clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I bought Donald Trump's board game. You should not.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Above: Vox staffers give Trump: the Game a try.

Donald Trump has dipped his toes in many industries over the course of his career: real estate, reality television, presidential politics, vodka, mortgages, steaks, the United States Football League, airlines, bottled water. But Trump also jumped into a business very close to my heart: board games.

Trump has actually released his board game twice: first in 1989, in which it was a colossal disappointment, and then in 2004, after the premiere of The Apprentice. Each edition had an equally nonsensical slogan: "It's not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!" in 1989, and "I'm back and you're fired!" in 2004.

The 1989 and 2004 editions of Trump the Game, featuring different slogans.

Trump: the Games.

BoardGameGeek and Amazon

Obviously, as soon as I found out last month that this existed, I bought a copy of the 2004 edition off of Amazon (it's since gone out of stock, though there are used copies if you must have it). There are some significant differences between the two versions; the rules in the latest version are simplified somewhat. But there are also two Apprentice-themed additions to the deck of "Trump Cards" (get it?): "You're Fired" and "The Donald."

Four cards from Trump: the Game, including a "The Donald" card and a "You're Fired! card

"Trump cards."

Vox / Joss Fong

I was mostly expecting a game reflecting the spirit of The Donald, one in which classiness and skill and daring lead to fame and riches. Instead, I found a game that betrayed a deep, cutting critique of Trump, one in which wealth is distributed arbitrarily, trying hard is often more trouble than it's worth, and getting a real strategic leg up on other players due to your superior knack for business is more or less impossible. Worse still, it commits the one sin Trump himself never has: It's terribly dull.

How the game works

Trump: the Game is, to quote Mother Jones's Pema Levy, "Monopoly but really dumb." Every player starts with $500 million (the smallest denomination available is $10 million), and the outcome of the game is heavily dependent on dice rolls. Just like Donald Trump, your success is mostly due to inheritance and luck.

The board of Trump: the Game.

BoardGameGeek / Raiko Puust

You play by traveling around a board, with spaces moved determined by rolling two dice. But these are no ordinary dice: The six on each has been replaced with a "T." If you roll a T, you're entitled to steal a card from one of your fellow players. Trump has literally equated himself with thievery.

There are a few ways you can make money in the game. The simplest is to land on the "Acquire $10 million times the roll of the dice" space, in which tens of millions of dollars just fall into your lap randomly. There are also Trump cards — of which everyone gets seven at the start of the game; players draw a new one at the beginning of each turn — that, if played, earn you money from the bank. But the main activity of the game is bidding on seven properties: a hotel, a casino, an office building, a "luxury residence," an island resort, a sports complex, and an "international golf course."

Each property starts with a set amount of money in it: $80 million for the luxury residence, $50 million for the sports complex, etc. If you land on a property, whether or not someone else owns it, the bank adds a set amount of additional money to it ($30 million for the luxury residence, $10 million for the sports complex, etc). You don't pay rent or anything — the bank just conjures up money out of thin air and adds to the value of the property. People who think lax Federal Reserve policy caused the housing crisis will find a lot to like here, as housing values in Trump: the Game only ever increase because the central bank decided to inflate a real estate bubble.

Properties are bought in open auctions, in which every player submits a blind opening bid. After the bidding is opened, players take turns either folding, checking, or raising, as in poker or blackjack. But there's more than money at play. For one thing, you can use a "Trump backs you" card to add value to your bid without putting up any of your own money. More importantly, though, there's the "You're Fired" and "The Donald" cards. In the original 1989 game, these were known as "You're out of the bidding" and "I'm back in the bidding," which are much more useful names. Playing a "You're Fired" card kicks someone out of the bidding; playing a "The Donald" gets you back in the bidding. Because "The Donald" cards are relatively scarce, this effectively gives players a way to win bids without sacrificing too much money.

The game ends when all seven properties are sold. In the game, as in Donald Trump's mind, the winner is the person with the most money.

Oh yeah, one more thing: There's a "tax" card, but in this world "tax" means you force another player to pay you money. The political economy of Trump: the Game is utterly confounding.

Is Trump: the Game any good?

Some measly $10 million and $50 million bills. Real champions use $100 million bills.

Vox / Joss Fong

The basic aim of Trump: the Game is admirable: to create a shorter, but still fun, variant of Monopoly. I don't much care for Monopoly personally, but it's obviously a ridiculously popular game about which the main complaint is play time. So, naturally, a better, faster knockoff is in order.

Trump: the Game is not that knockoff. One problem is that gameplay is spent almost exclusively on bidding, and it's often rational to not bid at all. When I played — twice with friends at home, and once with my colleagues Ezra Klein, Laura McGann, and Rachel Huggins — bids for properties often rose far in excess of their listed value. The luxury residence may start with $80 million, but someone would buy it for $250 million. Properties gain in value as people randomly land on them, but that has to happen a lot (six times, to be exact) for bids like that to be profitable in the end. Some Trump cards produce money based on how many properties you own, but you need to time to play those cards, which is often scarce.

So why bid at all? Well, if you don't, then the game never ends, and people have a natural inclination to push toward a conclusion. There's also psychological pressure due to other players perpetually increasing their bids, which naturally leads one to wonder if they're miscalculating and should be bidding more as well. It all leads to a market based on irrational gambling, which, while thematically apropos, isn't very fun.

Bidding is also one of the few ways you even can make money, even if it's a crummy option overall. You can make money selling Trump cards, but you can generally only do so if another player thinks they'll gain from the exchange as well, which limits how much relative advantage you can get. You can land on the "Acquire $10 million times the roll of the dice," but that's not really a strategy. If you want to win, you have to bid, even though successful bids will quite possibly wind up costing you money.

There's also very little informational asymmetry. What makes most good games fun is that there are multiple strategies one can pursue. But because you basically always have to be bidding, and because information about the value of properties is publicly available to all, the only thing players don't know about one another is what's in their hands. That matters on the margin — if one player has a "The Donald" card, you won't want to play a "You're Fired" card — but not a whole lot. So everyone winds up pursuing the same strategy (buy properties as fast as you can), which is just boring.

That's probably the game's biggest sin. Whatever else can be said about Donald Trump, he's not boring. Trump: the Game definitely is.