Games expert Tristan Donovan's fascinating new book It's All a Game, out May 30 from Thomas Dunne Books, is a deep-dive into the unexpected stories behind some of the world's most popular board games. Readable and well-sourced, the book includes chapters like "Clue's Billion-Dollar Crime Spree," "Scrabble: Words Without Meaning," and "I Spy: How Chess and Monopoly Became Tools of Espionage and Propaganda." In the excerpt below, Donovan reveals the surprising origin of Monopoly and how a forgotten 19th-century economist's radical theories about wealth inequality were coopted into the corporatized, capitalistic behemoth the game is today, with over 250 million units sold worldwide. "It is, by far, the best-selling branded board game ever created," Donovan writes. "No other game, except maybe chess, has so imprinted itself on the world's collective consciousness."
—James Yeh, culture editor
The Forgotten Message of Monopoly
The United States of 1877 was a nation divided. Most employees worked punishing hours in dire conditions for abysmal pay while the men they worked for amassed almost unimaginable fortunes. Men like John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company was busy building a monopoly on oil refining, and the railroad king Cornelius Vanderbilt. Men who in the decades that followed would only increase their stranglehold on American industry. No one embodied these Gilded Age tycoons more than J. P. Morgan, the financier who used his wealth and connections to create industrial Goliaths like US Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation. Morgan embodied the popular image of the 19th-century capitalist: a cane-carrying banker with a white handlebar mustache who dressed in a tuxedo and top hat.
Some saw these men as captains of industry who were making Americans wealthier and lauded their philanthropy. Others branded them robber barons who used their power and riches to snuff out competition, exploit workers, and undermine democracy by bribing corrupt politicians. As these industrialists and financiers amassed millions, the cracks in society split open. People began talking about class struggle and forming trade unions to take the power back.
The economist Henry George believed he had a better answer to the inequality tearing the country apart, and in 1879 he set out his plan in a book called Progress and Poverty. George argued that undeveloped land was God given and any increase in its value was due to the work done by people. As such, the money landlords made simply from owning land really belonged to everyone and the government should take all of that money back on behalf of society by imposing a land value tax. The income from this tax, George believed, would be so vast that all other taxes could then be abolished, a move that would let people keep all the proceeds from their own labor. This, he concluded, would narrow the gap between rich and poor by encouraging more productive use of land, raising the income of workers, and preventing landowners from parasitically accumulating wealth without having to do anything to earn it.
Opponents countered that the plan would see people taxed regardless of their ability to pay, asserting that land cannot be made instantly productive, and that his tax might reduce rather than encourage investment, but George's arguments struck a chord all the same. Progress and Poverty became a bestseller and spawned a new political movement, the single taxers, who wanted to see George's theory put into practice.
Elizabeth Magie was one of those who joined the fight for a single-tax society. Born in Macomb, Illinois, in 1866, Magie was a modern-minded woman trapped in an un-modern age, an independent spirit who sought to make her own way rather than rely on a husband to provide for her. She worked, wrote poems about love and unfairness, penned short stories, and impressed her theatrical friends with convincing portrayals of boy characters. Magie was also an inventor. Aged 26, she created a device that allowed paper to be fed into typewriters more easily and got it patented at a time when fewer than one percent of patents were owned by women. Her introduction to George's theories came when her father gave her a copy of Progress and Poverty. After reading it she became a single-tax disciple and joined the movement, eventually becoming secretary of the Women's Single Tax Club of Washington, DC. When George died in October 1897, Magie, like many single taxers, vowed to keep fighting for his ideals, but without its charismatic leader the movement quickly lost momentum.
Undeterred, Magie searched for ways to revive interest in a single-tax system. She tried giving talks on the subject but felt she was reaching too few people. So in 1902 she designed a board game that would bring George's arguments to life by demonstrating the harm monopolistic landlords cause and how a land value tax was the cure.
She called it the Landlord's Game.
In the game players traveled around and around the board using paper money to buy lots, railroads, and utilities. After buying a property players could then charge rent to anyone who landed on it and build houses that increased the amount they could demand. Each time players completed the circuit of the board they would pass a corner square marked "Labor upon Mother Earth produces wages" and collect a salary of 100 dollars. Other squares on the board required players to pay tax, buy necessities, or take a Chance card. In one corner of the board was a square bearing the warning: "No trespassing. Go to jail." This space, she explained in an article for the Single Tax Review, was owned by a British lord and represented "foreign ownership of American soil." Anyone who landed there would be sent to the jail in the diagonally opposite corner of the board where they would stay until they rolled a double or paid a $50 fine. The final corner square contained a public park and the poor house where bankrupted players would be sent. Players could only leave the poor house if another player lent them enough money to clear their debts. After players had gone around the board a fixed number of times the game would end and the player with the most money would be declared the winner.
This is the game that would become Monopoly. But Magie's vision for the game was a world away from the internationally famous game it spawned.
The Landlord's Game, Magie explained, showed "how the landlord gets his money and keeps it." By playing it she believed children would learn "the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it." She admitted that some might think this was a dangerous lesson but argued that the game would enable children to "see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system" and grow into adults who would campaign against it.
But just in case the message wasn't clear enough, Magie created an alternative set of rules designed to show how a single tax would create a more equal society. In this version of the game there was no poor house, no need to buy necessities, and the "no trespassing" space could be developed into a "free college" so that players would no longer be imprisoned. The way rent worked also changed. The rent due on undeveloped lots now went to the treasury instead of the property owners, and players could only earn money from others if they developed houses on their land. These rules, however, were optional. The core game remained one where players sought to get rich from owning land and despite the schadenfreude inherent in taking other players' money, Magie firmly believed that when people played the Landlord's Game they would see the injustice of it all.
After patenting her game in 1904, Magie began making copies by hand for other single taxers and gave one of these homemade sets to the residents of Arden, Delaware.
Founded in 1900, the town of Arden was one of several real-life experiments in Georgist economics being funded by the soap millionaire Joseph Fels. The businessman had already backed a similar experiment in Fairhope, Alabama, and eventually hoped to use the lessons learned from these communities to create a Jewish homeland based on George's single-tax theory.
In Arden residents could lease but never own land. The rent they paid would only reflect the value of the land they occupied and all the money paid to the town would be reinvested in the community. Arden's alternative approach to life attracted not just single taxers but other radicals and nonconformists too, including socialists like Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle, the 1906 exposé of the US meatpacking industry.
The people of Arden enjoyed playing the Landlord's Game. It was, after all, a game based on the very ideals that had attracted them to this fledgling New Castle County community in the first place.
She argued that the game would enable children to "see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system" and grow into adults who would campaign against it.
Scott Nearing, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who moved to Arden in 1905, was one of the residents who played the game. Thinking it would be a great tool for teaching his students about the effects of rent gouging, Nearing made a copy by hand and began using it in his classes. He didn't know what the game's real name was so he called it the Anti-Landlord Game. His students decided Monopoly or Business would be a better name, but they liked the game all the same, and some of them made copies so that they could play it whenever they wanted.
While Nearing was introducing the Landlord's Game to economics students, Magie was struggling to get the game formally published. First she cofounded a small game company and released a version in 1904 but sold few copies. After abandoning that approach she offered it to Parker Brothers, the country's leading game publisher. Parker Brothers didn't want her game. It's too political and too complex, they told her.
It was a fair criticism. The politics were undeniable, indeed that was the whole point, and compared to other games on sale at the time it was complicated too. Most games of the era differed only by theme. Players might be racing airships, climbing the corporate ladder, or reenacting the conquests of Napoléon Bonaparte but the rules were always the same: Roll the dice, move your counter, and hope to reach the end first.
Compared with the brain-dead competition, the Landlord's Game was like George Orwell's Animal Farm in a world filled with endless versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And while the Landlord's Game languished in limbo, the single-tax movement that inspired it shriveled away.
Yet even as the single-tax movement fizzled, the Landlord's Game was quietly winning converts within the halls of academia. Since Nearing introduced the game to his students, it had spread to universities across the northeastern states. Few of those who encountered the game knew where it came from or who made it or why, but they played it, liked it, made copies, tweaked the rules, and introduced others to it.
In an age of mass production this was rather quaint, a throwback to centuries past where games such as chess and backgammon spread via word of mouth and handcrafted copies while being refined slowly by the input of countless, nameless individuals.
People would make copies of the Landlord's Game for their friends on sheets of oilcloth that they carefully colored with paint or crayon.
They would type or write Chance cards and property deeds on unlined index cards and turn earrings, coins, and other miscellaneous household items into playing pieces. For the houses they would draw tiny homes on card stock and cut them out with scissors or use tiny pieces of painted wood.
As they recreated their own sets they also began tweaking the game and its rules. The properties on the board were often named after places near the home of the person who made the copy of the game. Properties were also arranged into groups so that players who owned all the lots in a set could charge double the rent. The "buy necessities" spaces were dropped, as was the limit on how many times players could go around the board. In a nod to the rise of the automobile, the public park became free parking. The single-tax version of the rules was forgotten and Mother Earth became Start or Go.
In 1927 the modified game ended up in the hands of Daniel Layman, a student at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Layman introduced the game to his friends Ferdinand and Louis Thun. After playing it for a while, the Thuns came up with a new addition to the game: Community Chest cards. While the Chance cards mainly moved players around the board, the Community Chest cards usually gave money to players.
The brothers got the idea from real-life community chests, volunteer-run groups that would collect donations and then distribute the money to local good causes. The first community chest was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1913, and the idea quickly spread across the country. By 1927 there were more than three hundred community chests and together they were distributing more than 60 million dollars every year. Corporate donors particularly liked the community chest model as it meant they could give without having to go through the trouble of identifying which causes to donate to.
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After graduating in 1929 Layman returned home to Indianapolis and began playing the game with his friends there. Encouraged by the positive reaction, Layman persuaded a local battery manufacturer to publish his game, and in 1932 it went on sale as Finance.
The differences between Finance and present-day Monopoly were largely cosmetic. There were no hotels but players could build up to five houses on their land. Instead of the Just Visiting space next to the prison there was a tax demand for 20 dollars. Go was called Start. But beyond that and a few optional advanced rules, Finance was just Monopoly without the graphic flair.
The political dimension of the Landlord's Game was also missing. Finance's rules described the game as one that "parallels the transactions of modern business" and "gives everyone an opportunity to make a fortune."
Yet even with the politics gone, retailers were not convinced about Finance. Just as Parker Brothers told Magie 20 years earlier, stores regarded the game as too complicated and declined to stock it. Eventually Layman sold his rights to the game to an Indianapolis company called Knapp Electric who also found it a hard sell.
But Layman's game did find a fan in Ruth Hoskins. Before Finance's release, Hoskins had played a handmade copy of the game, then still being called Monopoly, while visiting family in Indianapolis. She thought it was great and made a copy to take back to Atlantic City, where she taught at a Quaker school. Hoskins and her Quaker chums then made a version of the game that reflected the resort city around them. The fifth house became a hotel. Layman's hotchpotch of real and imaginary streets became a tour of Atlantic City, from the rundown Baltic Avenue, where the African American maid of one of the Quakers lived, to the famous Boardwalk via Marven Gardens, a housing development a couple of miles to the south.
The railroads matched those that served the city too, including the Shore Fast Line, which connected the boardwalks of Atlantic City and Ocean City. The Shore Fast Line was one of the last interurbans, the electrified railways that bridged the gap between streetcars and proper railroads by using fast trolley-like cars to ferry passengers between different urban areas. During the early decades of the 20th-century interurbans thrived, only to be cut down in their prime by the arrival of affordable automobiles and the onset of the Great Depression. By the time the Shore Fast Line was added to the board in 1932, most of the interurbans in the United States had shut down. In 1948 the Shore Fast Line would suffer the same fate.
The Atlantic City version of Monopoly spread to Philadelphia where it was introduced to Charles Todd and his wife, Olive, who lived in the city's Germantown neighborhood. Like so many before Todd enjoyed the game enough to make a copy for himself. The board he recreated on oilcloth was identical to the Atlantic City game except that he renamed the Shore Fast Line the Short Line and misspelled Marven Gardens as Marvin Gardens.
Shortly after making his copy, Todd bumped into Esther Jones, a childhood friend he hadn't seen in years. It was a chance meeting that would transform the game's fortunes.
After discovering that Jones lived nearby and was now married to a man named Charles Darrow, Todd invited the couple over for dinner. The dinner went well. Darrow, a brawny 40-something who wore wire-framed spectacles, seemed a nice guy, direct but also personable.
They spent much of the evening discussing the economic woes of the city. The Great Depression had devastated Philadelphia. People had been reduced to begging or searching trashcans in the hope of finding enough leftovers to feed themselves. All over the city there were homeless encampments. People called these shantytowns Hoovervilles in honor of the president who presided over the Great Depression. Across the city around three hundred thousand people were out of work and Darrow was one of them. Since losing his radiator repairman job, Darrow had struggled to find work. He tried dog walking, repairing electric irons, even making and selling jigsaw puzzles, but these odd jobs brought in little money. Instead the family got by on the money his wife made from her needlework.
To make matters worse Dickie, the youngest of their two sons, had brain damage from a bout of scarlet fever. In 1930s America there was little support to help the family cope with the challenge of caring for their disabled son. The institutions that took in kids like Dickie were brutal places, places where people would often be chained to beds, beaten, poorly fed, and subjected to medical experiments. Unwilling to put their boy in such a place and unable to afford more humane care, the Darrows struggled on, trying to do the best they could for Dickie.
When the night was over, Todd and his wife told the couple that they must come again to play this game Monopoly. The Darrows had never heard of it but agreed to play it next time they visited.
When the couples next met, Todd got out his handmade Monopoly set and they played. A few days later Darrow asked Todd to make a set for him, and a little later, Darrow asked Todd to write up the rules for him.
Once Todd gave Darrow the rules they never spoke again. Todd was puzzled by the sudden loss of contact but then he spotted a poster announcing that Darrow would be demonstrating his new game Monopoly at a local bank. Todd was furious. Darrow had taken the game and was now selling it. How could he betray them like that? Todd fumed.
After getting the game and rules from Todd, Darrow had asked his cartoonist friend Franklin Alexander to bring some life to the dull board. Happy to help his fishing buddy, Alexander added colored bars to the property spaces and created a few illustrations that Darrow added to the board. The redesign made the game look a lot more exciting and attractive than the functional one Todd had made. Board enhanced, Darrow added the words "Copyright 1933 Chas B. Darrow" to the board and began making copies to sell. Nothing else had changed. Even Todd's misspelling of Marven Gardens as Marvin Gardens remained intact.
Darrow's early copies of Monopoly were made on a shoestring budget so tight that the game didn't even come with player tokens. Instead the rules suggested people use random household objects such as thimbles, coins, or trinkets from charm bracelets.
After selling a hundred or so handmade copies, Darrow used the money he had earned to pay for another five hundred sets to be manufactured professionally and then persuaded the Wanamaker's department store in downtown Philadelphia to stock the game. With Monopoly now being sold by the city's leading department store it became easier to get other retailers interested in the game, and soon after he got the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz to add it to their roster of board games too. Darrow also sent copies of Monopoly to the country's top game publishers, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, in the hope that they would buy the game from him. Both companies declined. Parker Brothers felt Monopoly was too complicated, took too long to play, and that concepts like mortgages would be alien to most players.
Darrow pushed on regardless. Not that he had much of a choice. He needed to make a living and Monopoly was the best chance of earning one that he had come across in years.
By October 1934, both Wanamaker's and F.A.O. Schwarz had sold out of the game and ordered more copies. Orders from other retailers were trickling in too, so Darrow paid for another 7,500 copies to be produced. Word of Monopoly's sales success in Philadelphia soon got back to Parker Brothers, which then offered to buy the game from Darrow after all.
On March 18, 1935, Darrow arrived at the company's office in the Flatiron Building in New York City to strike a deal with Parker Brothers president Robert Barton. Darrow would get royalties and 7,000 dollars on signing, they agreed. As they prepared to sign the contracts Barton asked Darrow if he was the sole inventor of the game. Darrow said yes.
After striking a deal Parker Brothers immediately set to work on fixing the game's most glaring deficiency: its lack of playing pieces. Building on the idea of using charm bracelet trinkets, Parker Brothers asked Dowst Manufacturing, a Chicago company that made toys for Cracker Jack boxes, to supply them with die-cast metal tokens for players to use. Soon every Monopoly set came with a battleship, a cannon, a flatiron, a shoe, a top hat, and a thimble. Over the next year or so Parker Brothers continued making improvements. It redesigned the paper money, added illustrations to the Chance and Community Chest cards, and created a mascot for the game: a stereotypical financier who looked like a cuddly J. P. Morgan and is known today as Mr. Monopoly.
As soon as Parker Brothers took over production of Monopoly the company found itself besieged with orders. Word about the game was spreading fast. Monopoly was hot stuff but no one really knew why. Was it the thrill of being able to hold fistfuls of paper money after years of struggling to scrape together pennies? Or maybe it was the ability to buy and own property at a time when most Americans rented their homes. Maybe the cutthroat nature of the game gave people a release. In Monopoly they could hammer their friends and relatives into bankruptcy without having to worry about repercussions because it was all part of the game. Honest.
Or could it be that Monopoly finally gave adults a board game they could relate to?
"Even though we see Monopoly today as a family game it was primarily played by adults," says Philip E. Orbanes, who became Parker Brothers' resident expert on the game during his time as a senior vice president of the company. "By today's standards Monopoly might be heavily luck orientated but it was revolutionary at the time. As a result of its success, Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and all their major competitors had the confidence to try other adult-orientated games."
With sales soaring, Parker Brothers decided to patent the game but the company's lawyers soon found a problem. It wasn't Darrow's game. While preparing the patent application the legal team found Magie's patent on the Landlord's Game and Layman's very similar Finance game. They also found another version of the game called Inflation on sale in Texas. Parker Brothers responded by getting out its checkbook. The company paid 10,000 dollars to take control of Finance and also bought the rights to Inflation. But, most importantly of all, the company also bought the rights to the Landlord's Game.
In Monopoly they could hammer their friends and relatives into bankruptcy without having to worry about repercussions because it was all part of the game.
By this point Magie was living in Arlington, Virginia, and the deal was so important to the future of Monopoly that George Parker, the company's 69-year-old founder, went to strike a deal with her in person. Magie was delighted to see him. Finally, after all this time, someone wanted her game. She agreed to sell the rights to Parker Brothers in exchange for 500 dollars and a commitment that the Landlord's Game would be published too.
The company also used the situation to renegotiate its deal with Darrow and reduce his royalties on the game. But to the outside world nothing had changed. Parker Brothers maintained the pretense that Darrow was the creator of Monopoly. His rags-to-riches story was media catnip and far easier for the public to relate to than a tale about a eccentric woman inspired by a long-forgotten economist and countless iterations by people unknown.
Even with his reduced royalties Monopoly made Darrow a millionaire. By the end of 1935, more than 250,000 copies of the game had been sold. A few months later Darrow retired and the family moved to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He spent the rest of his life traveling the world, growing orchids, and cultivating thickets of roses to protect pheasants from hunters. And while his wealth could never restore Dickie's health it did allow the Darrows to give him the very best care money could buy.
Even greater success was to come. "On January 2, 1936, the deluge came down upon Parker Brothers in the form of such an overwhelming demand for the game that our modest factory was immediately put on a three-shift 24-hour basis," Barton recalled in a 1957 letter. "We ceased the publication of almost every other game in our line."
It wasn't enough. Parker Brothers were soon producing 20,000 Monopoly sets a week and merely treading water. Orders from retailers arrived at such a rate that the halls of the company's headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts, became cluttered with wicker laundry baskets filled to the brim with outstanding orders. Overwhelmed, the company asked external accountants for help. One firm they approached took one look at the hallways crowded with order-filled laundry baskets and turned the job down on the spot. Not even the decision to jack up the price of Monopoly by 25 percent could curb demand.
Despite the schadenfreude inherent in taking other players' money, Magie firmly believed that when people played the Landlord's Game they would see the injustice of it all.
That year Parker Brothers sold 1,750,000 Monopoly sets in the United States. Monopoly mania would ease but the game would keep selling hundreds of thousands of copies a year until the Second World War forced production to be curtailed.
In 1939 Parker Brothers finally got around to putting the Landlord's Game into production. Magie was excited. She liked the new look Parker Brothers had given her game and hoped that at long, long last the Landlord's Game and its message would finally find an audience.
Given her high hopes, what followed must have been heartbreaking. Sales were dire. Retailers who stocked the Landlord's Game began threatening to stop carrying Monopoly unless Parker Brothers took the game back. Most of the ten thousand copies of the Landlord's Game the company produced were destroyed. Magie could only look on helpless as her board game dream fell apart. The Landlord's Game was dead. Her bid to spread the gospel of Henry George had failed. All that was left was Monopoly, the Frankenstein's monster she had inadvertently created.
The message of the Landlord's Game still lurks in Monopoly. It can still be seen in the way that every game ends with one rich monopolistic landlord and everyone else ruined. But people did not, as Magie hoped, see the injustice.
Instead, players looked at Monopoly and decided they wanted to be the rich monopolistic landlord. After all, who wants to be bankrupt? Much better to be the one doing the bankrupting. If winning the game meant bleeding your opponents dry so be it. If Monopoly seemed like a celebration of dog-eat-dog capitalism, that's because that is really what people wanted it to be.
From It's All a Game by Tristan Donovan. Copyright 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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