Monopoly… Is it really that bad?

Pretty much everyone has, at sometime in his or her life, played a game of Monopoly. The majority of gamers look down upon it, regarding it as a mediocre game at best, despite it being one of the top selling games of all time! Is it really that bad? Or is it undeserved of their lowly opinion?

You’ll often hear ‘real gamers’ scorn the very mention of Monopoly. They see it as a game for children, and for the uninitiated who are yet to discover their first gateway game.

‘It is a game of pure luck’, some will say.

‘Just a roll and move’, cry others.

‘No depth, or real game mechanics’, the Euro player calls, and the Ameritrash player will cite ‘Thematics’ as its downfall.

In their own way, they’re all right. But, every game has its place, and Monopoly has its place on my shelf!

Monopoly Stock Exchange Box Art
One of my favourites to play.

First though, lets take a brief look at the history of Monopoly.

The Landlord’s game, as it was originally known in its earliest form, was designed by Elizabeth Magie, and first existed around 1902. In a political magazine of the time, she is quoted as saying, “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences”. In essence, it was similar to the game we know today. There were properties to be bought and sold, taxes to pay, the jail was in one corner, but, mirroring the society of the time, there was a Poor House in another!

In January 1904, she patented the game, and later published a version through the Economic Game Company. She also re-patented the game in a revised version in 1924.

Roll forward to the early 1930’s, Charles Darrow had been playing a game involving real estate; it didn’t have an official name, and when he asked for a written copy of the rules, was surprised to be told there were none. The game was in essence, the Landlord’s Game, but Darrow wrote up the rules, called it Monopoly, and started producing the game himself. Parker Brothers, who had earlier turned down both Magie’s Landlord’s Game and Darrow himself, heard of its success and bought it from Darrow – and the rest they say, is history… Or is it?

Darrow, after the game became a major success, made millions. More than one journalist at the time was sceptical; how had this, down on his luck, unemployed man, managed to produce such a game out of thin air?

Magie was paid, reportedly around $500, for the patent by Parker Brothers, believing that she would receive credit for the game. When she realised this wasn’t to be the case she went to the papers, even producing a copy of the Landlord’s game and holding it next to the new Monopoly, the similarities were there for all to see. It did no good, and when she died in 1948, she had never been credited with the games invention.

Then in 1973, Ralph Anspach was taken to court over the release of his game, Anti-Monopoly. It was all about the intellectual rights for the game, but Anspach had an ace up his sleeve. During his research in preparation for the case, he came across the story of Elizabeth Magie, and how she had claimed to be the games inventor. After much thrashing about in the legal world, Anspach was successful, and along with his success, the story of Magie was placed in the history books.

Nowadays Monopoly exists in numerous incantations; Different Town versions, Star Wars, The Simpsons, Olympic versions, you name it. There’s a Monopoly for everything – my daughter even has Beagle-opoly!

Beagle-opoly Box art
What next?

But one version above all is worth mentioning, and is one you’ll probably never, ever see. These were the special edition versions of the game, made by Waddingtons, and sent to prisoners of war during World War II. Sent under the pretext that they were to relieve boredom, the games included escape kits – The compasses and files were disguised as playing pieces, real French and German money was hidden in amongst the Monopoly money, and a map was printed on the reverse side of the linen, which covered the board.  Prisoners of War were encouraged to destroy the games to prevent the Germans realising how things were being smuggled in, hence you’ll be hard pushed to ever see one.

So, does all this history make Monopoly a good game? Well, no, not really!

You see, Monopoly, at heart, is just a roll and move game; you roll the dice, you land on a space, you do what it says, simple! It has a long game time, it’s very repetitive, and yes, in its original form is quite dull to look at.

So, am I saying any different?

Well, actually I am. My question to you would be ‘have you actually ever played it by the rules’?

‘No’, I though not. You see, in my experience, everybody nowadays, who plays Monopoly for the first time, gets taught to play by someone else, and inevitably, they never play by the rules either!

There are two main house-rules that people usually employ.

Now, I don’t know if this is something just the British do, but I have played a lot of Monopoly, with many different people, and they all play it this way!

Firstly, all fines are placed in the centre of the board, and the person who next lands on free parking, takes the lot.

Secondly, when someone lands on a property, they either buy it, or they don’t. Play then moves to the next player. There are a lot of people out there who actually think that this is how the game is played!

So, what difference does this make to the game? Well, the first point means that someone has funds they shouldn’t have. This causes an imbalance to the game and can contribute to the games increased length.

How does it do this? It either gives one player even greater wealth, enabling him to purchase more property or construct buildings. It can also increase his bargaining power over others. Or, it can cause a person that is on the brink of bankruptcy, to stay in the game. So, the former causes a game imbalance, and the latter also lengthens the game.

Now let’s take a look at the second point. According to the rules, ‘when landing on an un-owned property, a player has the option to purchase that property… If a player chooses not to buy the property, any player may bid any price to buy the property. The highest bidder receives the deed for the property’.

By taking this rule, and totally ignoring it, the only strategic piece of the game play has therefore just gone in the bin! You see, if you land on a property knowing that if you don’t buy it someone else will, possibly for a much reduced price, then you have to put some though in to what you’re going to do next.

For example: I land on Fleet Street, which costs £220. I don’t have any of the other cards in the set, but Peter, one of the three other players, has The Strand. Trafalgar Square is still up for sale. I could pay the money, but is it worth it. Can I persuade Peter to buy it from me and make a profit? Or perhaps try to make a deal for The Strand? Either way, because Trafalgar is still un-owned by either of us, then it’s a risk. Maybe I should let it go to bidding; Peter hasn’t a great deal of cash, but Sarah has, she may force the bid up. I doubt Tom will bother, he already owns quite bit of property, and is down to his last £50.

So, I let it go to the bid. Sarah pushed Peter to £300, and then Tom pounced with £310! Peter let Tom take the bid, thinking he would have to mortgage some of his properties to pay the bank. Unfortunately for Peter, Tom pulled a £500 note from under his edge of the board!

Playing this way has a marked effect on how the game plays; after all, it’s how it was designed! Firstly, because every property that is landed on is sold, the game moves at a good pace, lasting a fraction of the house-ruled game time. Secondly, it introduces a little bit of strategy and, dare I say it, skill! Trying to second-guess what others will do when bidding, is a major part of many modern auction games, and can add a lot of fun to the experience.

In conclusion, what I’m saying is, it’s not as bad a game as some make out. It really is a classic game; when it was originally designed in the early 1900’s, it was ground-breaking. Yes, it has become over published, with more variants than you can shake a stick at, and its lost original charm. But it can still lead to a good few hours of family time, even if you don’t play by the rules.

Monopoly Empire Box Art
Empire has different gameplay.

And the greatest thing about Monopoly? It has been responsible for introducing millions of people to board games. It is a game that parents introduce to their young children, mainly because they had it when they were kids; with all its versions there is bound to be one that will grab the interest of any child, and it may lead them to play other games. So, for this reason alone, maybe Monopoly is the greatest game…Ever!

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