If you thought Monopoly was complicated before, get a load of this. In 1982, Parker Brothers released the 'Playmaster,' an electronic accessory that made the game's usual nuances more convenient while adding new features which intensified the playing field. The device was conceptualized specifically to combat the growing market of home video game systems -- apparently, Parker Brothers felt that adding a few electronic sounds and a blinking red light would make people forget all about their Ataris and Colecovisions. The experiment was a massive failure, but the Playmaster itself was an interesting little monster.
Someone in my family received this on a Christmas many years ago, and it's somehow ended up in my possession. We could never, ever figure out how to use it properly. Even the virtual dice rolls - one of the Playmaster's big selling points - seems to be an action privy only to the gods. The real smack in the face is the Playmaster's appearance. It looks like it'd be a lot of fun, and the accessory is admittedly tough to resist. It's only after you plug the thing in and attempt to use it that the awful truth surfaces, and by that point, you'd already plopped down the money.
The Monopoly Playmaster hasn't been produced for almost two decades, so if you weren't one of the lucky few who enjoyed the electronic madness in its heyday, here's the review...
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The device itself is colorful and surprisingly heavy. You'll often find that the electronics of yesteryear seem to weigh considerably more than their recent cousins, and I wish I knew enough about technological advancements to explain it. Since I don't, let's just pretend that Parker Brothers filled the Playmaster with rocks to make it seem more substantial. Gold rocks.
When I was a kid, I mistook the Playmaster as a standalone game. Wrong - you're actually supposed to put this thing right on top of the standard Monopoly board. It runs on the power of an included AC adapter. The only other stuff in the box were an instruction manual and a little sheet with Parker Brothers' toll-free number in case you couldn't figure out how to use the thing. I guess they saw the writing on the wall with this one -- I'm betting that only the truly devoted ever learned to use the accessory properly, with the rest of the world running for the returns/exchanges counter with visions of simpler games dancing in their heads.
Okay, so that's what it looks like fitted on to the regular Monopoly board. Pretty cool, actually -- the Playmaster even has compartments for the 'Chance' and 'Community Chest' cards, and if not for the always-obstructing black wire mucking up an otherwise pleasant field of wonder, Parker Brothers might've been onto something.
Everything else is set up in the usual way - you get the same wad of paper money, and your ultimate goal remains familiar: bankrupt the shit out of all the other players. Having used a Playmaster before, I can tell you that it does get in the way. You've got this heavy, beeping, diamond-shaped gizmo either messing up your view or blocking your hands from where they need to be, which could only be construed as 'intensifying the game' if 'intensifying' was defined as 'the action of making something more annoying.' And hey, it's not like I'm plucking at anyone's emotional vestiges here. If people liked the Playmaster, it'd still be around.
There might've been a market for something like this, but the fact is, Parker Brothers created the Playmaster for all the wrong reasons. It didn't pop up in stores because of its ability to make Monopoly more fun -- it was really just there to satiate a crowd who were growing more and more into the time's electro-revolution. It's pretty obvious that this thing was rushed from the drawing board into stores, and even the most casual players could probably note fifteen easy improvements to the schematics. Among my many suggestions to Parker Brothers, 'start over from scratch fools' led the pack.
You might've noticed that I'm dodging the real issue. What does the Playmaster do? God, I really don't know. I've read the instructions a thousand times and I still have no idea how the make this thing work its magic. It's like some great puzzle, only less 'great.' I'll do my best to make sense of this technological creaturebox, but don't blame me if you don't pick up much from it. Evidently, I'm way too stupid to figure out Monopoly accessories.
The dice button serves an expected purpose -- when pressed, a red LED light will scoot along the Playmaster's Monopoly board, ultimately landing your piece at a specific property, railroad, and so on. Even this takes a while to get used to -- the light skips around from place to place, never seeming to follow any sort of natural dice rolling laws, all the while favoring some parts of the board way more than others. I'd assume that most people gave up on the Playmaster right here, but those who didn't were in for a real treat...
The first of the special features were 'Auctions,' where the device chooses an unowned property for the players to bid on. At heart, this is supposed to quicken the game and eliminate the need of rolling directly onto specific spots. In reality, you'll have to get all of the players to push the right buttons on the Playmaster, which is a laughable suggestion that's impossible to complete. There's like 85,000 buttons on there, and if you press the wrong one, everything fucks up. You know 'everything fucked up' when the Playmaster makes strange chirping sounds and the red light beams across the board before splitting into several lights heading in different directions. ARE YA FOLLOWING ME? Amazingly, this is only the first of several hot new features.
Next up, 'Buybacks.' In the regular game, you were all too often faced with the problem of having a nigh-monopoly with the one piece you need being held by a greedy player who won't sell it for less than ten trillion dollars. The Playmaster will sporadically perform a 'buyback,' forcing players to give up singly owned pieces for the same price they were purchased at. That's all well and good, if you can interpret the Playmaster's beeping song and insane lights as a 'buyback,' instead of all of those other times where it beeps and lights up for no readily apparent reason.
But wait, there's more!
You can also take out 'Loans' from the bank. It's something we've all tried to do in the regular game, but now it's perfectly legal so long as you're willing to spend 40 hours figuring out which pattern of lights and beeps indicate that you're allowed to lift wads of paper money.
All of the Playmaster's action sequences are set to different songs. For example, you'll hear 'Beethoven's Fifth' whenever you go for a loan. 'We're In The Money' plays when you turn the device on, and since that's the best of the thirteen available songs, I spent most of my Playmaster playtime simply turning the thing on and off to hear it over and over again. That's about the extent of the enjoyment I reaped from the game.
Now okay, I don't doubt that there's plenty of people who managed to 'figure out' the Playmaster. I also don't doubt that some of these people may e-mail me and explain how very wrong I am for taking such a negative stance on it, but seriously, you had to be a Monopoly nut to even make it past the third page of the instruction manual. A sample:
What in God's name are they talking about? You'd think it'd be a little easier to just have a little spot that lit up whenever a 'Buyback' took place.
The other rules are even more needlessly intricate - it's sort of like trying to play five board games simultaneously, only tougher since regular board games don't require you to associate 'Schubert's Lieder' and flashing lights with A GOD DAMNED STUPID BUYBACK. While the Playmaster's schematics display a serious lack in logic, the saddest thing about it is the clear potential a gizmo like this actually had. With proper tooling and a more adequate length of production time, the Playmaster might've worked out great.
In the end, I guess Monopoly just wasn't the kind of game conductive to adding 40,000 new idiotic rules. Perhaps there's games better suited for adding 40,000 new idiotic rules. There was enough going on with Monopoly as it was -- throwing in a machine that played Casio tunes was just overkill.
The people on the box looked like they were having so much fun, too. It's a real shame.
Overall: What was Parker Brothers thinking? Remember, this wasn't a cheap item. It retailed for way more than the actual Monopoly game itself, and in fact, it probably cost more than 90% of the board games available at the time. A loyal cliental was only gonna take them so far, so when you factor in the cost of advertising this monster, it was both a risky and expensive venture. Obviously, the gimmick never caught on.
Still, I applaud them for trying. The early 80s were a pretty interesting time for these sorts of games, with all of the companies going nuts in an attempt to compete with the much hotter video game craze. Usually, the efforts were panic-button rush jobs, and we ended up with a lot of entertainingly offbeat titles to waste money on. The 'Playmaster' goes a long way in personifying this era, and while it didn't exactly cut the mustard, at least it gave me something to poke fun at on this amazingly humid Monday afternoon.
Playmaster, I've poked you. It was a satisfying poke. Now go back to beeping and lighting up in the Halls of the Forgotten. Back, now, forever. Bye.