Money Mistakes Two Popular Board Games Teach Kids

by Aaron Crowe on 7 November 2013 1 comment
Photo: HarshLight

As a father who writes about personal finance for a living, I do everything I can to teach my daughter about money. She has an allowance, a college fund, and a savings account, all of which we discuss the ins and outs of. (See also: Teachable Money Lessons to Share With Your Kids)

To make her financial education more fun, we play board games such as Monopoly and the Game of Life at home. She’s 9 years old — an age that seems to be more interested than any other in board games. That’s great, but the games aren’t turning out to be as full of financial literacy as I had hoped.

In fact, they have enough real-life errors in them that I’m amazed anyone says that board games are a good way to teach children about money. The games may help children learn to count money, but otherwise they’re not doing a great job of teaching money skills. (See also: 5 Great Card and Board Games)

I talked to a few game experts and board game designers, who admitted that there really aren’t any top-notch board games to teach kids about money. They help children look into the real world of their parents — paying bills and going to work, for example — but they’re meant to be fun first and educational second.

"Honestly, there’s nothing out there that’s really great," says Eric Tyson, author of "Personal Finance for Dummies" and other "Dummies" books.

Here’s a breakdown of two of the most popular board games that conventional wisdom says should be teaching kids about money, and some money mistakes they make.

Monopoly

Just as an allowance can mimic many money matters that adults face every day, the game of Monopoly and others can get kids to think about the best way to manage their money and plan whether they should spend or save, Tyson says.

Monopoly is good at teaching how to save money and invest in properties, he says, but gives a cynical view of the economy — vanquish your competitor. Who hasn’t spent entire days playing this game, only to be exhausted from the constant deal-making?

"There’s some potential value," Tyson says. "Although it’s simplified in such a way that it really doesn’t represent the real world."

Luck, Not Skills, Gets You Where You’re Going

Using dice to advance is common in board games, but kids should understand that the luck of the roll is meant for gambling, not real-life decisions. In most board games, where you land is based on luck, not your skill at choosing where you want to go.

Monopoly, however, uses luck better than other games, giving players the chance to buy property on most turns, says Phil Orbanes, founder of Winning Moves Games, a game maker in Boston.

"When you make a choice in real life, it pretty much determines what your next choice is going to be," says Orbanes, who was in charge of research and development at Parker Brothers for 12 years.

A better way to move on a board game would be to pay to determine how far you move forward, he says. That would be better than the luck of rolling the dice, and players would have to pay to get better options. Unfortunately, in Monopoly, you don’t have much of a choice when you land on a space — it’s usually a decision whether to buy or not.

Quantity Is Better Than Quality

Winning Monopoly players often are better off owning many properties, no matter how low-rent they are, than owning a few high-priced properties such as Boardwalk and Park Place, Orbanes says. Owning more properties prevents other players from owning an entire color and building on it, and gives the player more negotiating power — which can be good skills to have in real life. (See also: How to Negotiate With Confidence)

Boardwalk and Park Place aren’t worth buying in the game because the two spots have low odds of someone landing there. Those two high-priced properties are also after the "Go to Jail" spot, meaning players will go back to jail more often than they’ll pass those two spots.

In real life, if you owned such high quality properties, you’d likely have a better neighborhood that would be more valuable overall and would provide a better return on investment.

Bid Like Every Property Is in Foreclosure

Monopoly also has a little-known rule that not many people follow: the ability to bid on a property at any starting price if a player lands on it and chooses not to buy it.

Such bidding might happen in real life if every unsold property was in foreclosure, but that’s not how real life works. If that happened in real life, everyone would want to be a real estate investor.

The Game of Life

This is new favorite at my house. From what I’ve learned from Amazon reviews, however, the new version that we have is inferior to the older edition. There are complaints about how the new version isn’t as sturdy as the old one, but as someone who didn’t play this as a kid but is now learning about it, I have other complaints.

There's No Middle Class

Salaries range from $20,000 for a salesperson on the "Career" path to $100,000 for a doctor in the "College Career" path. There’s not much of a middle class in the Game of Life.

The original Game of Life had a middle class that could be achieved in many different ways that mirrored the 1960s when the game first came out, Orbanes says. But today’s version is realistic in that it’s more difficult to enter the middle class with assembly line jobs vanishing, he says.

Having Kids Makes You Rich

If you choose the "Family Path" and increase your chances of having children, you’ll get some cash for having children that may not amount to much in terms of the value of a dollar in the game, but in real life it would make it profitable to have children.

For example, having a child in the game requires each player to give you $5,000. However, having twins doesn’t double the gift amount — you get the same $5,000 from each player. That’s a good amount of money in real life, and it gets better in the game.

When you retire, you collect a $10,000 retirement from each of your children by collecting the money from the bank.

There are costs in the Game of Life to having children — such as $5,000 per child to take them on vacation to a theme park — but the costs are few and not nearly as much as the $295,560 it takes the average middle-class family to raise a child through age 17 in the real world. (See also: How Much Does It Cost to Raise a Child?)

College Skills Negated With Job Loss

It’s also interesting that when you lose a job that required going to college, you must choose a lesser paying job from the "Career" deck. The college degree you paid for earlier is no longer valid, essentially meaning that the skills you learned will no longer help you land another job requiring a college career.

In an economy where workers must learn new job skills after being laid off if they want to find new jobs, this lesson from the game is partly true. But I also think it’s true that many skills can be transferred to other jobs, and that a college degree is valuable to employers — even if it’s outside of your chosen field.

In the Game of Life, after losing a job that required a college degree, your base salary is now likely going to be closer to $30,000 (mechanic, hair dresser) than the $50,000 a computer designer or $90,000 a lawyer earns in the game.

High Interest Loans

The game’s interest rate on a bank loan is 25%, whether it’s for college or a home. That level of math can be too complex for an adult to figure out, so I can see why 25% makes sense.

But with real-world loan rates at historic lows, this is a lesson that isn’t close to reality. Sometimes borrowing really is a good idea.

Realistic vs Fun

The problem with making board games too realistic is that they’ll be too complicated for children to play, and both children and adults won’t have fun playing them.

"All commercial games on the market are not realistic," Orbanes says. And who would want it that way? Who wants to play a game testing your money skills that bores you with the reality of paying bills and going to work?

While they’re meant to be an escape from reality, there’s the opportunity to at least teach children some financial skills that they can learn throughout their lives. As Orbanes puts it, they can offer a "simplistic distillation of the basics of what finance is."

That’s a good goal. But it’s hard to learn it when you’re hoping for a good roll of the dice.

What money mistakes have you discovered in your favorite board games? Have you found a game that does a good job teaching personal finance skills?

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Sam

I thought Cashflow: The Game by the Rich Dad Poor Dad company was pretty good in terms of learning about money.