En route to selling a mind-blowing 250 million copies worldwide since it was first mass-produced in 1935, Monopoly has generated a story more epic and entertaining than playing the game itself. From its prehistory as The Landlord’s Game (created and circulated by critics of American capitalism in the early 20th century) to the current Mega Edition (featuring larger stakes and 52 spaces around the board rather than the traditional 40), Monopoly has been a curious reflection of and even a participant in world events and changing attitudes toward the free enterprise system. In particular, the proliferation of variations on the basic game illustrates capitalism’s ability to morph in response to ever-changing consumer desires.
In his recent biography of the planet’s best-known board game, Monopoly (Da Capo), Philip E. Orbanes displays not only a deft touch with his pen but an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. Orbanes, author of the 2003 book The Game Makers, has worked at Parker Brothers and other game companies. He fills his narrative with fascinating characters, such as Elizabeth Magie Phillips, creator of The Landlord’s Game, who saw her invention as a way of winning folks over to the crank ideas of single-tax enthusiast Henry George; Columbia University economist Rexford Guy Tugwell, who used Phillips’ game as a teaching tool and who, as a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal “Brains Trust,” pushed for “a full state-administered economy” during the Depression; and the unemployed plumber and “ordinary American” Charles B. Darrow, who created—and wisely patented—Monopoly in the form we’ve all come to know and love.
Financier J.P. Morgan is in the tale too: He provided the model for the game’s mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags and later dubbed Mr. Monopoly. During the depths of the Great Depression, suggests Orbanes, playing Monopoly was a way of escaping economic privation while aspiring to the power of a Morgan.
That’s one of the reasons the Soviet Union outlawed the game until 1987, even though samizdat versions were as popular as Levi’s jeans and rock music as a way of dissenting from the Kremlin’s dictates. It wasn’t an accident that a game of Monopoly was prominently displayed in the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, made famous as the backdrop of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “kitchen debate.” As Orbanes wryly notes, “It is not difficult to understand why all the copies of Monopoly brought to Sokolniki Park were stolen before the [exhibition] was half over!”
Monopoly has even played a role in the evolution of trademark law. Back in the 1930s, Parker Brothers trademarked the game’s name and bought up patents to similar games to stave off possible lawsuits. (They gave the creator of The Landlord’s Game $500 cash and a three-game contract.) In the 1970s, Parker Brothers tried to stop the marketing of the game Anti-Monopoly, which had been created by economist Ralph Anspach as a way of educating consumers about “the wrongs of real-life monopolies.” Parker Brothers claimed Anti-Monopoly, which was typically sold next to the more established game, diluted its trademark and confused people.
Anspach argued that Monopoly had become a generic term and as such could no longer be protected. At the heart of his case was the notion that if consumers didn’t know what company produced a particular item, then it had become generic, a standard that would have radically altered the market for many, perhaps most, brand names. (Who makes Chap Stick, say, or Cheer?) After a see-saw legal battle—including several injunctions to stop distribution of Anti-Monopoly and federal appeals court rulings in favor of Anspach—the upstart settled out of court and eventually assigned his Anti-Monopoly trademark to Parker Brothers, which then leased it back to him. Congress, meanwhile, passed a law specifically repudiating Anspach’s line of reasoning.
In the 21st century, Monopoly continues to evolve in response to—and anticipation of—consumer demand. There are now versions that range far beyond the familiar streets of Atlantic City, that take place in The Simpsons’ mythical Springfield, and that are played on a computer screen. A growing number of “Here and Now” editions reflect famous addresses (and current property values) in London, Berlin, Paris, and other cities and countries.
“Capitalism,” writes Orbanes, “has many virtues, and one of the most notable is choice. For Monopoly and its maker [now Hasbro], choice has become a passion.” As important, he notes, the game “is a bountiful giver of enjoyment.” No wonder, then, that Monopoly’s future looks as rich as its past.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason.