A geek's defense of Monopoly

Monopoly gets a bad rap. Though many gaming enthusiasts will turn their noses at the “Property trading game from Parker Brothers,” it remains one of the best-selling board games of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good game of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, but Monopoly is a classic. It’s an oddball that is misunderstood and underrated by many gaming geeks. Its seemingly all-chance mechanics, excruciating length, and reputation for ending in a slow bleed or a rage quit leave many gamers unimpressed.

Maybe you feel the same way. In which case, permit me to offer some counterarguments to common gripes people have about Monopoly.

It’s all luck

Negative, Ghost Rider. People who believe this probably lose a lot. Sure, chance is a major factor. I mean, every turn requires a roll of the dice. But that doesn’t mean you as a player are powerless. In fact, you can use the knowledge of this chance to your advantage. Consider this: the highest trafficked property set on the board are the Oranges. Why? Several reasons, not the least of which is that they are aproximately one dice roll away from the Jail square, which itself is the most frequently landed on space on the entire board. If you know this, and especially if your opponents don’t, then you have an advantage.

Monopoly is a game of decisions. Every turn (not just yours) presents new ones. Crucially, Monopoly allows trading. You can trade, buy, and sell with your opponents. This is the single most important gameplay mechanic of Monopoly—so much so that it’s right there on the front of the box—and it involves zero luck. This is where you get to use your knowledge of the game and your charisma to bargain with your friends (or enemies!) and enhance your position in the game. No one ever trades with you? Every player wants something. Sometimes people even irrationally favor some properties over others. Figure out what other players want, and make sure that they get it—all while not realizing what valuables they are giving to you in the process.

It takes a long time to play

I’m biased because I enjoy long games. One summer, some friends and I spent three days playing a game of Axis and Allies. But Monopoly needn’t take an inordinate amount of time. One of the main reasons the game can go long is because people don’t play by the rules. Either they don’t know the rules, or they add their own house rules to the game. House rules are Monopoly’s downfall. Tournament player Ken Koury, in his book “Monopoly Strategy,” wrote of house rules:

Of all of the different rule variations I have seen, I have never seen one that makes Monopoly any better. Most of them just make the game longer. These rule changes also have the effect of removing skill from the game and increasing the luck factor. In other words they reduce the skill level needed to win the game. This will only make it easier for lesser players to win. For example, when there is no money on Free Parking, it requires you to develop important skills in managing your assets that people who play house rules will never acquire.

As another example, many players do not follow the rule that governs what happens when you land on an unowned property. The official rules state, “If you do not wish to buy the property, the Bank sells it at auction to the highest bidder.” I was guilty of not following this rule for a long time as well. But by not following it, your game will take longer because A) it will take more time to get all the properties in play, and B) it will take some of the skill out of the game (knowing if and how much you should bid).

House rules and the misunderstanding of the official rules are at the root of why so many people don’t like Monopoly.

The slow bleed of your opponents gets boring

This happens sometimes in Monopoly—a scenario in which one player has just enough of a leg up on the others such that this person is almost certainly going to win while the other players slowly lose their wealth.

But it needn’t be this way. Most likely, one or more of the following problems are causing this scenario:

No one is trading

This is your opportunity to disrupt the field. Convince the other players that action must be taken to ensure survival against the clear winner. Remember, they want something. Help them get it while helping yourself. Don’t be afraid to give other players monopolies. Most people expect to get a monopoly out of a trade. If your strategy in trading is to never let anyone else have a monopoly, then people are going to stop trading with you. You want to be involved in all trading if you can help it. But you have to give to receive.

The players don’t understand the object of the game

The point of Monopoly isn’t to gain wealth. The object of the game is to bankrupt your opponents.[1] To do that, you need to develop property to bankruptcy-inducing levels. I once played with a guy would only spend his starting cash, and not his “profit stack”—money which he earned during the course of play. Fortunately, he valued his cash so much that he was willing to sell you properties for cash-only, even if it gave you a monopoly.

If you look at the rent prices on any property’s title deed, you’ll notice that the price jumps significantly once a third house is built on the property. That should be a goal to guide your decisions. Work toward getting one or more monopolies developed with at least three houses on each property (more for the really cheap properties). It’s not about what you have, it’s about the damage you can do.

Players aren’t playing by the rules

I’ve already mentioned how rule variants can ruin a good game of Monopoly, but it’s worth mentioning again in the context of the slow bleed. Rules like the Free Parking jackpot increase the money supply in the game and if a losing player gets it, that can artificially extend their life. If you allow trading of immunity, then you are extending the game by making it harder for the immune player to go bankrupt.[2] Read the official rules before playing and make sure everyone agrees to play by the them—with no added house rules.

Give Monopoly a chance

Monopoly is a brilliant game. It affords you an environment where your wit and charm can help you get ahead. Your intellect and sharp thinking can help you make quick decisions that can make or break you. It’s a game of structure, skill, and luck with a healthy dash of creative gameplay built right in.

If this article has made you want to take a walk on the Boardwalk, then I highly recommend Ken Koury’s book “Monopoly Strategy.” Ken’s book was my main inspiration for this article. Ken discusses in depth the strategy of Monopoly, including the pros and cons of every property set on the board, trading strategies, and much more. Just don’t tell people that you have read it, because they might not want to play with you.

  1. Though the official rules say, “The object of the game is to become the wealthiest player through buying, renting and selling of property,” you will note that the rules also state, “The last player left in the game wins.” ↩︎

  2. Immunity is the only issue that isn’t really covered by the rules in a clear way. There is a rule that states, “No player may borrow from or lend money to another player.” If you construe immunity as a loan, then offering immunities in trades would be prohibited. This argument doesn’t satisfy some people, so the other argument you can make is that tournaments don’t allow immunity. ↩︎