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7 fun board games that will make you smarter about economics

It's the holidays, and that means it's the season for family board game nights. So here are 7 games you can play with your family in these waning days of 2014 that aren't just fun, but will teach you all sorts of economic lessons.

1) Monopoly

Monopoly game

(Getty Images)

Monopoly is maybe the most obvious choice here. But it teaches you about much more than real estate. The game's history itself provides is an unexpectedly twisted lesson in intellectual property and economic philosophy, as Christopher Ketchum wrote in Harper's in 2012. While Parker Brothers officially claims Monopoly was invented in 1933, it in fact originated in 1905, when a woman named Lizzie Magie invented The Landlord's Game, whose board and rules look stunningly similar to the Monopoly game we play today — one corner of the board contains a jail, and the opposite corner sends you to it, and making it one trip around the board gives a player $100 in wages.

But while Landlord's Game players could win or lose as in Monopoly — either by going broke or sending other players to the poorhouse — players could also cooperate by paying their rent into a common pot and splitting it. Magie was an acolyte of Henry George, an economist and philosopher who (among other things) believed that land should be owned collectively by the public rather than by private landowners. But the game evolved over the ensuing decades, taking on the Atlantic City place names it still has today, and eventually became the property of Parker Brothers in the 1930s. Along the way, the bit about cooperation was lost, and the gameplay became the ruthless quest for domination that it is today.

2) The Game of Life

Lots of us grew up playing perfectly innocent games of Life, but the game sort of a twisted ethos to it when you think about it — on the one hand, you pass all sorts of ostensibly meaningful life milestones (college, kids, marriage). But, this being a board game, there has to be a "winner," and after all your accomplishments, you still win by getting more money than everyone else.

Perhaps realizing this, Hasbro has softened Life's tone over time. It used to be that you either were a millionaire and won or went bankrupt and lost (which in one version involved "retiring to the country and becoming a philosopher"). Today, you either are a millionaire or you retire to a nondescript place called Countryside Acres … which actually might not be as fun as being a bankrupt philosopher.

Even so, it's a very chance-based game and a good reminder that our success is, in no small part, out of our control.

3) Scrabble

Settlers of Catan

(Getty Images)

Of course Scrabble is about economics. You're not playing for dollars, but you are trying to maximize the number of points you can get, in part by leveraging the scarcity of the tiles involved in the game — what makes the Z or Q so valuable isn't just that they're the top tiles, at 10 points each, but also that they're the only ones worth 10 points. Once you have them, you have a weapon the opponent can't get. And serious economists have taken an interest in the game. Dutch economist Jacques Polak, who was most famous for helping design the International Monetary Fund, wrote a 1955 paper in which he laid down a theory of how best to win at Scrabble. His system: one-to-two-point tiles should be played wherever, whenever, with a little more reservation for three-pointers. Four-to-five-pointers are only for use when you can double them in value (at least), and the big scorers — eight- and 10-point tiles —should be reserved for triple word and letter scores.

4) Acquire

Acquire is a lot like Monopoly in that the goal is to gain as much wealth as possible by acquiring properties and building hotels. But in Acquire you have to think much more like a CEO. Not only are you building hotels, you're creating entire hotel chains and merging them — plus buying and selling stock. It takes your role as the Monopoly monopoly-builder and elevates it. In Monopoly, you collect rent from everyone else yourself. In Acquire, you have underlings for that, like a true capitalist.

5) Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan 2

(Brent from Texas)

Settlers makes you think a bit harder than a game like Monopoly or Acquire does — the hexagonal tiles and points dots that make up the board are different every time. So instead of, say, knowing exactly which is the most valuable place to build and hoping you get it, Settlers forces you to make maddening decisions about which resources you want and how likely you are to get them. By gathering up and trading resources like wood, wheat, and brick, your goal is to earn points by building a small civilization of settlements and roads (and to do it faster than your opponents). In that way, it's a subtler experience than a lot of other board games — you can't obliterate your opponents one by one in Settlers. Instead, you just slowly try to hem them in.

6) Power Grid

Power Grid is about developing energy infrastructure, so naturally some economic principles are going to come into play. But any energy-related game worth its salt has to deal with fluctuations in the price of raw inputs — like oil, coal, etc. — and it's there that Power Grid really shines. Designer Friedemann Friese devised a simple mechanism for ratcheting up the price of inputs as players' demand for them increases. Not even Monopoly has functioning, responsive markets like that.

7) Agricola

Agricola

(Henrique Poyatos)

Most resource-based board games deal with physical capital goods: think wood, brick, ore, sheep, and wheat from Settlers of Catan, or real estate in Monopoly. The agriculture simulation Agricola is one of the few games that is about dealing with scarcity in labor. You start with two members in your family, each of whom can perform two actions per round. It's a massively complex game, and so you have many actions to choose from: getting physical goods like wood or clay or stone, plowing fields, acquiring wheat and vegetables to plant or sheep and boars and cattle to graze, building pens for livestock, etc.

You can't do everything you'd like to, and while you can add up to three more family members (child labor is acceptable in Agricola) they don't come free: everyone in the family has to be fed every few turns. It's a nice illustration of time management dilemmas in a firm, as well as a good reminder of how lucky humanity is to have found ways to get by other than subsistence agriculture.

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