Game Design

safeway monopoly and game design for collectors

From February to April this year, Safeway ran its Monopoly promotion.  I had to do the shopping for a couple of big events, so at the cash register after some large purchases I was given stacks of Safeway Monopoly tickets, each a little paper packet from which you tear out a coupon that’s possibly an Instant Winner (e.g. a free bagel, or 50% off sour cream) and four game pieces to place on a Safeway Monopoly board.

Since I had so many game pieces, I decided to give it a go, convinced that I would come away with at least one prize from the collection of sets of pieces, since collecting all pieces of a given set would win you the corresponding prize.  I wasn’t holding out hope for the $1 million cash or the vacation home, but given that I had hundreds of game pieces by the end of the promotion, I was confident I’d get something, even just a $5 Safeway gift card.

No such luck.  Safeway Monopoly (like the iterations of McDonald’s Monopoly I’d played with a fervour before it) left me feeling disappointed at having wasted my time tearing up game pieces, trying to stick them in the correct places on a convoluted board, and finding out that I was just one ticket away from most of the smaller prizes.  Go figure.

In my frustration, I took a step back to analyse the problems with this form of “gamified” marketing. Playing Safeway Monopoly got me thinking about collection mechanics in games because of how poorly they were implemented in the design of this promotional event. Here are some obvious missteps:

1. Encouraging players to “play” something they actually have no chance of winning

Everyone knows that the odds of winning the $1 million top prize are slim, but the smaller prizes seem attainable, even though it’s common knowledge that the odds are in the company’s control, with fewer of one ticket per set being printed. Still, this means that shoppers who participate in Safeway Monopoly have the expectation that after attaining a certain number of tickets through their effort at shopping a lot, they must be guaranteed a win, even if just a tiny one, because the odds couldn’t have been that bad. This is absolutely not true, so more often than not, the player experiences disappointment and frustration, like I did.

What games should do:
Games should provide players with realistic expectations. Winning feels great, and that’s why a lot of games guarantee a win or an end state for a given amount of effort. However, if winning is not possible for a large portion of the players, games can still reduce the amount of disappointment by lowering expectations while maintaining that tiny glimmer of hope. For example, many people play the lottery, where the expectation to win is naturally low, but the small chance that winning is possible makes playing attractive. Not winning the lottery is more expected, and thus less of a letdown, than not winning a small prize from Safeway Monopoly after investing lots of time, money and effort in the latter.


2. Providing a really confusing collection interface (the Monopoly board and pieces)

Collecting is about progression and completion of sets, and the Safeway Monopoly board was confusing beyond anything I’ve ever seen, with no way of judging how well you were doing, or even figuring out where to place a game piece, at a glance. Game pieces and their spots were labelled by a combination of letters and numbers with no apparent rhyme or reason, like “9J39C” or “8Z05E”, and had pictures of brands on them, presumably for sponsorship or brand awareness reasons. There were no colours to help players match sets, or visual indications for which set corresponded to which prize. This led to a very frustrating gameplay experience, resulting in me writing down all the labels of the game pieces I needed and cross checking the list rather than looking at the board.

Game pieces each had a complexlabel and no good visual indication of where they should be on the board.

The board was so confusing, just take a look at how the pieces are laid out.

What games should do:
Games should provide players with a good way of tracking how well they are doing. Collection in particular has a wide range of possible interfaces to display progress, from counters (31/45 berries collected) to progress bars to percentages to 1-3 stars being lit up… Safeway Monopoly failed on so many counts with this, which could have been easily solved by cleaner, more visually descriptive board and game piece designs.

It was so frustrating trying to match up the pieces to the board and find the right spots to stick them in, that I resorted to making a list and checking off which pieces I had, which was not fun and felt like work, especially because of those labels.  Imagine trying to tell someone you’re looking for “8N51C”.

3. Removing players’ control over what they are collecting by using randomness

Collecting game pieces was difficult because although you were given a certain number of game pieces for a certain amount of money spent, the pieces themselves would be random, so it was impossible to know whether your perceived progress in acquiring more pieces was actual progress in getting the correct pieces and not duplicates of ones you already had. Collection is so much a product of effort that having such a large element of randomness removed players sense of control over the progress they wanted to make in their collections. Collecting game pieces was more complex because there were multiple goals, roughly 20 different sets you could complete based on what random pieces you got, and that was totally out of the players’ control as well.

What games should do:
Collecting items should be simple, limited to one goal or maybe two, certainly not as many as Safeway Monopoly. Additionally, because of these goals, players should feel that they are able to make genuine progress and that they will be rewarded for their efforts, rather than relying on randomness. The goals themselves should be reachable. There should be a clear route to acquiring more items in the collection, for example, in MMORPGs, where players are tasked with “Collect 25 dire wolf pelts”. The pelt drops themselves may be random, but the player is certain that finding and killing more dire wolves will eventually lead to the acquisition of these pelts.

My final board with all the pieces I collected, plus a bunch of duplicates.

Notice that many are just one away from a prize, missing the elusive rare piece for that set.

Collectors are achievers, not gamblers.

Collecting things is a very natural habit for us humans – it’s why some of us have a rubbish bag of Beanie Babies in the attic, or shelves full of books we’ll never read. The root cause of Safeway’s poor Monopoly design was a lack of understanding about the type of people who enjoy collecting things, who would be the people that put effort into playing the game in the first place.


People who like to collect things want to be working towards an achievable goal, while people who are interested in gambling want a shot at an amazing prize. You wouldn’t collect lottery tickets, and you wouldn’t spend a lot of money on one random car that could be worth the most of them all. With marketing initiatives, companies should be trying to reward customers who make an effort, rather than introducing elements of randomness that mix the mechanics of luck and collection. Most collectors want payoff for their efforts, which is exemplified best by the completion of a set or a subset of items after the work of trying to find the last piece, something that was impossible with Safeway Monopoly.

One does not need to look far for more successful rewards programs. Consider punch cards or sticker cards from the local frozen yogurt store that offer your eleventh froyo free, or Starbucks’ stars program where you collect stars for free beverages, or even frequent flyer miles offered by most airlines. These programs support the collectors’ mindset because:

  1. There is only one collectible currency, be it points or stars or stamps or miles, which makes it easy to understand.
  2. There is a clear way to collect and track the currency, and you know what you’re going to get out of it – a certain amount of money spent corresponds to a certain number of stars, for example.
  3. There are guaranteed, achievable rewards and payoffs for your effort (no randomness on whether you might win a prize or not).
The game doesn’t even have much to do with Monopoly in the first place, you could have easily been collecting anything.

Collectors are people who want to put in work and be rewarded for it, a trait that has been exploited many a time by game designers for player engagement. Whether it’s collecting all the cards in a Magic: The Gathering deck or unlocking all the songs in Guitar Hero, game designers should seek to encourage the effort that collectors put into completing sets rather than render that effort meaningless by throwing in uncertainty about whether or not players will be rewarded for their hard work. While most companies rely on simple collection mechanics, it will be interesting to see more development in rewards programs that provide real rewards for gameplay, which could successfully boost business if done correctly.