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Monopoly The Card Game Variant

Designer: Larry Levy
Players: 3-6
Equipment: Copy of Monopoly: The Card Game

There is obviously something about Monopoly that continues to fascinate even serious gamers, despite all our justified complaints about it. How else to explain the attention being given the new Monopoly Card Game? Granted, it has some interesting mechanics and its designer is Philip Orbanes, who gave us the great Cartel 30 years ago. But I just can't believe that a rummy variant that the entire gaming industry would concede is strictly a family game would have received the amount of gameplay and comment it has from hardcore gamers were it not linked to the Monopoly franchise.

I'm as guilty as everyone else. From the moment I read Greg's review of the game, I began thinking about ways of fixing it. I was convinced that there was a good game hiding in those rules, very possibly one that might be more palatable to families because of the Monopoly connection.

Well, first things first. I have played Monopoly: The Card Game and, sadly, it is broken. Greg did a good job summarizing most of the game's problems in his review. I would go further: the luck factor is intolerable, even for a family game, and the game is over almost before it begins. The seemingly sophisticated design touches are a sham—they don't deliver on their promise and in many cases, they actually make the game worse. It feels like what probably began as an interesting game design has been developed with the casual gamer in mind to such an extent that it is now reduced to a more complex version of coin flipping.

And yet... the game still calls to me. I think it can be saved. The following may represent major surgery more than a game variant, but the final result really isn't too far removed from the original game rules. More importantly, I believe it turns the Monopoly Card Game into a reasonably interesting filler that can still be digested by less serious gamers.

The rule changes listed below begin with those that are least likely to bother casual gamers and proceeds more or less in order of complexity. I must reiterate, however, that none of these changes are very complex. I am sure, though, that after a while the sheer weight of them will start to cross the eyes of the average game player, so if you want to introduce this to your family, start adding rules until your uncle cries "Uncle" and then stop. Ready? Okay, here we go:

  1. Lose the Chance cards. They add tremendously to the game's already considerable luck factor and greatly increase the likelihood that at least one player will begin the game on the verge of going out. The rule that if a player doesn't go out, a Chance card in his hand means that he doesn't score sounds clever until you think about it a bit. Suppose a player's hand includes a Chance card and for whatever reason, he concludes that he isn't likely to go out and would be better off without it. What can he do? He can't discard the Chance card—it's far too valuable and would undoubtedly be snatched up immediately by one of his opponents, possibly allowing them to go out. His only option is to hold on to the card and hope that he's able to go out. So the Chance cards hurt the game in two ways: by unreasonably helping the player with a good hand who is lucky enough to get one and by screwing the player with a bad hand who gets stuck with one. I've tried mightily to tweak this rule so that it doesn't destroy the game, but I've been unable to do it. The only option is to eliminate the Chance cards entirely.
  2. Require that all trades involve at least two cards on each side. Trading is the most interesting mechanic in the game, but in reality one card trades dominate the game, occurring much more often than picking from the stock. Think about it: in a four player game, you can choose one of three face up cards, or take your chances with the top card of the stock. The odds are, one of those three cards will work out just fine. The only cost is giving an opponent a single card which is much less likely to help her out. With the trade piles constantly being depleted, trades of more than one card are quite unusual. I think this makes the game much less interesting, as what you're left with is not so much trading as choosing from multiple discard piles. The high number of available cards also tends to hasten the end of the game. Outlawing one-card trades brings choosing from the stock back into the game and gives trading the flavor that I imagine the designer envisioned. It also gives players with less attractive beginning hands a chance to develop them before their more fortunate opponents can finish them off with a flurry of one-sided trades. Finally, two or more card trades greatly increase the chance that your opponent will be getting some genuine value from the trade, which means you might actually have to think twice before grabbing the card of your desire from an opponent's trade pile.

These two changes by themselves are enough to make the Monopoly Card Game workable. If you want to keep things as simple as possible, you can make these two relatively benign alterations and still have a reasonable family game.

  1. The rule outlawing one-card trades means that if you begin your turn with an empty trade pile because someone traded for all the cards in it during their turn, you won't be able to trade on your own turn since you can't get two cards in your trade pile to trade with. (The original game has a rule saying you can add one card from your hand to your trade pile prior to trading, but that still won't give you the necessary two cards.) This situation inspired the following rule: If at the beginning of your turn, you have no cards in your trade pile, you have the option of playing two cards from your hand to your pile and then trading them to another player for the top two cards of his trade pile. Without this change, it's conceivable that a player might never have the chance to make a trade because her voracious opponents keep cleaning out her trade pile. This rule corrects that problem. Remember, you can only play two cards to your trade pile in this fashion at the beginning of your turn if you began your turn with an empty pile.
  2. The game comes with four GO cards and four Mr. Monopoly cards which can always be added to a hand to give you the necessary ten cards to go out with. That's too many and it's one reason games are so short. The function of the Mr. Monopoly cards should be their $1000 bonus, not to fill in hands on the verge of going out. So here's the rule change: If, after a player goes out and receives his five bonus cards, he has any Mr. Monopoly cards in his hand, check to see if any other player has the same number or more of these cards. If they do, then the player who went out gets no score for the hand. This is just an extension of the rule that in order to go out, every card in your hand must add to its value. Since the Mr. Monopoly cards turned out to be valueless, you really shouldn't have been able to go out. The penalty for this miscalculation is that your hand scores nothing. When playing with this rule, the player who goes out has the option of not adding Mr. Monopoly cards in the five bonus cards to his hand. He does not, however, have the option of discarding any Mr. Monopoly cards in the ten card hand he went out with, even if he could replace them with cards from the five bonus cards. In addition to making it harder to go out, this rule also gives the player with two Mr. Monopoly cards a dicey decision: if she goes out with this hand, there's a chance that another player has the other two Mr. Monopoly cards, which would give her zip. This rewards observing the other players' actions and makes the decision of going out less automatic. It also means that, with this variant, the Mr. Monopoly cards are the true "chance" cards.
  3. GO cards are over-valued at $200 apiece. Again, their main function should be to provide the last card or cards needed to go out, not to significantly add to the value of those hands. Here's why I think $200 per GO card is too much. Consider the player who acquires three of the railroads, which is not that easy to do. The average value of each of those cards is $167, less than the value of a GO card which anyone can grab. It turns out that very few card combinations in the game do better than $200 per card. So here's my suggestion: Every GO card in every player's hand is worth $100 at the end of a hand, not $200. This represents altering the values printed on the cards and messes with the Monopoly theme ("$200 for passing GO"), which is why this simple change is so far down the list.
  4. A good rummy game should reward defensive play. That is, holding onto cards that you suspect your opponents really need, even though they are worthless to you. Games like Gin allow you to lay off such cards on your opponent's melds, but that has no applicability here. Worse yet, you can't even protect your final discard as is usually the case, since the rules say you can't go out on the same turn that you draw or trade. Thus, everyone gets a crack at those nasty cards that you were hoarding, since you had to discard them to get your hand to where you could go out next turn. Of course, they won't be able to use them to go out, but they could really boost the value of their hands, and that's exactly what you were trying to avoid. To give defense its rightful place, I propose this rule change: A player has the option of going out on the same turn that they draw or trade. However, if they do so, they do not draw any bonus cards. I suspect most times players will wait the extra turn and collect their bonus, but if you suspect the cards you're discarding might really help an opponent, you might end things then and there. Of course, you might also go out immediately if you suspect that an opponent is on the verge of doing so. This puts some judgment in what is currently the automatic process of going out.
  5. Okay, now I'm really going to tamper with the sacred Monopoly structure. We've already taken the two Chance cards out of the game. I propose adding one Chance card back and considering it to be part of the Dark Blue monopoly. The fact that the most lucrative monopoly in the game consists of only two cards is a severe unbalancing element. The odds are just too good that one player will receive both Dark Blue properties, either in the deal or through the draw. Besides, with only two cards in the monopoly, you dare not discard one of them. Now, the Dark Blue monopoly consists of Park Place, Boardwalk, and the Chance card. I figure there's no reason not to keep the Dark Purple monopoly at two cards, since with a base value of only $50, it needs all the help it can get.
  6. The final unbalancing element in the game are the token cards. Each has the potential to be worth a huge amount of points and their distribution is determined strictly through the luck of the draw, since no one will ever discard one. Here is my fix: Divide the six token cards into three groups of two cards. I suggest pairing up the Race Car and the Battleship (transportation); the Iron and the Thimble (Household Items); and the Top Hat and the Wheelbarrow (because those are the two that are left). A matched pair of token cards is worth the total value of a Monopoly, just like a single token card is in the original game. In the variant, a single token card is worthless, as are two unmatched token cards. Moreover, unmatched token cards keep you from going out. This reduces the power of the token cards to acceptable levels, allows hand development, and makes the discarding of one of these cards an acceptable, if risky play.
  7. Finally, some bookkeeping rules. If, when a player goes out, there are fewer than five cards in the draw deck, he only receives the remaining cards as bonus cards. If a player draws the last card from the stock, she finishes her turn and the hand ends, with each player scoring their hand. These rules reflect the fact that, in the variant, there is actually the possibility of the hand lasting long enough to exhaust the draw deck.

Whew! That's a whole lotta rule changes. Still, I suspect most Games Journal readers will find the final result is a simpler game than most they play. If you've already got a copy of the Monopoly Card Game, why don't you give some or all of these rule changes a try. I think you'll find the result is a more entertaining game than the original, at least for three or four players (there's just not enough cards to play effectively with five or more). If you also feel that this variant allows the innovative aspects of the design to fulfill their promise, then this article will have served its purpose.

(GGA - Larry subsequently amended these rules in a letter which can be read here.)

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