Sunday, January 15, 2012

Monopoly: Return to the Gilded Age

The classic board game Monopoly gives a group of players (2-8, to be exact) the opportunity of fulfilling the American Dream of moving up the economic ladder. Represented by iconic tokens, players take turns rolling dice and moving around the board with game spaces named after the iconic streets of Atlantic City, NJ. Each player, upon landing on these property spaces, are given the opportunity to purchase them from the Bank, and thereafter charge rent on them (and thus increase their wealth). If a player chooses to not buy a property, that property is then sold at auction to the highest bidding of the players of the game. The addition of houses and hotels, once a player has acquired all the properties of a like-colored group (setting up their Monopoly), only increases the value of the property and the overall net worth of the player. That said, there are many ways that a player can just as quickly lose that acquired wealth by traversing the board - they run the risk of landing on other players' properties and paying rent, having to pay income tax, ending up in jail, or having to donate money to the community or losing it through chance.  An added mechanic of the game is that players are free to buy, sell, and trade properties among themselves to further try and increase their controlled territory of the board. However, a player can run into trouble when they find that they do not have enough money to pay rent, which can ultimately lead to them having to sell their hotels and houses and mortgage their properties to try and pay off their debt. A player is finished with the game when they can no longer do so and must declare bankruptcy - the winner is the last player remaining.
The game state changes on every turn, which means that each player's resources (the money and property they own) and the information (who owns which properties and which ones can still be purchased) also change on every turn.

The resulting combination of these formal elements creates a gameplay that is focused on pitting player against player. The design of the game creates a positive feedback loop, and once a player begins to get ahead, it then becomes very difficult to catch them, and more often than not, a clear winner emerges relatively quickly, leaving very little reason for others to continue playing. That said, the first couple of rounds of the game, when every player is more or less on even footing, do create a suspenseful and tense atmosphere. Typically players begin to pick up property very early on, as it is the only way to make money, but until players begin to own entire color-groups, the damage that one takes in paying rent is relatively minor. Because the amount of spaces that a player can move is determined by the roll of the dice, where one lands (and therefor which properties a player can purchase) is almost entirely random. This means that the decision making process of each player is fairly consistent from round to round: do I buy this property? Which spaces do I want to avoid? What owned properties do I maybe want to trade for? This aspect of the game can be entertaining, but as previously stated, once a clear winner is determined and players start losing their money faster than they can make it, the game loses its appeal and it becomes a dragged out affair as one by one, players declare bankruptcy. 

In looking at the game and the message that it was trying to send, it is relatively clear why the designer chose the elements seen in the current game. The game is a reflection of the times in which it was created. The "American Dream" of everybody having the ability and opportunity to climb the ladder of success was fading away. It was becoming more and more apparent that only those who got ahead early and could build up their empires would become successful, while gradually everybody else would lose everything. The game is a critique of the Gilded Age - apparently golden on the outside, but rusty and broken underneath it. Owning property is one of the greatest of all American values and ideals, and this game highlights that. It also highlights the change made during this period to where people gave up the freedom of owning their own property in order to make ends meet (seen in the game as having to mortgage your property to the Bank in order to pay rent). The player vs. player structure intensifies the feeling of competition, and there is a sort of resentment that builds up towards that one person who is being positively reinforced by the game itself. That said, I don't think the game would nearly be as fun if that structure didn't exist - or at least it would not be as historically accurate. The idea of everybody having equal opportunity to build up their wealth is a great one, but let's be reasonable, it has been a rarity throughout American history. Had the designer instated a negative feedback loop, the game would have been perhaps more equal for all the players involved, but the fundamental mechanic of rolling the dice to determine movement around the board would have had to be changed or altered so as to not be rewarding to those who simply got lucky. A long game as it is, trying to keep the players together longer would more than likely have the effect of drawing it out.
It was interesting in playing the game this time, because I have not played it in several years. Reading through the rules fully, I realized that there were several aspects that had been missing from my family version of the game - most notably, the auctioning off of properties if they were not wanted by the player who landed on them. Ironically, this one rule that was never practiced in my family's rendition of the game didn’t come up in this most recent playing. We all simply had enough money that whenever we landed on a property, we would simply buy it outright. In reflection, it makes me wonder if it would have been more to our advantage to decline the offer on the properties, only to auction it for a lower price. That said, something that didn't change was the onset of boredom once it became clear who the winner of the game was going to become. In the family version, it was customary to just quit at this point, rather than drag the game on and on. So while there is a point where it is no longer entertaining, Monopoly does teach about resource management and the value of property, as well as provides a small look at a fundamental era in America's history.

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