game I made a deck of cards with a number of subjects, like dogs, cats, movies, and vegetables.  Then each card had one of these subjects along with an attitude, "love" or "hate".  Game play is then to pull a card, introduce yourself by name, and state your opinion as defined by this card.  The card gets added to a growing stack in front of you, and play passes to the left.

What actually makes this a challenge is that you need to state when you have an opinion on a subject that another player has already declared on: "My name is Ermintrude and I love comics, unlike my friend Zebedee, who hates them."  You can challenge other players if you think they have missed something or made a mistake, and if you mess up you take an "oops!" token, the aim being to have the fewest tokens at the end of the game.

Oh, and to mess with heads a little more, there are "I've changed my mind" cards, which reverse the opinion on all the other cards in your stack.  Hilarity ensues.

There are a few more details, but not much, and the couple of test games I have now done resulted in much laughter as well as very furrowed brows, which is all pretty much what I was hoping for.  The group of other fellow designers at the meetup, however, after giving me a general thumbs up, were kind enough to keep me engaged for a good little while with great observations and suggestions.

One of the key points was a suggestion that, from a psychological (and marketing) point of view, it might be better to find a way to have players requiring high scores to win the game rather than low.  Plenty of good games award victory to the player with the lowest score, but it still seems more natural to aim to get more.  We discussed assorted ways of doing this, but as is often the case, it required sleeping on the matter to come up with a plan that I liked.  In the game as it has been so far, a penalised player discards her stack of cards, thus simplifying the game state a bit.  Well, I thought, how about if the discarded cards were given to another player to add to their score pile?  This has the attraction of reducing the components required for the game, as counters would no longer be needed.  However, I need to figure out if the score gained in this way is one point per pile of cards, or one point per card; at least in this case I can run playtests, record both scores, and see which seems to work the best.

Another very interesting thought was that some of the subjects on the cards go in pairs which occasionally get confused.  So Ermintrude declares an opinion on dogs, and remembers that Zebedee likes some sort of mammal, but can't remember whether it was dogs or cats.  I was encouraged to have more pairs like this.

A theme of discussion throughout the afternoon was varying levels of difficulty of play, and this thread came up in most of the groups I was involved in.  For my game, it was observed that if the "I've changed my mind" cards were taken out, the game should be a lot easier, so possibly more friendly to families, beginners, or drunk people.  It's always nice to have simple options like this.

Other games tested during the day were a few different variants on a colour-based card deck, a game of mining gems from asteroids, and a competitive deduction game of hunting for an alien.  All very enjoyable, and I missed out on some great looking other games as well.


A game on the table is worth two (hundred?) in the mind

Over the last couple of years I have increasingly been giving advice to game designers who are even newer to the craft than I am that they should stop thinking about and planning their first game and make a minimally functional prototype that allows them to try out some small part of the game which can then be built on.  It is probably the biggest lesson that I have learnt and it has stood me in good stead.  But I still get caught in the trap myself.

Take the "TheoDemocracy" game I posted about a couple of times in May.  You might remember that this is intended to be a cooperative game with the feature that players are forced into attacking each other by external forces. I was spouting all sorts of ideas and trying to refine them and make a plan on how to build a worthwhile prototype.  I even started work on cards and player boards, but was struggling a bit of getting the full picture together.  Then I had to turn my attention to preparations for, and the aftermath of, UK Games Expo, and I have only just managed to get the brain cells back in line to work on this particular project.

WHAT WAS I THINKING?!  I was going against all the good practice I have learnt, and spent more effort planning and talking than actually doing.  To be clear, planning and talking is also really useful, but not as much as actually making a physical thing that can be played with.  Time to correct that mistake.

So I stripped most of the ideas away and pulled out my trusty piles of filing cards, flashcards, and random tokens and counters, and got to work.
Not much to look at, but that's not the point.

Within minutes I had three player boards, greatly simplified from previous plans, and a pile of 10 cards with simple objectives on them like "control 3 provinces" and "build a temple".  I had given up (for now) on the whole multi-purpose cards idea, and was simply turning up an objective for each player on each turn and seeing if they can fulfill the requirement; if a player fails, they gain an "unrest" token.  I basically made the rest up as I went along.

And, hurrah! This all basically worked for a dull and unchallenging game.  I am actually extremely happy with how that went for the couple of rounds I played solo.  What I can now do is add a few more objectives, add necessary economy/building/military rules to support these, and figure out a way to give a little more control to the players.  One idea for that latter requirement might be to deal everyone a hand of cards and you each get to choose one or more cards to send to each of the other players and yourself, and possibly discard a card or two that will come back later in the game; then everyone gets to deal with the cards that they have acquired in this way.  Just a thought.

So that is where I am now: the basics of an engine, with a few features that mostly work, and actually something that I can start building on.  Let the iteration commence.