All the worst things about games at camp I learned from Monopoly (part 1)


This series of blog posts comes from a presentation that I’ll be doing for SCampCon 3 on February 11, 2021. More info:

I would consider Monopoly to be one of the most iconic board games in America (and perhaps around the world as well). Whenever I tell someone who is not in the hobby-gaming world that I love playing board games, the question I am frequently asked is, “Oh, like Monopoly?”

“Kind of,” I usually reply, “but a little different.”

Monopoly sometimes gets hate from hobby-gamers, and this series of posts may seem to add it, but that’s not my intent. Like others have pointed out, Monopoly isn’t a horrible game if played by the rules as written. The problem lies in that many people learned to play it from their parents, grandparents, or older siblings, and a few good-intentioned house rules1 have emerged over the years that make the length of gameplay unpalatable. The point of this series isn’t to focus on Monopoly, however. Instead, I want us to look critically at the types of games that we play at camp, and, using Monopoly as an example of what not to do, offer some suggestions when planning and leading group games.

The thing about Monopoly is that it lasts longer than the players are interested.

Problem #1: The Game is too Long

If you’re like me, you probably remember playing an epic game of Monopoly. I remember playing the game with my dad and siblings that lasted six hours! To some, playing an epically long game like this might be a feature. Truth be told, I have a fond memory of that day, but I also don’t think we ever played it again. And, something we’ll get to in a future post, not everybody was still playing the game when it ended. As previously mentioned, the game wasn’t designed to be this long. However, as typically played by many American families, Monopoly usually lasts longer than the players are interested.

This problem can sometimes be true of the games we play at camp. When it is true, usually the blame lies with those who are leading the games, and there are a few reasons why this happens.

First, games can be too long because leaders are trying to create a sense of epicness. They long to create a game that lasts forever in the minds of campers, one that will be retold about for years to come. The false assumption is that length is equal to epicness.

Second, games can be too long when leaders try to orchestrate a come-from-behind win. A common tactic is to add another round, upping the point value to a degree that the underdog player or team can win the whole game if they win the last round. Catch-up mechanisms like this are not bad ways to keep games exciting for a short period of time, but continually adding “just one more round” too many times makes the game last longer than players are interested.

Finally, games can be too long because leaders enjoy the spotlight of leading a game. Leaders whose egos are stoked by the spotlight can sometimes lose the feel of the room, and when a leader enjoys leading more than the players enjoy playing, it’s time to have an honest conversation.

Good camp games end before the players are ready to quit.

In general, I think it’s better to err on cutting the game too short than risk playing too long. A good rule of thumb is to consider the average attention span of campers, which is about 7 to 10 minutes. This includes both giving instructions and play time. Interestingly, television programming typically follows this rule. Consider an average sitcom that has about 22 minutes of actual screen time. There are usually 3 commercial breaks, which means that programming segments last around the seven-minute mark.

I would suggest keeping the total time of any single group game to 10 minutes or less. Intentionally think through how to communicate rules in clear, yet succinct ways, and then once you begin playing, avoid drawing the game out longer than the players are interested. And if you are planning a series of shorter games back-to-back, keep the transitions short to minimize the downtime.

A final caveat for “wide games.” Likely, your camp has a tradition of playing one or more wide games that involve large playing areas and a slightly more complex set of rules. These games can truly feel epic, and they often break the norms about the length of gameplay. It would be impossible to set up and play these types of games in 10 minutes or less and leave players feeling satisfied. While wide games are somewhat of an outlier, they can still be prone to lasting longer than the players are interested in playing. I suggest thinking about these games in 7 to 10-minute segments or movements so that the game doesn’t get stalled at any one point. Keep the instructions to less than 10 minutes, and then once the game begins, plan the flow of the game so that the player-experience changes about every 7 to 10 minutes. Again, remember to err on cutting the game short than risk going too long.

A mentor once said to me, “It’s better to end early and leave them hungry for more than to go long and leave them ready to puke!”

What thoughts or suggestions do you have about the length of games at camp? Please comment below.

Coming up next – The thing about Monopoly is that it features too much randomness and not enough player agency

1Two of the most popular are: 1) FREE PARKING – Instead of paying owed money to the bank, players add it to the middle of the board, and whenever a player lands on the FREE PARKING space, they win the jackpot of that collected cash. 2) No Auctions – The rules as written say that when a player lands on an unowned property they must either buy it at the listed price or put it up for auction. Both of these rules greatly lengthen the playing time of the game.

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