Mechanical Metaphors and Monopoly

Today, I want to go back to basics a little bit. This is, most assuredly, not because I spent the last week playing Dark Souls and don’t have a comprehensive opinion yet. No, this resulted from a conversation I had earlier today about Monopoly. Boiling it down, the conversation had two points of interest: Monopoly is a terrible game, and it’s a bleak, some-might-say accurate representation of unmitigated capitalism. I’d like to take some time out of your schedule to examine those two claims.

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The first point is a little hard to justify. Clearly, it’s a game that has been around a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, no matter how much we hate sitting down with the family to roll dice for three hours. Then again, that sentence itself kind of deconstructs the whole experience. It is pretty much just a dice-rolling game, with a few exceptions. I’ll get into those in a bit. There’s not much depth, or complexity, to the game, except what you add yourself. There are multiple variants, house-rules, and board games, but the essential experience is the same. With a game this old, and a system this simple, how can Monopoly possibly be relevant in an age of complex table-top gaming and high-res, high-quality video games? It’s because, despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, it can deliver a truly focused experience with a well-developed mechanical metaphor: fuck players, get money.

This plays directly into the second point: the representation of capitalism. On the face of it, capitalism is about acquiring money, re-investing it, and making more of it to re-invest, and crushing anything that gets in your way. Well, that’s a simplified, cynical vision of capitalism. I’m not going to get into the finer points, because this isn’t an economics blog. We’re here to get our game analysis pants on.

All of the various aspects of Monopoly communicate the need for competition. The limited resources ensure that you’ll be struggling over them with the other players. Consuming those limited resources strengthens your opponents, so any loss by you is a gain by them. This is what’s called a zero-sum game. These resources are, of course, properties, but they apply equally well to the currency system, as well. It has been shown that games with the $500 Free Parking rule go much longer. This is because there are more resources available in the overall pool. Running out of resources ends the game. This also adds a running clock to the system and reinforces the value of both currency and property.

So far, so simple, right? This is a deep rabbit hole. Each and every piece fits together to inform the experience. Take Go for instance. Passing it allows you to collect $200 dollars. Its placement on the board is a well-calculated decision. Immediately after you pass Go, there are cheap properties, with low costs and low rent. However, as you loop around the board, the properties get progressively more and more expensive (This adds another layer to the Free Parking space, because it acts as a padding gate for your entrance into the more expensive areas). So, by the end of your trip, you’ve probably spent the money you made by passing Go. In fact, there’s a chance you might be knocked out by the green and blue properties in the end-game before you get a chance to collect it. This is fine for the first few rounds, but it has an interesting effect later in the game. It separates players into a couple different categories, two of which I’ll discuss here: the haves and the have-nots. Simple and elegant naming aside, these two categories reflect two different economic life-styles: living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque and collecting dividends. For the well-invested, the end of the month, or cycle of the board, is simply a chance to add to their pool of resources for re-investment. For others, the less-than-lucky among us, it represents one of the only sources of income they have. So, it’s a kind of windfall. Of course, that’s just a stalling method, because they’ll eventually be bled dry by the best invested players.

I mentioned luck earlier, and it’s a pretty big part of the game. Rolling high on the dice makes your trip around the board shorter, and increases the number of overall times you’ll get a chance to pass Go. Luck also dictates what properties you land on and when. Probability will ensure that the disparity between different players on the total number of spaces they move each game will be low. However, when and where you land is important. Moving around the board can be seen as moving through time. High rollers will get past more obstacles faster. Metaphorically, this is like getting through a month without incurring any extra expenses. Landing on a property in an early cycle of moving around the board is the best, because you get either a chance to buy it, or don’t have to pay much. However, as time passes, and the players cycle around the board more, there are fewer and fewer available properties. Needing a set of three properties to build houses also ensures that expenses will only mount as time passes. This side-effect of cycling around the board also ensures that the metaphor of dwindling resources, and getting in early, is clearly represented.

This might be a dig at capitalism, as well. When you land on a property, so when you “get in,” is essentially randomised, or, at least, largely luck-based. There’s a money-management component to the early cycles, but it usually amounts to buying every property you land on, and hoping for the best. Again, high-rolling players will get to the better neighbourhoods first, reducing the total number of available high-price properties available to those that come afterwards. On a purely probabilistic level, it’s always better to get there first, and roll higher. Of course, it’s not all about high rolls. Landing on Free parking, the rail roads, and un-rented property takes all kinds of rolls. Equally so, landing on Park Place with four houses can be the result of any roll. Notice, also, that there’s a gap between each two-property set. This ensures that you can always get to the second property from the first with a well-placed set of snake-eyes. Again, good for initial investors, but a capital sink for those that come after.

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Jail is an interesting beast, as well. There are many different ways to play Monopoly, but, given the simplicity of the system, there’s a pretty clear end-goal. As a result, those in an unenviable position, pricks, or the very young, may be tempted to play outside the rules (read: cheat). I’m hoping that you can see how this parallels reality pretty well. When you don’t have, then you’ll be tempted to do anything to win or survive in a zero-sum game. That is, if you commit into its all-or-nothing, tooth-and-nail mechanical environment. Expanding further on this, depending on your position, going to jail can be either a good or bad thing. Right now you’re saying, “But Trivia, that doesn’t make sense! Cheating in real life doesn’t land you in jail in the game!” That’s true, assuming you’re using standard rules, but it does highlight the costs and causes of cheating. If you’re doing well, then you’ve got a lot to lose, so you’re not quite as likely to cheat (unless that’s how you got there). Whereas, if you’re not doing well, then you’ve got little reason to stop yourself from taking an extra hundred from the bank when no one’s looking. Similarly, being in jail stops you from moving around the board, but, more importantly, it also prevents you from paying or collecting rent. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Doubles! Doubles! Doubles!… JAIL! Now that we’ve looked at jail, we can talk about this rule. As we’ve established that quick movement is desirable, and that snake-eyes will generally land you on property of the same set (assuming you’re on the first square), we can see why doubles would be awesome. So, rolling a lot of doubles is desirable. You will either be moving a large number of spaces, or very few. Compared to any random combination of numbers, doubles is generally superior. You’re either moving a large number of spaces (8, 10, or 12), staying in the same general rental neighbourhood (2), or ensuring your escape from a set of well-developed properties that you’ve already landed on, or are close to (4, 6). These results can be replicated by a random, non-paired combination, as well, but doubles are solid rolls. As a result, rolling a lot of them can be akin to doing a little too well in the business world (insider trading, anyone?). That, and it once again shines the spotlight on randomness and its ability to land you in the dog-house.

Speaking of trading, I haven’t yet mentioned how you make most of your sets. If you were lucky enough to land on a set of properties and snap them up (statistically more likely if you got there first), then you don’t have to worry about it. However, if you didn’t, then you’re going to need to trade. This aspect of the game adds a certain level of depth to the proceedings because you’ve got to save all your dickery for after you’ve eliminated your need for your opponents. That’s why most of the time people: save house-purchasing until after all the properties have been bought, and have a trading-phase once the last property has been nicked. So, you either hold onto properties and deprive your opponents of a much-needed resource, or you leverage your opponent’s need into an advantage. this also preserves every property’s value into the end-game. Yes, the rent on Marvin Gardens may be low on its own, but it beats the hell out of landing on Virginia Avenue with a hotel. How you deal with your opponents is up to you at that point, but I should also point out that grinding your opponent into dust puts their properties up for auction, allowing you to snap up that property you need in the wake of their fall (depending on who does the auctioning in your house-rules, you might also have to play two-faced with your opponents all the way through to avoid pissing off the auctioneer). This further cements the feeling and drive to compete and destroy.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well duh! Monopoly is about competition! Thanks for wasting a couple thousand words illuminating that.” You’re welcome, because that thought brings us full-circle. The rules and mechanics of Monopoly all work together to serve the overall metaphor and purpose of the game: driving competition in an environment of luck, initiative, and strange bedfellows. As games become more complex, it’s occasionally difficult to see the forest for the trees. The basic elements of every game come together to create the overall experience. A well-crafted game will communicate its meaning on every level of design. From the different pictures depicting Mr. Moneybags, to the rules and mechanics of the game, and the lay-out of the board, the entire Monopoly experience is shaped around its message. Even children, who barely understand the concepts we’re bandying about and actively deconstructing, grasp, just through play, the strategies and meanings of the game. Nothing will convince you of this more than the blood-thirsty cackles elicited from their sweet, innocent mouths as you land on their well-developed properties and they get to drain you of your last cent.

So, is Monopoly a bad game? Well, it lacks a grand level of strategic depth, but it certainly communicates its point well. So, if I can give SpecOps and Silent Hill 2 a break, despite their mechanical sketchiness, because they’ve got an excellent , unified aesthetic, then I think I can do the same for Monopoly. As a metaphor for capitalism, it’s a bit bleak, but not necessarily untrue. Maybe inaccurate, but those are different things. As for relevant? I think everyone should play it at least once, or twice, even now. As gaming, and the gaming community, moves forward, it’s always worth a little retrospective. There’s a lot to be learned from simplicity, and the mistakes of the past. We’d do well to remember how Monopoly, with a board, some dice, and some cards, managed to create an experience so immersive and comprehensive that, given the chance, you’d buy your Grandma’s property right out from under her without a second thought.

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4 Responses to “Mechanical Metaphors and Monopoly”

  1. To be fair, it does have some strategy, like choosing where to build houses and when, and how much liquid cash you have to have on hand, and how you have to choose and balance between the two. That’s an important lesson to learn in life, but you don’t really need to learn that until you start making big purchases or investing

    In other news, Maybe people are just equal measures masochistic and sadistic, and that’s why they like monopoly.

    • Those are definitely considerations, but they’ve got typical and best-answer responses, and they don’t really represent strategic depth. Furthermore, the results of those decisions always serve a final, predictable goal. There’s not a ton of room to maneuver, and few choices to make. Also, the results of those decisions are dictated almost wholly by chance, unless they’re completely bonkers decisions.

  2. Indeed, I don’t think it matters too much in the game if you build houses in different numbers and different orders. Plus, if you make a mistake, there are handy options to sell your houses or get a loan from the bank by closing one of your properties temporarily. You’ll lose some money, but if you already have houses, you’ll probably be financially ok anyways. Monopoly is not a hard game, maybe because it’s trying to lead you so hard into being a successful capitalist (and ultimately, in the game, it’s luck whether you make it or not)

    This game really works as a great example of how the capitalist system works, but these lessons are lost on children. I guess I can sort of appreciate it now that I have money, investments, and sometimes cash flow problems. Although, in the real world, it’s not luck that makes you money consistently.

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