History may not be everyone’s favorite subject, but the history of a game exerts a particular kind of fascination, and one of so popular an American cultural icon as Monopoly can hardly fail to draw crowds. Furthermore, Monopoly is practically unique among modern board games in having a substantial history to trace. Consider why.
Traditional board games like chess, checkers and backgammon are centuries if not millennia old. Myth and legend notwithstanding, they acknowledge no inventor but grow by a process of communal modification and development. In brief, they are folk games, analogous to folk songs and folk dances, having evolved by a process of anonymous communal creativity, inherently bequeathing their ownership to the public domain. In character they tend to be essentially abstract, not necessarily because they are non-representational (chess remains recognizably a battle between two armies of differentiated participants), but in that the essence of play centers on exploiting geometric or positional relationships between the pieces on a board. A significant consequence of this is that many have a strong intellectual content and play often takes place in silence.
Modern board games, in contrast, arise not through evolution but by a known originator’s act of invention, a one-off product of “intelligent design” in a relatively brief period of time. They are published and subject to trade protection such as copyright. Although abstract games are still produced, they are a minority taste; modern board games are mostly thematic, overtly representational, even theatrical. Johan Huizinga, in his classic 1938 study Homo Ludens, defines play as either a contest for something, as in the play of a game, or a representation of something, as in the performance of a play. In this latter case, there is a natural tendency for much if not most of the play to take place above the board in the form of transactions and agreements with other players. Such games involve more talking, and are naturally regarded as more sociable.
From a creative point of view the most remarkable feature of Monopoly is that it actually falls into both categories, something Huizinga did not anticipate. It is now well known to have originated in a precursor called The Landlord’s Game, which sprang apparently fully-formed from the brain of a Maryland Quaker called Lizzie Magie and was patented by her in 1904. Well known, that is, to all but the compilers of Hasbro’s Monopoly web page. That page still insists on crediting Monopoly to an out-of-work heating engineer named Charles Darrow, and on dating its origin to the years of the Depression immediately preceding Monopoly’s first publication under that name by Parker Brothers in 1935.
This leaves an explanatory gap of some three decades, which, in the first century of mass communication, probably equates to about three centuries of traditional game evolution. During that period several versions of the game were published under different titles and by different nominal “inventors”, including Lizzie Magie herself. But the real point of interest lies in the fact that most of the game’s development over that time took place in colleges and private dwellings, by players using homemade boards, transmitting the game’s essential rules by word of mouth, and modifying components and elements of play as the fancy took or inspiration seized them. Thus Landlord/Monopoly, unlike almost any other invented game of modern times, became a folk game in order to undergo, albeit in a shorter period of time, the same sort of natural development as that enjoyed by all hitherto successful traditional games. In the words of the late, great games master Sid Sackson, “That’s a lot of time to get it right.”
Given the rarity of well-documented histories of modern board games, that of Monopoly is particularly fortunate to have found an author who has himself had a lot of time to get it right, and largely does so. Philip Orbanes has been professionally involved with Monopoly since joining Parker Brothers Research & Development in 1979. Now president of the specialty games company Winning Moves, he remains a consulting member of the board of directors for Hasbro Games (incorporating Parker Brothers), and serves as chief judge at the U.S. and World Monopoly Championships. His new book represents a considerable expansion of the historical section of his earlier Monopoly Companion (1988, revised 1999), and incorporates a great deal of hitherto unpublished research.
The history of any invention falls naturally into two parts: that of everything leading up to the first appearance of the finished product, and that of its ensuing lifetime to the present day. In this case, the finished product is the game of familiar design and rules that everyone in America and the rest of the English-speaking world (and many others, too) has been playing since childhood—namely, the “Atlantic City”-based Monopoly as designed by Charles Darrow and published by Parker Brothers in 1935. But this, of course, is only the midpoint of the game’s history, and, appropriately, it does not appear until about half way through Orbanes’ strictly chronological approach. His story opens in 1852, well before the birth of Lizzie Magie, on the site of the future seaside resort of Atlantic City, then but a gleam in its prospective developers’ eyes, and takes us right up to the World Monopoly Championship of the present day.
Though chronological, his narrative is at the same time essentially personal in that the story of the game’s development is told in stages, each one dominated by the character most involved in the proceedings. The chapter heads therefore provide a convenient and memorable summary of the whole narrative—from (1) Magie’s Mother Earth, (2) Nearing’s Neighborhood, (3) Parker and Progress, (4) (Rexford) Tugwell’s Turn, and so on, up to (15) Williamson’s World and Beyond.
The story of Monopoly from 1935 to the present day has been pretty well documented throughout the years and could have been fairly easily traced by any competent researcher, even one lacking Orbanes’ personal involvement in it. But Orbanes’ remarkable contribution lies in having tracked down and interviewed so many of the principals (or their surviving relatives) involved in the prior development of the game, together with enough early examples of preceding incarnations and congeners to enable him to bring it all together in a satisfying explanation of how it all came about—an explanation benefiting further from his own technical expertise in the field of game analysis.
Born in Illinois in 1866, Lizzie Magie divided her life between Washington, DC, and Chicago, where in 1910 she married Albert Phillips. Magie, we learn, “worked as a public stenographer and had a knack for the written word. Her inventive genius manifested itself in the creation of the automatic carriage return for typewriters. In the process, she learned about patents and their importance in protecting ideas.” With typical helpfulness, Orbanes treats us to a tabulated account of the relationships between patents, copyrights and trademarks.
Early attempts at publication of The Landlord’s Game yielded mixed results. Landlord was published in 1906 by the Economic Game Company of New York, in which Magie herself was principal shareholder. In 1913 it appeared in Scotland under the title Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. (Don’t ask.) George Parker rejected it in 1909 as being too complicated and unengagingly political, and did so again in 1924 when Magie revised the game and renewed her patent.
It did, however, achieve success in an entirely different direction. To understand why, we need to note that our inventive Quaker, far from devoting a game to the praise of Mammon, actually devised it as a moral tale showing how unfair rents could be charged by unscrupulous landlords, for which, if there is any justice in the world, they will—in the game world, at least—rightly fetch up in jail. The object of the game, as she stated in her renewed patent of 1924,
is not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises and how the single tax would discourage land speculation.
In this she was not merely following, but purposefully promoting, the tenets of economist Henry George, creator of the single-tax theory, who was convinced that property speculation formed the basis of society’s economic and social problems. Magie’s vision of society is illustrated by subsequent rules and annotations (not mentioned by Orbanes), such as:
• La Swelle Hotel. The space represents the distinction made between classes, only moneyed guests being accepted.
• Throwing one with the single die: Caught robbing hen-roost—go to jail.
• Throwing a two: Caught robbing the public—take $200 from the board. The players will now call you “Senator.”
One doubts that irony (let alone sardony) has ever proved a strong selling-point to the general public, making George Parker’s wariness of Lizzie’s game even more understandable. But it did appeal to a loose-knit community of economics students and professors, left-leaning intellectuals and socially conscientious Quakers. In particular, the game was adopted as a sort of emblem by the experimental community of Arden, established in Delaware in 1900 by adherents of George’s “Single Tax” and William Morris’ “Arts and Crafts” Principles. Its residents acquired a copy of the game handmade by the inventor herself (it still exists), which became a mainstay of enjoyment in the small but thriving town.
Arden’s inhabitants were to include Scott Nearing, an economics professor of the University of Pennsylvania with an interest in progressive causes such as ending unregulated child labor and fighting the unequal distribution of wealth and income in society. One day, recounts Orbanes,
Nearing brought a handmade copy of the Landlord’s Game into his classroom as a tool to show the evils of rent gouging. Nearing wasn’t certain of the game’s title, and he referred to it as the Antilandlord Game. His students nicknamed it Business or Monopoly because Nearing’s version emphasized acquiring sets of lots. Lizzie is known to have summered in Arden for many years. Her Arden game board grouped the properties into sets. She likely modified her original game in response to suggestions from players. Its main attraction became acquiring groups and charging increasingly higher rents as they were developed.
The importance of Nearing’s decision to add The Landlord’s Game to his Penn curriculum cannot he overstated. Its academic nature appealed to his students’ sophistication and social consciousness, and they in turn established a tradition of introducing homemade copies to their own students. Grasp this pattern, and you begin to see the whole process of the game’s cultural and literal evolution in microcosm. All who played it had something to offer, and not a few took steps toward having it published in ignorance of its ultimate originator.
To appreciate the effect of local modifications to the already powerful basis of Lizzie’s game, note these substantial similarities between The Landlord’s Game and the Darrow/Parker Monopoly of 1935 and onwards:
• Nine spaces on each side between corners
• Twenty-two lots (streets) along four sides
• Corner—Mother Earth (=Go). Starting point. $100 ($200) to player each time he passes it
• Corner—Go to jail
• Corner—Jail (and coal taxes, in Landlord)
• Corner—Public Park, no charge (also Poor House) = Free Parking
• One railroad in middle of each side
• Light Franchise (Electric Co.) on side 2
• Water Franchise (Water Works) on side 3
• Luxury (Luxury Tax) on Side 4
• Throw a pair of dice to determine move
• Buy lot from Public Treasury (in Monopoly by a street from the bank)
• Pay rent to owner of property you land on
• Exit jail by throwing a double or paying a fine (or by having Get out of Jail free card)
• Borrow money from the bank or from another player by raising a mortgage
Now consider some later modifications and additions. That of grouping properties into sets has already been noted, as have several changes of name including Monopoly itself. Increasing rents by erecting “improvements” on properties—subsequently houses, later still hotels—is absent from the 1904 version but appears in that of 1924. Chance cards first appear in the 1913 Brer Fox edition, but are replaced by a Chance cube in 1924. Community Chest, originally the name of a Reading, Pennsylvania charitable institution, is introduced by the Thun brothers and appears in a version devised by Dan Laycock and published under the title Finance in 1932. Even more fundamentally, the winner is now the ultimate monopolist when everyone else is driven out of the game. The original Landlord’s Game was simply won by the player with most assets after five rounds of play, or, in the 1924 version, by the first player to amass £3,000.
Charles B. Darrow, “inventor” of Monopoly [credit: Bettmann/CORBIS]
Charles Darrow was just one in a long line of contacts known to have transferred the game from one person to another, and he was by no means the first to seek publication of his own version. As a heating engineer accustomed to drawing technically accurate diagrams of exceptional clarity, Darrow’s triumphant culmination to the game’s development consisted chiefly in his visual presentation, as represented by the distinctive Monopoly board familiar to future generations of players. (Being a Londoner, I cannot forbear to draw a parallel between Darrow’s classic Monopoly board and the equally iconic map of the London subway system designed by Harry Beck in exactly the same year.)
Even Darrow’s game, however, was initially rejected by Parker Brothers, and it was not until the extraordinary success of self-publication had proved the mass appeal of his vision of the game that the publishers eventually took it on in 1935. Continued phenomenal success was compounded when Waddingtons, the major British games publisher, produced the London-based version under license the following year. The only fly in the Parker ointment was the continued existence of Lizzie’s Landlord Game and other relatives such as Layman’s 1929 game of Finance. When Darrow’s patent application of 1935 was thwarted by the discovery of patents for the all-too-similar Landlord’s Game, Parker Brothers felt obliged to purchase the rights to The Landlord’s Game as well as to Finance, and to buy up all the sets of either game they could find. Out of this stupendous deal Lizzie Magie got a final payoff of $500.
A page from Lizzie Magie’s original patent for The Landlord’s Game [credit: U.S. Patent Office]
When sales picked up again after World War II, Parker found it expedient for publicity purposes to promote the exclusive Darrow creation myth. In the words of Hasbro’s Monopoly website:
In 1933, as America struggled to emerge from the depression, Charles Darrow decided to invent a new board game, not only so he could play it with his friends, but also because he hoped to make some money with it. Why he chose to devise a game based on real estate nobody knows. In later years he couldn’t remember.
A more accurate hypothetical account derived from Orbanes’ research might go like this:
In 1903, as trust-busting, monopolies, and the single tax were hot topics, Lizzie Magie decided to invent a new board game, not only so that she could play it with her friends, but also because she hoped to persuade America that the only tax you ever needed, and the only fair one, would be that on undeveloped property. Why she chose to devise a game based on real estate is pretty obvious, and she never forgot it.
An enlightening but somewhat glossed-over section of Orbanes’ narrative concerns the inevitable debunking of the Parker Brothers myth. Sid Sackson can be said to have started it by independently rediscovering Magie’s 1904 patent and drawing comparisons with Monopoly in his Gamut of Games (1974). The March 1975 issue of the British magazine Games & Puzzles carried a more detailed article by Willard Allphin, describing the homemade Monopoly his family had played in 1923 and his attempt to place it with the Milton Bradley company in 1931.
Ultimately more decisive, however, was the appearance of Anti-Monopoly in 1973. Ralph Anspach, a San Francisco economics professor, had devised and published this game himself as a deliberate reaction against all those business games that glorified the monopoly principle, unknowingly reverting to Magie’s original intention. Inevitably, this gave rise to a conflict of commercial interests, and various courts found themselves strewn with the litter of legal battles for some ten years or so. “The witness list”, says Orbanes, “was a veritable who’s who of the game’s early days.” The eventual outcome saw Anti-Monopoly winning its right to a semi-autonomous existence under the protective wing of Parker Brothers’ then owners, General Mills. I can’t help feeling that Orbanes’ personal involvement with Parker Brothers has somewhat inhibited his coverage of this fascinating episode. For the other side of the story, it’s worth comparing Anspach’s own book The Billion-Dollar Monopoly Swindle (American printing, 1998)— the very title of which naturally urges some critical restraint on the part of the reader.
The Anspach episode brings us to an aspect of Monopoly’s success that Orbanes touches on but does not completely develop. Given that Monopoly represented a complete reversal of its ultimate originator’s vision and aspiration, we might reasonably ask why a game glorifying the business of business did not originate in one of that type instead of in one of such radically opposite character as The Landlord’s Game—why it did not result from a spontaneous act of creation rather than through the long-winded process of evolution from a diametrically opposed original. I believe the answer lies in the complete originality of Lizzie’s mechanisms of play. The distinguishing mark of her prowess at game design lay in a technical invention that far outweighed her ability to appeal to a mass audience or desire to gratify popular taste.
Taxonomically, Monopoly classifies as a race game, belonging therefore to the same broad category as backgammon and Parcheesi, as distinct (for example) from the war-game category of chess and checkers. Abstract race games go back to deep antiquity; examples found in ancient Egyptian tombs are older even than backgammon. Thematic race games are historically younger, though still pretty old. They include, for example, the Chinese game of Mandarin Promotions (Tang Dynasty) and the Royal Game of Goose from 16th-century Europe. As Orbanes points out, the vast majority of “early modern” (19th-century) board games follow the Game of Goose pattern in being race games with some sort of pictorial theme, be it fox and hounds, or treasure islands, or the Game of Life itself (Milton Bradley, 1861).
What Lizzie Magie came up with were at least two ideas for which I know no antecedents. The first, as Orbanes points out, was the transformation of a linear track running from start to home into a continuous loop. You might expect to win such a race by being the first to complete a given number of laps or circuits, which of course still amounts to being the first to reach Home. In Landlord 1909, however, you win by having accumulated the most resources after a given number of laps, and in Landlord 1924 and Monopoly you do so by being the last player left when everyone else has dropped out through exhaustion—of financial resources, that is.
Second, and more significant, was the unparalleled novelty of being able to own a space in such a way as to extract resources from any other player who lands on it. In traditional race games a piece that lands on a space occupied by an adversary sends the current occupant back to start, or, in the case of Goose, to that just quitted by the interloper. In these games, occupancy of a space always ran the risk of being ousted by an incoming opponent. In Landlord/Monopoly, however, the reverse is the case. Two pieces can occupy the same space without interaction. But this clever new rule enables you to buy a space and, acting as an absentee landlord, extract resources from any opponent who subsequently lands on it. This is a totally new concept in the evolution of race games.
It may well be that any game which comes up with such a radically novel ludic concept will attract players to it by its very originality, even though they may not be fully aware of or capable of articulating what that originality is. The resultant game, given all other requisites of playability, will likely enjoy success by virtue of being forever associated with that novel concept. A truly original game may have many imitators but will rarely be displaced by them unless they, too, introduce some further significant degree of originality. Support for this view can be found in the Monopoly Companion, where, responding to Orbanes’ question, “When you play, do you feel you’re playing for real?”, 1983 world champion Greg Jacobs replies, “No, I don’t have any vision that I’m playing for real properties and the like. It’s just a great game that I’m playing.” It is so great a game, we might add, that it has itself become a template for countless other 20th-century games produced by applying the same basic mechanisms to other themes, from movie-making to space exploration.
Orbanes’ book is not merely the history of a game: To a large extent, it is a history of America and the world as seen from the Monopoly board. No other modern board game is known so well worldwide (translated at last count into 26 languages), and no other is so closely associated with America and American capitalism. Did you know that Monopoly assisted the escape of Allied prisoners-of-war in the 1940s, and went on to play a part in the downfall of Communism in the 1980s? Want to find out how? Pick these plums out for yourself from this richly enjoyable confection.