When I was young, I absolutely loved Monopoly. I loved the little pieces and the different varieties that the game came in. I liked the look of the board and how simple to understand it was. The only thing was, I had never actually completed a game. Every time I played it, it would always be abandoned after about an hour in, usually after two cycles around the board or so. Some games occurred during school events or quick psychologist meetings, so they couldn’t be completed before I had to leave.
Freshman year of college, this changed, when I met with three friends to play Monopoly. For about two hours, we all sat down and committed to going around a board, buying properties, and squeezing as much money out of each other as possible. By the end, only one of us was having fun, and they were the one winning. My other friends pooled their resources into him, since he was already winning and they wanted the game to be over. I was fighting a losing battle due to my dwindling resources. We had all started out being excited to revisit a game that none of us had actually completed before, but ended by cursing its name.
Despite this, Monopoly is still one of the largest board games in the entire country. It still gets a plethora of different releases, with different rule sets and themes. Even some of these different rule sets have gotten their own different spin-offs and versions. The game has been re-released hundreds of times with hundreds of different coats of paint, themed after different bits of pop-culture, areas, or events (including such riveting themes like Sunmaid raisins and bass-fishing lakes). But at the same time, I’m not alone in my slight ire. Many people have complained about how unpleasant Monopoly can be, while others still adamantly stand by it being one of their favorite games. This begs the question; Why? Why is Monopoly such a divisive game? Why is it so popular? And most importantly, from a design perspective, is Monopoly a good game?
Why it’s amazing
The first aspect that appeals to consumers is a combination of luck and strategy. Though players can plan for different deals and manage their funds, they still move around by rolling two dice. As such, it’s always a bit of a gamble if you’re able to start off strong with a plethora of properties or if you draw a chance card and end your first turn in jail. Many properties are also right next to each other, meaning there’s some suspense. In almost all circumstances, players will need to make a full additional trip around the board for another chance to get those properties. There’s a considerable amount of customization in the rule set, with a plethora of different rules for aspects like free parking, jail, and rolling doubles. This allows players to cater the rule set to their preferences, opening the game up for a variety of groups, be it hardcore real estate moguls or people who don’t know the first thing about property management.
Of course, another aspect that might pull people in are the varieties of Monopoly. On the surface, this seems like it would just refer to the different reskins of the game. I will not say this is a bad thing though, as I will fully admit the enjoyment I got running around the board as a Koopa Shell, a Three-Eyed Fish, The Sun, a Slingshot, or a Rubber Duck. The changing properties can also be interesting, ranging from famous locations in various fictional settings to famous characters. I’m fairly certain nothing will be as satisfying as purchasing the Living Room from the Golden Girls, which apparently costs more than Ridley from the Metroid series.
But not every new Monopoly version only alters aesthetics. Monopoly Millionaire changes the win condition to be about becoming the first player with at least $1,000,000 dollars. Monopoly Cheaters features an interesting take where players need to attempt to undermine the banking system without players noticing. Cash Grab abandons the board concept altogether and just tasks players with grabbing money fired out of a money-gun. Monopoly Gamer features different goals depending on its version, with Mario focused on beating bosses and gathering coins, Mario Kart focused on winning races and collecting Grand Prix cards, and Overwatch focused on players drafting teams of three to go around the board and capture objectives.
Why it’s terrible
I’ll admit, I was excited at the beginning of my friends' Monopoly game, but as it dragged on, it became clear that one of us had a distinct advantage. Once all properties have been purchased, it becomes a bit more dull, since many of the big plays from that point are just trades or people getting unlucky with dice rolls and paying hundreds of dollars after landing on a hotel. Monopolies can be exciting on the surface, since they can drain large amounts of funds.
If an opponent gets a monopoly, you have limited means of avoiding them, and you’re punished even more for landing on them. There’s also not a ton that can really be done to counter them. If a player has a monopoly with some hotels, your only counter is to build up your own properties and try to accumulate your own funds. If you don’t have any monopolies at this point, you’re fighting a very uphill battle. Usually, this ends up as a battle between two players, with any supplementary players giving their assets to whichever side they want to win.
In addition, the house rules can lead to some games dragging out for even longer periods of time. Some of these rules are innocuous enough, like doubles letting players go again, but rolling doubles twice in a row arrests the player for speeding. Other rules can drag out the game, like not letting players pay bail until they try to leave jail three times, or padding player profits by giving them tax sums on Free Parking or $400 if they land on GO.
Some have tried to explain this as Monopoly’s metaphor for the evils of capitalism, where healthy competition devolves into a singular company victory that is unsatisfying to them and depressing to everyone else. In other words, it was intentionally designed to be enjoyed only by the winner, while the losers cling desperately to hope or try to luck out in the market. If this is the case, it becomes diluted with how ingrained Monopoly has been to commercial board game culture. Ironically, it still fails to have a stranglehold on the home board game market though. Plus, this design can ruin the game for people who lose the game, as they know how much the slow drag of losing hurts, and seek to avoid all cases of it happening to them.
Why it’s interesting
According to Hasbro and the Parker Brothers, it’s never been an allegorical game. They say it was invented in the 30s by Charles Darrow following them losing their job from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. However, not only did they work on a team with other designers, but their game wasn’t even fully their own, as they had taken inspiration from another game around this time, The Landlord’s Game. Created by Elizabeth Magie, The Landlord’s Game was similar to the game we now know as Monopoly, with two rule sets focused on either doubling the player’s initial stake in an investment or achieving a complete buyout of the entire board. The rules were built on a Georgist economic principle, meant to show the problems with an abundance of monopolies. After this was created, Darrow worked with some acquaintances to make their own version of this game, called Monopoly.
The Parker Brothers acquired Monopoly from Darrow around 1933, the same year they ended up purchasing The Landlord’s Game from Magie. They produced around 500 copies of Magie’s game under its original title, before merging it with Monopoly to create the modern base for Monopoly. Despite the fusion, Darrow is still the only one listed with materials distributed by Hasbro around the late 2000’s, with Magie and Darrow’s fellow developers being completely overlooked.
Monopoly is a contradiction. It’s a commercial success that’s an allegory for the evils of capitalism. It’s incredibly exciting and suspenseful, but also one of the most boring games to ever be played. It’s an incredibly satisfying experience while also being so disheartening. You never want to play it again. Perhaps that’s what makes it so interesting to play. You never know how the game is going to end up. One minute, you’re on top of the world, as the financial leader of a corporate empire coated in locations from The Legend of Zelda. The next moment, you’re trying to scrape together as much money as possible to try to stay in the game. In the end, Monopoly is luck and skill incarnate, and while you can go into it with any variety of a plan for how to maximize your own fun, it’s up to the flip of a coin if it ends up working out for you.
Then again, in 2017, they replaced the classic thimble piece with a penguin, so I guess I hate it right now.
Matthew Huddleston is a Game Design major with a minor in Interactive Narrative. He lives in Massachusetts, and is currently working on a small platformer about plants. When not working on games, he is typically writing, walking, or playing with his Airedale terrier, Greta.