Game balance

While implementing my own version of Monopoly game, several features were very important to me. The importance of those features mostly became obvious after trying a few different PC and Android implementations of the Monopoly game by other developers, where absence of those features made the game almost unplayable due to the pure randomness of the events or broken balance.

First, game must support all basic Monopoly features. There are implementations of the game out there without equal build/demolish rule being implemented (i.e. one cannot build 3rd house on a property if some of the properties in that monopoly has less than 2 houses on it). It is probably okay to allow this rule to be switched on and off in the settings, although I would not even want to play without it – allowing players to build a hotel on a single property ruins the balance, and the whole game becomes luck rather than skill dependent. Another often omitted feature is the limited number of houses and hotels on a board, and until the houses are released by demolishing or replacing with a hotel, new houses could not be built.

Second, all the information required to make decisions must be available at a glance. I.e. player should be able to see which cards belong to whom without looking at the game board – it makes it very hard to see a big picture if you have rely on the board alone.

Third, a player should be able to find out what has happened from the very beginning of the game. Ideally, game should support full replay capabilities, but writing a log and displaying it in a user-friendly manner should be sufficient.

And the last, but not the least, the balance. Few people think about it as it is hard to get right after a handful of games. Everything related to the balance of the game should be tested on at least a few thousands of games, preferably hundreds of thousands. I have never heard of anybody investing in that type of research, collecting data or running simulations (well, there are no good AI for monopoly so simulations data would not be useful anyway). It does not mean that I am the first who did that kind of analysis on a proper scale, but until proven otherwise, I believe it to be the case. Skipping the details on how the study was conducted (I might write a separate post about it if there is sufficient interest in the subject), here are quick results:

  • Original, classic version of the game suffers from occasional game taking ages. To track the length of the game, I take the number of times player passes GO as the number of “rounds” made. If a game takes more than 20 rounds, it is a boring one, most probably some kind of a stalemate between 2 or more players, where the speed of getting money whether from the bank or rent is equal or higher than speed of spending it. It is very easy to get in this mode with classic game rules when salary for passing GO is increased, or any bonuses given for landing on GO or Free Parking. For simplicity, I call it Monopoly Inflation – the combination of factors when total sum of money in players’ hands is likely to increase from turn to turn. The reason why many players choose to inflate the Monopoly economy is another Monopoly problem – in the beginning, many games are too slow. If you do not have any extra sources of income, you quickly find yourself being unable to build houses, making round after round just to get a first set of houses on your property (living on a paycheck). Of course, there are better ways to raise funds and get your business going then pushing on inflation needle or changing the game rules (I wish someone explained it to ECB, FED, RBA, BOJ “PhDs”, but alas…), but it often requires somewhat unconventional and creative thinking. 95% of the games with 4 players should take between 4 and 12 rounds to make the game fast pacing, fun and well balanced.
  • Most of the original game’s Community Chest and Chance cards are not just boring as hell, but also useless. Many of them are giving or taking very small sums of money, which does not contribute to the game’s progress at all, only slowing it down. I am not saying that small sum money cards should be removed completely – when player expects whether a hit or a boost, and instead gets a small card – it would not look boring. However, there should be very few cards of that variety, maybe 1 or 2, no more. Get out of jail card is another example of completely useless functionality – any player receiving it would be much better off with pure $50 cash. Also, there is something could be done to increase variety of the cards without breaking the balance – the maintenance card is a good example of something different. Modifying or creating new types of Chance and Chest cards is a good way to adjust the game’s economy.
  • Rent in jail. When the owner of the property is sitting in jail (not just visiting, but sitting behind the bars) there are 2 choices of rules: the rent on his properties is whether unaffected (I believe it to be a classic option), or reduced to 0. Second option makes good sense since the Jail is the safest place to be when most of the players got developed property. Why not have it as a game setting in % of the rent instead? I found the setting between 40% to 60% working best: it gives the jailed player a good choice between the safety of the Jail with reduced income from his properties, and a full rent with exposure to all the dangers out there.
  • Classic bankruptcy option. The rules say that if the player declares bankruptcy, all his property goes to the player who bankrupted him, and if any of his properties are mortgaged, the winning player must pay 10% of the card’s price to the bank or unmortgage the card. This rule slows the game down by discouraging property build up to a maximum level – why bother with a hotel when 3 houses are more than enough. On top of that, the player should have free cash available to pay for mortgaged cards received from the bankrupted opponent or having to demolish his hotels/houses when someone declares bankruptcy on his property. Instead, the game could be greatly improved by a landlord always receiving rent from a bank, and the bank getting paid by a renter at the same time. When the renter cannot repay the bank by mortgaging properties or demolishing houses (no trading should be allowed with negative cash to prevent the game from dragging) – he or she declares bankruptcy, leaves the game, and all his cards go back to the bank and become available for purchase again. An argument against that rule could be made that the player who bankrupted another player is much better off compared to the original rule. However, testing this rule on 100000+ games revealed an interesting statistics: about 35% of the games, where player bankrupted 2 other opponents, were won by a remaining opponent who has bankrupted no one before. This rule also adds additional decision making as to whether auction or buy property during late stages of the game.

Enough about the balance, next post will delve into the features of the game, both implemented and scheduled for implementation in the near future.