Anyone for a game of Monopoly? No?

In the Williams family, getting together over Christmas generally involves board games at some point. If I’m choosing it’s likely to be Settlers of Catan or Carcassone. If my wife is choosing it’ll involve making words, and she will win. My brother introduced us to Small World this year, and we’re partial to an epic session of Lord of the Rings edition Risk.

There’s one game we won’t play, and that’s Monopoly. For one thing, it’s a very dry prospect once you’ve discovered the far better games that come out of Germany’s thriving board game scene. It also goes on forever, is guaranteed to start arguments, and is miserable for all but one player. Why it remains Britain’s best-selling board game is beyond me.

landlords-game-box-1939The reason that Monopoly is so miserable is that it was originally designed as a warning. In a story that is officially denied by the Monopoly brand but is increasingly well known, it was first developed as The Landlord’s Game, a teaching aid about the dangers of land ownership. In its first iteration, it aimed to teach Georgist economic principles and included a Land Value Tax in an alternative co-operative rule set. The game presented, said its inventor, a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.”

Said inventor, Elizabeth Magie, submitted the game to Parker Brothers in 1904. They rejected it as too political, so she published it herself and it was taken up by Quaker households, economics students and socialists of one stripe or another. Over the years, various people discovered the game and began to create their own versions, often making their own boards with local street names. Magie welcomed this and the game took on a sort of folk quality, although some ripped it off and issued it commercially too. Eventually, thirty years after the original submission, it landed back at Parker Brothers under the name Monopoly. It was essentially the same game but with its principles all backwards – it was now a game celebrating economic monopoly.

Upsetting the Quakers is one thing, but would-be capitalists shouldn’t find much to enjoy here either, because Monopoly hardly teaches good free-market practice. As Christopher Ketcham writes in Harper’s:

“Monopoly is not about unleashing creativity and innovation among many competing parties, nor is it about opening markets and expanding trade or creating wealth through hard work and enlightened self-interest, the virtues Adam Smith thought of as the invisible hands that would produce a dynamic and prosperous society. It’s about shutting down the marketplace. All the players have to do is sit on their land and wait for the suckers to roll the dice.”

As a practical demonstration of land-grabbing, the game still works. But if you want to play something that shows how you fix the problem, you’ll have to look elsewhere. You could look up the original Landlord’s Game, which appears in various forms on the internet. Then there’s Anti-Monopoly, launched in 1973, which takes an interesting twist. You start the game with the board in a state of monopoly, like it would be at the end of a normal game, and then you try to undo it. There’s even a radical German challenger from the 1970s called Provopoli that pits the monopolists against squatters and anti-capitalist terrorists.

And then there’s Co-Opoly, which launched last year. In this version, players have to work together to run a cooperative. Everyone wins or loses together. True to its principles, it’s also the first game made under Fairtrade conditions, and you can choose the price you want to pay for it when you buy it online.

I haven’t played any of these, so I can’t really recommend them. What I do know is that it’s high time Monopoly was eased out of its position as the world’s bestselling board game.

Now, who’s for a quick round of Saboteur?

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11 Comments on “Anyone for a game of Monopoly? No?”

  1. DevonChap December 17, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    “it’s high time Monopoly was eased out of its position as the world’s bestselling board game.” By government fiat? Direct action?

    I think you are over thinking things. If you spend your life seeking the moral in everything you become a joyless soul (Risk is about conquest, I could riff on how those who play it are budding Hitlers). Monopoly is a fun game because you are trying to stiff your friends and family. I have been spending break time the last few weeks teaching junior school children how to play. It is great. They get to practice maths and negotiation skills, learn to take risks, and develop forbearance of the whims of luck and stickwithitness to win.

    While it it isn’t the whole of capitalism in a game I’d also say that you can’t just sit still and win. If you don’t develop your property, don’t take risks, and negotiate then you will lose. Useful skills for life. And its fun, which is why I have a long waiting list to play.

    • Jeremy December 17, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      By being outsold by a better game, of which there are many! I gave my reasons why I don’t like it in the second paragraph, and morality isn’t one of them.

      If you enjoy monopoly, I’m not going to judge you. Millions of people apparently do, although I’m being entirely serious when I say I don’t really understand why. It’s really only fun if you’re winning, and it can take hours and hours to lose – that’s a badly designed game in my opinion.

      • DevonChap December 17, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

        A badly designed game that sells in its millions and has done for decades? Its that thing about the market being able to process information better than some ‘expert’s’ opinions.

        Perhaps you just don’t have the skills to play it well and so blame the game. I’m not good at Backgammon. But I don’t blame its design. Could explain a great deal of the opinion here. A youthful bad experience at Monopoly drives a desire to redesign the economy.

        • Jeremy December 18, 2013 at 9:14 am #

          You’re taking this very seriously aren’t you? Sure you don’t want to read the post again and see if you’ve misjudged the tone a little? It’s the run up to Christmas and I’m writing about a board game. Calm down.

          And yes, it is a badly designed game, on so many levels. But if you’ve not played a well designed game, you might not know that. Anything that is based on rolling dice to move around a board isn’t worth playing, in my opinion. Once introduced to German games, one doesn’t go back, in my experience.

          • henry1941 December 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

            “Anything that is based on rolling dice to move around a board isn’t worth playing, in my opinion. ”

            Casino capitalism?

          • DevonChap December 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

            No, I’m not taking it seriously, I’m smiling at how much you may be revealing with a supposedly light-hearted post. You do sound like a sore loser justifying their loss, “I don’t understand why anyone likes this game, its just badly designed! It’s no fun if you are losing! We should all play something else!” Cue stamping away from the dinning table and much slamming of doors.

          • Jeremy December 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

            I do remember enjoying Monopoly when I was about twelve. And it is fun in a non-challenging way for about half an hour. After that you generally know who’s going to win and you’ve got another three hours to play – hence a bad game. The fact that almost everyone who still plays it has a bunch of ‘house rules’ to make it work also suggests the original rules aren’t up to task. But if you enjoy it, carry on. I’d rather play Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan.

    • henry1941 May 13, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

      Monopoly demonstrates that the so-called capitalist free market is far from free. Most people are in the position of a player who joins the game after all the boards have become “owned” by the original players. Apart from a dozen of the squares, wherever they land they have to pay rent. That is the reality of what passes for “capitalism”. It calls for extraordinary enterprise and creativity to break out of that disadvantage, whilst the “owners” need to do nothing more than pay someone else to collect the rent.

  2. henry1941 December 17, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    It requires next to no skill to win a game of Monopoly, once you know the rules. Despite Darrow’s modificatins, is quite a realistic model of the so-called free market economy as we know it. The owners of Park Lane and Mayfair usually win in the end, and landing on one of those squares is a disaster for any of the other players.

    It is easy to tinker with the rules of Monopoly to make it sustainable, but then it makes for a boring game. The Georgist model would return the site rentals into a pot which was shared out every so often, which would probably make the game last indefinitely.

    Monopoly also demonstrates another truth about the economy. When all the sites have become owned by one of the players, it is impossible for anyone else to join the game, as, almost wherever they land, the newcomer has to pay rent to one of the original players.

    • DevonChap December 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

      Tip, Park Lane and Mayfair aren’t the winners, its the Vine Street set (mid market with good risk.reward ratio).

  3. Taliesin December 19, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    Thanks for the shout out regarding Co-opoly! At TESA (our co-op, we’re the makers of Co-opoly), we also prefer games that are not about luck, but about skill and savvy (and in the case of Co-opoly, solidarity). We believe strongly that education should be fun, hence our game, which offers an alternative to cutthroat capitalism (we think of it as an antidote to the issues Monopoly raises) and a raucous good time for players. If you get a chance to play Co-opoly, we’d love to hear what you think!

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