I have a rule against tearing down other people’s creations in public. I appreciate the hard work that any creator puts into their work, and I prefer to encourage that rather than crush their dreams in front of others. Even bestselling authors are people—I count several as friends—and just because someone’s successful doesn’t mean insults don’t hurt them.
I make an exception for Monopoly. This is arguably the world’s bestselling game, stacking up numbers beyond even those of Grand Theft Auto, Magic: The Gathering, or World of Warcraft. But the creators behind it are all long gone, so I can’t hurt their feelings.
And it’s absolutely awful.
Monopoly was created back in 1902 by Elizabeth Magie. She called it The Landlord Game, and she designed it to teach people about certain economic theories.
Legendary attorney Charles Darrow (a heater salesman, not the famed attorney Clarence Darrow*) turned it into Monopoly and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935. (Parker Brothers later purchased the rights from Magie as well, something Darrow never did, claiming the game was his own invention.) Eventually Hasbro bought Parker Brothers, and it’s been publishing Monopoly ever since.
It’s a classic game that gets by on sharp marketing and the fact that it’s become a staple in most households in America. Friends of mine at Hasbro, though, have told me that their research shows that most of their mass-market games are purchased by middle-aged and older women between Thanksgiving and the end of the year as holiday gifts for children. They are played—get this—an average of less than once.
After playing Monopoly, perhaps you can see why. It’s a game that has what game designers call a snowball effect. This happens when being in the lead gives you bonuses beyond simply being the leader. That means that those who are in the lead tend to build up larger and larger leads, snowballing their advantages until they win.
This is why in most games of Monopoly you know who’s going to win within the first fifteen minutes. And then you have to spend the next four hours watching them pound their opponents into paste.
In this sense, it models the way the US economy works pretty well. Magie hit her design aims out of the park.
This is not, however, fun for anyone at the table. Even most winners get bored after a while.
Many modern games have what game designers call a catchup feature. This gives players who are behind an advantage over the leaders, and it helps ensure that everyone has a stake in the game’s results right up until the end. Sure, a skilled player will likely have an advantage over the others, but it’s not insurmountable. Everyone gets to feel involved and engaged.
They get to have fun. And most of them never go back to Monopoly again.
Friends at Hasbro have confessed to me that they don’t care for Monopoly much either, but it’s a bestselling icon they can’t let languish. Good people work on the game still, and they love games too. They put out new versions of it every year, and some of them are far better than the original.
They often argue that the game isn’t nearly as bad if you play it by the actual rules, the ones that used to be printed on the inside of the box’s lid. It doesn’t make it a better game, necessarily, but it’s faster at least. The house rules most people use, though—like grabbing all the money in the center of the board if you land on Free Parking—make it worse.
Players tossed these rules in to see if they could improve the game—we’re all amateur designers in this sense—but they do little if anything to solve the snowball effect. They strive to give players more chances to take the lead, but all they really accomplish is to make a bad game longer. What should be a two-hour ordeal turns into a four-hour death march with the exact same results.
Last month, Hasbro launched a debate on Facebook that allowed fans of the game to argue about the best house rules. About a week ago, they declared five of them the winners and promised to publish a version of the game that contains these rules. The Free Parking rule made the cut, of course, but none of them—not one—does anything to improve the game.
I’m sure Hasbro knows this. The purpose of the debate wasn’t to improve the game but to put it in headlines around the nation. It did a great job at that.
Just do yourself and the kids you know a favor. Don’t buy it.
There are so many better board games out there. Hasbro makes some of them—including Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons—and you can find much more at your friendly local games store, ranging from Settlers of Catan to Takenoko to Munchkin and beyond. You can find them on TableTop—Wil Wheaton’s fantastic web show, which is raising funds for a third season right now—or at a games convention like Gen Con too.
Sit down with your friends. Roll some dice. Draw some cards. Try them out. Find games you can love rather than endure.
Put a stop to that snowball. You’ll have a ball doing it.
* Hat tip to Allen Varney for pointing out I’d conflated Clarence and Charles Darrow.