In her new book, “The Monopolists,” New York Times reporter Mary Pilon traces the many antecedents of the board game that eventually became one of the world’s favorites.
For decades the board game Monopoly was supposed to have been invented by Charles Darrow, who was out of work in the Great Depression. Darrow, a Philadelphia salesman, did patent the game in 1935, but he hadn’t invented it. He copied the board from friends, who played on homemade boards drawn on oilcloth.
In “The Monopolists” (Bloomsbury, 301 pp., $27), New York Times reporter Mary Pilon traces Monopoly back to its progenitor, The Landlord’s Game. Its inventor, Lizzie Magie, patented it in 1904 as the first continuous-path board game. It had Monopoly’s 40 spaces, Jail and Go to Jail corners, a version of Free Parking and a “Mother Earth” corner that paid $100 when passed. It had four railroads in the same position as today’s game. But it wasn’t today’s game. It was a didactic device to make people question the power of landlords.
Pilon also tells the story of Anti-Monopoly, another didactic game devised in the 1970s by a professor of economics, Ralph Anspach. Hounded through the courts by Parker Brothers for infringing on its copyright, Anspach defended his creation by digging up the real history of Monopoly, which threw Darrow’s patent, then expired, into question. (Parker Brothers had bought the patent rights both from Darrow and from Lizzie Magie — the patents have long expired, but the game is now protected by copyright.)
The author of “The Monopolists” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Lucid Lounge, 5421 University Way N.E., Seattle; free. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
Pilon’s story begins and ends with versions of Monopoly as propaganda. The game was invented, she says, as “a protest against capitalism, not an endorsement of it.” And by tracing the history of how various people changed the game, she argues that by 1935, Monopoly should have been in the public domain.
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But Darrow did add value to the game: the design of the game board and box, including the color bars on the properties and the images of locomotives. The jail, the “Go to Jail” policeman and Mr. Monopoly were original in the design patented by him, as were the written rules.
Pilon’s book is a fascinating tale of the social and business history of the game. It is less interested in play value. Was Magie’s Landlord’s Game any good as a game? It flopped when she published it in 1906. Her creation fascinated a few left-wing university professors, including future New Dealer and economist Rexford Tugwell, and they taught it to their students. Enthusiasts took it to Indianapolis, then to the Quaker community in Atlantic City, then to friends of Darrow in Philadelphia. For several decades, a handful of players changed the game they called Monopoly by shedding the “educational” stuff and adding Community Chest cards, hotels and various changes in the rules, which were never written down. The Atlantic City players renamed the properties.
Pilon makes much of Anti-Monopoly, but also does not consider whether it is any good as a game. Ask the public: On Amazon, users do not evaluate it highly. A few commenters praise it, but one says: “This game has a great idea, but I have to assume it’s trying to spread a political message about monopolies rather than be a game.”
Parker Brothers has sold more than 280 million Monopoly games in the past 80 years. That would not have been possible had the game still been aimed at professors of economics.