Fortune Street and the End of Mastery

11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13

I gave Fortune Street a five star review a few months ago. I still stand by that review, but I’ve still been playing it in the meantime with the same group of people (i.e., my family). Like any game, playing with any degree of competition where everyone starts out completely even will reveal the flaws, and the same rings true for Fortune Street. In fact, I’d call many of the issues with Fortune Street’s high level play more “frustrating” than “game-breaking” – the game remains fun, but when the novelty wears off after, say, two hundred hours or so, you start to notice things. Mastery ends up being quite a rocky road, and the flaws in a game’s design become quite apparent. So let’s get to it!

The Big Issues

The game clearly picks winners and losers at the start of many games. From advantageous rolls to a perfect storm of random chance events, Fortune Street always chooses to “favor” certain individuals in the game. This happens for a protracted period of time, and can often last for a quite a while. I can’t confirm any of this, of course, but some events seem too unbelievable for coincidence. These coincidences often change the whole board, such getting a Domination (all properties in one district), or teleporting around the board multiple times getting the EXACT benefit they need (like a buyout or something for dirt cheap).

Short games in the 10-15k gold range tend to exhibit this, as well as smaller maps, since the ability to turn the tide lessens in a very short period of time and one/two players will clearly sit in the lead for no apparent reason other than “luck”. A person can’t reclaim first place unless their plane has enough runway, and short games seem tuned poorly for this purpose. Maps in and around the 20k range provide more room to fly, but any amount beyond the normal dollar numbers will cause crazy things to happen.

Actually, I’d say that Fortune Street contains some internal calculations to determine who is losing and by how much. It then plans the game accordingly, whether for one person to dominate or for other people to catch up. That system does not work in the way you might suspect; lightning may strike at the same place many times as a close game turns into an absolute monetary bloodbath where one dude(tte) goes totally bankrupt. That’s more apparent, again, in higher gold number games, but it highlights the problem vividly: the game chooses the winners, more often than not. The fair games where things are close for actual strategic decisions make this all the more frustrating.

This makes me think the dice rolls in the game, contrary to what you might imagine, are not random. Rather, Fortune Street, like its Mario party brethren, prefers a “fun” game to a “fair” one by manipulating events for shock and awe. This creates a bizarre, exciting experience every time you play the game (you never know what could happen!), but it also lends itself to far too many problems when placed under close competitive scrutiny (I lost because of the computer!). You may be winning, but you could suddenly lose tons of money due to a bad roll or a bad set of awful circumstances that the game, anthropomorphically speaking, piles onto the winner with glee. None of this feels preventable, and there’s no way to defend against the winds of financial change in a game where you need to stack net worth – not exactly a great match.

Fortune Street Mario

Yeah Mario, just keep teleporting around the map and buying all the properties – jerk.

Even the strategies I outlined earlier will not do anything to prevent the unstoppable tide of the game’s desires. A stable position ends up turning into a rarity during any one game of Fortune Street, and what once looked like skillful play will appear as it is: the game manipulating things.

Furthermore, changing the money amounts leads to all sorts of craziness. Since the properties values of the maps don’t change if you set the goal into the stratosphere, this means that everyone will have tons of cash and not much to do with it but to buyout other player’s properties at incredibly low price points. Buyouts at five times the price of property value should deter a buyout; at higher than 40k junctures, however, you need to do it. It simply breaks the game a lot of the time as you ended up in stasis until the AI controlling the game’s dice flow decides something crazy should happen. Players can’t control this; it just happens naturally.

The biggest problem is that the uncontrollable parts don’t make the game fun – they make it into a waiting game of seeing what the game wants to do with you. Whereas in a normal board game you know physics itself do not work against you, Fortune Street goes out of its way to make certain people win regardless of what they did. Once everyone plays at the same skills level, you merely go through the motions until you’re the guy/gal with the game’s favor and you win.

Because of these factors, players often take stupid risks and make plays that would otherwise kill you if, say, the game were fair. Walking over a property with a 6000 gold rental fee sounds insane, but if the game happens to like you a lot, you won’t land on anything. And I realize this sounds crazy, but Fortune Street often showers riches upon people for no other reason than it wants to level the playing field at the expense of the winning player.

End Issues

I think those judgments make sense after playing this game so consistently for almost a year.

Do these factors make me like Fortune Street less? Not at all! Rather, the very act of mastering the game let me see all its tricks; I think we can say that playing any game for over one hundred hours will present you with its flaws. That doesn’t mean those flaws ruin the game; rather, they just show the design wasn’t for competitive purposes and certainly does not exist with that in mind.  The creator of Fortune Street is the same as that of Dragon Quest, so what do you expect? Yuji Horii  is himself a frequent gambler, and so Fortune Street operates on the logic of a slot machine and a role-playing video game rather than Monopoly. Of course, because we’re playing a video game for multiple players, think of it as a slot machine where somebody always wins the game – in effect, the game turns into a layered, nuanced version of Mario Party.

Just to give you a taste of Horii’s personal game design philosophy:

Yeah. After all, it is just a game. We want to provide simple enjoyment for people; we don’t want to make complex things for people to think about. In the real world, there are so many difficulties people are facing. Sometimes, there are no rewards. They don’t get any rewards for those difficult things in life, but at least in the game, we want to make sure they will be rewarded for working hard to play the game.

And people say authorial intent no longer exists. Well, mechanics allow much less room for interpretation than books or films, I can tell you that much!

I enjoyed my fill of Fortune Street, and now finally understand the intent behind it. Unfortunately, the mastery of said systems mean I can’t really enjoy it with the same enthusiasm as I once did. Now that I know all of these flaws, I find it hard to just enjoy it at face value. Maybe it’s just time to say I had my fun and move on, keeping the memories of wonderful games with family while forgetting all the bad. I guess that’s how all things go on earth, right? You can’t hold on forever – sometimes you just need to let go. There’s no perfect game design, but there is a perfect Creator – thank God for that! Let me say you can’t master Christianity – it just isn’t going to happen. Its inexhaustible riches and enrichment of daily life continues every day because God’s love remains omnipresent and infinite. Good games, and good things in life, just point a little to the perfect.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.