A sideways look at economics

As a boardgame enthusiast, a global pandemic is the worst case scenario. Sitting inside for hours around a board with friends all touching the same cards, tokens and dice is surely one of the easiest ways to transmit a virus — something that the UK government belatedly highlighted back in November last year. I discounted their suggestion of running a quiz instead as sooooooo April 2020, which left me and other board game fans with a handful of options. I made some use of online alternatives, many of which have been great, but the only way to get the full experience was to play with the other people in my lockdown household. That meant my parents and brother, but left me with a problem: their reluctance to learn any new games. And the only game that they already knew how to play was Monopoly. As the only trained economist in the family there was a pressure to do well, something Andrea explored in last week’s TFiF. But there remains another issue: in my opinion Monopoly is a bad boardgame.

There are two fundamental flaws to Monopoly: 1) it lacks good boardgame mechanics that reward diverging strategies; and 2) it is a terrible model of an economy. But I have some ideas which I hope can kill both birds with one stone.

The problem with Monopoly strategy is that there is only one optimal approach, and if all players are playing optimally the winner will be chosen by the outcome of dice rolls alone. To summarise that strategy: buy up property as early as possible, aiming to collect high powered sets and develop them as soon as you can. Train stations are good early game income generators, but avoid the utilities. As for which sets to aim for, all sets orange and above are good as the chart below shows. In the early game with properties still unpurchased, pay your way out jail as quickly as possible to keep circulating round the board, but change that approach once all properties have been picked up to reduce the chances of being forced to pay rent to your opponents.

Make monopoly great again - this chart shows how to turn the screw on your opponents

My first idea to improve the game is to introduce variation in asset values over time by adding a deck of ‘economic climate’ cards which lists out in absolute terms how the value of each property set, and its associated rental incomes, will change while the card is active. After each player has had 5 turns to roll the dice, draw a card and place it on the centre of the board. These cards could have names and depict different economic scenarios. Perhaps there could be a boom in value for one particular property set, or an extreme weather event which pushes up the rent paid to the utility companies, or maybe a pandemic-driven recession which slashes the value of all commercial property. Then after another 5 turns each, draw a new card to a replace the previous scenario.

I feel this suggestion falls well within the line of adding an interesting new twist to the game while adding minimal complexity. The use of status-effect mechanics is a staple in boardgames, particularly in card games, and adds another layer to players’ strategic thought processes. Now you could have a viable strategy to buy up property when it is artificially low and sell when high, but could get caught out if a recession comes around.

Another idea would be to have one person play as the bank, and allow them to introduce interest rates into the game. In the normal game, the bank is merely a facilitator and has no objectives of its own to achieve. That docile nature has also made it a target for thefts in previous games I’ve played, mainly from my brother. It is not new to have a central role in boardgames: for example, the ghost in Mysterium or the forensic scientist in Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. And the banker could have the objective of profit maximisation by facilitating the other players with loan and deposit products. Perhaps the game could do away with the existing mortgage mechanics, and instead allow the banker to set interest rates on secured and unsecured loans to the other players with deals made bilaterally. Imagine if, in a game with minimum six players, two players could play as competing bankers.

This suggestion treads closer to the limit of the trade-off between complexity and interesting game mechanics. Players would need to keep up an implied credit rating with the banker, who could use real profit maximisation strategies such as price discrimination. Now a player landing on a property with insufficient funds to purchase it could take out short-term credit, perhaps agreeing to repay within ten turns. Keeping track of compound interest and an array of products would be challenging, but not insurmountable. In 2007, Hasbro released Monopoly: Electronic Banking edition which didn’t have paper cash but instead gave each player a programmable credit card to keep track of their funds. Add a little bit of additional computing power to the card reader and it should be possible to keep track of deposits, loans, and interest. Or failing that, several boardgames have companion phone apps, such as XCOM: The Board Game, where the app acts as game master. A well designed app could help the banker keep track of their balance sheet and flow of funds.

And for my final and most complex suggestion: add in insurance products. In the base game, the only source of regular income is passing Go, something which can be cruelly taken away by landing on income tax in the same turn. Given the choice, a player could prefer guaranteed income from their property portfolio rather than depending on your opposition’s rolls. With limited options to diversify assets, the players could offer each other a credit default swap-like instrument, which collects a premium and pays out if the purchaser doesn’t receive a certain level of income from assets in a given number of tums. Whilst the added complexity may put some players off, it would be an interesting device to test the risk appetite of different players.

Having not play-tested any of these suggestions, who knows if they will work well in context? It would be interesting to test how these ideas would interact with each other, but imagine how useful a tool such a game would be for economics education. And if Hasbro is reading, feel free to reach out and we can talk about use of my new intellectual property.