Monopoly review

Monopoly (1933)

Game Details
NameMonopoly (1933)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [1.67]
BGG Rank17691 [4.37]
Player Count (recommended)2-8 (3-6)
Designer(s)Charles Darrow and Elizabeth J. Magie (Phillips)
Artist(s)Frantz Rey
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: Unremittingly awful. If you have a copy, go burn it.

There was a surprisingly good response to our review of Scrabble – a review I said I’d never write because, come on, who really needs to hear anything anyone has to say about Scrabble at this point? I wrote it out of a kind of completionist compulsion. Scrabble had appeared high in my personal top ten for two years and it just felt like I had to justify why that might be.

Sitting at the absolute other end of my affections is another game that I reference reasonably frequently throughout this blog. That’s Monopoly. It’s been cited again and again as a game that should be treated as more like a cautionary tale than a recreational experience. We could go on like that, taking snide potshots at Monopoly with all the smug satisfaction that is typical of hobbyist gamers. I believe though in auditability. I think if I have a strong view that I use as a building block for this site’s rhetoric you should be able to assess its solidity. You should be able to see that brick from all its angles.

Monopoly box

There are few outlets that produce negative reviews of games for reasons we have explained elsewhere on this site. It’s understandable in a hobbyist reviewer landscape that people would feel that they don’t have to spend time reviewing those things that do not bring them joy. When doing something for its sheer pleasure one must Marie Kondo their obligations. That’s absolutely fair, but I think it’s important that a reviewer does an occasional negative review to act as a calibration marker. A tuning fork that someone can strike to hear where the discords resonate. It’s in that spirit I offer you this review of Monopoly.

I actually owe Monopoly a debt of gratitude – it’s the first game that I ever really spent time thinking about in terms of the philosophy of game design. It was the game that was the origin of my first mental heuristic, and that’s something that’s threaded through this site. It’s a bad game that, upon losing, gives you only one course of action to improve – ‘be luckier’. It’s Monopoly that inspired that viewpoint because, beyond a certain basic level of competence, Monopoly is a game about being lucky with dice and almost nothing else.

Monopoly tells you not to use house rules

The first thing you see when you open a new copy of Monopoly

In my review of Under the Boardwalk, I made note of a man called Ken Koury who invested in Monopoly coaches to analyse the play of his competitors in his bid for the Monopoly World Championship. He lost all three qualifying games. On the other hand, someone that had been playing competitively for all of fifteen months made it to the nationals and was amazed he had done so. It’s like if I had been playing tennis for a few years and then suddenly qualified for Wimbledon. It’s not impossible but very valid questions would be asked of that outcome were it to come about. Like, ‘Look at him – how did he even survive the first set? He’s breaking out in a sweat just typing at a laptop’.

We talk of ‘luck’ and ‘skill’ as if they are opposites. In some cases they are – the legal distinction between ‘games of chance’ and ‘games of skill’ has been incredibly important at various points in the past with regards to gambling and sports. However, it’s not really true. There is skill that can be demonstrated in mitigating luck, and luck that can be brought more effectively to the fore with skill. My best example of this is Blood Bowl – a game where you roll dice for absolutely everything but a skillful player will still absolutely destroy a less skilled player in the majority of circumstances. Blood Bowl is a game about performing a ruthless triage on your luck, trusting it only when necessary and in the sequence least likely to be disastrous in the event it gives out. You roll so many dice in Blood Bowl and yet it is still, in my view, primarily a game that is about skill. The thing that will determine the winner is who plays best, not who is luckiest.

Keith Burgun over on Gamasutra has an excellent discussion of randomness, and one of the important distinctions he makes is between inbound randomness, which is to say randomness of context, versus outbound randomness which is what determines outcome. Inbound randomness would include things like random generation of enemies, random setup of terrain, cards you are dealt in hand of Race for the Galaxy, and so on. Outbound randomness is when there is a window of uncertainty associated with the actions you take – roll to hit, roll for damage, and so on. It’s somewhat, but not exactly, correlated in this way – inbound randomness stresses skill, outbound randomness stresses luck.

Geoff Englestein in turns draws a parallel between white, pink and brown noise and the different kinds of randomness that exist as tools for game design. White noise is pure randomness – the roll of a die. It’s stochastic and unpredictable. You can react to it but you can’t plan for it. Brown noise is randomness that is derived from an input value – a three can become a two, a three or a four. You can both plan and react for brown noise. Pink noise is somewhere inbetween – small changes in random state that can occasionally jump up or down by larger amounts. You can plan and react for pink noise but occasionally you’ll be caught on the back-foot and be forced to improvise.

These are two incredibly valuable ways to think of how to interpret randomness, and they bring us neatly back to our discussion of Monopoly. This is a bad game because the flavour of randomness it gives you is white and outbound. That’s heavily reactive and heavily luck based. In short, you never really get a chance to plan things in Monopoly. You just react to things happening to you.

Let’s look closer at that statement with reference to an example. You pick the token you prefer, and let’s leave aside the foolish notion that this is an ‘important part of the psychology of the game’ because, come on. You roll two dice. You move your token where it’s supposed to go. Let’s say it’s a property – The Angel Islington. You decide to buy it, or not. If you don’t buy it, it goes to auction.

There are decisions in here, that’s true – but they are decisions to which you are reacting. What if you didn’t want to go for the Angel Islington? What if you were more interested in the railroads, or you wanted to go for a ‘chance and community chest’ strategy. You don’t get that choice. You are buffeted by the winds of fate down a dingy alleyway and your only choice is whether you pay money for that alleyway or not.

Still, it’s a choice though.

But is it really?

Let’s talk about what we mean by choice!

Monopoly tokens

In its strictest sense yes this is a choice. You can acquire the property or you can pass it on to auction to the other players around the table. I think though the benchmark here has to be higher than merely ‘Did you get to decide something?’. The choice presented has to be meaningful.  ‘You can have £500 or you can have nothing’, is a choice but absent of any other context it’s not a meaningful one. It’s too heavily weighted in one direction. There is always an optimal decision you should make. Yes, take the money.

Those are the decisions you get offered in Monopoly. You buy the property. You always buy the property, if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it there was no decision to be made. Owning a property is always better than someone else owning it, because it enables you to claim a set… or importantly, enables you to deny someone else making a set. There is never a good reason not to buy a property, especially given how you can later trade it or mortgage it.

As the game progresses, more things happen to you. More properties get accumulated. If the outbound whiteness favours you, you’ll be in an advantageous position through the sheer luck of the roll. If not, you’ll find yourself paying rents you didn’t want to run up in neighbourhoods you didn’t plan to visit. Costs will happen to you. Maybe you don’t want to stay in Brook Street. Maybe Trafalgar was more your speed. How much for an evening’s rent? That’s extortionate, I will take my chances sleeping in my car thank you very much.

Nope. Whatever token in which you are riding, you’re a passive traveler.

‘Look’, another player might say. ‘I’ll trade you Euston Road and Pentonville Road, giving you a set, in exchange for the Mayfair card you have. Can’t say fairer than that, right? Two properties for one? Cutting me own throat here’

A set in Monopoly

It’s here that you find the only genuine decisions that Monopoly ever offers you, and they’re thin, unworthy things. People have to trade, because otherwise Monopoly is a game of a thousand tiny cuts where simply passing go heals away all the financial damage that the parsimonious rents have inflicted on you. Five quid here. Twenty quid there. Pass go and you get £200 and the whole tedious cycle can begin again. Without houses and hotels there’s no sharp edge in Monopoly that time can’t heal. This is perhaps the worst kind of incentive to action I can imagine in a game – that everyone engages in the activity purely to counteract the tediousness of the alternative.

In an interesting way, Monopoly has exactly the same basic structure as Chinatown – one of our very rare five star games. In Chinatown lots are randomly dealt out to you. Businesses are randomly sent your way. Everything else is down to you to trade. But Chinatown excels in this area by putting a massive question-mark on every deal you make. Sure, it seems like it’s good to you now but what does your trade enable someone else to construct from the raw material you sent their way? There are dozens of directions your little slice of Chinatown can take and the table will loosen or tighten its deals as you attain, or recede from, dominance. It’s energetic, frenetic, and intensely skillful.

Monopoly should have that same thing, but it doesn’t because fundamentally the incentives for trading lock in at the set level. It’s rare indeed that I will gain a set and be willing to trade it away except for a better set, and nobody is going to trade a better set for a poorer set. You might try to sweeten a trade with cash or loose properties, but in the end only one person can have a set and it’s better for you to have it than for someone else. Sets permit the accumulation of property, and property permits the acquisition of ever greater sums from an opponent’s wallet. Trades in Monopoly, like the decision to buy a property, always have an optimally correct value – you complete the highest value set that is feasible through trade with the least threatening opponent that can provide it. Who is the most threatening opponent? The one that landed on enough property to be able to construct the most lucrative set amongst the players at the table. How did they do that? Luck. White, outbound randomness that yielded an output disconnected from their personal skill.

Once the trading is done, people tend to settle into the final stage of the game which is ‘trying to avoid playing as long as possible’. You want to spend the majority of your time in jail so as to avoid risky, dangerous rolls – once all the property has been snapped up there is only risk around the table. If you can be denied a roll then that’s actually profoundly to your benefit. You want your opponents moving around the board while you are safely behind bars – that way the state pays your rent. How do you do that? Well, you hope you luck into landing in jail and then you hope you don’t roll doubles. And you hope for the opposite results for your opponents. You hope.

In the end, the dice will decide the loser by bouncing them off sufficiently large numbers of opponent properties that they end up bankrupted (a matter of luck) and then that opponent gets their properties (a matter of chance) which will then skew the dice ever more in their favour (independent of their skill). Eventually everyone but one player loses their money (thanks to the dice) and a winner is declared.

The first third of the game – picking up random properties that luck sends your way. The second phase – making the trades that are mathematically optimal with the people that are mathematically least likely to be a problem. The third phase – trying not to play until the dice eventually eat someone.

Some houses and hotels

This is why I hate Monopoly as a game. It’s luck or perfunctory obvious decision all the way down, except for a few minor outcroppings where someone that knows the optimal strategies may be able to sway things in their favour. There’s excitement to be had in random chance. I think though it’s a poor facsimile of the fun that comes from a game presenting you with a series of interesting decisions you need to make. Monopoly doesn’t offer much of that in its design.

The thing here is that people are wrong when they say ‘Monopoly is purely a game of luck’, just as when people say ‘Monopoly is purely a game of skill’. It’s a game where better players will tend to beat poorer players because the board has some secrets. Some properties are more valuable than their face values and yield would imply because players hit them more often. Some trades can be slanted in such a way as they appear better than they actually are. Some three-way trades and horse-dealings can be leveraged to accomplish greater goals than might otherwise be possible. There is room for people to play Monopoly better than others.

The thing is, there isn’t much room and that’s fundamentally what makes it a poor game. The skill gap between a chess master and a chess novice takes years and years of diligent study and practice to close. The skill gap between a Monopoly novice and a Monopoly master can be closed in a matter of hours. Internalise these rules, as I outlined them in the Under the Boardwalk review:

  1. Don’t buy the stations or the utilities, they’ll never be worth the investment.
  2. Buy everything else you land on. Even if you don’t want it, someone will.
  3. If you get a choice, acquire monopolies of the pink and orange properties, because people hit them far more often due to their proximity to the jail.
  4. Trade often.
  5. 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.
  6. Mortgage the properties that won’t form monopolies. The tiny rent intake isn’t worth their cash value – they have their largest value as preventatives against others attaining a monopoly.
  7. In the late game stages, stay in jail as long as you can. Don’t use your get out of jail cards.

Got all that? You can play Monopoly at world class level now. At least you can with the standard home rules. They don’t have the interestingly weird speed die that is used at tournament level to get all that tedious ‘game’ out of the way. The skill ceiling in Monopoly is so low that you can bash your head against it simply by standing up. I could design an automata that could play Monopoly at a pleasingly high level of play in an afternoon and have it play the game in my stead. The human equation of a game demands involvement. I don’t really feel like people are involved much at all in a game of Monopoly except as a fleshy robot with the necessary appendages required to enact a series of simple rules.

It’s not that Monopoly can’t be fun, but that feeds into a point I’ve made elsewhere. Games don’t really matter – the people we’re playing with matter. The right company will make a terrible game great. The wrong company will make a great game terrible. You can have lots of fun playing Monopoly, but it’s important you place the credit for that where it belongs. It’s not found in the game. It’s found in your friends and family. Given that, you could try playing a great game with good company and see where that takes you.

It’s perhaps worthwhile here to note that there’s a reason why Monopoly is a terrible game, and it has nothing to do with a lack of skill on the part of its designer. We probably all know this by now but Monopoly is a variation of a game called the Landlord’s Game. That was a piece of ludic propaganda designed to show the arbitrary unfairness of the tenant-based capitalist system. The game itself is not fun because it’s not supposed to be fun. The core of the game is supposed to be instructional, not recreational.

There’s a useful rule of thumb in game design – playtest early with a very rough version of your game. If the core loop of the game isn’t fun, further design probably won’t change that. If the core loop of the game is fun, then it’s only going to get more fun as you really polish it up. It’s not always true but it isn’t a bad way to bet it. Monopoly isn’t fun because it doesn’t give much of a chance to do anything that isn’t predestined through a combination of dice and easily calculated optimality. In any game of Monopoly there might be one genuinely interesting trade offer that needs careful consideration and that’s an awful ratio of ‘meaningful choices to presented decisions’. It’s the least interesting successful game you’ll ever play and that’s why it’s so often the whipping-boy of our discussions here on Meeple Like Us. It’s not snobbery. It’s not disdain at the fun people choose to have. It’s that when you dissect and analyse the nature of Monopoly you find there isn’t anything in there that deserves attention other than the historic.

You’re worth more than that, and Monopoly is not a game that can ever give you what you deserve.