Why the right answer to “You mean like Monopoly or Risk?” is “Yes.”

Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com is a pretty cool website most often focused on using data-mining to reveal some pretty interesting insights about life the universe and everything, write responsible articles about it, then have those responsibly written articles loaded into a catapult by idiots and fired across the room. Recently they have started published a few articles on board games, using their traditional approach of scooping up all the data, analyzing it, visualizing it, and then responsibly addressing their conclusions and caveats therein.

The article (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-worst-board-games-ever-invented/) written by Oliver Roeder, comes to the conclusion that BoardGameGeek thinks Monopoly is a very sub-par game, with more than 10000 ratings settling it at slightly above 4 on a ten-point rating scale. Most BGGers seem to be rather friendly with their ratings (unless they backed a failed kickstarter), with anything that is playable earning at least a 5, so below 5 isn’t just “below average”. It’s more like “below ground level.”

I’m well aware that rating Monopoly a 4 is practically part of the sign-up process for BGG, and that arguing that Monopoly “isn’t that bad when played by the rules” is almost as hipster as drinking exclusively at Starbucks while complaining about Starbucks. Risk fares a little better with a slightly-above-trash-tier 5.5, though the recent updates to the game like Risk: Black Ops (7.0) and Risk: Legacy (7.7) have managed to gain a bit of respect. Anyway, I’m not going to try and talk about whether or not Monopoly or Risk are good, but this recent buzz/refocus around what non-gamers might regard as “the classics” has dredged up another, more interesting question. Is Monopoly or Risk a good example of a modern, “grown-up” board game? Or is any perceived similarity on behalf of a “non-gamer” friend a misconception that should be swiftly and sternly corrected by pouring Caverna over them until they apologise?

According to the BGG forums, nearly every family member, significant other, first date, cousin, daughter’s boyfriend, co-worker, or alien abductor utters the phrase “You mean like Monopoly?” when confronted with the knowledge that the poster “plays boardgames.” And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Games like Monopoly and Risk are extremely likely to be anyone’s first exposure to “hard” board games. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-packers-of-catan-green-bays-board-game-obsession-1421346102) focused on the Green Bay Packers’ “Catan” habit, calling it a “non-violent Risk.” Though the article laughably lauded Risk as “notoriously complex” before eventually correcting that to “notoriously lengthy,” Risk was seemingly the closest thing to Catan that player (or the journalist) had encountered. So if you’re talking about boardgames to a non-boardgamer, using Risk or Monopoly as a jumping off point makes sense. As of this writing, BGG’s CompuServe-esque search tool returns 18 pages of results for active threads where “like monopoly” is in the subject, with topics ranging from “How to answer this?” to “My husband/boyfriend/mother-in-law/close-encounter-of-the-third-kind actually said this!” to “What games are like this” but it seems to be agreed that, in general, “our” games are NOT like Monopoly because “our” games are… you know… not rated a 4 of 10 on BGG.

Aside: Remember when people used the term TGOO – “these games of ours?” Me neither.

However, if someone doesn’t know about boardgaming, what better comparison could they make? In fact, even if one DOES know about boardgaming, Monopoly and Risk indisputably have many (if not all) of the characteristics of hobby games that might turn someone off… other than familiarity. Anyway, let’s unwrap the question “Is it like Risk or Monopoly?” into some of the things that it could imply, and address them one by one.

“Do the games you play have complex rules, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Will I have to learn some rules?” – Yes.
Scoff all you want. Monopoly is WAY more complex (rules-wise) than any of the other cultural touchstone games. You roll and move your pieces, sure, but there are rules for collecting sets, rules for building, rules for mortgaging, rules for auctioning, rules for trading. Risk (often seen as a “complex” game) has a lot less going on, by comparison, but a lot more than the rest of the “classics” pack in the fivethirtyeight article, all of which are kids’ games. If you were to teach someone to play Monopoly, it’d likely take about as long or longer than teaching most “Gateway” games.

“Do your games have ‘mature’ themes, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Will I feel like I’m NOT playing with childrens’ toys?”Yes.
Most hobby games (though not all) stray from traditionally childish themes. Monopoly, and a couple other cultural touchstone board games (Risk and possibly Clue) do this, while others are either abstract or themed around candy and cartoon animals. In Monopoly, you’re a real-estate tycoon. In Risk, you’re a uchronian warlord of some kind. So, that makes sense. Some folks might be wary of “nerdy” Tolkien/D&D fantasy themes too, but luckily with the advent of the Eurogame you’ll be able to avoid most of that by sticking to farming and trading and ledgerman-ing until they get over it.

“Do your games take a while, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Do I have to commit time to this?” –  Yup.
Whether or not they played by the rules, most people remember Risk and Monopoly as taking a long time. A long time is around 90-120 minutes in a lot of cases. This is about the time teaching and playing most hobby games would take. Most “gateway” games (cough) are around an hour, and 90-120 minutes isn’t outside the realm of possibility given rules explanations and slow first-time players. So this is pretty reasonable, too.

“Are your games awful, like my memories of Risk or Monopoly?” aka “…well, are they?” –  Yyyyy… no? Not… No.
Oops, maybe the answer isn’t ALWAYS yes, but of ALL the above questions, this is the only one I think most people are paying attention to when asked “Is this like Monopoly?” I obviously can’t discount the possibility that some people are actually asking this question. Whether because of nonsensical house-rules or traumatic table-flip memories it’s certainly possible for people to have a sense of dread regarding these games. Heck, I got into a pretty serious fight with my stepmother over a game of Scrabble once. This is (hopefully) the one way in which our games are NOT comparable to Risk or Monopoly for this person, since nobody will get grounded for a week over them.

The only thing you can do is read the tone of the conversation. Is the person asking remembering Monopoly fondly? Or are they remembering all the times someone forced them to play it? Whether or not YOU think it’s fun, if they seem to be excited or interested about the comparison, then you could assume that they are okay with:

  • Listening to a rules explanation of some length
  • Spending an hour or two on playing a game
  • Playing games while not also being seven years old

If not, then it’s doubtful that bonding over your shared disgust at Risk is going to make them like Agricola any better.

In either case, some form of “Yes, a lot like that” provides them with what they need to know, but a lot of people are convinced the answer is to start belting “A Whole New World” while unpacking Puerto Rico. Why?

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About anevenweirdermove

about.me/drew.g.hicks
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One Response to Why the right answer to “You mean like Monopoly or Risk?” is “Yes.”

  1. Just stumbled across your website. You make some really good points here — I never really thought about ‘translating’ their question into the AKAs you mentioned. That’s a great way of thinking about it. Next time I come across a ‘like Monopoly’ encounter, I’ll have to keep this in mind.

    Great read!

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