Acton Institute Powerblog

What Board Games Can and Cannot Teach Us About Economics

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One of the most basic forms of entertainment that friends and families share together is playing board games, such as Monopoly or Risk. While we may not realize is how much these games are teach us about economic ideas such as trade or scarcity.

I must confess I’m a bit of a board game snob. I don’t really care for common games like Monopoly as I prefer so-called “designer” games such as the Settlers of Catan or Power Grid. In an article for the Washington Post, Blake Eskin calls Settlers the “board game of our time.”

Eskin explains that Monopoly had an appeal in the depression-era because it allowed poor kids the opportunity to feel rich and successful for a day. He also mentions several of the reasons I do not care for Monopoly: It takes several hours to play; the outcome is too dependent on luck; it can often become clear who is going to win far before the game actually ends, etc. It is also an elimination game, meaning that an early loser can be stuck with nothing to do for hours while their friends finish the game.

This is all a deliberate part of Monopoly’s design. A predecessor to Monopoly, The Land Lord’s Game was designed to show the supposed evils of capitalism. There’s a reason that despite being a game about markets, Monopoly is ultimately a zero-sum proposition where one player wins (and everyone else loses) by acquiring everyone else’s money. And the winner does this by making people pay for things they never wanted—no one’s ever happy to land on someone else’s Boardwalk with a hotel, it’s a strictly involuntary action with no benefit. Monopoly is designed to be an unpleasant game.

In contrast, nearly every transaction in the Settlers of Catan is a voluntary one. Players trade resources based on a perceived benefit to themselves, not because the rules of the game require them to make a payment, as in Monopoly. In this sense, Catan is a much better representative of how markets actually work, since there is a limited amount of coercion involved in the process.

There is a limit, however, to what we can learn about economics from board games, since they have a clear winner and come to an end in a period of time that is incomparable to the real world. A game of Catan pushes 90 minutes. Even some of the lengthier games that I enjoy rarely exceed four hours.

This is clearly not what real life looks like. There is no end-of-game winner, just the constant urge to do better—for ourselves and our community. The game (by which I mean economic interaction) does not end in a matter of hours, but instead lasts a lifetime, and the achievements and work—or alternatively the damage—that one does can endure for generations. People tend to cooperate better and act more honorably when they face the prospect of repeated interactions and a desire for a better future.

In this sense, board games cannot truly capture the intergenerational impacts that our decisions made. Our duty for stewardship is hard to demonstrate in situations that are designed with only those playing the game in mind. Board games (good ones anyway) can be useful in illustrating economic concepts such as scarcity or the benefit of voluntary trade, but they can never really demonstrate the moral values at stake.

John MacDhubhain Recent alumnus of Michigan State, future student of George Mason

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