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How A Bad Game Can Have Good Design

Video games. If you’re here, chances are that you’ve played a fair number of them before, and at least have some interest or sense of curiosity about how to design and build them. Its a medium that millions have come to enjoy and love. But why don’t we go a bit further back than video games? Before Call of Duty, before Space Invaders, or even Pong. Before any of these, we had board games.

Board games have existed for thousands of years. In fact, Go, which was developed more than two thousand years ago in China, is still played today. It’s considered to be the oldest game still being played.

A Go board during play. The Verge
A Go board during play. The Verge.

Go is an incredibly interesting strategy game that’s obviously stood the test of time, but what about something more recent? How about Monopoly?

I have a hard time believing that someone in the world hasn’t played Monopoly before, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock since 1935, Monopoly is a game where players, represented by small game pieces, roll a dice, and move around a board. Landing on various spot can have different outcomes, most commonly players can buy that spot, or ‘property’ or they have to pay ‘rent’ to the owner of that property. The winner of the game is the one who has taken all the other players’ money.

Monopoly games can take forever though. Most people who play Monopoly have their own set of ‘house’ rules that they use to help alleviate this and turn five hours of increasingly frustrating gameplay into roughly two hours of just yelling at each other, and occasionally laughing like a maniacal supervillain when another player lands on your property and you get to take all their money. In my household, the house rule was that all tax money, or money that would have otherwise gone to the bank, was put neatly underneath the Parking space, and whoever landed on it first got the money that was there when they arrived.

You’ve probably noticed that I’m painting Monopoly in a pretty bad light. That’s because it’s a pretty awful game. Think about all the times you’ve played Monopoly, and then think about how frustrated you felt every single time you rolled the dice and wound up landing on someone else’s property and having to pay them your money, which they would then use to buy more properties, and screw you over even more. Yeah, Monopoly sucks. And here’s why.

A 1935 edition of Monopoly. Britannica.

Games inherently react to the player, who reacts to the game and so the cycle goes. In something like Call of Duty, this could be in the form of killing another player, which increases your killstreak, and gets you that much closer to that care package. These are called ‘feedback loops’. There are two types of feedback loops though. Destabilizing feedback loops, which alter the game’s current state in a manner that favors one player or the game itself more than the other, which are considered ‘positive’ feedback loops. ‘Negative’ feedback loops, on the other hand, serve to help ‘even the playing field’ so to speak. Our Call of Duty example would be considered a positive feedback loop, since getting that care package will most likely help put that player even further ahead.

Now, a good game is a lot harder to identify and quantify than it is a bad game. In this case though, we can define it as a series of feedback loops that produce an enjoyable, and perhaps even meaningful, interaction between players (or player and computer). While this isn’t always case, most games achieve this by maintaining a pretty nice balance between positive and negative feedback loops, where as a bad game will skew things entirely in one direction or another.

So, what then are Monopoly’s feedback loops? Well, why don’t we start with the rent system. Once again, let’s say Player 1 lands on Player 2’s property. Player 1 then has to pay Player 2 rent. This is pretty clearly a positive feedback loop. Player 1 gets set behind, while Player 2 is put even further ahead. Player 2 buys more property, increasing the chances of Player 1 landing on Player 2’s property again. It’s a vicious cycle.

On the point of buying properties, did you know that there is an auction system? Every time a player lands on an unowned piece of property they must either buy it or it goes straight to auction, where anyone can bid on the property. I repeat, ANYONE can bid on the property, even the player who refused to buy the property when they landed on it. Chances are this is because a player believes that they cannot afford a property, which allows whoever is furthest ahead in terms of earnings to outbid the other players. Conversely, if the player who originally landed on the space is far enough ahead, they can instead obtain the property at a lower cost if the other players cannot match his bids.

The rules of Monopoly perpetuate a snowball effect where those ahead get further ahead.

Of course, there are some neutral feedback loops, such as collecting $200 once you pass Go, however there are very few negative feedback loops, and even fewer with great impact. For example, Monopoly has a chance card that requires a player to pay $25 per house, and $100 for each hotel to the bank. This appears to be a negative feedback loop, stabilizing the game’s state whenever it’s pulled by a player who is ahead, but keep in mind, this money goes to the bank, not the other players. Furthermore, there’s a good chance that they’re not losing property (and even if they are, it’s most likely a small amount). That player will quickly make back whatever they have lost thanks to their property advantage over other players, regardless. To truly stabilize the state of the game at that point, the card would most likely have to explicitly remove the player’s properties.

So, Monopoly is a game that makes it easy for a player ahead to stay ahead, and by virtue of that, makes it difficult for players who are behind to get ahead. This leads to frustrating and ultimately not fun game session, which can be called a bad game. But does that really mean that Monopoly was poorly designed? No. In fact, I think it was designed quite well.

Okay, before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, let me explain. Monopoly plants its roots in 1903. Back then, it was called ‘The Landlord’s Game’. It was created by a woman named Elizabeth Magie, an anti-monopolist. Originally, the Landlord’s Game had two set’s of rules. One set of rules, in which everyone benefited when wealth was created, and another, where the goal was to bankrupt your opponents, which is the set of rules that lives on in today’s modern version of Monopoly. Magie was creating a dialogue about monopolies, and why she thought they were bad.

Elizabeth Magie. Wikipedia.

Now, I’m not an economist or a business analyst, but despite that, because I have played Monopoly, I have an understanding that large corporations make it inherently difficult for newcomers to enter a market. Once they’ve created a lead, they are able to maintain that lead by throwing money back into their industry. In Monopoly, this was by buying up more land and houses. In something like the tech industry, its research and development into newer, better, and faster technology. Magie get’s her point across, because that’s how she designed it. Her design, while not flawless, was good.

Monopoly might be a bad game, in fact, it’s horrid, but at the end of the day, it’s well designed. A well designed game doesn’t have to be good. A well designed game doesn’t even have to be fun, unless that’s what you design it to be. Sometimes, a well designed game is about the message that it’s trying to convey, or the story that its trying to tell.

Orbanes, Philip E. (2006). Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How it Got that Way. Da Capo Press.

“The secret history of Monopoly: the capitalist board game’s leftwing origins”. The Guardian. April 11, 2015.

I’m a Video Game Designer and Developer, come join me as I explore and talk about game design, both as a player and a creator.

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