The Devolution of Games

I’m not sure if this is really a thing, but I’ve run into it a number of times and it feels like a thing. In recent years I’ve come across again long-familiar games only to find that there has been instituted some change, a serious simplification of some rule or the introduction of some perverting element. Readers can make of it what they will, but here are four games from my childhood and their subsequent alterations.


When I was a kid, pre school days and with no other kids much around, I used to play Monopoly by myself. I just liked the numbers, the counting and adding up. Yeah, yeah, leave me alone. Anyway, there was one aspect of the game I couldn’t do: income tax. Landing on the income tax square required you to pay the lesser of $200 and 10% of your wealth (money plus property value plus house value); since I had no grasp of percentages, I was stuck. I can’t remember how I got around it.

It turns out that one way around it would have been to wait sixty years. Having begun playing Monopoly with my daughters, I was struck that the income tax square no longer provides the 10% option: you simply pay $200. It’s not a huge change, but it’s notable.

The other notable change is the introduction of the “Money Grab” Chance Card: the bank’s $100 bills are thrown in the air and players keep whatever they catch. Again not a huge change but, again, not a good change.1


No, I didn’t play this one by myself: even I’m not that weird. But as a kid I played Cluedo – Clue, for Americans – a lot with my mother and brother. It is a great, classic game, which apparently has been jazzed up in various absurd and pointless ways. I’ve been blissfully, um, clueless about the jazzing but my daughters are now of an age to enjoy Cluedo, and so we bought it, a new version of course. Mistake.

The (presumably now standard) version of Cluedo we bought has 29 extra “clue cards”, and special dice, with the 1s replaced by magnifying glasses:

If the player rolls a magnifying glass on either die – about a 30% chance – then they turn up a clue card. Most of these clue cards will then instruct the player in possession of a specific game card – say, the Professor Plum card – to reveal that card to everyone. There are other, worse clue cards and it is all obviously appalling. It continually throws in chance to obliterate the clear process of deduction, which is the meaning and the delight of the game. And yes, of course you can simply throw aside the Clue Cards – and our family does – but that’s not the point. The point is that the manufacturer is marketing, encouraging everyone to play, a clean and intellectual game in a much stupider manner.2


This example may be a one-off, but it has to be included.

My Grade 3 teacher was the phenomimically named Mr. Protopopov. A happy fat man, Mr. Protopopov wasn’t a great teacher, but we learned enough and I liked him. I don’t remember much of his teaching, but I do remember we kids playing Cows and Bulls in leisurely class time. All of us, not just the Cluedo and Monopoly-by-themselves kids.

Cows and Bulls was marketed in the form of Mastermind in the 70s, and has taken off again in the form of Wordle. In our need-nothing Grade 3 version of the 60s, a kid would choose a four-digit number and the other kid would write down a guess. A “bull” then indicated that a digit was in the correct position, and a “cow” indicated a correct digit but in an incorrect position. So, for example, if the number to be guessed is 6382 then the guess 2687 would score one bull (the 8) and two cows (the 2 and the 6).

Cows and Bulls is limited but it’s good and good fun, at least for a while. There are strategies to figure out, even for Grade 3 kids with no sense of being Knuths. I have no idea how long we Grade 3-ers played it. Maybe a week or two? The game as we played it had no scoring or structure, and so the novelty probably wore off pretty quickly, and it would have been back to footy.3

Now, as it happened, I recently heard of a Year 3 class that was introduced to Cows and Bulls by their teacher. The naming was different, but the game was to be played on paper with digits, just like Cows and Bulls. Except in the version this class was shown, the guesser was to be told which digits were “bulls” and which were “cows”. So, for the 6382-2687 example above, the response would be “The 8 is a bull, and the 2 and the 6 are cows”.

Nothing else need be said. There’s not being Knuth, and there’s really not being Knuth.


This one was the final straw, the one that inspired this post. Scrabble is an iconic game, of course. And, modulo the issue with Library of Babel dictionaries, it’s a great game. My daughters are now of an age to enjoy Scrabble, and so we bought it, a new version of course. Mistake.

How can they screw up Scrabble? Well, as with Cluedo, you don’t have to screw it up. But, as with Cluedo, the manufacturer strongly encourages you to do so.4 Our version of the game came with a flyer, extolling the virtues of the companion app:

Yep, the app will suggest words, and check spelling, and add up the scores, leaving you to “focus on the fun”. As one of my Scrabble nemeses noted, perhaps we could just ask the app to play the game while we do something else altogether.


1. The income tax change was made in 2008, and the Money Grab card was introduced in 2018.

2. Hasbro, who are also the guys who over-tinkered with Monopoly. 

3. That’s a joke. The footy never stopped, at least for me.

4. Mattel.





COWS AND BULLS history proptopov mastermind

SCRABBLE box cover app counting suggestions spelling

14 Replies to “The Devolution of Games”

  1. I’ve told my younger friends about the 10% or $200 rule in Monopoly and they don’t believe me. They insist I remember it wrong.
    I’m certain, too, that the rule book said you had to make the decision before you made any calculations. Which incentivised always having at least a fair idea of your worth.

    1. Yep, you’re right. I hadn’t remembered that aspect, but I did a fair bit of hunting, and the older rules make clear you had to decide before choosing.

  2. Wait till you see Monopoly Junior…

    As for the scrabble app, the official app is an ad-riddled piece of junk, which is probably why they’re promoting it. Unless that’s a different companion app.

    1. Thanks. I remember when it came out and I read the reviews. I’d played enough Scrabble to be interested, but probably too much Scrabble to be interested.

  3. At my school, I started a chess club this year. It has turned out to be much more popular that I had anticipated. I have heard that teachers complain that many students are playing chess on their computers during class time. Fortunately the rules have changed little over time, and there are no ads.

      1. Chess seems to have managed to transcend all other games by being:

        1. Simple to set-up. Two players, one board, 32 pieces.

        2. Fairly simple to learn. A new player can learn how to move the pieces and what constitutes a “win” pretty quickly.

        3. Very difficult to master. For every student out there who learns to play, they will eventually meet someone who can beat them.

        Arguably the most beautiful game ever created! Except that I suck at it…

  4. Get with the program, Marty! It’s 2023!
    Kids need to be entertained, not challenged!

    Excellence is racist and if it doesn’t beep, flash, or otherwise thrill it’s pointless and boring.

    All hail “engagement”.

  5. Maybe the general trend of games being dumbed down does exist, but I used to play cows and bulls with friends at school until not so long ago, and we played the game in its normal form. Sometimes the guy thinking of the number would be requested to pick one that didn’t have any repeated digits, but the _large_ majority of the time there was no such restriction. Heck, people usually didn’t even pick their numbers until after the third guess, so they could always guarantee that the the first three guesses of the other guy would be poor.

    1. Thanks, A. I wouldn’t disagree. I indicated that the Cows and Bulls thing was a one-off (for me), and that the whole post is just speculating about a general devolution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 128 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here