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The Night I Broke Monopoly





In the Easter of 1988, when I was eighteen years old and in my first year at college, I went on a boating trip with three friends: Steve, Rik, and Stu. It was the second time I'd gone away with friends rather than family, and pretty much the last, for within two years the only one of them I'd still be speaking to was Stu. It wasn't quite the final bookend of my school-days friendships; this is life, not fiction, and life doesn't follow a neat narrative like that. But I was perhaps on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, between thinking that you can just dive in and change something, and knowing that sometimes it's best not to meddle in things you don't yet understand.

Like game design.

The boating trip was on the River Thames, the longest, mightiest river in England. (Americans: in US terms, the Thames would count as: "Jesus H Christ, you call that a river? I've got a stream bigger than that runs through my back yard!")

As holidays go, this trip wasn't particularly fun. Hell, as anything goes, it wasn't particularly fun.

It was cold. You'd wake up with everything wet from condensation. The boat was small and cramped. It was supposedly a four-berth boat, but two of those births were in the main cabin, on a double-bed that the dining table converted into. Since we were typical teenaged males, somewhat homo-concerned if not actually homophobic, only one person could sleep on that double bed, meaning that some unlucky sod had to sleep on the five-foot by two-foot stretch of lino in front of the sink, using a step as a pillow. And when it came to the other essential needs, the bog was horrible, and the shower so small as to be unusable. (It was so small, it took us until about day four to realise that it even existed).

By the final night of the holiday, I was so pissed off and angry at the boat, my companions, and the holiday, as well as quite frankly scared shitless by Rik and Steve's decision to fry up some burgers while drunk out of their tiny skulls, that I decided I'd rather sleep outside on a park bench. In April. (I think I lasted about half an hour before returning, deciding that if I did get burned to death in a fry-up torched boat, at least this way I'd be arriving at the Pearly Gates warm rather than hypothermically cold).

On the first morning Rik drove past a sculler at such speed that the bow wave damn-near washed right over him. I was horrified and angry, as was the sculler, but Rik just thought it was a laugh. A few hours later, he crashed the boat into a bridge. Having previously crashed his dad's car into a bridge, he then started making jokes about learning to fly so he could complete the set. This might sound like fun, but it wasn't. At least I only got thrown off my bunk onto the floor. Poor Stu was taking a dump at the time and found himself riding an unsecured chemical bog the length of the toilet, ending up with his face in the sink.

It later turned out that the impact had fractured the fuel line that led from the fuel nozzle into the fuel tank, something that was only discovered when we got back and the boat yard tried refilling it up. (And only then after they'd, "...just pumped fifty quid's worth of diesel into the Thames!").

One night, Steve decided to steal some glasses from the pub we were moored outside, to replace the glasses we'd managed to break. I wanted nothing to do with it (I still wouldn't - I don't want to sound like a complete square, but theft is theft). I have to confess though, it was quite funny how it turned out. Steve had a long coat that went down practically to his knees. He shoved two glasses in each deep pocket and then set off slowly towards the door. The only trouble was that one of the pockets had a large hole in it, allowing the glasses to slip one by one through the hole and into the gap between the coat's outer surface and its inner lining. First one glass fell through, and dropped down the eighteen inches or so until it hit the hem. And then a second or so later, the other glass followed.

And smashed. With a very loud crash. Right in the middle of an large, open, table-free area of floor that contained only Steve.

You know how when someone drops a glass in a pub, all conversation stops as everyone looks in that direction to see what idiot's left broken glass all over the floor? Well this was just like that, except when everyone looked in Steve's direction all they could see was one bloke trying not to make a crunching sound when he walked. No glass. At all. The puzzled look on their faces was a picture.

Guiding the boat into locks turned out to be insanely difficult; much, much harder than, say, parallel parking a car. It reminded me of trying to dock your spaceship with the space station in the old 80s computer game, Elite. When playing that game, time after time, I'd think I'd got my Cobra MkIII correctly lined up, would be almost there, and would then see the entrance just drifting up, across and away... with me powerless to get my ship back on target.

Entering a lock was like that. The boat could only be turned effectively when the engine was going full blast, because the propeller was in front of the rudder. And when it did turn, it turned not like a car - which will turn into the direction you want to go - but like a drunk fat man with a protruding arse, with the stern of the boat swinging out away from the direction you want to go.

The upshot was that you had to approach the lock at a fair clip and make sure that you were exactly lined up. If you found yourself entering the lock at slightly the wrong angle, it would then be too late to try steering, because if you did, you'd just slam the stern of the boat into the stone sides. Of course, on the big river you didn't notice quite how the boat turned. It was only something that became apparent when you entered a confined space, like a lock.

Remember that awesome bit in Galaxy Quest where the ship comes out of dock on just the wrong line, and slowly, serenely, scrapes along the entire length of the dock? Yep. I recreated that entire scene, albeit heading in, including the adding of a neat scratch running the full length of a formerly pristine white hull.

Did I mention that we were the first people to take the boat out that season, and that it had been refurbished over the winter? (When our parents came to pick us up the hire people took them away and gave them a good talking to. I'm not quite sure what was said, but we didn't get our deposit back and I've never dared try booking a Hoseasons holiday since.)

Anyhow, a few days in we found ourselves in Reading, and holed up there, staying for two nights and an entire day. Now there's nothing particularly wrong with Reading, but there's nothing particularly special about it either. It's just a town in Berkshire, whose main quality would seem to be that while it might be Reading, at least it isn't Slough. That we spent the day in Reading tells you a lot about how much we were enjoying the holiday.

And then on our second night there, we sat down to play Monopoly. I'm not sure why we had a set on board. I don't think we'd bought it with us. I have a feeling we might have been so bored that we went out and bought it. But one night we sat down and started to play. We weren't playing by the proper rules I'd discover eighteen years later. It hadn't yet occurred to me that reading the rules might be a good idea. But we weren't playing by the standard, cultural rules that 99% of people play with, either. Because some genius decided we should make the game more fun.

That genius, of course, being me.

I'd noticed that there were a number of blank cards, some chance, and some community chest. I thought it would be fun to introduce some additional taxation rules into the game, to liven things up.

On half of the cards I wrote something like following:

Income Tax: Roll dice to determine an income tax rate between 10% and 60%. All players have to immediately pay, in cash, that proportion of their total assets (money, property, hotels).

And on the other cards, I wrote something like:

Purchase Tax: Roll dice to determine a purchase tax rate between 10% and 60%. From that point on, all purchases (property and houses) will have that purchase tax added on to them.

In 1988, we were still very much in the reign of Margaret Thatcher and I was still very much in my teenaged, morally black-and-white phase. My opinion of her them was entirely negative, that she was evil personified. (I'm still not any kind of fan at all, but I will now offer some plaudits for her achievements as a women in a sexist, male-dominated world, and offer some grudging admission that she might perhaps, maybe have had just a few points on some of the things she was banging on about).

One of Mrs Thatcher's core beliefs was that taxes, and in particular high taxes, were bad, because they supposedly discouraged endeavour and retarded economic growth.

I was about to prove her right.

The Game

We sat down around the boat's tiny table and prepared for battle. I can't remember now, but I suspect alcohol might have been involved. The participants: me, Stu, Steve and Rik. Steve worked in a bank, so we appointed him banker, on the not unreasonable grounds that a banker was the best person to run a bank. (Of course, given what we now know about bankers, I'd probably now draw the exact opposite conclusion).

And we played. And we played. And we played. It turned out that my two little innovations did have an impact on the game.

Firstly, high rates of purchase tax acted to slow game-play right down. When the rate was only 10 or 20%, people were reasonably happy to spend their cash. But if it was 50 or 60%, it seemed there was a collective decision to buy nothing whatsoever until a new purchase tax card was drawn, and the rate changed to something lower. So we could go round, and round, and round, and round, just waiting for someone to draw a new purchase tax card and reset the rate.

Secondly, the knowledge that at any point someone might draw an income tax card had a chilling effect on people's willingness to spend cash. Imagine the disaster that would occur if you were to spend all your cash on property, houses and hotels, only for someone to then draw an Income Tax card and roll a 60% rate. You'd end up having to mortgage all your property and sell your houses and hotels back to the bank at half price.

Income tax meant potential wipe-out, and security meant keeping a good wad of cash in case.

Actually, we found out later that in Steve's case, security meant keeping a couple of pink 500 notes stuffed down your sock, and not declaring them whenever an income tax card came out, a behaviour which we then thought horrifyingly out of character for someone who worked in a bank. (Again, I'd think differently now).

But gradually, slowly, at a slowness of speed hitherto seen only in Swiss glaciers or lunchtime post-office queues, the game started to move into its final phases. By now we were in the early hours of the morning. People were tired. People had probably been drinking. Deep-down, people just wanted the game to be over. But this was a game. Egos were at stake. This mattered.

The game was now effectively between Stu and myself, with Rik and Steve reduced to bit part players. Stu and I had each built up an impressive property empire, complete property sets bristling with little red hotels. Round and round we'd all go, and each time Rik or Steve landed on one of our sets we'd bark out a request for hundreds, or even thousands of pounds, and each time they paid up.

We didn't care how Rik or Steve were getting the money. We only cared that it was we who were getting the money, and not the man sitting opposite us.

(It actually transpired that Steve was stealing the money straight out of the bank to pay both his and Rik's rent demands, but by now Stu and I were so focussed on the contest, or perhaps just drunk, that we failed to notice that detail).

It was the game that couldn't end, a metaphor for the eighties property boom that we were then living through, and the noughties property boom just gone: an endlessly inflating property bubble built on borrowed (and stolen) cash.

I think in the end we just gave up.

The next morning, we staggered out of our beds, tired, perhaps hung-over, and prepared to cast off. We just wanted to get the hell out of Reading and continue on upstream. The key was placed into the ignition switch, turned... and nothing happened.

It turned out that we'd played so late into the night that the cabin light had run the battery flat1.

It wasn't just Monopoly I'd broken that night.

1I can't remember how we got it fixed. I think we found someone at a nearby boatyard who either gave us a jump-start, or sold us a new battery.