The point of Socialism: The Game was actually to convince people that socialism could never work. It was conceived of in March 2016 by a trio of conservative and libertarian-leaning friends who wanted to respond to Bernie Sanders's rise to prominence by skewing the idea of wealth redistribution. What started as a riff in a group text became an incredibly involved joke, as the board game enthusiasts wanted to make sure their game, an expansion pack for Monopoly, was as robust and fun to play the original and not some one-note diss.
“One of the play testers was actually my son. He and I are avid Monopoly players,” John Elliott, one of the game’s creators, told me over the phone. “The potential for not going bankrupt, but also the diminished potential for returns was dramatically changing his attitude toward investment… [He’d] take a step back and say, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to invest because there could be a buy-back on this, and I’m going to lose my property, and I’m going to have pay more taxes,’ and he’s just coming up with this on his own. So, it was really fascinating to watch someone who was otherwise a very aggressive Monopoly player change his play style because there’s really no motivation for a cutthroat game.”
The finished product that came out in May 2016 included new Monopoly game pieces like a canoe, bus, and smartphone; Fat Chance and Communist Chest cards to replace their capitalist counterparts; and, most importantly, a revised rulebook teeming with humorous jabs at proponents of big government.
The leftist in me wanted to point out that a lot of the game's nods to gulags and Maoism were technically references to communism, not socialism. But even I had to admit that with quips like the original Monopoly having “enough printed paper to make the Fed blush,” these guys had already pulled off a minor coup in delivering decent right-leaning comedy. But to verify their claim about everybody being able to have fun and laugh with the game, I decided to put it to the test by inviting some real socialists to play.
With my Socialism cards and tokens all set up atop my vanilla Monopoly board, I put on my finest Obama as Mao T-shirt and welcomed Max Belasco, Arielle Sallai, Rachel Reyes, and Kelsey Goldberg— four leaders of the LA chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America into my home on a Saturday afternoon.
Immediately upon seeing the game box, there was some chuckling from the young lefties. “Ha! Hillary… as a socialist? Hilarious,” chortled Max.
We dove into the rulebook, reading through it twice before everyone felt confident enough to begin play. (Socialists love rules.) Though everyone was starting with $1,500, the object of the game was to “achieve total fairness and equality through renting and selling of property under a modern, progressive, and populist public policy,” meaning the game only ended once nobody was bankrupt and everyone had less than $300. Acting as the Federal Directorate of Redistribution (FDR), the socialist version of the banker, I’d be collecting taxes, holding auctions, fining players for microaggressions like rolling three doubles in a row, and—the wildest rule of the game—passing out $100 bills in perpetuity whenever an asset-less player had insufficient funds to pay a tax or fee. In other words: nanny state welfare.
Socialism cards. Photo by the author
As players acquired property only to have me, as FDR, permanently capture it back via eminent domain Fat Chance cards, the game's lesson became quickly apparent. Still, as we each took our turns being incarcerated in “rehabilitation” and paid more than our fair share of taxes, the proletariat players remained chipper.
“I really like some of these rules,” remarked Rachel as she passed GO and collected $200 dollars, only to immediately return $100 in taxes. “I’d actually want to see this happen in the real world,” said Arielle after a Communist Chest card placed public housing pieces on all the state-owned property. A small cheer even erupted from the group when a card nationalized every utility on the board.
Not all of the game’s jabs at socialism elicited this sort of reaction, however. After a player was penalized $100 for a “Bernout power grid failure on a cloudy, windless day,” some complained about the card’s confusing insinuation. “That doesn’t even make any sense,” huffed Kelsey. “Being anti-green energy is a libertarian thing now?”
Max took similar issue with the card that forced him to pay $200 for his “neighbor’s gastric bypass surgery” courtesy of an Obamacare expansion. “In what socialist world are we still utilizing Obamacare?” he asked. “This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how universal healthcare works."
These occasional annoyances aside, the socialists appeared to be having a good time, even cheering at my habit of unlucky dice rolls sending me to frequent rehabilitation center visits. “We’re punishing your corruption and keeping you honest,” said Rachel.
Hours later, as we progressed into the late game and increasingly broke players began looking for ways to leverage their remaining properties, another novel twist from Socialism's rulebook emerged in the form of the People’s Action Committee on Commerce and Equity (PEACCE), the governing body that oversaw all permit requests, purchases, and sales of property. As unanimous consent was required for the approval of any transaction, holdouts and bribes soon became commonplace. But since the social safety net of another $100 was always on hand, these moments of voting sabotage seemed more like friends messing with each other for the sheer fun of it as opposed to legitimate game strategy.
As the instructions had warned, this big government handout was a double-edged sword and one that prevented the game from ending as fast as everyone would have liked. We circled the drain for a while, everyone locked in a perpetual cycle of handouts and fees while waiting for Rachel, the lone fat cat with over $300 and tons of property, to be cut down to size by the game’s ruthless rules.
Players scramble to loot Rachel's redistributed wealth. Photo by the author
Only once an unlikely roll of back-to-back identical doubles triggered a “spontaneous utopian uprising” that “retired” Rachel from play and redistributed her wealth via a scrum in the center of the game board could the game finally come to an end. Those who’d survived the revolution had reached equality in their shared dependence on the state.
“If there are no winners, there are no losers,” mused the rulebook. But as the socialists packed up to go, they made it clear that they sort of felt like they had all won.
“That was the least stressful game of Monopoly I think I’ve ever played,” said Max. “Not having to worry about the constant threat of everyone else made it easier to just enjoy the ride.”
When I followed up with the game creators to say that real-life socialists had actually enjoyed the game, they seemed heartened. “I think American politics benefits a lot from just laughing a little bit more and just enjoying it,” said Elliott. “People are really too serious, and this was a lot of fun to make and there were a lot of folks across the political spectrum involved all along the process.”
But the arch-capitalists who created the game haven't developed any sympathy for the ideology they lampooned. When I asked Adam Williams, another of the game's creators, if maybe, just maybe, he'd developed the tiniest of soft spots for a single big-government policy over the course of this game's inception, he was quick to shoot me down.
“If you’re asking me whether I think there are aspects of big government that are good, the answer is absolutely not,” said Williams. “Stay the hell out of my life. I see absolutely no redeeming qualities in anything we did in this game.”
Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.