Grant Bosse: Your free-market gift guide to board games

Last modified: 12/15/2013 12:07:01 AM
I have never finished playing a game of Monopoly. It’s the world’s best-selling board game, and I don’t know why. It’s an awful game. It takes too long, it relies almost entirely on luck, and the premise is ridiculous.

The game play in Monopoly is atrocious. The player has almost no real decisions to make. Your move is decided entirely by a roll of the dice. Once you land on a property, you can either buy it at a preset price or let it be auctioned off. If you get a set of matching properties, you can build houses and hotels. Other players unfortunate enough to land on your property are forced to pay you rent, also fixed, and rising depending on how many houses or hotels you’ve built. You can trade properties with your fellow players, but since the object of the game is to literally bankrupt everyone else, there are few opportunities for mutual gain.

As a real estate simulation game, Monopoly is preposterous. That’s due to its origin as a protest against greedy landlords. In 1904, Elizabeth Magie of Brentwood, Md., received a patent for The Landlord’s Game, a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing.” The square board was ringed by properties of increasing value, with various taxes and windfalls along the way. It even had railroads halfway along each side, and a spot on one corner that sent unlucky players to jail.

Magie was heavily influenced by the writing of Henry George, whose “Theory of Single Taxation” posited that all land was collectively owned. People should be free to improve the land, build houses and charge rents, but the land itself belonged to no one. George advocated that all government revenue come from a tax on the value of unimproved land, arguing it was the least intrusive tax possible. Under a Georgian tax code, you’d pay local, county, state, and federal property taxes, not on the value of your house, but on the land itself. If you built a shack or a skyscraper, your tax wouldn’t change, so the tax would not discourage investment and improvement. Of course, the value of your land would itself increase based on how much improvement was going on around you.

Parker Brothers first rejected the game, accurately assessing it as “too complicated, too technical, took too long to play.” How they ended up with a monopoly on Monopoly is worth its own column on patent and trademark reform. Magie sold her rights for $500, with no royalties, and untold millions have been learning her flawed view of real estate ever since.

My college classmate Matt Calkins is CEO of Appian Corp., a software company with clients ranging from Amazon to the U.S. Army. He’s also a board game geek. He plays them. He designs them. He uses them as a business tool. And he agrees that Monopoly is awful.

“It’s boring,” Calkins says. “You know who’s going to win, but then you just have to play it out.”

Calkins says the best board games are relatively simple but give players lots of choices. He relishes the “emergent complexity” that grows from small choices, repeated often. He’s a fan of tabletop games known as “German” or “Euro-style,” which feature simple rules, indirect player interaction and short to medium playing times. There can be an element of luck, but a player’s fate isn’t left solely to the dice.

If you’re looking for a good example of Euro game, the Japanese war game Sekigahara, which Calkins designed, has won numerous awards.

I’ve never been a big chess player. Chess is a TV writer’s crutch to prove a character’s intelligence. I just never found it that interesting. Both players have perfect information on their opponent’s abilities and disposition at all times. At the top levels, there’s a lot of memorization.

I’ve been hooked on Trivial Pursuit since Granite State Challenge practices in high school. It tests how much you can remember, but doesn’t really teach you anything. The best party game I’ve played is Cranium, a mutant love-child of Pictionary and charades. I prefer Boggle to Scrabble, since it’s more about finding unexpected words than memorizing obscure bits of the dictionary. It’s also great for kids and adults to play together.

I like a little luck in my games, if only to give novice players a fighting chance. That’s why my personal favorite is backgammon. The oldest proto-backgammon boards date back to Persia 5,000 years ago. I started playing around age 6, against teenaged Uncle Ernie and Aunt Paula.

Backgammon is about managing risk. The dice determine how far you move, but you decide which of your 15 pieces to move. Stacking two pieces on the same spot blocks your opponent, but leaving a piece on its own makes it vulnerable to getting sent back to the beginning.

Many choices are obvious. For instance, you always block the “Bar” point whenever possible, setting up a fortress to trap your opponent. But some are tricky. Do you hit your rival if it leaves you open to counter-attack, or cover up? You don’t know what the dice will do, but you can calculate the range and likelihood of the possible outcomes. A surprising complexity arises from these simple choices.

If you’ve got young people on your list, and you’d like to teach them about strategy and probability, get them a backgammon board.

Or scratch tickets. Everyone loves scratch tickets.

A new venture

This will be my final column for the Concord Monitor. I’ve recently accepted a position with the New Hampshire Senate. Readers deserve independent voices, and I’d hope other free-market advocates will take this opportunity to offer their opinions in these pages.

I’d like to thank Felice Belman and the staff of the Monitor for giving me the opportunity to share my views, which have often been contrary to and sometimes critical of theirs. We don’t often agree, but we share a commitment to the free expression of ideas.

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