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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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Give Monopoly this Christmas, and get ready to fight
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Our play was also a sort of experiment. I was curious whether, as before, the game would end relatively quickly with a clear winner, and whether an argument would again break out.
Credit:Kenneth Burns

An avalanche of board games is sold this time of year. When I visited a Farm and Fleet recently, I saw that a seasonal aisle near the shelves of Christmas decorations was given entirely over to board games, with titles both classic (Clue) and new (Grey's Anatomy Trivia Board Game).

The sight of them got me to thinking about board games, which I once adored. When I was a kid, my family stocked a cupboard full of them, including some whose origins are lost in the mists of time (backgammon, chess), and others more recently designed, like Candyland and a Star Wars game that prominently featured images of Carrie Fisher.

And there was, especially, Monopoly. I remember spending long summer days playing the iconically American game with my grandmother. She, my brother and I devised pet names for certain Monopoly elements. We dubbed the game itself "Monopa-oil," for some reason, and we called the B&O Railroad property the "Body Odor."

Between the pet names, the colorful game elements and -- especially -- the adorable metal tokens, I formed a strong emotional attachment to Monopoly. I think the attachment also stemmed from the sheer length of the games, which sometimes lasted for days before, bored, we moved on to something else, like card houses.

I have since learned that the games were so long because we observed certain house rules -- free money if you land on Free Parking! -- that replenished the supply of cash. The game is over when every player but one is bankrupted, but those handouts kept the destitute players solvent.

I learned this from playing Monopoly in adulthood. Until last week, I had played the game exactly twice as an adult. Each game -- I played them about ten years ago -- ended relatively quickly, in hours rather than days. Each time there was a clear winner.

And each time, an argument broke out.

Last week, my boyfriend and I played a game of Monopoly with a friend. We did so in the spirit of the game-buying season, and also because this game -- preoccupied as it is with real estate -- seemed a playful tonic amid the collapse of the actual real-estate market.

Our play was also a sort of experiment. I was curious whether, as before, the game would end relatively quickly with a clear winner, and whether an argument would again break out.

The answer was yes, on all three counts. Including the argument. Well, it was more like tension.

Aren't games supposed to be fun?

Before the game, I read the rules aloud. There are several pages of them, in very small type, and we found ourselves in deep concentration as we contemplated them. We thought we knew how to play Monopoly (doesn't everyone?), but certain details could evade casual players. For example, it's easy to remember that when a player lands on a property, she can buy it -- but did you know that if she declines to buy it, it is supposed to go up for auction? This rule is frequently ignored, and that is another reason games last so long.

Once we finally got under way, the first phase of the game felt effortless. Around the board we giddily went. Properties usually were bought by whoever landed on them. Sometimes we went to jail. My boyfriend drew a card awarding him $10 for second place in a beauty contest. The three of us shared memories of past Monopoly games, and other games we played in childhood.

Then came the middle part. Monopolies were formed. Houses were built. Deals were struck.

Actually, most of the deals were struck between my boyfriend and our friend, who traded properties and cash to the mutual benefit of each. I -- perhaps being true to my Scots heritage -- hung on to everything I had gained. This generated ill will.

It was one of several differences of playing style that emerged. Our friend tended to keep plenty of cash on hand, and acquired relatively fewer properties. I, on the other hand, spent and mortgaged freely, and amassed huge holdings. I was, as they say on Wall Street, highly leveraged.

The strategy seems unwise in retrospect, because Monopoly players pay fees when they take properties out of hock. As rents around the board rose, I spent a small fortune on transaction costs in the process of raising cash for my creditors.My boyfriend, meanwhile, played a less flamboyant strategy. At one moment he teetered near bankruptcy, in fact, but once he came into a key property -- one of the red ones -- he began building houses like mad. Eventually these undid our friend and me.

My boyfriend also hit upon a key strategy, which stems from the fact that -- according the rules -- only 32 houses can built on the board, and when they're gone, they're gone. He prudently declined to convert houses into hotels, and the shortage kept our friend and me from building. He also was attentive in buying houses as soon as they came available. The rules are silent on who has the right to buy houses when, so he generally got them by simply claiming them first.

As the game entered its final phase, the outcome was clear. Indeed, before my boyfriend triumphed, the only pause came when I dropped one of the dice down a heating vent. We tried to remove it with tweezers.

Our friend was the first to go bankrupt. Only my boyfriend and me were left. I landed on one of his expensive properties, and began laboriously mortgaging properties, selling houses and counting cash. I am terrible at arithmetic, and by now it was getting late. I was having trouble concentrating.

Finally, as I was counting my money, my boyfriend -- flush with cash -- motioned to our friend that he wanted to buy the houses I had just sold. I snapped.

"Can you WAIT till the END OF MY TURN!?!?" I hissed.

After that, the mood was slightly somber. The game ended. My boyfriend won.

I began apologizing profusely to both of them for my outburst. (It was a pretty remarkable outburst, by my normally unflappable standards.)

As I thought it might, Monopoly had made me bitter, resentful, impatient. This is the power of capitalism.

We're already planning our next game. Merry Christmas!

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