Get out of jail free: what the Monopoly Cheaters Edition and Monopoly For Millennials tell us about class economics in modern America

Monopoly has a ubiquitous, often loathed, place in American culture. Everybody knows of the game, a dogmatic celebration of pure capitalism that encourages players to take on the cut-throat persona of a real estate tycoon and drive their friends into bankruptcy by charging more rent than they can afford. This has left the game with a reputation for ruthless behavior and perhaps a few broken friendships.

However, this capitalistic message is a far cry from the intentions of the game’s original designer, a woman named Elizabeth Magie, who created the game (Originally called The Landlord’s Game) in hopes that it would educate the public on the inherent economic inequalities that were created by property ownership rules in a capitalistic society.

Over the last few years, Hasbro released two new editions of the game with altered rules for play. The first is The Cheaters Edition, which encourages players to cheat with impunity in the race to get ahead. The second is Monopoly for Millennials, a heavy-handed commentary on the plight of the millennial generation. Just as The Landlord’s Game had an inherent message about the pitfalls of economic inequality, both Monopoly: Cheaters Edition and Monopoly for Millennials have within them commentary about the current state of the American economy and the tactics required to get ahead.


Analysis

Monopoly: Cheaters Edition

Our analysis starts with Monopoly: Cheaters Edition, as players are encouraged to take on the role of the modern American upper class. The tagline for this game is: “What can you get away with? Follow, bend or break rules to own it all!” The box features a whispering Uncle Money Bags with his hand behind his back, fisting money that is flowing out of the bank behind him, suggesting he stole it. The city behind him is one that has new skyscraper, but is lit with an orange and yellow sky. The effect, when combined with the lack of people, makes the city seem uncomfortable. Like the fake shops in real-world Pyongyang, I think them facades for an unequal society. On the right is the jail, which is made of stone and is downtown, seemingly right across the street from the bank. The sidewalk outside the jail has been broken, suggesting the criminals have all run free.

The games rules have been changed to ironically establish the limitations around cheating. Cheat tasks are common white collar crimes like “‘Price Gouging’ secretly charge a player more rent than they owe.” On the backs of each cheat card, there is a list of rewards that a player earns if they manage to complete the cheat task. The reward Price Gouging is a free hotel on a property, the penalty is the forfeiture of rent and then the player is jailed — complete with a set of plastic handcuffs that must stay in site of the board (although busting out of jail is its own cheat task).

A list of Monopoly Cheaters Edition sanctioned cheats:
Pick pocket — steal money from another player.
Free stay — skip out on rent.
Bank heist — steal money from the bank.
Trick dice — ignore the dice and move many spaces as you want.
Extra allowance — take 300 when passing Go.
Escape Artist — when you’re in jail, take off the handcuff.
Squatters Rule — collect rent for another player’s property.
Shortchanged — when you owe another player change, secretly give them less than you owe.
Slippery Deed — Steal a title deed card from another player or from the bank.
Property swap — swap one of your title deed cards for one owned by another player or the bank.
Unlicensed contractor — place a hotel — from the bank or another player’s property — onto any one of your properties.
Counterfeit Chance — Instead of doing what’s written on your Chance card, do whatever you want.
Identity Theft — On your turn, move another player’s token and not your own.
Surprise demolition — Remove another player’s Hotel from their Property.
Price Gouging — Charge a player more rent than they owe.

Successfully completing a cheat task usually rewards the player by allowing them to keep the benefit of the cheat. A player unsuccessfully completes a cheat task is if another player accuses them of cheating. If the accused player can prove that they didn’t cheat, then the accuser must pay $100. The way cheating is structured adds consequences to the game by giving players a disincentive to accuse every player of a cheat on every turn, but a clear penalty for getting caught.

During my play through the game with a group of friends, the rampant cheating encouraged players to view every transaction and movement as suspicious. Players started double checking the bank and so people are forced to be much more transparent about their activity than they would in traditional Monopoly. When the Monopoly players did a better job of monitoring each other, it was less easy for other players to cheat. This resulting board game surveillance involves, as it does in real life, significant attention to the rules.

The treasure chest cards provide a benefit of power — either by manipulating the game mechanics in your favor, such as the “get out of jail free” card, or using more traditional real life manipulations of capitalism. For example, one card, ‘You Deserve A Bailout!’ gives a player a bank bailout of $1250 when he or she declares bankruptcy. To get an idea for how transformational this card might be to a game player, consider that each player is given $1500 when the game begins. Other cards of this nature include “Your Offshore Account Goes Belly Up!” Which requires paying a penalty to the bank or going to jail. Another gives players the ability to foreclose on another player’s property. These cards are the most interesting because they reflect opportunities that the upper class in American Capitalism is typically afforded at the expense of other classes. These represent “alternative rules” that Americans feel the upper class gets to play by.

The results at the end of the game seemed to match the rate of successful cheating in the game, those that have the ability to be sneaky were first and second, but the two players who were bad liars, and therefore unsuccessful cheaters, ended up third and last. The lesson of Monopoly: Cheaters Edition is that those who are able to successfully cheat are most able to win, and that the only mechanic to dissuade cheating is constant vigilance by all players. It clearly demonstrates the advantage that the upper class has by being able to dissuade enforcement of white collar crime and subsequently preying on the lower classes.


Monopoly for Millennials

If the Cheaters Edition is an example of the rules the upper class gets to play by, Monopoly for Millennials is an almost sarcastic commentary on the rules forced upon the rest of society. The tagline for this game is “forget real estate, you can’t afford it anyway!” a nod to the declining homeownership rates of millennials. The picture on the box is bright and cheery, evoking rainbow colors and a clean city. The image on the box has several nods to modern millennial stereotypes — a sign with a cow struck out has calls to meatless diets, a window overflowing with avocados calls to a trope that millennials aren’t buying houses because they spend too much money on avocado toast at luxury bistros. Rich Uncle Moneybags is wearing blue sunglasses, with earbuds in, a coffee (to go), and a participation trophy pinned to his chest.

The rules of this game are vastly different than other versions of Monopoly, and play so heavily into Millennial generational tropes as to be absurd. The rules even have a typo, which makes you think that the designers never bothered playing their own game with too much detail.

The rules are a nod to the generational stereotype that millennials strongly prefer spending money on experiences instead of things. The goal of the game is not to bankrupt fellow players, it is to earn the most experience points, which are earned by going around on the board. You earn experience points when you buy experiences around the board, which occupy traditional property spaces on a regular Monopoly board. When a player visits an experience, both the visiting player and the owning player each take the same number of experience chips, which have randomized point values face down in the center of the board.

Where regular Monopoly has properties, the squares on Monopoly for Millenials have turned into “experiences” that touch on a wide variety of things that are stereotypically associated with the generation. The cheapest experiences on the board are “parent basement” and “friends couch” — a call out to the millennial housing crisis. Towards the middle of the board, the experiences are “vegan bistro,” “artisanal coffee bar” “karaoke club” “animal rescue” “national park” “3-day music festival” and “week long meditation retreat.” Experience chips are face down in the middle of the board and contain a variety of points, ranging from -3 to +5. 24 of 64, or 37.5% of these chips are worth +1 experience point. 44 of 64 or 68.75% are worth positive points. The use of experience chips in this way completely upends the original game mechanics of Monopoly and adds an additional element of randomness to the game. Rather than one player paying rent to other players until one has bankrupted all their fellow players, a visit to an experience yields both players the same perceived benefit.

Each player starts the game with only $100, and the player with the most student loan debt goes first. In my playthrough of the game with my roommate, I go bankrupt before I have even passed “Go” the first time around the board. Instead of being able to declare bankruptcy (which is against the rules), I get a free pass to continue going around the board with no money.

On her second roll of the dice, roommate buys a National Park. When I ask her which one she wants, she chooses Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah (which is only a national monument), because it is most endangered to being lost to oil drilling. Millennials do love a good cause. Next, she lands on the 3-Day Music Festival, in the traditional spot of Park Place, where, the card assures me, the tents do NOT have air conditioning. Even though she passes Go and gains $20 the next turn, she is broke for her next lap around the board.

I’m broke until I land on a Community Chest all the way around the board, where I sell my grandmother’s vintage coat on eBay and make $65, the highest payout in the game. My next go around the board, I pass go and immediately land on a Community Chest again. This time I get a fourth job and collect $45. I buy a tarot shop for $25. On the next turn my roommate lands on my Karaoke Club, but she doesn’t have enough money to participate for experience points. My text turn lands me on my friend’s couch. We laugh at the irony because my roommate is my friend and I am currently living on her (very nice) couch.

Every experience across the board gives both players only one experience point, regardless of how much it costs to do. This incentivizes users to spend their money for the added experience benefit towards the front of the board. This makes Parent’s Basement one of the most valuable properties in the game despite it’s relegation to the first spot on the board, traditionally reserved for the bargain-basement Mediterranean Avenue on a traditional Monopoly board.

I draw a community chest and “literally can’t even pay my student loan bill” and find myself in jail. On my next turn, I play the get out of jail card because “My mom has bailed me out.” Next, I land on the national park and decline to pay the high $35 to visit and earn us both an experience point. My roommate reminds me that in real life, I’ve paid thousands of dollars to travel to America’s National Parks.

Next turn I am accused of single-handedly ruining the napkin industry and go to jail. My cellmate is quickly sick of me Vlogging my experience and I get out of jail free on my next turn. Next, roommate lands on the last available property, the “Live-work loft,” which is sadly the third most expensive place on the board, and ends the game.

We count up our experience points. A player gets points from owning experiences, but also from drawing random thumbs up or thumbs down cubes that are earned by participating in experiences as a player goes around the board. Roommate’s strategy has been to acquire as many experiences as possible, whereas I have mostly participated in those experiences. She ends up with 46 points and the win, of these 41 of her points came from owning experiences. I end up with only 19 points from owning only a few of the experiences on the board.

Despite the rules that have been changed to be less focused on buying property, the lesson here is that it is still the most advantageous strategy to acquire as many experiences as possible — ownership of experiences is much more valuable in the long run than just passing through them collecting experience chips. Roommate’s final review is that the game is much less fun and exciting than The Cheaters Edition (which I have also forced her to play), even though the millennial satire is on the nose.


Discussion

With rising white-collar crime and a decrease in prosecution in modern America, the Monopoly: Cheaters Edition demonstrates for players precisely how this type of crime provides a benefit to those that make up the upper class.The crimes used in the game are the same as the ones demonstrated by white collar criminals, using most of the same names, such as “price-gouging” and “counterfeit.” The randomized chance and community chest cards also demonstrate active ways in which the upper class exerts power over the economy. These cards give a benefit to the player for things like “bank fraud” and give players additional “tax breaks.”

The game rewards those who are able to discreetly cheat, and punishes anyone who is too overt in their tactics to get caught. This includes the game structure around cheating, but also in the chance and community chest cards, which penalize players for getting caught doing things like bribing officials. This is similar to the way that white-collar crime is prosecuted in real life. Because federal prosecutors have lost so much funding, it is easiest for them to prosecute the most obvious criminals. This doesn’t discourage white-collar crime, but incentivizes people to participate in global economic schemes that are sheltered from authorities. The game also demonstrates the importance of vigilance in monitoring this type of crime, as players are incentivized to keep a close watch on other players and double check their work. It is an unfortunate reality that this vigilance of regulation is not reflected in the real world of white collar crime.

Monopoly for Millennials demonstrates an opposite force in modern American economics. The game runs with the assumption that class mobility and disposable income are low, and uses this framework to insert a wide variety of common tropes about the economic activities of millennials, most prominently that they prefer experiences to things. Because experience points are earned together, players are incentivized to work together in a less competitive and monopolistic way. However, this sense of unity is a facade, as the point value structure of the game still means that players who collect the most property are likely to win.

Additionally, players of Monopoly for Millennials start with much less capital than a typical Monopoly game, a nod to the record high level of student debt that the generation holds relative to older generations. In real life, millennials really do start with less capital than their parents. This lack of funds, combined with game rules that make bankruptcy impossible, players spend large chunks of time going around the board with no money at all. Millennials should feel pretty comfortable with this, as the real world makes it impossible to discharge those student loans into bankruptcy, and because a half of all millennials are living paycheck to paycheck (“4 In 5 Millennials Optimistic For Future, But Half Live Paycheck To Paycheck,” 2014).

The games, when played together, are an incredibly apt description of the current economic situation in America. Economic incentives and power are given to those who have the most ability to cheat and not get caught, while economic inequality has stolen the economic power of an entire generation. When comparing the two games, the test players unanimously agreed that the Monopoly: Cheaters Edition was more fun than Monopoly for Millennials.

It came as no surprise that a board game premise of cheating your friends into bankruptcy was more fun than going around the board without any money.

The Landlord’s Game was originally intended to demonstrate the negative effects of property ownership rules and how they exacerbate income inequality, but the message was lost as players relished in winning the game and bankrupting their friends. The message of both of the new versions is prudent, but it will likely be lost as players instead learn how fun it is to cheat your way to the top.