Monopoly turned 80 this year and whether it’s the electronic version with debit cards or the traditional paper money version, the board game is still played and enjoyed by people around the world.
So how did this “I wanna own lots of property and get rich by bankrupting my friends” board game evolve?
For many years, American Charles Darrow was credited with creating the game during the Great Depression. He sold it to George and Fred Parker (Parker Brothers) in 1934 and a year later it was on the market, ready for playing. Both he and the Parkers became quite wealthy from sales of the game.
But the truth is that Darrow had revamped a board game invented by Elizabeth Magie Phillips decades earlier in 1903 called The Landlord’s Game.
The Landlord’s Game
Phillips was a fan of an economist of the day, Henry George, who proposed that landowners should pay taxes on their huge properties and not pass costs onto tenants, which could eventually reduce or eliminate sales tax. Phillips designed the game as a way to show the negative consequences of monopolistic land ownership by men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
Originally The Landlord’s Game had two set of rules: an anti-monopolist scenario in which wealth was shared, and an alternative where each player would try to gain a monopoly and then win by bankrupting all the other players. Phillips wanted the game to show the moral superiority of the first set of rules and hopefully result in real reforms. She applied to patent the game in 1903.
However, it was the monopolist rules that took off when Monopoly was marketed. It became a capitalist game in which the winner has the lion’s share of the properties on the board and, one by one, eliminates all the other players.
Phillips had been self-publishing the game, but for all her hard work and vision, she received only US$500 and no royalties from Parker Brothers. Darrow, however, negotiated both cash and royalties.
As a single female who owned property and her home, Phillips was an anomaly of her time. She worked as a stenographer and then as a newspaper reporter. She was 44 when she married a man 10 years her senior even though she had previously mocked the idea, prevalent at the time, that women had no options in life except marriage.
Phillips created other board games, two of which Parker Brothers marketed for a short time and then dropped.
The history of how Monopoly evolved came to light when San Francisco economics professor Ralph Anspach invented the game Anti-Monopoly, where players try to un-monopolise businesses and return the state of the board to a free market system. Parker Brothers sued Anspach for using the Monopoly name in his game. As part of his defense, Anspach researched the origins of Monopoly and found that Phillips’s game had been appropriated by Darrow.
During World War II, special versions of Monopoly were produced for distribution to British soldiers being held as prisoners in Germany. These games included working compasses and files disguised as player tokens, real money under the Monopoly money, and maps within the game board. All were tools to help the soldiers escape their captors.
Monopoly has remained basically the same all these years although different editions are made available from time to time including one extravagant version that included tokens made from real gold and real gemstones. The game is sold around the world with minor variations like street names on the board representing streets in the marketed countries.
Hasbro now owns the game and started holding a world championship tournament in 1974. Today, the tournament prize money matches the amount of money in the Monopoly game, currently $20,580. Macau, China, will host the 2015 tournament in September.