Published: February 15, 2011
You can still collect $200 when you pass “Go,” but not in piles of play money.
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
In the new version of Monopoly, the game’s classic pastel-colored bills and the designated Banker have been banished, along with other old-fashioned elements, in favor of a computer that runs the game.
Hasbro showed a preview of the new version, called Monopoly Live, at this week’s Toy Fair in New York. It is the classic Monopoly board on the outside, with the familiar railroads like the B.& O. and the development of property. But in the center, instead of dice and Chance and Community Chest cards, an infrared tower with a speaker issues instructions, keeps track of money and makes sure players adhere to the rules. The all-knowing tower even watches over advancing the proper number of spaces.
Hasbro hopes the computerized Monopoly will appeal to a generation raised on video games amid a tough market for traditional board games, a category where sales declined 9 percent in 2010, according to the market-research firm NPD Group. “How do we give them the video game and the board game with the social experience? That’s where Monopoly Live came in,” said Jane Ritson-Parsons, global brand leader for Monopoly.
With free digital games everywhere, Hasbro is hoping to revive interest among young children and preteenagers in several of its games that cost money. (The new Monopoly, available in the fall, will be about $50). Battleship will undergo a similar digital upgrade this year, and other Hasbro games will be redesigned for 2012 and 2013, Ms. Ritson-Parsons said.
But for families used to arguing over Monopoly’s rules, players who slip a $100 bill under the board for later use and friends who gleefully demand rent from one another, it may not be so easy to adapt to a computer’s presence on the board.
“It seems that there’s a computer that makes most of the decisions for you — it changes a lot of the rules, it removes a lot of the skill,” said Ken Koury, a competitive Monopoly player and coach who informally settles rule disputes for others. “With this computer, I’m wondering what’s left for the player to decide — is it they just keep pushing buttons and wait for someone to win?”
Hasbro is aiming at luring 8- to 12-year-olds back to these board games. Its executives say this age group, accustomed to video games, wants a fast-paced game that requires using their hands. To move forward on the new Monopoly board, players cover their game piece with their hands, and the tower announces how many spaces the player can move. Players also hold their hands over decals to buy or sell properties, insert “bank cards” into slots to check their accounts, and send a plastic car moving around a track to win money or other advantages (only when the tower instructs them to, of course).
Hasbro executives also say that young players do not want to bother with reading instructions and toss rules aside.
“For games, but really for anything you buy today, you need to be able to take it out of the box and play it,” said John Frascotti, Hasbro’s chief marketing officer. “You’re not ensconced in the rulebook.”
To that end, Hasbro is shortening and simplifying many of its popular games, changing the formats of Scrabble and Cranium so they can be played in five-minute spurts. Rivals like Mattel are doing the same with games like Apples to Apples. Even video games often come in bite-size pieces, like the popular Angry Birds.
"There is a recognition that people’s attention spans maybe aren’t as big as they used to be, or they don’t have the time to dedicate to this activity," said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst with Needham & Company.
Ms. Ritson-Parsons said that while some aspects of the game had changed, Monopoly Live still emphasized social interaction.
“Getting rid of the instruction book encourages a lot more face-to-face interaction,” she said. “If you’re not having to read as much, you are all chatting more.”
Hasbro has kept key social elements, like allowing negotiation for property.
The adherence to rules also speeds up the game and makes it more interesting, she said. For example, if a player lands on Marvin Gardens but decides not to buy it, the rules mandate that it be auctioned off right away — but a lot of players do not know or do not follow that rule.
“People were saying, ‘It takes me a while to get to own properties,’ ” Ms. Ritson-Parsons said. “Well, it’s going to if you don’t auction it.”
The new version tries to combat board boredom in other ways. It sprinkles in random events, like a horse race where players must bet on winners.
The computer also tracks how fast or slow play is going, and may intervene to make it lively. If, say, very little property is getting bought, it will announce an auction in the middle of turns.
Hasbro executives said that the company would continue to sell classic Monopoly once the new edition came out.
“It’s really just an extension of the brand, not a destruction of what was,” Mr. Frascotti said.
Mary Flanagan, a game designer and distinguished professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth, said that games tended to reflect the societies that they were played in. For instance, the original Monopoly, issued in 1935 by Parker Brothers, now a subsidiary of Hasbro, reflected “American ingenuity, the sense of needing to have hope, and reinforcing capitalism in the face of real economic despair,” she said.
This version, she said, seemed to be “less and less about financial awareness” — children do not need math skills in it— and more about social interaction.
Yet “when you say you can’t cheat, it means that there’s no sense of being able to socially negotiate the rules,” she said.
Joey Lee, who studies games as an assistant professor of technology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, said cheating could actually be instructional.
“I wouldn’t necessarily even call it cheating,” he said. “In many cases a gamer’s mind-set is coming up with new and novel approaches to winning, and to a certain problem at hand. That’s exactly the kind of mind-set we need as far as 21st-century skills.”
“Being able to negotiate with others, make up your own rules, argue with other players, that, to me, is part of what makes it a successful social game,” he said. The tower is “more of that blind adherence to following orders, versus being able to figure out and learn the game for yourself.”
Though Hasbro is emphasizing social interaction with the game, some Monopoly players and academics said the new version sounded much less social — no arguing over whether a player could buy his neighbor’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card?
“It takes away from the aspect of interpersonal negotiations if you have an electronic voice in the middle of the board telling you everything to do,” said Dale Crabtree, a finalist in the national Monopoly championships in 2009. “The first thing I said was, ‘The next thing they’ll do away with is the players.’ ”