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.
The 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?