How Monopoly Doomed Itself To Perpetual House Rules
Do you know the rules to Monopoly? Yes, you do right? Who doesn’t?
Well, the answer is somewhat surprising. According to a video by popular the Youtube Channel Today I Found Out less than 32% of players actually say they have read the rules (source video here) to the game. Where the game itself has not changed over the past few years, the rules have and dramatically so from household to household.
Personally, that statistic surprised me, and after watching the video I immediately rooted around in a cupboard to find our newest version of the game. It was the version with the Speed Dice included, aimed at making the game faster and, turning to the back of the rules, sure enough, there was a warning.
Play it Right!
Many players like to devise their own ‘house’ MONOPOLY rules. This is fine, but such rules often make the game last longer. In the official rules players may never loan each other money or trade ‘promises’ not to charge rent in the future, etc. All tax and penalty fees are payable to the Bank and should not be stored under the Free Parking Space or anywhere else!
Well, that is stern. Sorry Mr Hasbro, we will behave Mr Hasbro.
Watching the Today I Found Out video got me thinking. I’m not going to explain the rules to the full extent they did, you can watch the video for that, however, it did make me wonder if these house rules have anything to do with the gamer dislike for this popular economy game. Do the official rules people leave out have anything to do with how we now see the game as a random rolling and trudging slogfest?
The answer is, I don’t know, but maybe.
What Do A Lot of Serious Gamers Have Against Monopoly?
Naturally, I cannot talk for all gamers, but the problems with Monopoly seem to be twofold. The first is more of a philosophical reason – we often have to explain that gaming is more than Monopoly. Whenever we tell people that we enjoy gaming as a hobby the response seems to relate back to the economics-based family game more than anything else, simply because Monopoly (and Cards Against Humanity, for a completely different reason) is a game that everyone has played. It is an easy point of reference for many people. For that reason, Monopoly is great; however, when it turns into “oh you’re a gamer, you must like playing Monopoly” it can become irritating.
The second is because Monopoly is seen as the fundamental simple game. All you do is roll and resolve, something which holds next to no strategy, and that is the very crux of simplistic gaming. The winner is whoever rolls the best and that is frustrating as it becomes a game of chance. They even have cards for that.
An Unfair Assumption
This, I think, is an unfair assumption. Don’t get me wrong, I too get sick of it being assumed that gaming means only playing Scrabble, Boggle, or Monopoly. I have the rules of the 2008 edition sat in front of me and I have to admit I am impressed at the depth Monopoly offers. There are rules in here even that even some hardcore gamers don’t know about.
Like before, some of these are mentioned in the Today I Found Out video, and I don’t want to just copy what they said, so here is a very brief overview of what the Monopoly 2008 Speed Dice version has written as additional rules:
- Auctions – If a player does not want to purchase a property they land on it can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. These bids can start from only one Monopoly dollar, meaning property can be purchased for a really low amount.
- Sell Properties – Buildings can be sold back to the bank for half their original value.
- Mortgaging Properties – If short on cash a property can be mortgaged/remortgaged to get the value of the property. It can be remortgaged by paying the price back +10%. Individual houses and hotels can be sold off.
- Do Deals – Deals can be done with other players to buy or sell any property without a house or hotel. Property can be traded for any amount of other property/cards within the game.
- Free Parking and Jail – There are actually no real negatives to either bar a slight delay for being in Jail.
What these mean is that there is actually a large amount of scope in the game and, weirdly enough, there is a lot of strategy that can be implemented in a game of Monopoly. Each one of the above offers its own strategy, and each one can be used in-game to make the game a bit meatier. Interestingly, these rules transition the game from a simple roll and resolve, to a game about negotiation and economics. They make the game far more interesting, advanced, and (in a way) incredible.
So Why Make House Rules?
There is a phenomenon of creating house rules for games that has existed as long as the players and games themselves have. We have house rules for all kinds of games; however, they all seem to follow a pattern. We generally create house rules for a game when it has either been played to oblivion, or the rules themselves don’t make sense.
Monopoly falls into both of these categories; however, they may be related.
Having just read through the 2008 versions, I have to admit something. I didn’t fully understand them. Take this as an example:
You can do a deal with another player to buy or sell unimproved property. You must sell all buildings on a colour group to the bank before you can sell one of its sites.
So the above sentence refers to two different actions in one sentence. YOU the player can make a deal with ANOTHER player to sell a property. In order to do so you must clear all the buildings on a colour before you can sell it. Those rules make sense.
Then it goes on, however, to say that when selling you must clear all the buildings on a colour group to the bank before you can sell one of its sites.
That “Its” is ambiguous in a sentence that refers to four different things – my instant response was “why would I want to sell one of the bank’s properties?”; however, it could also be referring to me (the player), you (the other player), or the colour group. Yes, you can work it out after reading it a couple of times; however, it is naturally unintuitive.
The rules for the Speed Dice are just as ambiguous and are also quite difficult to get your head around. The rules contain percentages, describing the remortgaging price as 10% more when they could just say “the amount shown on the back of the deed card”. In fact, there are little chunks of rules all over the place which remain open to interpretation, and this is a bad sign.
Thinking Fast and Slow
There is a fantastic book about Behavioural Economics called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In it, he explores the concept of System One and System Two thinking. The whole idea is that our intuitive brain works as System One. Things that come naturally fit into this category, so deciding if you prefer dogs or cats for instance. You probably know if you are a dog or a cat person without having to really think about it.
System Two focuses on more logical decision making. You may instinctively know 2 + 2 = 4, but you are less likely to instinctively know 34786 x 3 = 104358. You probably need to work it out.
Game rules are rarely System One decisions. You rarely just understand; however, it shouldn’t take a grown adult four attempts to fully understand one simple rule, yet alone several rules, within (what is the equivalent of two) four sides of A4 paper.
So, put yourself in the shoes of an adult who has purchased Monopoly to play with your kids and significant other around Christmas. You read the rules and have to figure out exactly what they mean. Are you (a) going to keep the family waiting whilst you unpick bad wording, or (b) just play the rules that make sense?
In essence, Problem One of this conundrum, states that Monopoly’s rules are written badly so people are likely to make up house rules.
A Game of Debate
The other thing that is clear, when reading the rules of Monopoly, is that the rules often missed out by players all revolve around a specific theme. They are about bartering, debate, and playing people to the point of bankruptcy. This kind of goes against the reputation Monopoly has as a family friendly game. They allow for more experienced players, people with some experience of bartering, to completely walk on those who are younger and less experienced. They swing the game in favour of those who are more aligned with economic practice.
So, Problem Two states that the game rules work well in small groups who relate to one another, so long as if it is a family game the adults play nice, but they fall down when playing across all generational gaps as a general rule. Aunty Betty has no reason to let Little Johnny win, or to go easy on him, if she doesn’t want to.
This is why Junior Monopoly (1991) removes the above rules all-together as they are unfriendly for children. Monopoly is, at its heart, a family game. Don’t remove the rules for kids – make them friendly for all ages to begin with.
What this means is that Monopoly is a game of two halves, split down the middle. It has the simple roll and resolve of a game for children, but the complex debating and negotiating of a game for adults. There are no mechanics to join the two, meaning it is sometimes easier to just skip one half of the game. Since the roll and resolve is so integral to the game it is far easier to skip the second half of the game. It is far easier to just have that dice rolling, moving, and property buying experience.
This, I suppose, is a problem that all debating games have; however, there is no leway in the Monopoly rules to allow that debate to happen organically. Catan has a similar bartering mechanic; however, it also has a 12+ rating. Take what you will from that.
The Rules are a Little Bit Broken
Finally, the rules at the moment, are a little bit broken, or they seem to be at least. You land on No Parking…and nothing happens, when intuitively it feels like something should. With this in mind a lot of players create their own rules.
The Auctioning Rule is one that often gets missed out because, I believe, it is intrinsically broken (as well as unfair on inexperienced younger players). A player may decide to start an auction, by not buying, only to participate in the same auction. This means they a seasoned player will start an auction to offer the lowest possible price. Doing so means they will always pay bare minimum, only ever going up to the property price, and potentially watching other (zealous) players pay way more than the property is worth.
This natural unfriendliness within the additional rules means that players will create house rules to even the game out – either that or ignore those rules entirely to have a fairer game.
A Natural Inclination
So far in this blog post, which has become a lot longer than I initially intended, we have identified three basic problems:
- The rules are badly written in some editions.
- The full rules are not overly family friendly.
- Some rules may be strategic to some but may seem unfair to others.
What these add up to is a lot of house rules being created for a relatively simple game. It becomes natural, when rules don’t make 100% sense, to create house rules. We have a few for certain games ourselves, but Monopoly is such a big game (culturally) we would expect more people to play the rules how they are written.
Victims of Their Own Success
What we see with Monopoly, I believe, is a classic case of Monopoly being a victim of its own success. A lot of people own the game, and a lot of people have house rules. This is so much so I actually found an article about regular house rules – on the Hasbro website – in 2014 they also released some with the regular game.
Hasbro want to keep the game the same because it sells; however, they also have to accept a house rule culture that has grown up around it. As such they will not amend the rules, but rather amend how people perceive the game. In a way, they have doomed their own mechanics to always need fixes from the players.
This is such a shame, as the game has so much potential that gamers really need not dislike it. I would personally recommend everyone has a copy, if for no other reason than the reason why everyone needs a chess set. It is a piece of gaming history that deserves respect, even if it doesn’t deserve to be played in its current state.
Anyway, this has been a really long article (and has taken me around three hours to write) so I am curious – what are your opinions on Monopoly? Do you have house rules (if so, what are they?) or do you play the game as is – warts and all?
From what (internet) research has told me over the years, Monopoly was originally conceived as a rather unfriendly game anyway (The Landlord’s Game) with a rather pointed moral message, so it makes sense that it still retains the rather cutthroat “pvp” element between Aunt Betty and Little Johnny.
Additionally, it really does show its age mechanically. To draw a comparison, I enjoyed Talisman in the late 80’s when I was a teenager, but trying to play it more recently makes me want to perform a lobotomy on myself with a spoon, as other games today do the same thing in a much more interesting manner.
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A couple of very good point. The Landlord’s Game was actually designed to show the risk of capitalism within society and to educate people on a fairer means of taxation. It’s got a really weird history (I wrote an article about it around three weeks ago).
I know what you mean, however, in a strange way, if people followed the real rules I’m not sure it would age so swiftly. The mechanics are old, and roll/resolve really needs to be revamped by something now (Monopoly did try it with the Speed Dice, but I’m not 100% sure it worked), and I reckon that is one of the reasons so many reasons people come up with house rules.
I suppose kudos, in a way, to Hasbro for accepting the house rules as a part of the culture. It’s very difficult to work out if they are a good thing, bad thing, or just a thing.
Thanks for the comment Azazel. Lots of food for thought in there.
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Agreed on Talisman; that was the coolest game EVAH when I was young, but now it’s like “Eh, sure I guess I could play it.” It’s SO long and has so many ambiguities in the rules. It’s definitely been passed by.
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I played a ton of Monopoly with the family when I was a kid. I liked it back then, but I wouldn’t now I’m sure.
I haven’t played it in many years though. Long ago I sat down with some friends and played it for what was the first time in years and immediately found out we had been playing it wrong the whole time. My family had never done the auctioning of landed on properties, and that made the game so different that it totally threw me off. Haven’t played since and don’t really plan on it.
Does anyone actually play Monopoly anymore or do they just collect all the special editions (Star Wars, LoTR, Nintendo, etc.)?
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That is a very good question. Maybe it is now more of a collector’s item than a game. Then again, what is the point in a game you never play?
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There’s a woman who I work with whose family collects them. Not sure if they play them as well – but then again you could say the same about any kind of collectable item – from miniatures that never see the tabletop to people who collect carded/MIB toys and so forth.
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I’ve got plenty of board games I’ve never played. Do I buy them with the intention of playing them? Fully! Would I like to play them? Sure! Do I have time to learn them all? …unfortunately not so much.
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I play sometimes, maybe 3 times a year. Faithful to EVERY rule, no house rules. Those just drag the game along way past any point of fun.
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