I already wrote about Monopoly Deal in a previous critical play but since it is one of the games I have played the most, I want to analyze whether the game is balanced or not.
The first type of game balance (challenge being appropriate for audience) does not apply here since it is not a single-player game. So let’s consider the second type, which is asymmetry. Monopoly Deal does have elements of asymmetry since one player needs to go first and depending on the number of players in the game the last player to play in the first round is at a significantly different position compared to the first player. However, I believe that the asymmetry aspect does not matter too much for two reasons. The first reason is that going first or last can be either advantageous or disadvantageous or neutral depending on how other players play. For instance, if all players play with lots of risks and put down cards on their first turn, then the last player has the opportunity to steal many cards when it is their turn. Conversely, if players play conservatively on their first turn, the last player cannot steal anything but instead has to wait another full round to do anything useful. The second reason is that we rotate to decided the player who goes first each game, hence if enough games are played, it balances out. Finally, based on which cards you draw, going first or last may not make any difference.
Now let’s consider the third type of game balance, which is whether one strategy is better than the others for winning. I have to argue that the game is mostly balanced in this sense too, since there are only general winning strategies but no exact winning strategy. For instance, a general winning strategy is to build enough bank before playing property cards. However, there is a lot of decisions to be made about how much bank is enough, what property cards to put down first, which action cards to play earlier or later in the game, etc. Furthermore, from personal experience, I have seen players who play cards very aggressively, e.g. deal breakers, rent cards, etc and win, as well as players who build an enormous amount of bank and keep the good cards in their hand until the very end and also win. Hence, I do believe several strategies are equally likely to win the game.
Now let’s consider the fourth type of game balance, which is whether different cards have similar cost / benefit ratio. In Monopoly Deal, all cards have the same cost, which is zero since you simply draw cards out of a deck when it is your turn. However, all cards have different amounts of benefits. For instance, for action cards, the Dealbreaker and Just Say No cards are the most powerful, followed by rent cards. For property cards, wild properties are the most powerful (since you can use them on any set), followed by blue/brown/ light green cards (since you only need two of them to make a full set), etc. This could definitely make the game unbalanced since a player with a lot of powerful cards usually has an edge in the game. However, this is not necessarily the case. For instance, the Dealbreaker card is actually useless if nobody else has a full set of properties and the Just Say No card is useless if there is no cards of your own that you value. The rent card is also useless if it does not correspond to the properties that you own. Or you could have a lot of powerful action cards, but that does not help much if you have no money or properties. Hence, even if the cost / benefit ratios of cards are not the same, because each player is dealt a bunch of different cards leading to different strategies, the game is overall still balanced.
There is not really any transitive relationship between the cards, because the cost and benefit of each card cannot be reduced to a single value. However, each card does have a monetary value, but the monetary value does not make too much sense – it is mostly meant to allow players use some cards as money if they do not have enough bank. There is also no intransitive relationship since no card can “beat” another card – the cards are just used in different ways in the game. However, there is a “fruity” relationship between the cards to help balance the game. The cards are very different from each other, say action cards, property cards and money cards. Hence, direct comparisons are impossible. However, within each type of cards, there can be direct comparisons, say for example a blue property is better than a yellow property. Overall, the “fruity” relationship allows for different tactics and balanced strategies in the game!