It is the game that represents gaming to most people in one capacity or another. Everyone has a copy, be it an heirloom from their parents or grandparents, or one of a million new shiny branded versions from Simpsons to Star Wars. It is very much a shared piece of gaming heritage, and it is what folks assume I am playing when I mention that I play board games regularly.
I have fond memories of the game myself, mostly stemming from a computer version for the Commodore Amiga that my brothers and I played so much that we had determined personalities for each of the AI players (Betty seemed to turn down every trade, and Andy was a conniving cheater). Because it is such a cultural touchstone, and a household name, I want to discuss it as a way of illustrating just how games have changed. You see, when I look at my game shelves and the games I play regularly, none of them really play like Monopoly. Unlike Risk, where designers have taken the core idea and iterated and changed it to be something more modern, most designer board games have tossed the gameplay of Monopoly aside.
To understand why this is the case, we’ll need to take a closer look at what makes up the gameplay of Monopoly. It is what’s called a roll and move game. Every turn players roll the dice, move to a space, and see what happens. From there, you either buy the space as property, pay the current owner of the space, or draw a card/do what the space tells you to do. Despite these simple rules, most people have been playing it wrong their whole lives. In fact, one of the most widely skipped rules is that if you don’t buy the property you land on, it immediately goes up to auction to the group. These auctions are the most interactive part of the game. Outside of whether to buy or auction, the decision window in the game is incredibly narrow. The dice roll tells you where to go, and the board itself dictates what happens next.
In a way, this type of game is a ride. Most folks have experienced the highs and lows of this roller coaster, from being a property lord with a murderers’ row of hotels waiting to bankrupt its next victim, to being an impoverished top hat or wheelbarrow (RIP iron), trying to hang on to pass go one more time. Countless other games rely on a similar formula, from Life, to Fireball Island, to Talisman. The dice, and the spaces on the board weave together your fate as a player.
For the longest time, this was what I thought board games were. The games from my youth were variations on the formula, and when I was asked to make a board game for a book report in school, what else did I make but a roll and move game with thematic spaces and cards based on the book.
So why did designer games move away from this kind of gameplay? Because players asked for more meaningful decisions. Instead of a dice roll and a space on the board dictating the interaction, modern games use the dice, board and cards to open up a much wider array of decisions. These decisions allow players to dictate their own path through a game, and rewards strategic planning and tactical opportunism. At the end of a game one can look back at where things went right or wrong, and approach the game differently the next time out. There is, of course, still room for chance, but players are much more the master of their own fate. For the most part designers in the industry have retired the Monopoly roll and move formula, but there are many new styles of game that carry on the theme and feel of that classic.
With that in mind I’d like to talk about three of my favorite games that have a Monopoly vibe while offering more interesting decisions. The first of these games is Lord of Vegas. This game captures the theme of casino lords during the early years of vegas building up huge casino empires. Unlike Monopoly, players are presented with a choice of what they would like to do each turn, and can take as many actions as they can afford. In this way a player crafts a turn, makes some calculated risks and just like Vegas, sometimes these risks pay off. There is still plenty of dice and plenty of luck as each casino is made up of different tiles and the highest player die determines who is the boss of that particular casino. One action players can take is to pay for a reorganization of a casino in which all player dice in the casino are rolled and control of the casino can shift based on this die roll. The game captures the feeling of slowly building up an empire, getting huge payouts when your investment pays off, and the back and forth interaction between players. Just like in Monopoly, trading is fair game in Lords of Vegas, and there’s a lot of fun in brokering a deal, sometimes in desperation, that with a little luck can bring you back into the running.
Another game that captures some of the feel of Monopoly with very different gameplay is Airlines Europe. Here you are investing in various airlines, and expanding their routes in the hopes of being the majority shareholder when dividends pay out. Like Monopoly, players need to invest money and build up the various airlines in order to capitalize on that growth later in the game. But the theme and feel are where the similarities end. Airlines Europe doesn’t have the roll and move mechanism, but instead gives players a choice of one of four actions each turn. Players drive the flow of the game by strategically utilizing this arsenal of actions, instead of waiting for the perfect roll.
Finally I want to touch on another game that takes the theme of Monopoly in a different direction. Last Will, in a nod to the 80’s classic Brewster’s Millions, has players trying to go broke as quickly as possible. Players use action cards to spend money in ridiculous ways, from buying real estate and selling it at its lowest possible value, to throwing extravagant balls or taking their horse out to dinner. The theme itself is half the fun as you and your friends compete to lose money, and curse when income accidentally slips into your coffers. And like many modern games the art does a wonderful job making players’ feel like bourgeois millionaires on a crazy spending spree.
Monopoly is an institution, and has certainly earned it’s place in the board game hall of fame, but I am always a bit confused when people’s interest in board games starts and stops with this perennial title. It would be like having a film collection that only consisted of Gone with the Wind, or sticking with the first Super Mario Bros. for decades. Just as TV, movies, and video games have evolved, the board game space has evolved too. It’s fine to hold on dearly to classics, but there’s a wealth of fun and entertainment to be gained by opening up to things a little more outside of the Monopoly box.