The real problem with Monopoly is you

A rather elderly blog post focusing on one key Monopoly rule that people don’t follow went viral earlier this year, leading to headlines of “Monopoly: You’re Playing It Wrong.” The author’s follow-up to the viral outbreak is worth reading as well. I am a lifelong Monopoly fan and student, and now that I’ve had time to let this topic simmer a bit, I’m going to go further still: I’m going to point out all the other things you’re doing wrong when you play Monopoly. 

The biggest complaint most people have with Monopoly is the length of time it takes to play. When played correctly, Monopoly often lasts about two hours. But games last longer because people refuse to trade properties — a basic fear of risk and luck, in a game that is built on risk and luck — and they also add house rules to “make the game more fun.” Unfortunately, that’s like saying you want to drive into oncoming traffic to make your daily commute more interesting. In both cases, it upsets the natural balance of things and turns out to be wildly destructive.

The speed of Monopoly gameplay has been an issue for years, and the publisher knows it. The instructions include alternate setup rules that make the game even shorter — cleverly hidden under the title “Rules for a Short Game” in the instruction manual. In 2007, in another attempt to pick up the pace (and possibly give people a reason to buy an all-new Monopoly set), Hasbro introduced the Speed Die, but hardcore players frowned on the new random element, and it was discontinued after just a few years. (If you want to try it anyway, you can get a loose Speed Die on eBay or you can just make your own.) But even if you play with Short Game rules or the Speed Die, invoking terrible house rules will still make the game drag on.

So why do people insist on playing with house rules in Monopoly? I think it’s because they don’t actually know the real rules. Games are more fun when someone shows us how to play; we learn quickly by doing, rather than just reading. So when your family members play by the wrong rules, you get taught the wrong rules, but you learn them quickly and never forget them. Curse you, experiential learning!

So, rather than go over the real rules one at a time, I’ll be that friend who teaches you how to play by simply telling you how not to play, and which house rules not to use. Here’s the House Rules screen from the iPad version of Monopoly:

Default settings shown, with no house rules activated. Leave them that way.

Properties at Start
Dan, Can I Use It?: YES
If you want to play closest to traditional Short Game rules in the app version, use this. Here, each player gets two properties, four properties, or all of them get handed out randomly before play even starts. (Official Short Game rules give everybody three properties, but Short Games also follow a few other rules changes not covered in the app — which is weird, since it is official.) Makin’ it rain properties before the game starts essentially skips all the time-consuming dice rolling for the first half-hour or so of the game, and moves you straight to the trading part of the game, where all the fun interpersonal stuff comes in.

Houses Per Hotel
Dan, Can I Use It?: MAYBE
The rules (and every title deed) state that you need four houses to build a hotel (which counts as the fifth structure). If you set this to three houses instead of four, you’re escalating the rents faster (assuming players upgrade to hotels, anyway), thereby bleeding more money out of each other, thereby ending the game faster. So if you want a shorter game and you play with people who like hotels, go with three — but keep in mind that it also affects the next rule.

House/Hotel Limit
Dan, Can I Use It?: NO
The bank offers a finite number of houses (32) and hotels (12). You cannot buy what does not exist, so if, say, eight properties have four houses apiece on them, then you can’t build any houses on any other properties until one of those owners sells their houses back to the bank (which they will if they upgrade to a hotel, and they can’t buy the hotel without owning the physical houses first — the Title Deed specifies that a hotel costs a certain amount of cash “plus 4 houses”). The House/Hotel Limit house rule says you can buy infinite houses and hotels — maybe even buying multiple hotels for one property, ugh — but it ruins one of the classic strategies of the game, and it means people just pass the same money back and forth more often. Just keep the housing limit in place.

Free Parking
Dan, Can I Use It?: OH HELL NO
The most well-known house rule is often the most damaging: All funds that would be paid to the bank (Income & Luxury Tax, Chance/Community Chest payments, etc) go into the center of the board. Sometimes people just slap a $500 bill in the center instead. Either way, the first person to land on Free Parking gets the cash. In real life, it would be fun to win the lottery every week, but in Monopoly, random windfalls simply devalue the dollars in play. Remember, the goal is to bankrupt your opponents; you can’t do that if they keep hitting Powerball jackpots every two trips around the board and having second, third, and fourth chances to come back and defeat you. Stop using this terrible house rule immediately!

Initial Cash
Dan, Can I Use It?: MAYBE
You are supposed to start with $1500, a fair amount when you consider the prices of properties on the board. If you lower that number, you could cause people to go bankrupt faster, and if you want a shorter game, that might be a good thing. If you raise that number, you’ll probably be able to buy more properties on your first few trips around the board, but you’re just flushing the market with cash as above, and more people with more money makes for a longer game. So put the squeeze on if you want, but don’t start handing out bonus cash.

Pass GO Salary
Dan, Can I Use It?: MAYBE
Same as above. You can decide to give people more than $200 or less than $200, with the same consequences. I’d just keep it at the normal amount.

Land on GO Salary
Dan, Can I Use It?: NO
If you land on GO, you can set it to give the player $400 instead of $200. Don’t, for the inflation reasons previously stated.

Dan, Can I Use It?: NO
This involves the “forgotten rule” that the viral blog post discussed: When you land on a property, you can buy it. If you don’t want to or you don’t have the money to cover the asking price, the bank is supposed to immediately put it up for auction — all players can bid freely, including the player who passed on it. It doesn’t matter that the bank sells it for less; it matters that that property is in someone’s portfolio, an asset to be traded or built upon. That’s the default rule and it’s how you should play. The house rule — and the common mistake — is that people decide they aren’t interested in that property, so they pass and move on, leaving it unpurchased. No no no no no. The longer you wait for properties to be bought, the longer it takes for anyone to build houses, and the longer the game takes. Never use this house rule.

When you play Monopoly the way it was designed, it’s strategic and tense and just unpredictable enough to be exciting — and it works. For one person to win, the others eventually have to lose, and yeah, it’s a drag if you are one of those people who gets knocked out early — but it’s the same as if you were in a poker tournament, or any sort of bracketed sports showdown. That’s the chance you take; that’s part of the risk. You wanna play, you risk not winning. Get out there and give it your best shot. You might lose — or you might win.

Ultimately, I think house rules involving cash circulation and player stubbornness regarding trades are to blame for Monopoly’s bad rep. Together, they lengthen and unbalance the gameplay…and the game takes the blame for the players’ own sabotage.

The answer is clear: Read the rules, be willing to trade, and play Monopoly as it was designed to be played. If you still don’t like it after playing it correctly, play something else — but please, don’t wreck it for the rest of us.

10 thoughts on “The real problem with Monopoly is you

  1. Monopoly’s a terrible game. The whole reason people started using house rules was because the game is unfair and unbalanced to begin with. Monopoly wasn’t designed to be a fun game, it was designed to demonstrate the negative consequences of unchecked capitalism. Those with good luck at the beginning of the game are going to dominate, and the losers are, in general, going to keep losing. People started using house rules like free parking because it’s no fun at all to sit there for two hours as your prospects get worse and worse because you weren’t lucky enough to land on any good properties the first couple times around the board. The free parking rule balances the game a little bit by giving unlucky players a fighting chance, but you’re correct that doing this makes the game drag on forever.

    The lesson is that there are thousands of awesome board games out there, and nobody should be playing Monopoly.

  2. While the history is true, fun is in the eye of the beholder. The game is not as well balanced as several other board games both of us could name — just like every “bad movie” is someone’s favorite of all time, or someone probably loves you in real life despite all your obvious and crippling flaws. And despite its flaws, I still love Monopoly. And I still love you, baby.

    But I don’t think the answer to imbalanced gameplay is to throw off balance even further with house rules that amount to “You know what would make this game better? I should have more money.” I am unconvinced that this is a problem you can solve by throwing money at it. 🙂

  3. Fair enough. I think there are house rules you can implement that would make the game more playable without making it take forever.

    The first thing I’d do is change the win condition. Playing until one player bankrupts every other player inevitably turns the endgame into a long, tedious grind. I don’t think I’ve ever actually finished a game of Monopoly, they inevitably end when one or two of the remaining players realize the futility of continuing and forfeit, which is a very unsatisfying way to end a game. The win condition should either be conditional (become the first player to amass X amount of wealth) or time-based (whoever has the most wealth after X rounds or X amount of time is the winner)

    Incidentally, this is the same problem I have with Risk, another game that benefits from shortening it via house rules. Instead of playing until one player wipes everyone else off the map, just play for five rounds and declare whoever controls the most territories the winner. The tides of the game are unlikely to really turn after that point, and it can turn an all-day slog into something players are actually going to be able to finish.

    Second, I always thought the Chance and Community Chest cards are a good idea that was poorly implemented. These were supposed to be the random element that gave players a chance to come back from behind. The “Pay $X for every house or hotel you own” card is clearly supposed to level the playing field a little. The problem is, the way cards are implemented is TOO random. The aforementioned card almost never comes up at a moment it’d make a difference. The cash bonuses are too trivial to actually help the players who are falling behind even if they do draw them. The “teleport to this location” cards are too arbritrary.

    There need to be more Chance and Community Chest cards, and they should be cards you draw, keep secret from the other players, and hold onto until they’re needed. There’s a ton of ways you could add some excitement to the game. How about a “Tax Credit” card that gives you a $400 bonus from the bank if you make a trade with another player? It can incentivize players in the lead to make trades they’d otherwise be hesitant to make. Or a “Charter a Ride” card that lets you teleport to a property you own in lieu of rolling the dice? This can help players avoid danger zones on the board at crucial moments. Players should start with one or two cards and get another one every time they go around the board, in addition to the normal chance and community chest spaces.

    Of course I’m getting out of “house rule” territory and into “redesign the game” territory, but it’s an interesting problem. How do you fix Monopoly without breaking it in some other way? It’s definitely possible, but at that point you might as well just make your own game. That’s what Yuji Horii did with Fortune Street, and in a lot of ways I think it’s a much better game.

  4. My kids and I have been playing the iPad version of Monopoly for a couple of years. It was actually the first time I played with the real rules. I’ve come to really enjoy it and kids have never known any different. We trade often. Auctions happen a fair amount of time. Sometimes one of us has a good run of luck and sometimes not.

  5. Looking at the actual “rules for a short game” section of the PDF you linked, I see that ending the game after one bankruptcy or sticking to a time limit are official suggestions. I always thought the only short game variant in the official rulebook was the one where you hand out properties at the beginning. If I ever play vanilla Monopoly again, I’ll probably suggest ending the game after the first bankruptcy. But I still maintain that revamping the Chance and Community Chest cards could turn it into a much better game.

  6. I think the time limit is the least destructive way around the problem. Make the smartest moves in the set amount of time and you might win, assuming luck doesn’t derail you.

    But your larger question — “how do you redesign Monopoly?” — is that you simply can’t. They’ve tried; it’s too entrenched for what it is to be altered and still be Monopoly to people who like the original flawed game. You’d be better off making your own version of Monopoly 2.0, balancing out all the things you point out that drag it down (and I agree, most people do not enjoy playing all the way to the endgame — even the computer versions let you skip at that point if you are knocked out before the AI players), and simply changing the theme or marketing it as a different game. The problem is then you lose the brand awareness. But honestly, if Hasbro announced they had a version of Monopoly that was permanently fixed, and I knew what those new elements were (and they weren’t just gimmicks), I would certainly buy it and try it!

    Here are a few more suggestions on ways to speed up play, though I personally dislike the “once around the board” start rule. Again, it adds time.

  7. I’m pretty sure it says in the rules that when you are in jail you can no longer receive income… That’s how my brothers and I have always played it. It means there is an incentive to get out if others are near your properties but there is also an incentive to stay in if they have just passed your lot the go before and have to go all the way around the board.

    I definitely agree with your point about the chance and community chest cards, they are completely random and usually offer no benefit to the game at all as they are picked up at the wrong times, for example, the ’emergency repairs’ card that gets picked up as soon as the game starts is just pointless.

    And finally, your second point about people not trading, perfect example happened today, I had a dark blue, two greens, a red, a yellow and two oranges (pretty much one or two of every cplour. My brothers had the rest of the properties equally shared out so no one is making any money. Neither of them would give up anything because “but I don’t want him to have this” and I’m here like ” but the game is all about decisions and risk!”

  8. I linked to the official rules above, and they state: “Even though you are in Jail, you may buy and sell property, buy and sell houses and hotels and collect rents.” You can (and should) sit in Jail as long as possible if you own developed properties. Your brothers not only deadlocked the game by not trading, but they totally scammed you on the “no income in jail” thing.

    I hope you find a create way to exact your revenge on your brothers for this lifelong slight during the gift-giving portion of the upcoming holiday season. 🙂

  9. No wonder my tactics weren’t working, I’d always use the buy everything tactic (which sounds like the best way to go after reading the comments), but that left me with no money and I’d end up rolling an unlucky number leaving them open to just buy an entire set. However, because they’d only bought three properties, they had enough money to build three houses and bankrupt me immediately after another couple of unlucky rolls. They are going to have hell to pay.

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