Here is the first installment of our series of Magmic games reviews, starting with a classic among the classics: Monopoly.
I had heard of other ports of this game to several computer platforms, from the ZX Spectrum (that should reveal my age) to the Windows OS. But I never played any of them and always thought they must be really disappointing. I could be right, but not for the reasons I had in mind. I thought that porting a board and dice game to the computer was something that had no chance of really working. I was very wrong on that particular point. I don’t know about the other ports, but this one really looks and feels like the real thing. You roll the dice, move around the board, buy and sell property, go to prison, get out of prison, every little detail of this classic game is there. I felt like a child again. There are plenty of instructions on how to “use” the Blackberry game, but there are no instructions on how to play Monopoly. This port won’t teach you the rules. That is not correct, but not completely unreasonable either. Who doesn’t know the rules of Monopoly? OK, maybe your kids don’t, but that’s what parents are for.
Up to four players can play and they can be human or robots managed by the software. In other words, you can play against the computer. Here comes my first nag: pick the Race Car and the Wheelbarrow. The Dog is not too bad either. The problem is that some of the characters move around the board too slowly and/or clumsily, enough to be annoying. The Race Car and the Wheelbarrow have wheels, so they glide smoothly. I didn’t test all characters to be honest. But some of them annoyed me right away.
Everyone starts off with a certain (configurable) amount of Monopoly money. I’m sure you have seen and held it in your hands before. You’ll need that money to buy property, build your monopolies and rip off each one of your opponents. You also need the dough to pay for many expenses, because your opponents will rip you off too, sure enough. Every turn of the game works pretty much like the real one: you roll the dice, face the consequences and let the other player(s) do the same. In between turns, anyone can buy, sell, mortgage or improve property. This version of Monopoly has done a marvelous job reproducing the traditional board game and proving that it is indeed possible and can be very enjoyable. I had the greatest time playing it for a few minutes. But it really disappointed me in ways I could not expect.
Let me start with the minor flaw: multiplayer. Up to four players can play and all of them can be humans, but not via the Internet or even Bluetooth. What the heck? What is the point then? Are you going to pass the phone around and have all the other players stare at the current player staring down at a phone? Really? Come on. I said that is a minor flaw. It is to me. I’m sure many people will have a big problem with that, but I still think it’s no big deal as long as I can play against the computer. Face it: this is about you and your phone in a really boring and lonely moment. If you had any company, you would strike up some conversation, not play Monopoly. You’re almost certainly going to be on your own challenging the software. But that is sort of a disappointment too. The robot players are too dumb. I lost the first time I played it – cut me some slack, I hadn’t played Monopoly in decades! – but then I played several other times against one, two and three robot players in the hardest level and I drove them all into bankruptcy in more or less twenty minutes every time because they’re such losers. The only real enemy I had were the dice. They were not very nice to me sometimes.
So you can’t play against real people and the artificial intelligence is substandard to say the least. Is there any fun left? There is quite some fun left because the game really feels like the real thing and you can spend some enjoyable time just rolling dice and ripping off everyone in town. Who cares if it’s too easy? Let’s just get filthy rich and kill some time. But even that kind of foolish self gratification will run into obstacles. Summing up, whoever designed this game is guilty of a small series of very serious usability blunders.
Any player – including robot players – can buy, sell, mortgage or improve property BEFORE and AFTER each turn. That is the first part of the problem: you will find yourself hitting “Roll” or “Continue” on a menu way too often. WAY too often. On top of that, if you have any property that a robot player wants to buy, it will PESTER you twice, before and after it rolls the dice, and in every single turn. If you think that Yang has problems with Ballmer breathing down his neck to buy Yahoo, wait until you play the Blackberry version of Monopoly. And you have to confirm every single darn dice roll too, even if it is a robot’s turn to play. The robot will keep pestering you until you accept the offer. You can reject it, of course. How? You press the Menu key then the trackball or Enter key. You will soon notice that pressing any of those two key combinations is not very comfortable, especially when you have to do that over and over and over. I couldn’t get used to it although I had to do it a lot.
And it gets worse. Improving or mortgaging property requires the following steps: scroll through your properties and click the trackball; then select Build or Mortgage in a really tiny menu controlled by a trackball that has no precision whatsoever and is sure to have you click the wrong option most of the time. The same “loose” trackball will roll around like an idiot while you try to select the right number of houses to build or property to mortgage. OK, 10% of all this grief is the trackball’s fault, but 90% really is the game’s. When you have finally made your selection, you can’t just exit this horrible screen. No. You go back to that first scroll and scroll up very carefully back to the top (you will miss it a few times, that’s for sure), where you’re supposed to click the trackball once again, select “Back” or “Accept” in another tiny menu where the damn trackball wobbles around unsure once again and, finally, hit the trackball once again. There is a lot of “once again” in this game’s interface. Apparently, it’s by design.
What about trading property? Well, first you select whatever you want to buy or sell. Then you scroll (with the wobbling trackball) up to the amount icon, press the trackball and select how much money you want to pay or receive for the transaction. Then you do your best to scroll with the wobbling trackball up to the icon that represents you (and you will miss it a few times, that’s for sure too). Then you hit the trackball and you hit the trackball AGAIN to get past a frigging warning that is very useful the very first time you see it but will drive you crazy in every one of all other times because you already know whatever it is telling you and, by golly, you don’t want to see it again ever for the rest of your life, but it will keep popping up over and over and over and over and over… Then you get – just hear this – yet another confirmation that makes you hit the trackball twice. Again. Then you have to see if the other party accepts the deal. If they don’t, you can change some of the conditions and go over all that trouble again. Rinse and repeat. Or simply give up, which requires that annoying Menu key then the trackball or Enter key combination I mentioned before. Because a lot of stuff requires confirmation in this game, buddy. Sometimes, twice. You’re messing with Monopoly money, you don’t wanna make any mistakes, do ya?
So here is pretty much the summary of this game: a classical and very entertaining game almost entirely ruined by really annoying interface design and some bleak lack of real opponents. I really don’t know how I should rate this game. On the one hand, I had quite some fun playing (or trying to play) it. On the other hand, after one week, I am more than ready to uninstall it because there is no challenge in it and I am REALLY sick of so much clicking and confirming. You had better judge it by yourselves. I swear it’s not that bad in the first hour or so. After that, you’re on your own.
Pros: very good reproduction of the actual board game.
Cons: virtually no artificial intelligence leaves you with no interesting opponents; repeated interface design blunders may anger many users.