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.


  1. We had many years of fun playing Monopoly as a family growing up, and it was absolutely seminal in my development as a game player and as a game designer. But yes: the flaws in it are very glaring these days. Fortunately, there are some good alternatives out there that offer some of the elements of Monopoly that ARE enjoyable, without the problem of the other, clunky or imbalanced mechanics. A favorite of ours is Chinatown, which gives you the negotiation/trading aspect, and the goal of making money, but it isn't burdened by excessive length, randomness, or brutality.

    Someday (maybe) I'll finish my Monopoly "redux" I've worked on periodically for years. Until then, you may be interested in a related article I wrote awhile back regarding the cultural phenomenon that is Monopoly:


    1. Thanks for the comment. I have not yet tried Chinatown, but I have heard good things about it scratching a similar itch to Monopoly in a more modern/smooth way; I think Lords of Vegas seems to hit a similar vibe from what I have heard, though again, I haven't tried it. Interestingly the card game Monopoly Deal does a decent job of bringing some of the better aspects of the original game to a lighter and quicker game, and I can enjoy playing that.

      I enjoyed reading your post. You've thought about this a lot more than I have, and the roleplay aspect is an interesting one: if you just want to roleplay for a while and not actually find a winner, the game is great.

      I was also amused by the reference to Dixon's comments on house rules. I should modify the pitches for my games to add that players are free to create house rules to suit their play style, so any imperfections in the base game are irrelevant. That should work, right? :)