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Pedantry: A Monopoly Case Study

Brandon Clarke

February, 2002

The Situation

A player lands on the Chance square that is on the seventh space of a Monopoly board (The one between the Angel Islington* and Euston Road in the pale blue set) and draws the card that reads:

"Advance token to the nearest railroad station. If you pass go collect $200. If it is unowned you may buy it from the bank. If it is owned, pay the owner twice the normal rental."

The question is, where should the player advance to?

Answer Number 1: Marylebone Station (space number 15). The player advances around the board until (s)he reaches a railroad station and stops there.

Answer Number 2: Kings Cross Station (space number 5). The player determines which railroad station is the NEAREST, and then advances to that railroad station. Kings Cross Station is nearest railroad station (around 2 inches away) so the player advances all the way around the board to Kings Cross Station, passing Go, and collecting $200 on the way.

The Arguments For Each

After many years debating this with many people it seems clear that the following points need to be made:

  1. In Answer Number 2, no one is suggesting you move backwards. Everyone knows you can't move backwards (unless you draw the Community Chest card that says "Move back 3 spaces"), and besides the card clearly says "Advance..." So let's put all thought of anything that involves moving backwards out of our minds.

  2. The card says "nearest railroad station" not, "next railroad station", not "the first railroad station you come to".

  3. Some people claim there is a convention that all movement in Monopoly is always conducted in a clockwise direction. This is not the case. As already stated there is one Community Chest card that says "Move back 3 spaces" and there is the "move directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200" instruction. This can happen from the "Go To Jail" space (space number 30) or from any chance or Community Chest square where such a card is drawn. Nevertheless, despite these exceptions having been established, this point is irrelevant, since the card clearly states that the movement resulting from it will be in a clockwise direction as the card reads "Advance...".

This however does nothing to establish that the determining of which railroad station is the nearest railroad station is in anyway tied to the clockwise only convention.

So, having established that no backwards movement is being proposed by anyone, and having established that the player's counter is definitely going to advance to whichever railroad station we decide is the nearest one, all that remains to be determined is the meaning of nearest.

17 years of arguing this point with various people has taught me that essentially there are two views on this. Both are based on the fact that nearest means "shortest distance to".

The supporters of Answer Number 1 chose to tie the measurement of distance to the amount of distance the piece will have to move. Since we've established that the piece will advance in a clockwise direction, these people ask the question "How far will the piece have to travel to reach each railroad station?" The answer is 8 spaces for Marylebone, 18 spaces for Fenchurch, 28 spaces for Liverpool and 38 spaces for Kings Cross Station. Thus, they argue, Marylebone is clearly the nearest railroad station.

The supporters of Answer Number 2 don't see it the same way. They see "nearest railroad station" as an absolute value regardless of how the piece ends up moving to that railroad station. "As the crow flies" Kings Cross Station is the nearest railroad station to the chance space in question. Having determined which railroad station the phrase "the nearest railroad station" refers to, they then advance the player's piece clockwise around the board until they get to that railroad station. They argue that even though the movement instruction on the card "Advance" means that the player's piece ends up moving a longer distance that it does if you advance to Marylebone Station, that doesn't change the fact that Kings Cross Station is still the nearest railroad station to that chance square. Yes you can only move in a clockwise direction when advancing, but there is nothing to say you can't measure as the crow flies.

So the protagonists for each answer seem to be divided as those who believe the determining of "the nearest railroad station" and the advancing to it are inseparably tied together as part of the same action (these people favour answer 1) and those who believe you should determine which station is "the nearest" and then advance to it.

As you may have guessed I favour Answer Number 2. To me, Kings Cross is "the nearest railroad station" and the card happens to say "advance to...". It might just have easily have said "Pick up your piece, walk out of the house, down the road, around the park, into the shop, back up the road through the back door and place your piece on the nearest railroad station." It might have said "take your piece to Jamaica and then when you come back put it on the nearest railroad station". Which railroad station is the nearest doesn't change depending on how the piece is moved from where it is to that railroad station. The nearest railroad station is the nearest railroad station. The fact that you are advancing until you get to it doesn't change that.

Kings Cross Station is the nearest railroad station. Marylebone is the next railroad station. If they had meant for you to advance to Marylebone in this situation they could easily have said "Advance token to the next railroad station..." but they didn't. And imagine for a moment that you are the person designing Monopoly. No one has ever played it, and you are drawing up this card and you want it to be interpreted the way Answer Number 2 interprets it... how would you word the card?

... struggling to come up with a wording other than "Advance token to the nearest railroad station?"...

Hmmmm. Thought so. If you want to add some words to the already longest worded card you could I suppose have said "Advance token to the nearest (as the crow flies) railroad station)..." but if you wanted just one word to express what Answer Number 2 means surely "nearest" is the best word for that?

Incidentally my reasoning for believing the card should be interpreted this way has nothing to do with the fact that this way you get to pass go and collect $200. I had always thought the card meant what Answer Number 2 illustrates, and the first time it ever came up in a game I was moving my piece and the owner of Kings Cross Station had three railroads (Kings Cross, Fenchurch and Liverpool) so by interpreting the card the way I argue, I had to advance, pass go, collect $200 and land on his Kings Cross Station and pay him twice the normal rental ($150 x 2 = $300) so I lost $100, and if I'd advanced to the next railroad station, Marylebone, it was unowned and I could have bought it from the bank. The dilemma applies equally to the chance square in space 36 too... the one between Liverpool Station and Park Lane.

- Brandon Clarke

* All property names are taken from the British version of the game.

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