by Peter Hammerton
Any self-proclaimed board games aficionado, sitting in a café playing The Settlers of Catan with a tattoo of an icosahedral die on his forearm, will tell you that Monopoly is terrible. It lasts forever; it’s obvious who’s going to win long before it ends; it’s a glorification of capitalism, rugged individualism and downright selfishness. But, in spite of all that, I confess that I quite like the game, perhaps because my family rarely plays it and so our Christmas has never been ruined by it. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about collecting little title deeds whilst moving a tiny dog on a quadrilateral tour of the streets of London, isn’t there?
Over the summer, a few of my friends and I decided to have a game. I am by no means a skilled player, but I know the most basic rudiments of Monopoly strategy. Try to acquire the oranges, because people land on them more often as they come out of gaol. The utilities may give you a little cash injection here and there, but you should never rely on them as a serious revenue stream. And don’t, as one of my friends hilariously did, make an opening bid of £300 for the water works when it’s worth £150! (Perhaps I was irked because I owned the electric company.)
Did any of this knowhow help at all? Not in the slightest. I was knocked out first, and even then, my participation in the game was sustained by the charity of the richest player for half an hour! Was it my fault? Probably, but far from entirely. You see, I had underestimated the importance of the most critical component in the game: fortune.
I don’t mean fortune as in having lots of money, because I certainly didn’t have that for long, but fortune as in luck. It’s no secret that luck is crucial in Monopoly. The most obvious manifestations of this are the chance and community chest cards. They can hit you with hospital fees, engineer a bank error in your favour, assess you for street repairs, and much more.
Yet there is a much more important element of chance in the game, and it proved to be my downfall. Another Monopoly rule of thumb is to buy a property whenever you can, because clawing them from other players to complete sets can be very costly. Furthermore, a property that is useless to you might be invaluable to the desperate wheelbarrow languishing on Free Parking, and his yearning for Leicester Square, which you tactically snapped up twenty turns ago, could give you a huge windfall.
The most significant phase of the game for acquiring unowned properties is the very beginning. The first lap of the board might make or break your plutocratic ambitions. The eventual winner of the game had an extensive portfolio before she made it back to Go. I would’ve loved to have been in her position, but Fortuna forsook me and my opening turns were calamitous. I immediately had to pay £200 in income tax and soon found myself in gaol. Rather than landing on properties, I kept landing on chance spaces, and whilst it’s always nice to win second prize in a beauty contest, good looks alone are not going to help me win in today’s bustling Monopoly marketplace. By the time I had done a full round, I only had two properties, one of which was the aforementioned useless electric company. I eventually established a monopoly on the browns, but even with a hotel, landing on the Old Kent Road is less than half as costly as landing on nearby Mayfair with only two houses.
What lesson can we draw from my tale of woe? Remember that the race for dominion over London begins as soon as the first dice are thrown. In Monopoly, as in life, where you start has an uncomfortably weighty impact on where you finish.