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The Amazing History of Monopoly

We’ve all played it. A recent estimation stated that over 500 million people worldwide have enjoyed the mind-numbing, table flipping, rage inducing game that is Monopoly. It has graced the board game shelf of everyone from kings to diplomats, engineers to doctors, mailmen to office cleaners. There are three great equalisers in life – going to the toilet, dying, and playing Monopoly. We’ve all been there, done that, and collected $200 for passing Go.

That being said, although almost all gamers own a copy (we have three…don’t ask) it is widely regarded as “kind of rubbish” by the gaming community. This is, it has to be said, due to two reasons. The first is there are a lot of better games out there. Monopoly has almost no strategy, so board game fanatics tend to just see it as a bit of a dice rolling slog-fest.

The other is because whenever we talk about tabletop gaming to non-gamers we get the response: “You play board games? What, like Monopoly?”

No, Monopoly is not a popular tabletop game to gamers. It’s also not a very good gateway game, or else way more people would have become involved in the serious hobby. No. It is not good.

That being said – it is very interesting, and this is where this post cuts in.

I was surprised to learn, the other day, about the wide and varied history Monopoly has. It is weirdly colourful, and starts with a twist I really had not expected. It was such a twist that I am putting my grievances with Monopoly to one side, for one article, to share with you how interesting it really is.

I mean, I don’t really have that big an issue with it. I used to love it as a kid, and will still play it now – but imagine I am really up in arms about it. That is way more dramatic and makes for a better narrative. 

The game began when Elizabeth Magie invented a game to explain the single tax theory of Henry George. George was an economist, back in the day, with a theory about tax that stated that the people should own value themselves, but wealth derived from the land should be owned by society. Georgism, as it later became known, was a form of economy based on the principle that, whilst man was created equal, the land was not.

Elizabeth Magie decided that more people needed to be warned of the outright abuse of capitalism, and sought to educate through the use of a game. It was called The Landlord’s Game. 

Magie self-published the game, and it became a bit of a hit. She applied for patents and successfully got one in 1906. Several versions of the game became known, and by 1923 she had refined it to contain a lot more of the gameplay we know today. Houses were added and so was a rent mechanic. Weirdly, Magie’s version of the game was, back in 1923, closer to board games (as we know them today) than we might have realised. Instead of achieving immediate success with the game, however, something weird happened.

That thing was a man called Charles Darrow. Darrow was an enthusiast for the game, having played it with a few friends and taken it a bit far. He grew obsessed, according to some sources, and decided to refine the game. He changed the premise and, in 1933 he sold his refined version to the Parker Brothers. Needless to say, the Magie estate was not chuffed, and so the Parker Brothers purchased the patents to the original game as well. They started selling the game in 1935, having refined it down to what we know today, basing the streets on Atlantic City in New Jersey.

By the late 1930s, the Parker Brothers began production of the game outside of the United States. We’ve all seen different variations of Monopoly in shops, well, 1936 saw the start of the franchising of Monopoly. It took off, and by the early 1940s was incredibly popular in the UK as well. This was so much the case that in 1941, the British Secret Service commissioned the Parker Brothers to develop versions of the game that genuinely had routes to escape POW camps made and sent to British prisoners of war. According to this source Waddingtons, who were licensed to print the game in the UK, were enlisted due to their ability to print on silk. This was used for maps as they did not rustle when opened. Other tools were also put into the game, by carving out certain sections of the board before placing the stickers over them to cover whatever was smuggled in. It turns out the name is Street, Bond Street.

Following WWII, Monopoly sales reached over one million copies. It began to be licensed all over Europe, something I am sure the additional marketing as a POW rescue service helped no end. It was here it became a global phenomenon, and it sold well throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1970s, something got forgotten. The rulebook had forgotten Elizabeth Magie existed and fully credited Charles Darrow with the invention of the game. Meanwhile, an economics professor named Ralph Anspach created a game called Anti-Monopoly (which is incredibly badly rated on Board Game Geek, scoring only 3.7/10). Needless to say, the Parker Brothers tried to sue, losing as it was deemed Monopoly too broad a term to be copyrighted. Anti-Monopoly is still a game. I haven’t played it but this review is fairly damning.

Come 1991, Hasbro bought up the Parker Brothers and everything they made. Thus, they gained ownership of Monopoly and the real franchising began. We now have everything from Star Wars Monopoly, to Minions Monopoly, to My Little Pony Monopoly. The rest, as they say, is history.

You know, as a gamer, I naturally do not trust Monopoly. The number of times I have to explain to people that gaming is a real past time and we don’t always collect $200 for passing Go every night does grow tiresome. That being said, doing the research for this article, Monopoly actually has a really interesting past. It is fascinating that a game about capitalism can have such abundantly non-capitalist roots. Instead, it came from a single woman from Arlington in Virginia, and her ambition to show the world a different means of taxation.

It goes to show a best selling game idea can come from anywhere.

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