Empathy, Innovation, User Experience

The Monopoly Hotline

51% of Monopoly games result in an argument, according to a Hasbro survey of roughly 2,000 players. You have the same odds of having an argument with a friend of family member over Boardwalk and thimbles, as you do at calling a coin flip. In order to help smooth things over during the holidays, Hasbro UK and Ireland has launched a Monopoly help-line, which you can read about here.

While a noble gesture, my question is “why?” Does it address the problem at the root of the heated arguments? Does it add unique value that the players can’t achieve on their own? Their survey also collected the top ten reasons for Monopoly-related madness. I’ve added a column to their results to sort responses into categories.

Stated Problem Category
1. People making up rules Rules and mechanics
2. Unsportsmanlike conduct of winners The unspoken code
3. People buying un-needed property you want The unspoken code
4. People taking too long on their turn The unspoken code
5. Bank heists Cheating
6. Deliberate miscounting when moving Cheating
7. Who plays banker Rules and mechanics
8. Property auction process Rules and mechanics
9. Choice over tokens Rules and mechanics
10. Rules of “Free Parking” Rules and mechanics

Now some of these categories, Hasbro would have a hard time fixing. Cheating is already against the rules and has more to do with inter-player trust and false accusations from sore losers. The unspoken code feels like baseball, where you have to tip your hat when a pitch plunks a batter, not get too excited about a home run, or slide too hard.

But Rules and mechanics, this should be in a board game’s wheelhouse. Let’s examine Hasbro’s solution. You are having an argument and you call the hotline to say you are having a problem. On the other end of the phone is a person with the same rule book you have, and they will read the rules back to you. Tell me this doesn’t sound maddening. If it can be solved with someone reading the rulebook, a player already has the tools in hand to solve it.

This feels like a case where player empathy has only hit the shallow end of the solution pool. With 50% of the top ten resulting from Rules and mechanics (or lack thereof), we can dig a little deeper and create unique solutions beyond the rulebook.

PROBLEM: Rules of “Free Parking”

This results from generations of House Rules that disagree with the rulebook. One idea would be to write out the House Rules as amendments to the existing rules. Also, this would be one main point of a “Quick Play Rule Blitz”. After years of playing the same game, we all play the game on our memories of the rules. Let’s have a fast and furious refresher that hits the three to five most contentious points.

PROBLEM: Choice over tokens

Look, we all have our favorite. And sometimes, many people share the same favorite. This can be quickly solved with any number of minigames: draw straws, guess a number, draw a card. How about a token draft? Start with the youngest and draft up. Or the person who played the game the most recent. Lots of options here if we step beyond the “free-for-all” lack of structure.

PROBLEM: Property auction process

See “Rules for Free Parking” solutions above. There are rules, people use their own rules, agreements need to be made.

PROBLEM: Who plays banker

The Oregon Trail Card Game has a great solution for this. The youngest player is the shopkeep until someone dies, then they are the shopkeep. Monopoly could institute a similar selection process. However, the bank seems to be a constant point of cheating accusations as well. So let’s not have one person be the banker. Let the banker responsibility move. The player with the least amount of properties could be the banker. You catch up, then the responsibility shifts. If you’re cheating, you can only cheat so much before someone else gets a chance.

PROBLEM: People making up rules

This also feels like years of House Rules from different houses combined with faulty memories. Again, I think the “Quick Play Rule Blitz” at the beginning of a game gets everyone on the same page. There is also a chance for people to submit a House Rule, an alternate rule, that the rest of the players can vote on. Perhaps an extended part of the game token draft.

The next step is to try some of these solutions. They could smooth out the pain points, they could make them all worse. We won’t know until we try. The best part is they’re all actionable with only minimal planning. In fact, we’ll try these on our next playthrough of Monopoly.

Go forth and be awesome, and if you pass Go, collect 200 imaginary dollars.

Going Forth, Innovation, Prototyping

Paper Prototyping as a Creative Catalyst

I think we can all agree that Disney Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, doesn’t merely tug at your heartstrings. Rather it grabs hold with a death grip and shakes them with a vigor that would make the Grinch weep, even prior to his heart enlargement. If you’ve not seen it yet, prepare your “It’s dusty in here” and “I got something in my eye” crying cover stories and go.

As you shed tears for Bing Bong (and you will) think of one simple fact… At one point, this story sucked.

These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.
These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.

It was likely long ago, back in the early pitches and storyboarding phases. However, as Pixar Animation President Ed Catmull states “I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’” He adds “We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere“.

One key takeaway here is that we, as innovators, must start our creative idea somewhere, tell the story, and figure out how to get it “from suck to not-suck”. In fact, the faster we do this, the better. We don’t want to spend needless hours putting all kinds of sheen, gloss, and functionality into that first prototype because we will likely fail and need to pivot. That is why we need to prototype on paper.

I’ve prototyped a few games just as a means to get an idea down, get it moderately functional, and to give the game idea some quick playtesting. I do not want to spend time or money in making beautiful, final quality game pieces because there are still many aspects that will need developing, balancing, or discarding. In order to prototype quickly, I keep a large stack of 3 by 5 notecards nearby (along with shiny glass beads, sparkly sticker books, and a plethora of dice). These become my makeshift game pieces. The best part is, they aren’t limited to prototyping games. A notecard could represent an app’s splash screen, an email template, or whatever you are innovating. There is always a way.

One quick note: Paper prototyping is a method, a way of making your ideas tangible in a quick, low-cost manner so that your innovative hypothesis can be validated. It does not HAVE to be paper, but whatever material you use should have the same inexpensive and recyclable nature.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why you should prototype of paper early, and often.

Notecards! A prototyper's canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.
Notecards! A prototyper’s canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.


Notecards can be bought for several on the dollar. This definitely beats the time and effort that would go into developing a digital or physical first version of your innovation. Imagine spending resources to have a first iteration of your innovation built, only to put it in front of some customers and find out that your solution needs some big time overhauling. Instead, if you had paper prototyped that primary version, you might be out a couple dollars. That’s a pretty decent Return on Investment for all the learning you can do with a first prototype.


There you are, sitting with a target customer, showing them your idea. You watch them interact with your prototype and you notice a huge flaw that needs to be addressed. If you’ve built a more elaborate prototype, this pivot can be costly and put a huge delay in your deliverable timelines. All those items in your kanban or development pipeline now have to sit and wait for this first one to be addressed. If you prototyped on paper (and remembered to bring notecards and pencils to your focus group) you can mock up the new screen or feature within seconds! Remember that you are just telling your innovation’s story  so these don’t have to be marketable graphics. They just need to be enough for the customer to see how it works and for you to watch them “interact”.  Plus this reduces your iteration time to something very minimal.


When you aren’t worried about cost of developing a prototype, and you aren’t worried about the time it takes to pivot and persevere into iteration two and beyond, then you can be as adventurous with your prototype as you want to be. You aren’t risking a ton of resources so put those ugly ideas out there! Be disruptive, do things the way no one in your industry does them. If your “out-there” idea crashes and burns, all you are out is a handful of notecards.


This "paper prototyped" game card could represent your target customer's profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.
This “paper prototyped” game card could represent your target customer’s profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.

The best time to learn about your solution’s fit with your customers is when they are holding it in their hands. When your prototype only lives internally, it will always appear perfect. You need to kick it out of the nest and see if your idea can fly on its own. The faster you can do this, the less time you spend on bad ideas. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, get your core mechanics on paper and start asking your customers to look at it. It opens up new idea avenues for you to explore and it helps paint a better picture of what jobs the customer needs your innovation to do. We can all work on understanding our customer better, because they are always changing. Opportunities to learn and grow are valuable, especially when your innovation is in the very formative stages of its lifespan.

Later, we’ll go into some methods on “how” to prototype with paper… but for now, grab your notecards and start iterating!


  • For this challenge, you will need 10 notecards.
  • Take 6 notecards and prototype the flow your customer will experience with your prototype.
  • Show it to someone and have them “pretend” its the real deal.
  • Iterate right then and there on any pain points they experience. Use your remaining 4 notecards for any additional or replacement steps in the flow.
  • Identify places you need to pivot and persevere and use more notecards to craft the next version!


What materials do you use to prototype with? I’d love to see what is in your bag of tricks down in the comment section.

Being Awesome, Like a Startup, Mastermind Games, Writing

Write Like a Startup

I’ve had this really amazing opportunity to freelance and do some game writing for indie studio, Mastermind GamesAffliction is set in small town America, circa 1950. You can smell the pies cooling on the windowsills, hear the brass band playing in town square, and everyone greets you with a smile. Until all that ended. You’ll experience the town as an abandoned wasteland, uncovering the tattered history, while keeping a safe distance from the shadowy Reapers. You can either cure the town or fall victim to the many dangers that lurk inside its borders.
Writing for the game has been an absolute blast and the more I write for this game, the more I’ve realized that game writing is like running a Startup. So I leaned into that slide and started to look at startups for ways to help my writing. Let me share with you four ideas I borrow from startups and how to apply them to your writing.
Bring Loads of Ideas
Picture a suitcase. A really large suitcase. In this suitcase you can fit every shirt you’ve ever owned. But wait! Before you start cramming your sixth grade Camp Okeechobee t-shirt into the suitcase, you’re going to fill it with ideas. And like a suitcase full of every shirt you’ve ever owned, only a few will get worn. Your “idea case” should be bursting at the seems because when you begin writing, you’ll never know when you’ll need to break out a new idea.
You can practice this skill by picking something you did today, and try to think of ten different ways you could have done it. Did you text a friend today? What are ten other ways you could have communicated? Once a list of ten is easy, try to get twenty, then thirty. The benefit to this method is that the first ten ideas you have are probably the same ten ideas everyone has. By pushing your limits, you will stretch and start finding more ideas, which leads to the more creative ideas.
Prototype Early and Often
You’ll envision the narrative in a perfect state, but until you get it on paper and in front of someone else, you’ll only stunt its potential. We’ve prototyped the narrative for this project a number of times. Each time we’ve been able to look at different aspects and really get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Each prototype allowed us to get ideas out there, kind of play test them a little mentally, and identify which pieces worked.
If we hadn’t prototyped the narrative, I would be off happily writing myself into corners that the game wouldn’t able to fix. Worse yet, my literary lost causes, my poetic pinch points, my description the doglegs into a dead-end… they could all cost the developer money and time. No one wants to delay a game because their story got stuck and they need to circle back to when it made sense. The benefit has been keeping the narrative, in whatever raw and rough state it is in, out in the open for all of us to work on.
Be Willing to Kill Off the Bad Ideas
Admitting an idea is bad is not easy at first. But remember, we were chasing sheer quantity in tip Number One. Not all of those ideas are going to be winners. Honestly, they shouldn’t be. You can’t be afraid of taking the bad ideas, crumpling up the paper they’re written on, and sky-hooking them into the nearest trashcan.
Occasionally they aren’t even bad ideas! Sometimes they just don’t fit into the scheme of the narrative anymore. You will find yourself looking at that beautifully crafted story arc with its twists and player choices, and you’ll try to shoehorn it in. Unfortunately, like Cinderella’s step-sister’s foot and the glass slipper, it just won’t fit. Remember, it’s ok to kill off these ideas because if it doesn’t fit for you, it won’t work for the player/reader.
Pivot and Persevere
This is where all three of the previous tips blend together into a delicious stew. Since you prototyped your narrative (Number Three), you will be able to identify where the gaps are. These gaps either come from bad ideas where you need to prune those story branches (Number Two) or from missing steps between one chunk to the next, in which case you can try to bridge it with a new idea (Number One). However, here is where this practice gets its own number instead of being delegated a “summary”.
When you are evaluating your prototype, you will have to consciously make the decision “Should I pivot or persevere?”
Pivoting is when you’ve come to a dark spot that has failed so poorly that it just needs to be removed, replaced, and rewritten. Maybe you get to the end of a narrative road to find out that it is a dead-end and you really should have never gone down this road in the first place. Great news! Because you prototyped first, you found this before you wrote it in stone. It is way easier to swing a u-turn and pivot back to where the story is good.
The "ideacase"; chock full of ideas ranging from awesome to certified stinkers.
The “ideacase”; chock full of ideas ranging from awesome to certified stinkers.

You can persevere when your prototype road is good enough to move to deeper writing. Maybe it isn’t perfect, yet, but you can feel that it can get there. WARNING! This is not something you do because you just love this idea. It honestly has to feel right in the flow of your prototype and earn the ability to persevere. There is no room for “idea nepotism”; no narrative arc gets a free pass because its the nephew of the boss.

I’ve found by incorporating these Startup mentalities to my writing, I’ve destroyed some of the biggest barriers. I no longer fear the blank page; a.k.a. the Great Void. I am bringing an “idea case” full of good, and less-than-good ideas, to start shaping the page into my vision. I also don’t fear critiques either, because I know i’ve got more ideas and I’m willing to remove any of the ones that don’t work. So get out your notebooks, there are literary startups in your brain, waiting to hit the page running.
  • The next time you sit down to write (your blog, a story, some game narrative, or copy for your product), fill your “idea case” with as many thoughts as you can.
  • Find a way to get your writing in the hands of some readers early. Even if it isn’t in a final stage. The roughness can sometimes help readers offer more honest critiques.
  • Protect your heart now that your favorite idea may not make the cut. 
  • When you do find a spot that isn’t working, dig in and see if you need to pivot, or if you can persevere and improve it.