A lot of people like Monopoly. You may enjoy a family game of Monopoly over the holidays or may have family members who do. You may question, who am I to ‘improve’ a game that is approaching 300 million sales worldwide. I’m not here to tell you that Monopoly is a ‘bad’ game. There’s no such thing: enjoyment of a game is subjective. But I do believe that Monopoly’s success is not really due to its game design.
It was best (or best-promoted) among equals in the 1930s, and by 1930s standards, it was well-designed. But since then, like all design, game design has developed and innovated, while Monopoly has stayed the same. There are plenty of new ideas — better ideas — around now, that Monopoly doesn’t benefit from. Its continued success is best explained by nostalgia, familiarity and resistance to change. Put simply, it got there first and occupied a place in our culture where, for some people, Monopoly more or less is board games.
If Monopoly is not a good role model for game design, how could modern ideas and developments improve it? What might Monopoly look like if it had been designed today? I’d like to show how we could reconstruct Monopoly as an enjoyable game and also as a learning game — one that families could play over the holidays but that could also teach them (and others) a thing or two.
First, let’s keep the simplicity and good visual design
There are some things about Monopoly’s design that are worth emulating. It has a great, iconic visual design: clear, bold colours and simple elements that are easy to take in. Monopoly’s sets and properties are almost like London Tube lines and stations: visual design classics.
In a design sense, the square ‘loop’ where pieces move around the board is strong but as we’ll see later, this moving around the board isn’t always great from a gameplay point of view, so we might tweak that.
Let’s consider what Monopoly could teach people
To make Monopoly into a learning game, we should first ask: what do we want people to learn? Before it was marketed as a family game in the 1930s, it was created as a way to show the dangers of unfettered capitalism. Although you could argue it demonstrates this well in each game (as everyone bar one player is driven out of business), not many people take this lesson from the game.
We have plenty of options here but the most obvious is how to build a business and how to manage money well and make sound investments. You could argue that the game teaches these already but if so, it doesn’t teach them very well. In real life, to build a business and manage money well, you need to make good choices from a range of options. In Monopoly, choices are very limited and not like real-life business choices. The only exception is how much to pay for a property if it goes to auction and this doesn’t happen often.
Let’s replace the worst element: the roll-and-move of the dice
In game design, game mechanics are things that make the game tick, or the way that the game’s rules or elements move the game along. Monopoly’s central mechanic is roll-and-move. A player’s turn is to roll the dice and move the number of spaces shown, then act out whatever the space they land on says.
This means every turn is determined by chance. If you get a good roll, you get the property you want. If you get a bad one, you land on your opponent’s hotel and go bankrupt. This isn’t much fun and it doesn’t reflect real life or teach anything about managing money.
The worst thing about it is, that it means the game is centred around luck, rather than around interesting decisions. Interesting decisions are the core of good gameplay and they mean that thoughtful play and learning are rewarded.
We could make moving around the board more interesting
We could introduce interesting decisions by replacing the dice roll with a hand of cards that players play. Each card shows the number of spaces moved and once played, it goes to a discard pile. Players can’t use discards again until they’ve used up all the cards in their hand. This would introduce some interesting decisions but is perhaps not too much in line with the learning objectives.
Or we could give players some tokens that they could use up to reroll dice or add a ‘pip’ to a roll. These tokens could then be something that players choose to take when they pass ‘Go’ instead of some or all of the usual £200. We could add a space that allows players to buy more tokens. This starts to gel better with the learning objectives, as the tokens simulate business flexibility. If we give players the opportunity to invest in it, they can see it pay off later.
We could scrap moving around in favour of choosing where to go
It might be better to remove the journey in loops around the board altogether, though. If we redesigned the board, we could do all sorts of things. We could make it into a worker placement game. In this kind of game, each player has a limited number of player pieces — say three — instead of just one and the board, instead of a ring of consecutive spaces, is a number of unconnected areas. A player can place their piece on any of the areas without having to ‘move’ to it.
This gives players choices between options that are of roughly equal value but represent different strategies. So we could have:
- Buy one high-value property from those available
- Buy two low-value properties
- Hold a vote on a property to auction
- Collect more funds
- Build houses and hotels
- Take a chance on community chest
Each turn, players would have to choose where to place a piece from any available area. We could build on this, too and give each area some interesting choices. What if players could choose between expensive but long-lasting houses and hotels, or cheap ones that often need repair and upkeep? What if on the ‘buy property’ area, they can choose one of three face-up properties for face value, or an auction on any property in the game, with the risk of being outbid?
Worker placement games often limit the capacity of some or all of the areas where players can place pieces. If each area was limited to just one or two player pieces each round, they’d have some interesting dilemmas. What do they prioritise: the thing they need, or blocking their opponent? Buying more stuff, or getting more money? These are interesting choices and could be made to reflect real-life investment dilemmas.
We could deprioritise the board and have the action happen with cards
Worker placement is far from the only alternative to roll-and-move. Card drafting, such as in the game 7 Wonders, is where players choose one card from a ‘hand’ of many cards and then pass the rest around the table, repeating this a number of times.
Instead of moving around a board, players could try to get the properties they want in a draft like this and have to trade to make sets if they failed to get them by drafting them. There could be other cards in the draft besides properties, such as ones that just gain you cash or other resources or ones that help you improve your properties.
We wouldn’t have to draft all the properties in one go: we could have a series of draft rounds, with players improving their holdings each time and building towards sets of properties with improvements like hotels.
Instead of looking for full sets, players could compete to have the most of a colour
In Monopoly, the full set takes a lot of importance. If you get one of the best sets and have the money to improve it with houses and hotels, you are hard to beat. To make things more nuanced and competitive, we could take inspiration from area control games. In these, players gain a benefit from having the most influence over a particular area.
Instead of a limited set of two or three in each colour/area, there could be more: 7 or 8 perhaps. We wouldn’t expect anyone to collect them all but the more of one colour a player has, the higher rent they can charge.
To help with some of these ideas, we could change things like rent
Of course, if we replaced moving around the board, there would no longer be a way for players to land on your property and pay you rent. Instead, we could replace it with a phase after each ‘round’ or player turn, where each player’s property portfolio attracts a certain amount of business from ‘the public’, based on how well they’ve developed it. Players get (or lose) money accordingly.
Community Chest and Chance could change to fit our new ideas, too. Instead of them being random good luck or bad luck, choosing to draw a Community Chest or Chance card could mean you’ll have a choice to make on that card, for example between risky or safe options, or how much to invest (losing access to your cash now but gaining rewards later).
Let’s try to bring in some balance to keep things fun
One of the most problematic things about Monopoly from a design point of view is that players can get so behind they have no chance of winning and they then have to play out rolling and moving with no hope of anything but ending their misery by finally landing on a big hotel owned by the leader.
A catch-up mechanism could keep things interesting for everyone. It could be as simple as whoever has the least money goes first each turn. Or, we could build in high-risk, high-reward options which are too risky at the start but could be a last-ditch option for those with less to lose. Of course, we’d need to set the balance so that those who gain a lead by good play are still favourites.
More subtle balancing could also be thematic and tie in with what we want people to learn. Tax: the more you earn, the higher you’re taxed. A ‘Monopolies Commission’ that can take action against players who amass too great an advantage in a single area. If it was clear what would trigger the commission, then this could motivate players to balance their investments.
A new and dynamic market could be more realistic and fun
If we want the game to help people learn about managing money and investments, we might try to make the ‘market’ more realistic. In the basic game, the market is a set property price and an auction for refused properties. A market where the cost of properties varied with market conditions would be more realistic and help people learn about markets. And maybe be more fun, too.
We could put a system in place so that as properties in an area get bought up, the remaining properties go up in price. This would simulate real-life demand and also make it more difficult to monopolise an area. If we built in a system and a motivation to sell properties, too and made prices dip when this happened, then we could have a dynamic market where people looked out for bargains and opportunities and tried to get ahead of the curve.
This would be simple to implement: we could just have a display on the board showing, for each colour of property, the price based on how many are left. We could keep the cards or a marker there to show exactly how many are currently left/in play.
This could combine with any of the basic format ideas above — if a player spots an opportunity in one area, they could choose the appropriate spot if our Monopoly was worker-placement based, or if it was card drafting, prioritise the card that represents a bargain.
Let’s change the endgame to keep it a manageable length
As it stands, Monopoly ends when only one player is left. This means the endgame is a drawn-out process of rolling and moving until people land on hotels, with players gradually dropping out and having nothing to do but watch.
Instead, we could make it a race to a certain amount of money, or give players a certain number of rounds. This would keep the game to a manageable length and we could even get rid of the idea that players get eliminated altogether — we have a catch-up mechanism now, so everyone can stay interested until the last turn.
Let’s improve the replayability by varying players’ starts
Choosing the dog, the car, or the top hat is a tiny bit of fun but they all play the same. This means every game of Monopoly you play plays pretty much the same, just with different winners.
What if we gave each of those player tokens a corresponding card, detailing a difference in that player’s starting position, or a power and/or disadvantage they had, unique to them? One player could start with less money but pay less for properties. Another could have a ‘Trust fund’ set aside for them that they only get access to once they reach a certain point.
This would make it different and more interesting each time you play and if we thought these powers and disadvantages through carefully, they could also contribute to the learning, showing the advantages and disadvantages of certain financial set-ups.
This doesn’t have to mean a super-complex game
I’ve detailed a lot of options but we’re not going to use them all. We don’t have to turn it into a complex game where everybody is asleep by the time you finish explaining the rules. We could just switch from roll-and-move to worker placement, with a catch-up mechanism, a market with dynamic pricing and a fixed number of turns.
We’d have a simple game that still had many recognisable features of Monopoly but now involves interesting choices that relate more closely to real-life economic decisions. We could play it as a family game, or as a learning game with a debrief afterwards to draw out lessons.
Take inspiration from many places, and from games that do things well
I hope you’ve enjoyed my revamp of a board game classic. Let me know if you’d like to see the game I’ve described — if enough people ask, I might go ahead and create it.
More importantly, I hope you can see the lessons for learning game design. If you want to take inspiration from existing games for your learning games, look around widely and play a lot of games. There are a lot of games out there, with a lot of different mechanisms. Don’t just base things on the most iconic games — they may be iconic despite how they play, not because of it.