I don’t like Monopoly. Besides its monotonous and repetitive gameplay, the aspect I dislike most about Monopoly is how unfair it can be to play. The roll of a dice can see one or two players ending up in a miserable spiral of landing on purchased property after purchased property, paying out rent with seemingly no end in sight.
Board games that rely on luck may be easier to design and learn, but they don’t necessarily make for enjoyable gameplay. Crafting a luck-based experience requires the right approach, one that puts players in a mindset where they’re perfectly willing to spend potentially the entire game on the back foot. While Monopoly fails to achieve this, there are games out there that do. Games that have a strong theme, such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, or co-op board games that allow players to band together when the going gets tough – such as Eldrich Horror – are engaging in part because of their unfairness.
Another game – albeit not a purely tabletop one – that understands how to correctly utilise unfair gameplay mechanics is Mario Party. Although technically a video game series, Mario Party is tabletop-esque with player characters moving around a board and rolling dice.
For the uninitiated, Mario Party is a long running series of video games published by Nintendo and starring the beloved plumber, alongside several of his friends/relatives/enemies/lovers? The original was released in 1998 on the Nintendo 64 console, with a total of 11 mainline entries arriving since then. Though I never played the initial trilogy released for the N64 back in the day, my friends and I have recently been playing around with Mario Party 2 and 3 via the N64 virtual console released for the Nintendo Switch.
Despite their advanced age – or maybe because of it – Mario Party 1 and 2 are both undeniably charming. However, the combination of great music, adorable characters and excellent noises, particularly from the Thwomps and Thwimps, may lure players into a false sense of security - as the original trilogy of Mario Party games do not fuck around when it comes to embracing unfairness.
Losing everything is an inevitable part of playing Mario Party.
Though players can win minigames to earn coins to spend on stars - the game’s primary metric for deciding a victor - there are aspects of the original Mario Party which are kept entirely out of the players’ control. For example, stars can only be purchased from Toad, who sets up shop at a random location at the start of the game and will move whenever someone buys a star from him. Where Toad moves is entirely random, meaning that a player could have all the coins in the world but might struggle to spend them should they be continuously blocked from reaching him.
While some boards in the original Mario Party Trilogy are mostly simple – with one or two potential obstacles standing in your way – others are a lot more complex and require the right luck for players to get where they need to go. Some have infuriating features, such as Mystery Land’s random teleportation system, that can result in players spending an entire game stuck on the same part of the board.
Unlike Monopoly, Mario Party harnesses its charming presentation to make its unfair gameplay hilariously ironic.
The longer players hold onto coins, the more opportunities opponents have to find ways to steal from them. Mario Party 1 and 2 absolutely revel in giving players chances to take game-winning currency and items from each other. Whether players pay a Boo to steal coins or a star, play in a duel minigame or happen to land on a Bowser space – which can result in a myriad of terrible things – losing everything is an inevitable part of playing Mario Party. Perhaps the most egregious of these is a gameplay mechanic called chance time, which can end in a player with nothing trading fortunes with the game’s current winner, thereby completely turning the tide.
And yet, I cannot wait for a Chance Time space to trigger whenever I play Mario Party 1 or 2.
The possibility of being able to lose or gain everything in the space of a few seconds is what drives the comedy and tragedy of playing Mario Party. Embracing the masochistic pleasure of watching all your achievements be stolen from you or getting continuously dunked on by everyone – including the game itself – make Mario Party 2 and 3’s inherent unfairness a strength, instead of a minus. The cute, family-friendly aesthetic of the series clashes beautifully with the merciless nature of its gameplay mechanics, making the experience of watching yourself or another player lose highly entertaining rather than miserably dull.
Unlike the incredibly dry and ordinary Monopoly, the original Mario Party trilogy harnesses its charming presentation to make its unfair gameplay hilariously ironic, something so pathetically sad that you can’t help but point and laugh. Which ultimately proves that unfairness can be the strongest part of a game, as long as it’s presented to you in the right way