I didn’t stay in a great hotel while I was in Manchester:
And as part of an attempt to mitigate the bleakness of my stay at Wormwood Salford, I watched a documentary about Monopoly. I know, I know – more than ever, you want to live my life. Seriously, it’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
The documentary is called Under the Boardwalk. It’s an interesting glimpse into a world of which I was only peripherally aware, and also an insight into a dark, grim universe full of people that have wandered so far off the beaten path of life that they’ve come to believe Monopoly is a great game. It follows a few contenders for the title of Monopoly World Champion, which is a thing that actually exists. In the process, they battle Lady Luck, and each other, to compete for the grand prize of $25,000.
Unfortunately, unlike the equally sobering ‘there but for the grace of God’ Word Wars, almost all of the drama and tension that might traditionally be experienced in such a competitive journey of recreational excellence is entirely absent. Word Wars puts the vaguely grim world of competitive Scrabble under a microscope. It shows a group of people battling in an arena in which skill plays a far bigger role than luck. When they win, *they* win. When they lose, *they* lose. There’s enough variation in the draw of tiles to add in an interesting uncertainty to the outcome, but it’s not so much that you’re at the absolute mercy of fortune. Monopoly inverts all of this, following a tournament that is 95% about the luck of the roll and 5% about not being an absolute asshole in trading. We’ll come back to that.
One of the more instructive elements in the documentary is how half-hearted even the advocates for the game are when it comes down to why they play it. Every single one of them cites an emotional connection – a sense of lingering, misty-eyed nostalgia surrounding the fun they had playing games with their families when they were children. They’ve taken it on as a tradition, playing it with their own families. They’ve become its modern advocates and apostles. Their own devotion to the title *should* mean that they can evangelise convincingly about why the rest of us should play. Watch this review of the X-Wing miniatures game from Shut up and Sit Down and tell me you don’t want to run out and buy that starter pack. Watch any other review, and if they like it they’ll make you *want* to buy it, because the thing looks inherently like great fun, and that’s because they are tremendous advocates for tabletop gaming.
The best that those besotted with Monopoly can manage is ‘It’s nice to spend time with your family’. Even in this, they’ve fallen for a myth of false association – it wasn’t Monopoly they were enjoying, it was the time with their families. Monopoly was a reason to spend time with the people they loved.
That’s absolutely fine – Monopoly is the most successful board game of all time, and as such it’s the first experience most people have with playing games with their families. But – almost every household, at least in the western world, will have easy access to a Monopoly board. As such, it shapes perceptions of what board games are and what they can be. If you play board-games and you want other people to play them with you, you have to first deal with the prejudices that Monopoly has created in the minds of others. It has such a vast, distorting effect on the perception of board-gaming as a hobby that it’s borderline malevolent. If the associations people have are positive, it’s a great ally to have on board (tee hee). Most people though stop playing board games after a while, and I suspect Monopoly has a not-insignificant role in influencing that decision.
If people play Monopoly just as a way of spending time with their family, it can serve an important role in keeping people together without encouraging them to drift off into doing their own thing. The game creates the context for meaningful interaction. It mitigates silence and creates reasons to interact, laugh and negotiate. It keeps the stakes relatively low, provided you’re not dealing with hyper-competitive relations with something to prove. In that respect, I understand the appeal of the game. It creates memories of being together with family where the sole output is ‘to have fun’.
It’s always been my view though that you can have all of that, but with an actual *good* game at the core of it. Monopoly isn’t that game.
It was interesting in Under the Boardwalk to see the way in which people argued that it was a game of skill. There are certainly strategies that the average player may not know, and there’s a degree to which the ability to negotiate a deal is an important part of effective play. Beyond that, it’s a case of knowing the percentages and the relative value of properties – no amount of wishful thinking will change that. It’s about understanding the ‘heat map’, and the distribution of die rolls. It’s a game where there is always a right answer to the question ‘what is the optimal thing for me to do in this situation’. It’s also a game where the answer to the question ‘how do I play this better in future’ ends up being largely ‘roll the dice better’ or ‘try landing on more lucrative properties’.
Nowhere is this more actively demonstrated than in the Monopoly World Championship.
One of the more odious contestants remarks that he’s hired himself some coaches to prepare him for the world championship, and to analyse the play of the other contestants.
He lost all three of his qualifying games.
Someone that had just been playing for fifteen months on the other hand made it to the nationals, and was amazed that he’d done so. There are only a few games where skill is the only consideration (chess being one of them), and those are exactly the kind of games in which a fifteen month novice won’t ever beat a 30 year veteran unless they are some kind of spectacular wunderkind. However, I fully believe I could spend an afternoon learning the optimal strategies for Monopoly and then play credibly at a ‘world level’ because there is so little talent actually required to play it. You could do that with internalising a handful of guidelines:
- Don’t buy the stations or the utilities, they’ll never be worth the investment.
- Ideally get monopolies of the pink and orange properties, because people hit them far more often due to their proximity to the jail.
- Trade often.
- Hold steady at three houses per monopoly until you have three houses on all monopolies – that way you maximise your return and restrict the house supply.
- Mortgage the properties that won’t form monopolies.
- Buy everything you land on. Even if you don’t want it, someone will.
- In the late game stages, stay in jail as long as you can.
Despite being, modestly speaking, a pretty damn good Scrabble player, I don’t kid myself I play at world championship level, or even close to it. By following the strategies above though, I bet I could make a decent showing as a Monopoly contender.
The thing I found most interesting from the documentary though is the modifications that are played at championship level, which seem to be little more than a cruel parody of the worst things about the game. See, as of the latest tournament, they played Monopoly using a ‘speed die’. This is a red dice that’s added into the movement roll. It has a 1, 2, 3, a Mr Monopoly, an a couple of ‘Bus’ symbols. If you roll triples using the speed die, you can move to any square you want on the board. Otherwise if you roll a number, you add it to your roll. If you roll a bus, you can take either the sum of the white dice, or the face value of any individual die.
If you roll a Mr Monopoly, it’s a little more interesting. First, you move the number of spaces indicated by the other dice Then, if there are unowned properties on the board you advance to the next UNOWNED property. If all the properties have been purchased, you then advance to the next property where you will owe rent.
Yeah, that’s right – the speed die basically makes an entire mockery out of the whole roll and move aspect that defines the way everyone else plays it. People that play Monopoly competitively now remove all of that tedious circling the board. They get right to the meat of letting the dice win or lose the game for them.
‘Playing with the speed die means all bets are off’, says one of the contestants. And that’s true – it shakes up a lot of the fixed strategies that go along with Monopoly, but it does it by concentrating the randomness. It makes pretty stark the arbitrary nonsense of the game. At a later stage in the championship, a contestant rolls triples. He moves to the ‘go to jail’ space. Everyone applauds. The next round, someone else rolls triples. He too moves to the ‘go to jail’ space. Everyone goes wild. There was no other space anyone would have chosen at that stage. It’s a celebration of the dice rolls, not the player strategies.
‘Its very rare to see two triples in a row in a championship game’, remarks the judge at one point. It’s as if the randomness of randomness itself were a bon-motte worthy note. ‘The first rent is claimed’, he says. ‘The first property is traded’. It’s almost as if he has to say something because otherwise people might realise what it is they’re actually seeing.
The documentary is weaker by far for its focus on the world championship, because fundamentally Monopoly is more boring to watch than it is to play, and it’s as boring as hell to play. But it’s still a documentary with elements of interest to it. It’s much stronger when it looks at the history and development of the game, and the role of Monopoly as a brand in modern culture. I understand that the audience needs a hero to root for, but that’s not what Monopoly is about at all. The hero is the hand that rolls the dice, and very little beyond that. It’s almost a cliche in these competitive gaming documentaries to have this core to the story – Word Wars, King of Kong, and High Score all do this. Those are games though where the player is important. As if it weren’t bad enough that Under the Boardwalk was making use of a tired cliche, it’s using it in an environment where it doesn’t even work.
The evolution of Monopoly is actually really interesting – it was originally a propaganda game, designed to show the fundamental unfairness of capitalist land-ownership. It was supposed to teach people that the first-mover advantage fundamentally screwed over everyone in an economic system. The fact that you knocked people out by taking over all of their properties when they couldn’t pay you was supposed to be bitterly instructive, not carefree fun. Over the years, as it grew and evolved in its long journey from local propaganda into global phenomenon, the edges were knocked off and the theme was made less explicit. By the standards of its time, Monopoly was a revelation of a game.
Its own success is also its own proof of the central propagandist premise – over its 75 years of life, it has become the symbol of an entire hobby. Carcassonne is an extremely successful example of beautiful modern game design, and has sold maybe two million copies since it was released in 2000. Since 1935, Monopoly has sold around 275 million copies, despite being a deeply, deeply inferior game. On average, Monopoly sells more copies in one year than Carcassonnehas has sold in fifteen.
Monopoly is fascinating for the role it plays in the gaming landscape – a vast, looming atrocity of design that we have collectively, as a culture, decided to laud as the quintessential board gaming experience. It is not interesting as a game to play, or a game to watch, and as such Under the Boardwalk fails to really get into the nooks and crannies of the topic with any real efficacy.
There are parts of Under the Boardwalk that I found almost unbearably boring. At one point I paused playback to see how long was left, and audibly groaned. This thing is 90 minutes long, and I was interested in perhaps 30 of them. In those 30 minutes though there are moments of genuine insight. I did not enjoy it as a packaged unit, but there were parts of it that carried me through to the end.
I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Or maybe even to most people. Maybe even to most people interested enough in board-gamers to read this review on this site. But I’d recommend it to some people under some circumstances, and maybe that’s enough.
It’s probably not, is it? Yeah. It’s not.