How Monopoly Went Corporate


If you’re a game history weirdo nerd buff, you know about Monopoly: created as social criticism, became a folk game, stolen by Charles Darrow, etc. Old top hat, really, but Mary Pilon’s recent book The Monopolists is a good read that brings this history to life.

Her story is framed around the legal battle between Parker Brothers and Ralph Anspach, the creator of Anti-Monopoly. The legal battle keeps the story moving forward, but Anti-Monopoly isn’t all that interesting. Anspach deserves praise for his stubborn willingness to fight for his ideas, but his game design skills? Not so much.

Anspach did an amazing job of unearthing the true history of Monopoly, though, taking depositions from many early players and finding several pre-Darrow copies of the game. Had he come along any later, many of the elderly people he spoke to would have died before telling their stories.

Thanks to Anspach’s legwork, we have a good sense of how Monopoly spread and evolved. He traced the path from Elizabeth Magie‘s The Landlord’s Game, through various academic and individual circles, to the Quaker community of Atlantic City, where Monopoly took on most of the names and rules that we are familiar with. A friend taught Charles Darrow the game, and — being desperately poor and resourceful — he marketed it as his own creation.

Monopoly and the Mafia

In many ways, the evolution of the game resembles that of Mafia / Werewolf. Mafia was developed in 1986 by Russian psychology professor Dmitri Davidoff as a teaching tool to explore the the advantage that information can give a small team competing with a large team. The game offers some interesting mathematical insights, but it spread quickly because it is a lot of fun.

In the nearly thirty years since it was created, players have taken the game for their own and created hundreds of of variations. Most of these are special powers for players, but you can play different themes, asynchronous versions, “one night” short games, and more. Several publishers have enjoyed success with Werewolf as a commercial product, but it is fundamentally a folk game that is still growing and changing today.

landlord game
Lizzie Magie’s Landlord’s Game. It changed over 30 years, but not as much as you might think.

Monopoly seems to have gone through the same process. During the thirty years between The Landlord’s Game and Darrow’s copy of Atlantic City Monopoly, players made their own copies and taught the game to friends. In most cases, there were no written rules — that information was transmitted orally, changing to fit individual tastes. The game boards evolved too, with many players adding local color by renaming streets.

“The monopoly game” players must always have been a fairly small group of hobbyists, or Darrow would never have been able to pass off their game as his own invention. But it must have numbered in the hundreds or even a few thousands. That’s impressive even in today’s hobby board game market — for the early 20th century, it’s astounding.

A Choice of Monopoly

The other thing that stands out is that Magie’s version of The Landlord Game was always doomed. Like Davidoff, Magie built her game to teach. She created two sets of rules: an anti-monopolist rules set that allowed a sustainable living for everyone, and a monopolist rules set that inevitably led to a single winner. Like any good game theorist, she wanted people to play both sets and draw their own conclusions.

Once the game became a folk game, though, players taught the rules they enjoyed — and those rules were always the monopolist rules set. Even the peaceful and non-materialistic Quakers (who created the Atlantic City version) preferred the version of the game that let them bankrupt everyone else.

It’s a preference that continues today. Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly ultimately confirmed its right to be sold and has been on the market for decades, but remains completely obscure. Meanwhile, the Atlantic City Monopoly still reigns supreme over other board games, selling millions of copies per year. Maybe the real lesson of The Landlord’s Game is that we can try to create social utopias, but real people will always change the game into something they can win.

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Copyright 2015 The Roaming Designer