Last week, one of the stories coming out of Toy Fair 2011 was Hasbro’s latest spin on Monopoly, called Monopoly Live. It uses a computerized tower in the center of the board with built-in infrared sensors that can recognize where the pawns are and whose turn it is to move. Everything is automated—you hold your hand over your pawn and it tells you how many spaces to move. You want to buy something? Insert your bankcard and it automatically deducts the proper amount.
According to this New York Times article, “Hasbro hopes that the computerized Monopoly will appeal to a generation raised on video games amid a tough market for traditional board games.” I suppose there are some of these kids “raised on video games” might think that a talking cylinder suddenly makes Monopoly a whole lot more exciting. But I doubt it.What is it about Monopoly, anyway? Why does this 100-year-old game still epitomize “board game” for so many people in the world? Last month there was news about a board game developed by the Polish National Remembrance Institute that was intended to remind the younger generation what life was like under communism. Most of the articles I read about it, including this piece from the Huffington Post, compared the game to Monopoly—despite the fact that you don’t buy property or build hotels or even, as far as I can tell from photos, go around the outside edge of a square board. In fact, from the descriptions I’ve read I would say that the game is probably nothing like Monopoly. But that’s all that people seem to know.
Approach your average American and say you enjoy board games. I guarantee you, nine times out of ten, you’ll get a response something like: “You mean like Monopoly?” (And the other ten percent will challenge you to a game of Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne.) Sure, there are some folks who really love Monopoly—but personally I’ve only known a few that have actually completed an entire game of it. Most of the people who are using Monopoly as the standard example of board games don’t even like the game—and, by extension, whatever it is you play. When I moved to Tribune a few years ago, I met one person who had heard of Settlers of Catan; the rest of the people I met apparently pictured me sitting there, rolling dice and moving a pawn around and around a square board, and they couldn’t see the appeal. Over time, I managed to accumulate a good group of board gamers, but they’re mostly high schoolers and college students, those who didn’t have Monopoly ingrained in their minds as the be all and end all of board games. It’s been a lot harder to get adults interested—and it’s mostly your fault, Monopoly.
And it’s not just America. China, as far as I’ve been able to tell, does not have a big board gaming community. There are a lot of people who play Chinese chess or Go, but I think it’s striking that there isn’t really a term for “board game.” There’s 棋 (qi) which literally means “chess,” or 大富翁 (da fu weng) which means “rich person” and is the name for—you guessed it—Monopoly. I asked my parents (native Chinese speakers) what they would call a “board game” and they basically answered “Monopoly.”
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising. Monopoly has been around for a long time. For many people, it’s one of the first board games they’re exposed to once they’ve moved past (though one might say not very far beyond) Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. There are umpteen versions of the game, not even counting all the licensed Something-opoly versions that are just the same exact game with different names and graphics. You can get the version with updated pricing, the one that uses bank cards, the one that comes with a round board. And now this one, which wrests just a little more control and choice from the player (not that there was a whole lot to begin with). The conclusion of the New York Times piece sums up my feelings pretty nicely. Dale Crabtree is quoted as saying, “The first thing I said was, ‘The next thing they’ll do away with is the players.'” And this from a guy who presumably likes the game—after all, he was a finalist in the national Monopoly championships. (Want to hear from somebody who doesn’t like the game? Click here—but be forewarned that David Morgan-Mar really dislikes it and his rant is not suitable for children. Or most adults.)
It’s time for a new paradigm. Let’s stop treating Monopoly as if it’s the gold standard because, come on, it’s just not that great. The reason kids these days aren’t playing Monopoly isn’t because they’re hooked on video games or because they have short attention spans or, for that matter, because what they’re really looking for is a board game with their favorite sports team plastered across the center of the board. The real reason is that there are so many better board games out there that require strategy and decision-making and negotiation and social interaction—and no batteries. Oh, and they’re fun. Some of them take fifteen minutes to play and some take five hours to play, but they’re engaging in a way that Monopoly simply isn’t, no matter how many bells and whistles you cram into it.
You’ve had a good, long run, Monopoly. But maybe it’s time to hang up that top hat.
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