Review: Electronic Arts Monopoly
If you've ever wanted to learn how people can bankrupt themselves investing in real estate, good news: you don't have to read California or Florida newspapers -- the classic board game Monopoly ($5) is here for the third-generation iPod nano, iPod classic, and fifth-generation iPod. Developed by Electronic Arts, Monopoly does a very good job of letting as many as four people enjoy Parker Brothers' classic game of buying, managing, and exploiting a portfolio of property, armed with an initial budget of $1500 and whatever additional funds can be secured through luck or wise speculation.
If you’re not familiar with the premise, Monopoly places you on a square board that runs 11 blocks on each side, starting with a piece of land called “Go” and continuing to form a frame of separate properties until you come back to the Go square. You roll two dice to move as few as two or as many as twelve blocks at a time, and you have the opportunity to purchase the land on virtually any block unless it’s owned by someone else. Buy several blocks in the same neighborhood and you can develop them with houses or hotels; the more and better developed the property you own, the more you collect every time one of your opponents lands on that property. Your goal is to bankrupt your opponents by owning enough property that they run out of money after some combination of bad investments, luck, and movement on the board.
By the standards of EA’s previous board game translations for the iPod, Monopoly is not only fun, but legitimately replayable and educational. Though the company hasn’t included some of the streamlined or expanded variants on Monopoly popularized in recent years, it does give the player an initial choice to use the Atlantic City (U.S.) version or London (U.K.) version of the board and currency, with Park Place replaced by Park Lane, Illinois Avenue by Trafalgar Square, and so on. For mostly historic reasons, the U.S. version teaches less about geography than it does the general benefits and consequences of real estate investment; the U.K. version is bettered by more famous locales.
Either city map is presented from two perspectives, simultaneously. For visual interest, you’re provided with a close-up forced isometric 3-D view of the current player’s location on the board, which is often framed by a zoomed-out view of the full 11-block grid. You can use a management screen to highlight any of the properties on the board, view its “deed” with development and mortgage expenses, as well as its current “for sale” status. There aren’t any fancy visual effects, but this dual view lets you understand where you are and what’s available at all times, should you want to focus on that; alternatively, you can just keep rolling the dice to move around and enjoy the animation in the forced 3-D part of the frame.
EA also greatly simplifies your management of money, properties, and development options such as building, mortgaging, and trading through a collection of relatively intuitive menus. Cash is dispensed and taken away automatically as appropriate, properties are automatically presented for purchase as you land on them, and auctions are started for properties whenever a player passes on the initial purchase. Bids are taken until the property is won by some player, which helps to keep up the pace of the game. Any player can propose a trade of cash or properties to another player; additionally, mortgaging properties for quick cash or adding homes or hotels to properties is a snap.
Putting the gravitas of actual real estate crises aside, Monopoly’s presentation of these options makes for a quick and fun experience: by holding down the Action button and declining bad trade offers to keep speeding things along, you can witness a computer-controlled appointment bankrupt itself in a fairly predictable manner—spending money, losing it after landing on your purchased and developed land, mortgaging everything to keep making payments, and ultimately running too deep into debt to recover. A smart player will learn to quickly buy and develop as many neighborhoods as possible, seize control of four railroad stops and two utilities, and ultimately make the opponent’s every movement costly; only by dividing the board between three or four players does consolidation become tricky.
Notably, if any of the game’s rules don’t initially make sense—as we found ourselves wondering why our options were limited on a house and hotel building page that is shared with mortgaging options—there is a straightforward help system that teaches you what’s going on. This system, augmented by the game’s automatic tips for first timers, enables even a Monopoly lightweight to become familiar with rules and options very quickly. We’d dare to say that the game’s speed and streamlined interface make for a better learning experience than sitting at a real board with an experienced player explaining what’s supposed to be happening.
What also helps Monopoly is a charming, if not completely overwhelming approach to bringing the game’s themes to life. While this version lacks some of the visual touches users might expect from console-based renditions of the game, such as a fully animated version of the game’s Rich Uncle Pennybags mascot, EA has taken the trouble to give each of the game’s metallic player icons both animation and a sound effect: the car vrooms, a battleship sails, the dog runs and clinks, and an iron hops around. It also includes several breezy audio tracks that are described as “jazz,” “lounge,” or “pop,” but all fall more into the category of thematically appropriate, 1930’s-inspired audio; only one sound effect—the rattling of the jail cell bars that drop when a player is sent to the jail square—is off due to a hint of static.
Ultimately, like EA’s other iPod board game translations, Monopoly isn’t an incredibly difficult game to beat or master, but unlike Scrabble and Yahtzee, it’s enough fun that you’ll want to come back to it and keep playing the computer until you become better. We didn’t find it to be too tough on Medium difficulty against one computer opponent, but there’s an Easy level for novices and a Hard level for better players, and you can set up three computer players with different skill levels to increase the challenge. Compelling if not ambitious, Monopoly is a game we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to fans of the board game, as well as those looking to quickly hone their skills for competitive purposes. Given the extended recent lull in iPod games, it’s an especially welcome addition to the library.