Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.

Sean's Note: It's funny how you can create an article out of bits and pieces. This thing's pretty old, although I've been adding to it little by little over the last month. The prequel to this article is over here.

Three games of Monopoly later, my siblings and I are all tied at one win each. My brother won our first game by hoarding three railroads and cruising to victory on the rent; My sister won our second game when she managed to land on all the light-blue properties early in the game; and finally, I won our most recent outing when I started charging them $900 rent every time they landed on Pacific Avenue.

While Monopoly's still far from being a purely strategic game in my book (there's too much of a luck requirement for my taste), it makes for a passable evening diversion. Somehow, though, I keep hearing stories of people who play it often enough to develop expert skills. I wonder just how many hours you have to spend at the game just so that you can crush your opponents' hotels beneath your feet.

Three games looks like a good enough start, though. I figure that it's possible to assess my stratagem now, make a few changes, and see if they do anything for the next couple of matches. That's probably where the educational value of board and card games lie, I think: They constantly get you wondering whether or not you're playing things right. If you're not, the games encourage you to fix your play style; otherwise they get you considering how you can one-up those opponents who use the same strategies.

I outlined six propositional strategies in my previous article on the subject, and I'll revisit each in turn:

A1. Favor certain properties.
As Roy carefully noted earlier, it's simply not viable to expect to land on certain key spaces on the board. While players are more likely to land on certain properties over others, the variance between them is so low as to be untrustworthy.

That said, Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean Avenue are still probably the worst places to set up shop. With the low frequency by which people seem to land on them, $50 per house simply won't get any substantial return. Boardwalk and Park Place suffer from a similar problem with low frequency, and on top of that, the $200-per-house charge will probably bankrupt you by itself. But it's worth seeing an opponent's face, at least, when he comes up short of Go and has to shell out $35 or $50 because of his misfortune.

A2. Know when to hold 'em.
It turns out that there might not be much strategy in buying idle properties at auction. In addition, deciding which deeds to mortgage at which times is probably an easier decision than expected. Both have the same underlying logic behind them, and it involves, quite frankly, whether you have the money or not. No money, no moves.

A3. Know when to fold 'em.
This was extremely obvious at first glance, particularly because properties don't diminish in worth over time. It's too obvious, though, which really questions its worth as a strategic element.

I suspect that the real issue of timing comes about when you're given the opportunity to un-mortgage your properties. When's the right time to do that? Should you buy the place back and prevent your opponents from seizing it, or should you keep the cash in case you suddenly run into a vicious case of rent? A good deal of the risk-management aspect of the game is reflected in the mortgage mechanic, I think.

A4. Track your income.
Yes, you get $200 whenever you pass Go. The longer the game goes, the lower the value of this $200 gets, but it's still free income, and free income never hurt anyone. In fact, for some players, the regular $200 infusion could mean the difference between staying in the game or going bankrupt.

This is in all probability why the "Income Tax" space is so frustrating: You either lose that $200 you just got, or you cash in ten percent of your available funds. In addition, anyone who manages to pull in the Light-Blue properties places three more areas on the board that can take peoples' hard-earned money away from them.

A5. Sometimes you'll want to Go to Jail.
This was the only one I pegged exactly right the first time. When it's early in the game, you'll want to get out as soon as possible in order to buy up more properties. Otherwise, however, you'll want to stay inside just to avoid a treacherous path across the board. The only downside to staying in Jail is the fact that you're not getting the $200 from passing Go, and even then, this won't mean much if you're already in the late game.

A6. Hoard the houses.
Five words: "You are assessed for street repairs." The card only appears once in each of the Chance and Community Chest decks, but it's enough to give you second thoughts about insane levels of house-buying.

That said, three houses appears to be sufficient for most properties. At that point, the rent becomes substantial enough to trouble your opponents, you hoard a good-sized portion of the supply of tiny green tokens, and having to pay for street repairs won't hurt as much.

Now, considering our last three games, I have a bit more to add:

B1. Ride the railroads.
By themselves, the properties in Monopoly are fairly pathetic when it comes to rent. You may pay $280 for Marvin Gardens, for example, but how long will you probably need to recoup your investment if you don't own both Atlantic and Ventnor as well?

The railroads, interestingly enough, are almost certainly the best deals when it comes to receiving rent. One railroad gives you $25 rent, which is average for the game. Two railroads, however, give $50 rent, and double the chances by which you can ensnare opponents. If you somehow manage to own three or more railroads, then you're probably cruising to a win right then and there.

B2. Position is everything.
Board positioning is remarkably important in Monopoly. I think I've even covered this before, considering that we know that Baltic Avenue, Mediterranean Avenue, Park Place and Boardwalk probably aren't exactly the best places to buy.

For one, position determines the price of houses and hotels. Structures on the cheaper areas of the board, for example, have much lower prices than structures on the more expensive sections. While the Light-Blue properties don't offer as much as some of the later properties in terms of return, for example, it's easier to develop them because of the cheaper structures. You could theoretically be kicking opponents in the shins before they even get their first house on Indiana Avenue.

Another couple of items to note is that everyone inevitably wants to pass Go as often as possible, and that in the later stages of the game, everyone wants to stay in Jail for as long as possible. That makes properties around those areas somewhat attractive; Controlling the Orange properties, for instance, gives you a good chance of charging rent right after a player walks out of prison.

The Go to Jail space on the board may also be a distinct factor in this regard: Why invest heavily in the Green properties, for example, when players heading in their direction have a good chance of being sent back halway across the board? The presence of the Jail mechanic probably makes the more expensive properties more than a little risky.

Finally, there's always the prospect of building a "minefield" -- teaming up with a player in order to develop all the properties that lie on a single edge of the board. Opponents are going to have to pass through eventually, and it'll obviously be difficult for them to get through without having to pay you or your allies huge sums of money.

B3. Build in bursts.
It's difficult enough to expect to land on specific spaces of the board, I think. In fact, it's a lot more unreasonable to expect opponents to land on those specific spots.

Let's suppose that you own all the Green properties, where the houses and hotels are worth $200 each. Now let's suppose that an opponent is slowly moving towards those properties, and you only happen to have enough cash on hand to build one house. Where do you build it?

The simplest and most correct answer to this, I think, is that you shouldn't bother. If you manage to build only one house in that situation, the chances of your opponent landing on that exact same spot within the next turn are pretty slim. In addition to that, he'll have to do one more lap around the board before you get that chance again. Even worse, you're now down a couple hundred with almost nothing to show for it.

I've noticed that it's probably best to buy "rounds" of houses in this regard: If you're going to develop a set of properties because an opponent is coming up the walk, then you might as well buy for all of them at the same time. This increases the chances of forcing a large payout from that opponent. In fact, if your opponent's lucky enough to land on one of those developed properties, his rent will help finance your next round of construction in the same area.

B4. Talk turkey.
One of the interesting aspects of Monopoly is that you can negotiate with opponents when it comes to title deeds (although sadly, you can't lend or borrow money). This supposedly adds something to the risk-taking element of the game, but it can also be seen a good control mechanism for certain situations.

Every now and then, someone's going to get lucky and gain an advantage that puts him ahead of everyone else. That person may have gotten three or four railroads, or have acquired all properties of one color group, or have had multiple houses waiting in certain zones. In those cases, I feel it's clear that if the rest of the players in the game don't do something quick, the offending player is going to bleed them dry.

I think that pragmatic negotiation should really take over at this point. If somebody's charging you an arm and a leg for hotel rental on Atlantic Avenue, then you should start making offers that are more than a little skewed in nature. You say that you don't want my St. Charles Place for your Illinois Avenue even though it means that we'll both complete our color sets? Then we both might as well sit back and lose the game. If somebody's way out in front of the rest of the pack, then the rest of the players need to take drastic measures in order to catch up.

After three games, our interest in Monopoly has petered out a little, so I guess that I might have to hoard these strategies for a while. If anyone's interested in a game, though, do drop me a line. We can set something up, I suppose. :)

Now where did I put that Clue gameboard...?


3sha said...

I haven't played that game for such a long time...bring it on our next reunion! ^_^

Sheesh, how I wish we can acquire property as easy as stepping on it in real life hahahaha. (Things will get pretty chaotic when that happens)

Sean said...

3sha: Now I know how the Shoe token feels.

(Sorry... bad Monopoly reference.) :)

The Intrepid Dr. Root said...

This is fun:

I wish there was someway to alter Monopoly to have less luck. I guess one way would be to remove the six and the one on the dice and replace them with three and four. This would keep the variance in rolls down making it easier to predict what people will roll and therefore where they are liable to land in their next turn. In this scenario, the lowest number you could roll is 4 and the highest is 10 with six, seven and eight being twice as likely as before (and they were already the most likely of numbers to roll). Now when someone is on B&O Railroad you'll feel like your $1200 investment into the Greens for six houses on the unimproved group for a measly average return of $410 per property when someone lands will be less ridiculous of an investment of hard earned cash.

And not to complicate things more, but maybe a fun way to add perhaps a little more strategy and less luck to the game would be to allow players (with the new dice scheme I just laid out) the option of actually being able to change one of the numbers on the dice after rolling the dice on your turn. This number would be chosen before the game commences by each player to be the number they get to alter for the entire game. For Example: you choose any number between 2 and 5 as your number you change on any one die after you roll the dice on your turn. You would not be allowed to change this number once the game is underway. It is your number you get to change for the entire game.

For example: Everyone chooses the number which they want to be able to alter. Here's where it gets complicated. Because three and four have twice the chance of being rolled, if you choose these numbers as your number you get to alter, then you are limited to only being able to alter it 3 or 4. If you choose 3, you are only allowed to alter it up one to make it a 4. You would not be able to alter it down. The transverse of this would be true if you picked 4. You would only be able to alter it to a 3. So 3s and 4s would only be able to be those two numbers. HOWEVER, if you were to choose any of the other numbers you'd get to alter them up or down giving you more power when those numbers appear in a roll. So if you picked 2 to be your number used for the entire game, it could be a 1 or a 3. Or if you picked 5 it could be a 4 or a 6. Of course, you wouldn't have to alter it. Only if you saw it in your best interest. So let's say you are just visiting jail (a common place to be as there are many ways to be sent to jail and you always have to move from jail eventually) and there are three houses on each orange. Your chosen number to change for the entire game is 4 and you roll the dice and a 4 and a 5 show up for a total of 9. In regular monopoly this would put you on New York Ave for a rent of $600. But with my silly contraption you can keep the 4 as is or you can make it a 3 for a roll total of 8. Neither option is gonna get you out of trouble, but at least you'll have the option of choosing Tennessee over New York for a rent due of $550, a savings of $50. With these dice rules, the community and chance cards would be cyled through quicker in the latter stages of the game as people would prolly be choosing to land on them more to avoid high rents, meaning people would have to start paying attention to when the "Assessed for street repairs" or "Advance to Boardwalk" or any other number of places or "Pay Hospital $150" etc would be nearing the top of the pile giving savvy people the option of weighing whether it's better to pay $360 for street repairs over $250 for Indiana Avenue. If I pay only $250 I lose less money but the gap between me and my opponent will be $500 after my paying him versus the $360 after I pay the bank the penalty. These rules, as silly and complicated as they seem, could make the game a little more interesting.

Now if there is concern that "the choose the die rule" would give players too much control over where they landed you could add a stipulation saying that you can only use the die change once per cycle around the board. Of course it would be too confusing to keep track of this. There's a simple solution, though. You could make little cards or tabs, color coded for each person. There would be two or three of each color, but only one would be dealt to each player at the beginning of the game. People then would place their card in the middle of the board when they used their die change. And when they land or pass go they'd be able to collect it again with their passing Go money. So they'd have two things to look forward to getting when passing Go and one more thing to gripe about when being sent to jail (missing being able to collect their tab if they had already used it before being sent to jail) -- and, as an added little bonus, since many people like the $400 when landing on Go rule - instead of getting extra cash you could offer the optional "house rule" of getting an extra die change card that round. Maybe Free Parking could also be implemented to offer some sort of bonus like this as well. Maybe Free parking would win you any tabs that might be in the middle of the board when you land there although that would prolly be too much power to give someone for landing there. You could just have two tabs be given.

Now you could either have it be that you only have one die change card in the game (except for maybe the option of winning the other one by landing on Go or Free Parking) and if you didn't use it going around the board then you wasted the opportunity. OR you could have it so that every time you pass go you get one die change card with your passing go money - another part of your salary - and so here is where another opportunity for strategy comes into play. You can hoard all your change die cards for later in the game when you want to have more opportunities for dodging peoples' rents OR you could use them up in the beginning of the game in the hopes of grabbing up more choice properties. The difficulty would be in striking a good balance. Landing on Go or Free Parking would win you an extra one. Of course these rules would prolly be altered and improved upon with playtesting, I am just laying out some ideas for a more interesting, destiny controlling monopoly game experience!

Shit, maybe I'll make my own monopoly game based on my crazy dice rules! :-D

Sean said...

Root: That has got to be the longest comment I've ever seen. :) (This is actually one of your blog posts, now that I think about it.)

The dice rules seem fine, although we'll probably need a scrap of paper to keep track of the details. They'll definitely lower the variance on die rolls, if anything.

The catch is that the game still has quite a number of random elements. The Chance and Community Chest cards, for example, are drawn randomly. Utility rents are basically random. And what of the chances of throwing doubles, in addition to the rules on altered die rolls?

Then again, the random elements of the game might be part of what makes it interesting. The only reason why we're considering this line of thought, after all, is because we're looking for a way to "stabilize" the game, or perhaps introduce a better sense of strategy to it. We can just as easily seek to shake up the perceptions of jaded Monopoly players this way.

Whatever the case, it appears that any game can be interesting as long as it has room for variance, Monopoly notwithstanding. Games will be games, after all.