Friday, December 09, 2005

Atlantic City Economics

The two shadows passed silently through the doorway, dumping his battered body onto an old wooden chair. A moment later, a single bare-bulb light flickered on.

There was a sound much like the clink of coins. He strained to see through swollen eyes and heavy shadows, only to see a familiar figure standing before him. "Uncle Pennybags," he whispered.

The man before him was short and pale and round, looking as though he had always been that way. An ebony top hat balanced on his circular cranium, and his thin white mustache looked sharp enough to cut the skin. A single malevolent monocle glared out at him, hiding the ancient eyes beneath.

"You thought you had everything, did you, kid?" Pennybags circled the chair, eyeing him from every angle. "You thought you could own this city. You thought you could just buy a few properties, a couple of railroads, maybe even the electric company. You thought you could stay out of jail and play the community chest. You thought you could earn your keep putting up those sad little houses and swanky hotels."

"But... but I can pay! I can pay up! Just give me a couple more days..."

"And you'll do what?" Pennybags snarled. "Send some of your people over? You're too late, boy. We got them all: Rolls-Royce, Flat-Iron, Shoe... we got them all. Even if we did have to give old Shoe the once-over. He was a scrapper, wasn't he?"

"But I've got properties! I've still got the deeds! I can mortgage..."

"Too late!" Pennybags growled, kicking the chair out from under him. There was a sodden thump as he landed on the floor and almost blacked out. The light bulb went swinging.

"I... Uncle Pennybags..."

"My name's not Pennybags," the old man said, standing over his body. "I'm Atlantic City. I'm the last man standing here, boy. I'm Mr. Monopoly now."

The only response was the sound of whimpering.

"You're bankrupt, boy," Monopoly said, "and not even the bank can save you this time."

So... has anyone played Monopoly lately? :)

You see, after a long separation from the game, I ran my first session of Monopoly for the first time in almost ten years last Saturday. (This was with Anna, who happened to passing by at the time. Hi, Anna!)

Monopoly's been around since 1935 or so, although we've probably only been introduced to it rather recently. As a game that involves buying up properties across a given game board and developing them without running out of money, it's one of the walking epitomes of capitalism at the moment. Oddly enough, it carries with it some strange level of luck-based strategy, too. (Such insights would have been welcome to a seven-year-old kid who lost constantly to his older cousins, yes.)

After Anna and I were unable to finish the game, I spent a good thirty minutes looking over the game board and counting the various title deed cards. I figured that there had to be a certain mindset and strategy with regards to playing the game (as opposed to just running around the board buying everything in sight). The catch, of course, was that I didn't know what they were.

That is, I didn't know what they were yet. I considered that, after years of serious game-playing experience and informal strategy guides, I could make up a few hypotheses on how to play the game right. Now, I don't intend to play Monopoly to the point where I can crush any opponent who sits across the table, mind you, but I figure that I might as well have some fun testing out these theories.

Of course, personal strategies aren't much fun unless they're shared. So I've conveniently listed down my current hypotheses for Monopoly strategy here, just so that you'll know what I might try to pull off during a game. And hey, you can even try these yourself! (Just make sure to tell me whether or not they actually work. If they don't, then... well... better you than me. Har har.)

On the other hand, if you haven't tried the game yet, you can always leave a comment at the bottom of this article. That way, I'll remember to ensnare you within a session sometime. :)

So... where was I? Oh, yeah, the hypothetical strategies:

1. Favor certain properties.
I read somewhere that, statistically, players stand the highest chance of landing on Illinois Avenue during a game. That implies good returns if one buys Illinois, and even better prospects if one somehow manages to pick up Kentucky and Indiana Avenue as well.

Alternatively, statistics also state that players stand the highest chance of landing on any of the three Orange-colored properties than on any other color set. That means that St. James Place, Tennessee Avenue and New York Avenue may just be prime real estate to a player.

As a personal preference, I've kind of liked the possibility of picking up the Green properties as well (Pacific Avenue, North Carolina Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue) because the astronomical rent you can charge once you get some houses on them. I don't know where they fare with regards to statistics, though.

I think that the Dark Blue properties (Baltic Avenue, Mediterranean Avenue) should be avoided because of the low rent, and that the Blue properties (Park Place, Boardwalk) should be avoided because of their high development cost and low probability of arrivals. Other than that, though, it's purely up to the dice.

2. Know when to hold 'em.
The object of collecting all properties of the same color set is probably at the heart of Monopoly. Any player who manages to do so, you see, earns the right to build structures (houses and hotels) on them, and subsequently charge higher rent to future arrivals.

There's an interesting rule, however, that says that if a player ever lands on an unowned property and refuses to buy it, then that property is turned over to the other players for auction. It might therefore be a good strategy (albeit a possibly expensive one) to buy up certain spaces in order to prevent others from completing their respective color sets.

3. Know when to fold 'em.
The prospect of mortgaging one's properties (i.e. selling them back to the bank in exchange for half their face value) is also probably at the heart of Monopoly. Sooner or later in the game, each player's going to have to scrabble for money or risk bankruptcy, and it'll most likely be tempting to let go of a few idle properties in order to get some much-needed cash.

The twist, of course, involves when exactly one should let go of properties that are preventing opponents from completing their color sets. I think it's a question of timing, really. These things should be held till the last possible second.

4. Track your income.
Each player only has one regular source of income: the "Go" space where they collect $200. Assuming that each player will then have to trudge around the board at least once before they can return to that space, that means that they'll need to make that $200 count.

In the early game, the $200 should probably be spent to collect more properties. In the late game, however, it might be better to hoard the $200 as emergency funding in case one needs to make a nasty payout.

5. Sometimes you'll want to Go to Jail.
This was an odd realization; Jail usually has a very negative connotation for most players. When placed in a situation where you can't move, one's natural instinct is to get the heck out of there as soon as possible.

In the late game, however, I figure that there are some situations where you'll actually welcome going to Jail. I mean, what if the board's a virtual minefield of opponents who want to charge you rent? Staying in a nice cold cell for up to three turns and not moving at all sounds pretty good there.

6. Hoard the houses.
A standard Monopoly set comes with 36 little house tokens and 12 hotel tokens. Interestingly enough, there's an obscure rule that says that the total number of houses on the board can never exceed these maximums, and it goes remarkably well with the building rules.

What building rules? Well, in the game, you can only build a hotel on a property if the place already has four houses -- in which case the hotel replaces all four houses and the rent is substantially increased. If you don't buy hotels, however, you'll end up hogging all the houses -- and you'll also effectively prevent the other players from further upgrading their properties. Nice.

Of course, much like any good set of hypotheses, these ideas can't be tested until the next few times I play the game. Or unless any nice people out there decide to try these out and report the results. :)

I like board games, really. There's a certain attraction when it comes to considering rules and strategy for them. They're like puzzles that aren't presented as puzzles -- rather, they're more like a series of restrictions that challenge one to move about inside. I've found that there's a certain thrill to being able to figure out the fundamental strategies behind a game, which can only be compounded by the possibility that one's opponents may be working under the same tactics and assumptions.

So now... anybody for Boggle? :)


Anonymous said...

Sean said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the link. :)

Taking only Durango Bill's "Intend One" results, it looks like the books I previously read were correct: Illinois Avenue and the Orange-colored properties are the most-landed ones in the game.

What's more interesting is that, in his main page, he implies the viability of a voluntary decision to stay in Jail. I might be on the right track with some of these, then.

Now, if there were any wrist exercises that could enhance one's ability to throw doubles, then I'd be happy. (Not to mention obsessed.) :)

Roy said...

Interesting study.

The variance in the statistics is quite low though...all of the properties are within +/- 1% of each other. The info might be enough to help you formulate a general strategy that would be effective in winning you a larger number of games over a series of say a hundred games, but I'm not sure if you could devise a strategy that would help you win each single game (Monopoly still has a fairly high luck factor compared to, say, Scrabble)

This is interesting, but I'm not willing to pursue it because
a) I don't have a monopoly board at home anymore; and
b) I wouldn't have time to play and
c) I might become obsessed :p

Another interesting link I found on the subject:

Sean said...

Roy: Hey, long time no see! Clair would love that Pandaren icon of yours. :)

I figure that that might be why every game has a luck factor. It's probably arguable that, for every set of rules that leaves absolutely nothing to chance, then it would always be possible to come up with a strategy that would "win" every scenario using that set of rules.

You'd better warn me if we ever meet, though. I might have that board on hand. :)

mvprg said...

heh, good tips esp. the houses bit. forgot about them.

usually my strategy is buy everything possible. hee

Sean said...

mvprg: I did that for the longest time, too. My siblings even made up this house rule that allowed players to borrow money from the bank just so that we could buy more stuff. It made for some really loooong games. :)

The Intrepid Dr. Root said...

I have tested the building shortage hypothesis of keeping houses at 4 on each and not building hotels. It really works in certain situations to hold the upper hand. One thing to note is that with hotels, the rent does not go up that much from four houses... this becomes more true with properties after Free Parking (The reds, yellows and greens and dark blues)

Also important to note is that with these properties, and the oranges and light purples to some extent, the rents really increase when you go from 2 houses to 3 houses, but not so much when you go 4 houses to hotel.

Check out my blog for some to make the game more interesting and add more strategy!

The Intrepid Dr. Root said...

I've discovered a good strategy in a two person game. If you play by the rules and auction properties you don't want to buy, often it happens that the person who is buying everything they land on run out of money--forcing them to auction properties to you at a less than retail price! This generally only works in a two player game where there are so many properties to be distributed between two people as to cause a money shortage before they are all purchased.