Money Lessons Learned from Board Games

monopoly park

If you’ve been reading my work for SavingAdvice for any length of time, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of board games. I love them for the time they let me spend with my family and for the value they give me for my money. Plus, they’re just plain fun. Over the years, I’ve realized that playing games teaches many lessons that can be applied to personal finance. There are many games such as LIFE, Monopoly, PayDay, Acquire, and Careers where work and money are the main features of the games. But even games that aren’t about money often teach lessons that can be applied to personal finance. Here are some of the lessons my board game collection has taught me.

Luck Sometimes Plays a Component

In board games, very often the roll of the dice or the draw of a card determines your fate. One roll or draw can make the difference between winning and losing. Sometimes the luck will go in your favor, and sometimes it won’t.

The Lesson: It’s sometimes that way with life and money, too. Getting into an accident that wasn’t your fault, having a tornado hit your house but not your neighbors’, or falling into a great job because you just happened to overhear someone in the coffee shop talking about an opening are all pretty random events. Call it luck, karma, fate, whatever, these random events can have a big impact on your finances.

But You Can Often Mitigate or Make Your Own Luck

Most board games have a way to mitigate the damage that luck plays in the game. You get dealt a horrible card, but if you play that card well you can overcome the bad draw. Or, sometimes a bad dice roll can be overcome with careful play in other areas of the game. Sometimes you can make your own luck by playing the game in such a way as to be able to take advantage of other players’ misfortunes.

The Lesson: While luck plays a role in your financial picture, you can also put plans in place to deal with those seemingly “random” events. If you carry adequate insurance, that accident or tornado isn’t nearly the wipeout that it would otherwise be. If you keep your ears open and are always on the lookout for better job prospects, that seemingly random encounter in a coffee shop isn’t so random after all. If you keep a strong emergency fund, the bad luck of a job loss doesn’t have to become a disaster. You may get dealt some “bad luck” in your life, but if you plan and play well, you can overcome much of it and even make some good luck of your own.

Cooperate to Get Ahead

There is a genre of games called “cooperative” games where players play together to beat the game, rather than each other. You win or lose as a group and there is no single winner at the end. Players must negotiate amongst themselves to determine the moves made. These are fun because they take the sting out of losing and give you a sense of group accomplishment if you win.

The Lesson: In money matters, cooperation and negotiation can often take you further than outright competition. If you cooperate with your partner’s long-term financial goals, you’ll both get further than if you try to go your separate ways. If you negotiate with your boss for that raise, you’ll likely have more success than if you charged in and demanded a raise. Work together to get the best outcome.

Bargaining and Trading Can Help You Win

Many games offer players the chance to bargain for resources amongst each other, or trade items such as cards or resources for more or better resources. This can often be a better path to victory than simply trying to get what you need through a blind draw or other means of acquiring what you need.

The Lesson: Bargaining, bartering, and trading can be effective tools in personal finance, too. They enable you to get more for your money, accomplish things you couldn’t otherwise, and build social capital within your community. It’s more efficient and money-saving to pool resources and talents than to hoard everything to yourself and try to get by alone.

Cheating Is Usually Caught

When you were a kid, maybe you tried to take extra money from the bank, slide an extra space ahead, or some other means of cheating. You were usually caught, weren’t you? The other players probably got mad and maybe even threw you out of the game.

The Lesson: Cheating in finances is no different. You may try to fudge your tax return, take something that isn’t yours, or lie to get ahead. If you do, chances are you’ll be caught and punished. Jail in real life is a lot different than Jail in Monopoly.

Having Cash on Hand Usually Wins

Many games reward players for having cash on hand. Having cash enables you to take advantage of opportunities, buy the resources you need, and, in some games, the person with the most cash at the end wins.

The Lesson: Having cash on hand is a good thing. In your financial life, having cash means that you can weather emergencies, take advantage of great deals and opportunities that fall into your lap, and give to others in need. If you have cash at the end of your life, you can create a legacy by giving to others. If you’re leveraged to the hilt, you find yourself wishing you could do many of these things. Cash may not be all there is to life, but it can certainly make life easier.

Sometimes You Have to Take a Risk (but make it a well-calculated one)

Sometimes, to win a game, you have to make a risky move. Maybe you have to try to go after the bonus, even though it means leaving something else unprotected. Maybe you have to try to accomplish more things than you really think you can do before the game ends. Maybe you have to ally with another player, even though it puts you both at risk. It’s uncomfortable, but you weigh the pros and cons and decide that the risk might pay off.

The Lesson: Sometimes in personal finance you have to take a risk to get ahead. Maybe you take a new job in a new city. Maybe you begin investing, even though you’re scared of losing your shirt. Maybe you and Uncle Morris get together and buy a rental property together, even though you’re not sure you can work with Uncle Morris. Sometimes risks can be worth it. Just don’t jump in without doing your research and knowing the pros and the cons. Take calculated risks that you feel certain have a good chance of paying off. And don’t risk more than you can afford to lose. In a board game, losing isn’t a big deal. In real life, risk only what you can lose.

Save or Spend?

The decisions aren’t easy. In board games you’re often faced with a choice to buy land or resources now, or wait and hope you’ll be able to buy better things in the future. The risk in waiting is that your opponents may grab the good stuff before you do, or that you’ll lose all your money before you can grab anything. The risk in buying now is that you may only get a fraction of what you could have had you waited.

The Lesson: Most people are confronted with some form of this dilemma every day. Do you buy that shirt you love, or do you save the money for your vacation? Do you save for retirement now, or do what you want while you’re young? The choices aren’t easy and each carries the risk that you’ll have to give something up. Think it through and decide which is more important: Gaining something now, or potentially gaining something more in the future by giving up what you want now.

Have an Alternate Plan

After you’ve played a game one or twice, you generally approach it with a strategy in mind. You know what you want to do to win the game. Unfortunately, your opponents can royally mess up your plans by taking things you needed, or blocking routes you needed to claim. This is when you have to have a plan B. If something isn’t working, or a path is closed to you what else can you do to win?

The Lesson: In finance, you need to have a plan B. What do you do if the market tanks? What do you do if you get laid off? Things don’t always go smoothly or the way you think they will, so you need an alternate strategy to keep you moving forward.

The Winner is Usually the Person Who Most Successfully Manages Their Assets

Almost all games have you managing some sort of asset. It may be cash, buildings, people, routes/corridors, goods or services or a combination of all of these. The winner is usually the person who successfully manages all of his assets. While you might be able to win by focusing on just one or two and running those better than anyone else, it’s better to manage everything well.

The Lesson: You’ll garner the most success in your financial life if you manage all of your assets well. You can’t simply focus on accumulating cash while ignoring the value of your home or failing to invest wisely. You can’t just throw money into the market without also managing your cash flow well. To win in finance, you need to manage all of your assets well and keep them growing as best you can.

You Can Push Your Luck Too Far

Some games are called “push your luck” games. They usually involve dice or cards and you keep rolling or drawing until you voluntarily quit or you go one time too many and you bust. These are fun because you always think, “I’ll just go one more time.” It may work or you may bust.

The Lesson: In finance, it is also possible to push your luck too far. You can hold an investment too long and end up losing money. You can put off doing needed repairs or maintenance thinking you’re saving money, but then the item breaks and you have to pay more to replace it. You’ve pushed your luck too far and it has cost you. You have to know when to stop, take what you’ve earned, and get out of the game.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Win or lose, the point of playing games is to have fun. Winning is great, but the point is to play and be with people you like.

The Lesson: While you want to “win” with money, it isn’t everything. You need to manage your money well, but you don’t have to beat yourself (or your family/friends) up if you mess up or things don’t go your way. Remember that there are things more important than money. Focus also on your relationships and enjoying your life.

Screwing Others Comes Back to Bite You

In some games you have to screw your opponents over to win. When it’s an accepted part of the gameplay, it’s easier for everyone to take. However, when you screw someone over just because you can, you can expect payback. Either they will do something equally horrible to you later in the game or the next one, or they’ll take it out on you somewhere else. People don’t like it when you screw them over for no reason.

The Lesson: If you screw someone over financially by not paying back a debt, cheating them out of money, or not offering a fair deal or trade, it will come back to bite you. You can forget ever having financial relations with that person or company again and if the relationship is personal, you may destroy that, as well. Try to keep things friendly and professional. You don’t have to hurt others in order to win.

There are many games that teach even more specific lessons. LIFE teaches the value of insurance and eduction. Monopoly teaches the advantages and disadvantages of debt. PayDay teaches you how to manage money on a monthly, budgeted basis. In general, though, any board game can teach general lessons that can be applied to personal finance.

(Photo courtesy of HarshLight)

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3 Responses to Money Lessons Learned from Board Games

  1. Paul Owen says:

    I agree with much of what you say, but I would caution about taking the lesson too far.

    I used to play a 3M game called “Stocks and Bonds.” When playing with more than just a couple of other players, the only way to have a chance at winning was to buy a lot of speculative stocks, like shares in an oil-drilling company. There was a fair chance that you would go bust, but there was also a decent chance of hitting it big and out-earning all your competitors. Conservative play would give solid returns, but not at game-winning levels. If three of your opponents speculate on oil and one of them hits it big, they win and you lose, no matter how “smart” your conservative investments are. The point is that in a multi-player game, there is only one winner, and that is typically the one who gambled big and had it pay off.

    But in real life, I’m not competing with other people to earn the most; I am trying to achieve financial security through independent wealth. Generally speaking, aggressive speculation is not the way to do that (except as part of a diverse portfolio). So whereas some games reward big risk-taking, the objective in games is different from the objectives in personal finances; so the game-lesson doesn’t necessarily apply.

    Thanks for a fascinating column.

  2. Julie says:

    I have agreed with most of your posts in the past, but I get bored playing board games.

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