JIM REES looks at the origins of one of the most popular board
games in the world

We’ve all played it. We’ve all experienced the thrill of the evil landlord who demands money from anyone and everyone who happens to fall into his property space. I’m talking about ‘Monopoly’, the game which teaches us all the joys of property speculation.

Even those of us who pride ourselves on our keenly honed social consciences have to admit that we don’t want to lose when we play it. We want to see our little cash pile grow at the expense of the other players.

The ultimate joy comes when each of our rivals hands over the last of their bank notes. It is, in short, a game which celebrates greed.

‘Oh, come on!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just a game. You’re reading too much into it.’
Yes, of course I am, but that doesn’t mean that the above statements aren’t based in fact, as a quick look at the history of its evolution will show.

The rudiments of what we now know as ‘Monopoly’ were devised by Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie at the dawn of the 20th century. She called it ‘The Landlord’s Game’ and had begun distribution on a small scale by 1902. It proved popular enough for her to patent it two years later.

Magie was an admirer of Henry George, a printer in San Francisco, who studied economic theory and who published widely on the need to curb monopolies that made the rich richer at the expense of the poor.

‘The Landlord’s Game’ was designed to explain George’s theory to those who found his writing too heavy to read or understand. It had moderate success, but was heady stuff, especially in America at a time when many believed that socialism was gaining ground there.

The game itself was interesting enough to attract a great deal of attention from individuals and toy companies, but it was politically unacceptable. It had to wait another quarter of a century and several overhauls by other game designers before it hit the big time.

Ironically, it was the almost total collapse of the American economy that made it one of the most popular games in the world.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in a period of great poverty. Businesses folded, farms were taken over by banks as loans could not be repaid. Family homes went the same way.

In the Mid-West, nature seemed to side with big business as farmland turned to dust and banks fore-closed on loans and mortgages. Tens of thousands of men, women and children left their homes in Oklahoma and elsewhere to start new lives in California.

John Steinbeck captured it wonderfully in his powerful novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Continue reading in this week’s issue (issue 5617)