A Perfect Assortment


Soon your Festivus list will include “Robot”.

Oh, the quandary!

Which piece will you choose to add to the Monopoly cast? Now’s the chance! Hasbro, in a rare combination of profit-mongering and democracy, is steering its monkeying of a venerable game through public demand. Your vote decides which of the five contenders is added. Will you choose the guitar, the robot, the diamond ring, the cat, or the helicopter?

No contest. The robot wins. Look at his little mustache!

Alas, there is a balance to life. With birth comes death, and so the public faces a far more torturous decision: which distinguished piece will, ahem, make room for the addition?

Oh, Monopoly!

The problem in choosing to kill off a piece is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. The eight classic Monopoly pieces show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the original game designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. The battleship, the car, the Scottie dog, the top hat, the old shoe, the iron, the wheelbarrow, and the thimble. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of them belong together, so I could never see them apart.

I never chose the wheelbarrow as my piece, especially as a kid, because its three-pointed stance makes it the most difficult piece to keep upright and pointed down-range. (I demanded a certain order to the world as a child. Still do, really.) But my peculiarities are hardly reason to vote for axing the little pewter drunkard. I kind of admire its happy-go-lucky, lay-here-if-I-want-to approach to traversing a square, square world. It’s as good as any other. The wheelbarrow, that is, but maybe the approach, too.

The thing about Monopoly is that it’s an inherently cruel game, so tempers are bound to flare and passions are going to swell and strong memories will most surely attach to the pieces rammed into family members’ eye sockets. In college I learned about so-called European style board games–like the Settlers of Catan–where all the players remain in the game and competitive until a winner is decided. They’re a ton of fun, and I’m glad they’re catching on more in the States. I majored in drinking and playing Settlers one semester. Monopoly is a decidedly American game. Only one player can emerge victorious, and to do so requires crushing the other players with real estate savvy and fortunate dice rolls. C’mon, folks, that’s guaranteed to hurt some feelings.

It’s American in another way: there are always unwritten rules. Every house plays with a slightly different set of rules, like whether you pay the fine before or after rolling to get out of jail, and when properties can change hands, and how quickly the next player can roll if someone should be demanding rent from the next player but that someone is in the kitchen making nachos for everyone. Every game is as much a political battle as it is a board game. Ah, America!

What, you say your family played it with smiling faces and a rule book handy? Bullshit.

We called it Family Game Night. This was back at the first house I can remember, the house on Greenwood Drive. With the enormous trees in all the yards; a glorious place to be a kid. I suppose we’re talking third grade, give or take. On alternating weekends Mr. Rick and his kids would come over and the dads would watch football or do whatever dads do while Ben and I would talk Orioles and compare baseball cards. Ben’s parents were the first I knew who divorced. And on the other weekends, on Sundays, we’d sit down and play a game together. Those game nights are the last memory I have of my–there should be a word for this, maybe “birthfamily”?–of all the people in my immediate family when I was born–sitting together, trying to love each other.

Sometimes we’d mix it up, a couple rounds of Mall Madness or a spin at The Game of Life. But for the few months Family Game Night lasted, the game of choice was Monopoly. $1500 to each player, choose your piece, roll the dice to see who goes first. Simple tasks on paper but far more difficult in execution. Who will give out the money? One of the players, one of those money-hungry, real estate-snatching, hotel-slavering players will sit in front of all the money in the game world, and he won’t occasionally slide a third hundo into his hands when he passes Go? Bullshit. Getting the banking job can set up a player for an easy victory in the right hands, so it’s not to be given up lightly.

I recall my brother Joe wanting to do the fun things that older brothers do on Sunday night, and hating being forced to play games with his dorky family. My parents would appease him by making him the banker, and I’ll be damned if he ever finished below par in a game. Just sayin’. He would choose the race car, I think because he wanted to get away.

Gamesmanship runs in the family. Back in high school I would carry Monopoly money in my wallet. It came in surprisingly useful. I never needed to tap into it while playing Monopoly, but I probably played a much bolder game with the safety net.  And it had plenty of other purposes. My junior year I ran a brisk exchange in souls, and Monopoly money with a name penciled in made excellent vouchers for the hereafter. The gambit was simple: I’d offer some small but significant sum for someone’s soul, no more than a buck, and we’d create a bearer instrument on the Monopoly bank note–to the holder goes the soul. Free chocolate milk money, right? But nine out of ten would have trouble sleeping that night knowing they’d signed away their possible heavenly future for a song. (My sales pitch might’ve been a tad over the top.) The kid would come back, dollar in hand, asking for his soul back, but the soul market is volatile. They always trade higher the next day. I’d demand a fiver. I won’t say how many ponied up.

Gamesmanship, unfortunately, must’ve come from my mother’s side. My dad called it “playing cutthroat,” as in, “It’s no fun when you two play all god damn cutthroat,” referring to me and Joe. Like I said, Monopoly is a cruel game.  To eventually get a winner, people have to start losing. It’s a basic principle of business: you must crush your competition and steal their assets to take on ever-larger competition. Halliburton, at least, but I dare you to call them unsuccessful.

My sister, usually playing with the dog, would invariably waste her money on low-percentage properties. She always liked the Chance card that read “Take a ride on the Reading!” so she’d buy up all the railroads she could, never learning they’re poor investments. She always lost, but we were awful to her. We’d try and encourage her to trade away the properties we needed to complete a set for a random sets of shiny bullshit and cash, knowing it was never enough to make up for what we’d steal back in rent on the improved properties. She, just in fifth grade, had a little trouble seeing as far through the game’s sequences as the boys. Gamesmanship!  But then she’d start losing, tears would start flowing, and my dad would be furious. Those days he was never far from fury. I blame the DC commutes.

It didn’t help that our family rules created wild swings of fortune. Free Parking, by the rule book, is simply a place to rest your piece for a turn. Some houses like to put the fines paid from Chance and Community Chest cards into a pot in the center of the board, the proceeds to whoever lands on Free Parking. That wasn’t nearly enough for my family–What if you hit Free Parking on the first turn? So we’d sweeten the pot with $500. Every time Free Parking was emptied. Sometimes the pot would swell to more than the starting money, once players started building improvements and getting hit with taxes. A pauper to a prince with a roll of the dice. Whoever hit that kind of windfall could build hotels and squeeze the other players of every white and pink dollar. Strategy didn’t mean bupkis when piles of Monopoly money were involved. A very American game.

I feel the worst for my mom about the whole thing. I think Family Game Night was her idea, and she really wanted it to be a success. We’re all really interesting people, we five, and I think my mom hoped it would come out in us about a decade sooner than it did. At the very least, she wanted Family Game Night to be a lasting memory. That’s probably why we kept trying as long as we did. I can’t remember a pleasant round. I’m sure there were some nights that didn’t end in tears and accusations, but those two things are most of what comes to mind, and I wasn’t trying to remember.

Sold in China under the name “Stress Spike”.

A year later, sitting on couches in the family shrink’s office, we three kids would play Topple. It’s a balancing game. A five-by-five grid stands balanced on a post, and the players add chips to the grid until the whole thing topples. There’s some sort of point to it, but I don’t remember that part. What I remember is Joe and Emily putting their chips on extreme edges, trying to overbalance the thing. I’d use my turn every time to undo their damage.

At 9 years old, I didn’t get why they would play that way. Why try to ruin the game? Why did I have to waste my turn just so these jerks could keep screwing it up? It never occurred to me that I’d become the game. In family sessions, when we were supposed to talk about the game and other things, I’d pull my sweater over my head and ignore what was happening. Tried to, at least.

The family was breaking up over those years, although it took its sweet time circling the drain. It wasn’t until just after Christmas in seventh grade that the parents pulled the plug on their marriage. We reacted to the news more honestly than we will react to anything else in our lives. Joe stormed down to his room in the basement and punched a hole in his door. Emily shut herself in her bedroom and called her friends. I sat exactly where I was for the rest of the day and into the night. I just didn’t feel like getting up anymore.

The family market is as volatile as the soul market, forever inflating. One ended. More began. My dad lives alone, but he’s not lonely; he’ll be fine. My mom remarried and seems to have found some measure of peace. Emily married Jesus. Joe found himself a wife and started a little family; my niece is adorable. I’m immensely happy for all of them. It’s making the holidays a little challenging though, especially this year.

I was born into a family of five people. One by one they drifted apart and found new people to make memories with and find comfort in; this seems the way of things. I’m still on the market. I haven’t found a new family yet, and the family I love the most, the family I remember best, has been gone for more than half my life. And what’s more, I can’t change. When I think family, I see five faces. And my last memories of that family together are these memories of us playing games.

The problem in killing off a family is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. Our lives together show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the Original Game Designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of us belong together, so I could never see us apart.

Ah, hell with it. Get rid of the wheelbarrow.


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