Who knew a game where you can’t eat metal dogs and paper could be so fun?


Westwood’s Monopoly (1995)

It looks like board games are making a comeback in a big way. I say comeback because anyone would have thought that video games would put paid to them. After all, why ponce around with dice and scorecards and cheap bits of plastic when you can fly fighter jets and destroy cities and play tennis with Mario instead? But now board games are being busted out at house parties and drinking sessions up and down the country, and suddenly it’s games of Mousetrap and Frustration that are dominating the social scene, rather than games of FIFA and, I don’t know, Rocket League.

This is all a bit disconcerting to me. Physical board games? Why, video games can do all of that and more. Even if I wanted to play a board game, I could do so digitally. Did you know that there’s a Pictionary game on NES? Cluedo for the SNES? Do they sound much appealing to you? I’m assuming you’ll correctly answer no to that; otherwise it’ll be clear to me that you’re obviously very dangerous and I’ll have to track you down, knife you thoroughly and provide Cluedo SNES with a long-unawaited sequel.

But I’m clearly leaving out the daddy when it comes to board games – the one that comes to mind above all others on the merest hint of this anoraky pastime being mentioned. Well actually, it’s probably chess or Scrabble that dominate the board game scene, but we can look at those another time because my word there are a lot of bad chess video games out there. No, I wanted to lecture you on Monopoly, and my experiences from my youth with this famous game.

Before that, it’s probably best I give a small explanation on the rules. You’ve surely had a go of the game at some point in your life, but I’ll try to simplify it – basically, it’s a rat race where one canny person eventually pulls enough sneaky deals to savagely extort his peers. This ultimately means that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and both happen very quickly at that. And as you pull ahead in your lascivious quest of greed, your friends and the assembled company will get angrier and angrier at the injustice of it all.

That’s it, that’s all the game is. That the point of the game is to become obnoxiously rich while squashing your “friends” beneath your gold-tasseled boot like pitiful bugs is delightfully intentional. There’s no moralising, no happy endings for any of the runners-up, no lessons to be learned, and no second prizes bar the beauty contest. You’re meant to be upset and disgusted by the unfairness of it all, that’s the entire point, that’s why they call it Monopoly. It’s not a game that’s meant to be prolonged.

Well, I wouldn’t know much about the physical board game – I’ve hardly played it. I am informed that we did have one in our house sometime in the early 90s, however I appear to have eaten all of the houses and hotels, many of the property cards and a good chunk of the Monopoly money.

You might think this impossible, but I will remind you that I ate coins and cigarettes as a wee lad, so I can assure you that Chance cards and little steel doggies were easy prey for me. Anyway, Monopoly games were immediately banned in my house and my plans to get rich, even if only with funny money and a plastic property portfolio, lay in ruins.

That all changed when I first played the 1995 version of Monopoly, created by the sadly departed Westwood. By the time I played it, Westwood were next to Nintendo in my eyes – they’d released Command and Conquer and Red Alert shortly beforehand for God’s sake, they could do no wrong.

The booming sound and shimmering green logo of the Westwood Studios intro is as powerful now as it was back then. And this game had the top brass working on it as well. Or at least, it had Joe Kucan (Kane himself) and the immensely talented Frank Klepacki on music. You can actually see the two in person in a delightfully 90s credits sequence available from the main menu – and if I told you that Klepacki had incredibly long hair appropriate for the grunge era, you’d believe me without hesitation, wouldn’t you?

Frank Klepacki and Monopoly? You might be wondering how something like Hell March could be made to work with a board game. Well unfortunately we don’t get to hear any such attempt, but instead there’s a delightfully MIDI 1920s ragtime soundtrack. I don’t know, it could be sheer nostalgia, but most of the game’s delightful ditties have been stuck right in my ear all my natural born life.

I am convinced the AI in the game cheat. I don’t mean they do the classic bent banker approach by distracting your view then lifting a few 500 notes out of the kitty, I just mean that they sure get a lot of convenient dice rolls. I suppose the AI always needs an advantage over a human player, because the best strategy in Monopoly is actually fairly simple, and I’m going to equip you here with everything you need to embark on a life of playing for fat stacks against other Monopoly big-hitters.

The key lies in buying relatively inexpensive yet frequently visited property, and starving the housing market as best as you can, which is scarily true to real life really. The orange properties are the most landed-on spots on the board, given how close they are to Jail (in actual fact the best place to be late in the game), though I have a fonder spot for those bright blue armpits on the first side of the board.

The Angel Islington, from the UK version of Monopoly, is hardly an armpit, but it’s funny to describe it that way in the context of the game. Less funny is the fact that there was an Irish version of the game produced, and my hometown didn’t even make the cut for the most wretched property in the game, the Old Kent Road or whatever the horrid equivalent is in your concrete jungle of a city. Yours may even be a city present in Westwood’s Monopoly, as plenty of regional variants of the game are available just for added juice.

It’s the presentation that keeps me coming back to this now ancient rendition of Monopoly. Obviously playing the actual board game is depressing, what with someone having to be a nominated banker and tediously counting out the four pounds you’re owed for someone landing on Whitechapel Road. Although at least this way, it’s more practical ruining the lives of your family and friends, since you can all sit around the same table and you can demoralise them all at once – a bit trickier to do this at a personal computer, even if you use whatever type of pigeon LAN play was available in 1995.

There are credit card/bank account editions of Monopoly available, where ‘money’ is transferred between players electronically, but come on. Just let the computer do it, and you can stop agonising over the possibility that you may have lost one of the Community Chest cards. That’s an issue with board games isn’t it, all the itty bitty pieces and paper scraps that can be lost or destroyed. Or eaten by feral children, I suppose.

You’ve heard of pure West? Well, the animations and movies that play when your piece moves around the board are pure Westwood. Landing on a property for the first time shows you a brief FMV of the property in question, from the near-apocalyptic brown properties right through to the memorable flamingos on the green streets.

They may be low-resolution brief snippets, but these videos are some of the most memorable parts of the experience and they tell you that a lot of love and pride went into this game. Those introductory videos are what people mean when they talk about a game having ‘charm’. Westwood’s Monopoly is choc-full of this charm in all aspects. And for that to be true of a game where the most spiteful, cut-throat piece of work always wins, that’s one mighty accomplishment.

4 December 2018

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