And I said “Now pretend you’ve got no money”

It’s coming up to Christmas – and I’ve already spoken about the Salvation Army.  There’s one other Christmas warning: Monopoly is only slightly a more suitable game than bare knuckle boxing.  Just don’t do it.

There are plenty of people who say monopoly sucks.  And as a game played at Christmas they are right.  But Monopoly is very good at what it was designed to do (part of why it’s lasted).  It’s just not suited for a family game (but is far better if you use the actual rules).

Monopoly was derived closely from The Landlord’s Game, created at the start of the 20th Century as an educational tool to show how fun Monopolies aren’t.  Putting it in the same category as the game Nuclear War, another card game designed to show how fun something wasn’t and that’s still in print half a century (or over a century for Monopoly) later.  As we can see from the board, the game is basically the same.  A few iterations on – but it’s close. As are the rules.

(Public domain image of the original patent via Wikipedia)

In order to remain in print, the game must have had a lot going for it – and Monopoly does.  Notably:

  • Property ownership and building
  • Cut throat auction mechanics
  • Smashing the other players

The part of the game that makes Monopoly stand out from most older boardgames is the first.  The thematic.  You don’t get to look at a Snakes and Ladders board and see a collection of houses and know it’s your territory and you put them there.  Or even a Game of Life or Cluedo (Clue) board – and even in Risk you aren’t building in the same way.  This is common in modern boardgames.  But was a revelation and a seriously underestimated one.

The auction and trading mechanics make Monopoly almost as backstabby a game as Diplomacy.  The auction phase, when people start passing on buying properties and they are automatically put up for auction, is where the game is decided.  That and the desperate trading to pick up sets.  Holding people to ransom, bidding to deny things to the other players, and making temporary alliances.  If you’re in a mood for a “screw your neighbour” game, Monopoly can be great.

Finally there’s the beat down.  Monopoly isn’t won by having the most property.  It’s by eliminating the other players.  Which, as others have pointed out isn’t what the game feels like it should be about.  When someone is winning they are collecting more rent than other players – which gives them more money to buy more houses to get more rent, allowing them to pull further ahead.  And because it’s about eliminating the other players, when you win you win big.  Some people like that.

File:Carcassonne-board.jpgElentin CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Carcasonne: Because Monopoly isn’t the only boardgame where you own things.

The strengths of Monopoly, of course, are why it’s a terrible family game.  You don’t generally want to play a cutthroat game with kids.  It causes arguments.  Elimination games are even worse.  If the little one is eliminated one hour into a four hour game what are you going to do?  And rules to be “nice” (like putting money on free parking, or bank loans) both prolong the game and undercut the actual strengths of the game.

Which brings me on to Monopoly’s actual bad point as a game.  The pacing.  A game isn’t a game if you’re not making decisions.  And a decision with a right and wrong answer ceases to be a decision.  It’s a simple test (hint: Buy the property).  Monopoly only becomes a game when people seriously consider refusing to buy properties, and having them auctioned instead.  Which means the first ten to fifteen minutes of Monopoly is setup.  The fifteen to thirty minutes sorting out the auctions and sets are great.  And the 1-3 hours after that working out who won with the winner steadily getting further ahead (until people give all their property to the person in second place).  So in a 1-4 hour game you’ve 15-30 minutes of actual gameplay.  And hours of someone crushing the other players to a pulp.

Not a game that’s nice for families to play with each other.

 By playing by the rules, despite being a raving jackass he’s still probably making it a more fun game than the average game of Family Monopoly.

So what would I recommend instead for families to play at christmas?

Staying with the strengths of Monopoly:

  • If it’s the building and the “I built that” factor you like, combined with auctions then Power Grid is excellent.  With catchup mechanisms, auctions, and finite turns, anyone can win.
  • If it’s building and battles for ownership then either Carcasonne or Settlers of Catan are great
  • If it’s ownership and renting, then the worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep does everything right.  (Puerto Rico might be a better game for veterans but Lords is a better starting point)

Moving further away into less competitive games (so you don’t end up wanting to strangle your family):

So please don’t play Monopoly with your family this Christmas or any other.  Even if you want to strangle them before any of you have touched presents, beating them at Monopoly won’t help and losing will be worse.  Play a family suitable game instead.

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