Wednesday, June 26, 2013


So a seven-year-old tongue-in-cheek blog post about the board game Monopoly recently went viral (again), passed around on social networks, the blogosphere, and even major mainstream news sites as purporting to have uncovered a forgotten rule that would speed up play of the game considerably. The gist of it is that, when you land on a property and wish not to buy it, instead of simply moving on as we've all been doing, the banker is supposed to auction it off to the highest bidder. I don't know how well implementing the rule shakes out in high-level play, where I assume it is commonly known. Actually, among the most hardcore board game enthusiasts I know, Monopoly is fairly poorly regarded anyway as a case of broken design. As a normal human being, who has only ever turned to the game as an absolute last resort when faced with nothing to do in mutually awkward company, I'd happily invite any rule change that would make for a faster-paced and more social game. Or, as occasionally that jackass who gets overly serious over board games played casually with polite company, I can only imagine that the rule would benefit me, having far too often watched as some barely half-awake opponent disinterestedly passed on a property that I would have hungrily snatched up toward completing a monopoly. Indeed, the last time I played Monopoly, I remember being cruelly foiled by our group's ignorance of the official rules (or maybe just by it being a poorly designed game).

* * *

It was 2001. Our family was on its annual summer vacation in the Bay Area. We were having dinner with friends of my parents. After dinner, while the grownups, ostensibly reflecting on old times and catching up on the present, continued their conversation over mahjong in the dining room, the young people, having no interest in such things, were dismissed to the living room. It was awkward. At least, I felt it was awkward, as I'm pretty sure not one of us—me, my brother and sister, and the daughter of our parents' friends—wanted to be there. Well, I suppose the daughter, Alice, wanted to be there, to the extent that it was her home, after all. But none of us cared to be stuck in that situation, I'm sure, waiting for the party to break up, before we could all get on with our own lives. And, on second thought, maybe she wanted out of that house too. I have no idea. Anyway, for entertainment, Alice dug out her dusty game of Monopoly from her room. Asked whether we wanted to play, the rest of us just shrugged our shoulders. And so Monopoly it was, even though none of us had played it in years and the instructions were missing.

Now, I don't play a lot of competitive games, and, to that extent, I don't consider myself a very competitive person. But, when I do compete, it tends to be either all or nothing. Either I put all of myself into trying to win, or else I shrug my shoulders and invest only just enough so that no one can accuse me of not participating. Perhaps neither approach is very conducive to a fun group experience, and admittedly I'm not always a very fun guy to have around. But, as far as “all or nothing,” usually it's nothing, and I only give it my all when instructed to, or when there is something on the line. In this case, I'm not sure what was on the line, but, even so, in hindsight, we probably should have laid out some ground rules before getting into this game of Monopoly. Specifically, were we taking this seriously or not?

Alice explained the basics as best she could from memory, and certain house rules (e.g. the Free Parking jackpot) were agreed upon as we went along. At first, nobody really seemed into talking, and people only spoke as necessary to keep the game moving along. Of course, we could barely hear ourselves anyway over the boisterous chatter in the other room. They were having a good time now, but it was a poorly kept secret from the kids that my parents annually made the Bay Area trip primarily so that my mother could argue with her brother (my uncle), who lived there, over who was to be responsible for their mother (my grandmother). Well, I suppose the primary reason was so that we could visit my grandmother, who was also living (in a retirement home) in the Bay Area, but inevitably every meeting between my mother and my uncle turned vicious. Maybe that was why it was awkward for us kids (well, I had just graduated high school, and my brother university, but "kids" all the same).

But the night was not yet over, and neither was the game of Monopoly. Indeed, I for one was just getting started. I don't know what came over me, but something did change. At some point, I just paused, looked around me, and wondered what I was doing there. We had driven up to the Bay Area to watch my parents become further enmeshed in some terrible drama that truly had nothing at all to do with me. I had, by that point, mostly accepted that it was my lot to be, at best, a supporting character in other people's lives, but, even so, I suppose I had hoped to be part of a nobler story. There was no good role for me there in whatever ill-conceived Hollywood melodrama—no, more a trashy sitcom, if that even—that they were scripting for themselves, and yet I stubbornly refused to just recede into the background. And so, asking myself again what I was doing there, I answered that I was there to play Monopoly. And I was there to win Monopoly.

No, I would not be just some background extra, nor even a supporting character. Again, I'm not sure why, but I was suddenly determined that the story of the trip would be mine. I wanted, when everyone else went to their bedrooms and recorded that night in their diaries, that they would write, not about how such-and-such person had made such-and-such other person feel such-and-such feelings, but about how this guy had just delivered a dominating performance with the most brilliantly played game of Monopoly any of them had ever been so privileged to witness.

And so it was on. Or at least I was. The others seemed not to care at all about the outcome and were only going through the motions. But I didn't care that they didn't care. I was ready to compete, to win, to be ruthless. Even my tone of voice sharpened, and I made my frustration known any time people didn't snap to attention when their turn came up. In that moment, I knew with perfect clarity what I wanted, I was determined to have it, and nobody was going to stand in my way.

Unfortunately, I didn't really take into account that 1) I barely knew the rules of the game, let alone any solid strategies, and 2) in any case, Monopoly was not ultimately a game of skill but a game of dice.

Once I managed to secure both Park Place and the Boardwalk to complete my monopoly of the luxury blue properties, spending nearly everything I'd had to make it so, I felt victory within my grasp. But things only unraveled very quickly for me from there. On the next turn, my brother landed on Park Place, and I was ready for a huge payout. As it turned out, even factoring in his meager assets, he didn't have anywhere near enough to pay me. Landing on Park Place bankrupted him and forced him out of the game, but I got almost nothing else out of it. I was perplexed. It occurred to me that I had never before actually finished a game of Monopoly, and I didn't even know how one was supposed to win. The official rules were lost, so I couldn't look up the endgame conditions. I had thought the goal was to make the most money, but, in this case, I was beating my brother while making hardly any money at all. Even so, I was confident. It appeared to me that, with Park Place and Boardwalk under my control, I had in my possession essentially an “instant kill” monopoly that would bankrupt and decisively eliminate any opponent that landed on either space. I had just seen it happen, and I had only to wait for the same fate to befall the others.

Instead, on my next turn, I landed on Alice's orange monopoly, and since, once again, I had almost no money, I was suddenly the one who could not pay up. Maybe if I had converted my assets to cash, I would have had enough to pay, but I refused. It seemed to me that there was something terribly wrong with how things had played out. I should have had more than enough to pay in cash. I should have had plenty of money coming to me, still owed to me by my brother, whom I had bankrupted. Instead, buying Park Place and Boardwalk had not come close to paying off, in terms of actually earning me any money. And, because I had never received what I was owed, now I was the one unable to pay and about to lose everything. It didn't seem fair. It didn't make sense to me. I felt certain that there must have been something in the rules to protect me against such a ridiculous scenario, but conveniently we did not have the rules to consult.

I was furious. I told them it was outrageous. I declared Monopoly a broken and degenerate game. I didn't quite flip the board over, but I threw my money down and walked out of the room. I went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. Yes, somehow I had gotten lost in something and ended up making myself, instead of the leading man of the story, rather more likely the antagonist. But I had a point, didn't I? In any case, Alice “won” the game, and maybe she deserved it, as much as anyone can be said to deserve a pile of fake money that literally already belonged to her. Our parents wrapped up their own game (or whatever the hell was going on over there), and finally we could call it a night.

So things hadn't quite gone according to my plan, but I suppose, in a way, I had gotten in the final word and put my own stamp on the night, having managed to expose the scam that is Monopoly. More than a decade later, I have not played the game since, I intend never to play it again, and I'd like to think we've all lived more comfortably ever since.

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