The Game of Life Plans (and City Planning)

Lately I’ve been playing a ton of board games and doing puzzles. Granted, who hasn’t received a note from a friend asking them to play some sort of online puzzle game on Facebook. And yes, you can politely say no. Unless you see some benefit, like I did back a few years ago when I played Cityville to examine its merits for urban planning.

Yet, what’s really changed my game (pun intended), has been playing board games in real life. I’ve gone to board game socials with friends.

Bertucci’s hot coco at the DC Scrabble Meetup on January 14, 2015. Photo by the author.

I’ve helped my mom put a puzzle together in our living room.

Yes, we eventually found “Nemo”. Photo by the author.

I’ve also downloaded a word search app that’s not that much different than doing word searches in paper books.

These activities, along with my running Scrabble and Words with Friends virtual games have helped me to see how game theory affects the world of planning and development.

Anyone who remembers LIFE and Monopoly, knows that your fate is centered on the roll of dice or spin of a wheel. This is what a lot of people feel in real life, especially those who hope to win charter school lotteries, get a job they applied for to start making a paycheck, or rent or own a home. That their lives are really up to chance.

That’s especially pointed on the LIFE board. Even if your opponent skipped college and got a lesser job card, they could make up for it by picking the highest salary card. Even if you got the highest salary, you could hit the midlife crisis space and end up losing that card. Essentially, you could be a doctor that makes $25,000 playing with an entertainer that skipped college, with the required $40,000 debt, making $70,000. Even if you retired at Millionaire Estates, the entertainer could retire at Countrywide Acres and still do better than you, winning the game.

Meanwhile on the Monopoly board, you could roll the dice and buy all the utilities and everything on the third side of the board. You know, those properties that aren’t worth as much, but they collect a lot in rent as people tend to land on them more than they land on the fourth side high-end properties. More fair right? You’re a mini developer mogul with lots of hotels! But that could again be your opponent instead of you. You could go to jail after only purchasing Mediterranean Avenue. Yes, you still get your money and you get out eventually, but in the meantime, your opponent is buying up more properties and making much more money.

In real life we used to think this was just a poor people (and people of color) problem, but for anyone trying to buy homes and get jobs in New York, San Fransisco or Washington D.C. and their surrounding areas, it again may feel like you are at the mercy of the wheel you spin, even if you have the “right” amount of money or cultural background.

Yet, just like life, there are more board games and paths than Monopoly and LIFE when it comes to modeling how to make a living. In fact, maybe your life is more like Scrabble and Words with Friends. Then you might really feel like the tiles are stacked against you. You might have a wonderful, high scoring word, but nowhere to connect it. Your friends in these games might have the X, J or Z (or all three) and can then control the board. You get stuck with all consonants and no vowels. You are left to make the best of what you do have. Oh and we can’t forget placement. Who hasn’t screamed at the 40 point three-letter word, strategically placed on both a double letter and a triple word (that also happens to have a Z).

Or, your life could just be a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle waiting to be put together. All the pieces are already there for you, you just have to be patient as as they all fall into place.

Again, this is still about planning and development. The primer above was just so you, as the planner or developer, could remember how people actually make the decision to buy your house, ride your train or go to the school you placed near their house.

And when it comes to planning and development, we want people to feel like their lives are jigsaw puzzles. Figureoutable. Pieceable. Assembled. Yet, the worst feel their world is a Scrabble board or maybe a Monopoly board, with the wrong letters or properties.

Having homes at multiple income levels, multiple forms of transportation, schools that provide connectivity to different subjects and occupations, stores and restaurants with a variety of food, clothing and other accessories of life, and variety period in all things, makes a community real. Then it feels less like a game of winners and losers and more like a life that allows for growth, change and learning.

Consider what kind of community you are planning for and make sure your citizens aren’t pawns in an impossible game.

This post is also up on Medium. Recommend it there and share with your friends.

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.

  • Alon Levy

    A few years ago I came to the realization that my taste in board games is like my taste in transit. My favorite board/card game is Race for the Galaxy, which is very much in the German style (it was partly meant to be the card game version of Puerto Rico), except it was actually designed by an American, and published by Rio Grande Games, an American company that mostly imports German games.

    There’s much more strategy in Race than in Monopoly or Life or Sorry or games of that vintage. But it’s learnable in not too many games – it’s not like Chess or Go. It also has a lot of randomness in which cards you draw, so knowing the game is about knowing how to adjust your strategy to the hands that you’re dealt. It also uses cards as currency – when you play a card, it has a numeric cost and you need to discard that many cards from your hand. Maybe you have five awesome cards, but the best of the four costs 4, so to play it you have to get rid of the rest. So you need to know not to fall in love with every card you get, and to prioritize instead.