The Best-Written History of a Board Game You Will Read Today

Harper’s recently published a fascinating, deeply ironic account how the game of Monopoly originated. It’s early versions were a kind of “open-source” game that illustrated how destructive monopolies were, and were never copyrighted. A few decades later, Charles Darrow claimed to have invented the game and patented it, earning millions for himself and Parker Brothers corporation.

Here are a handful of quotes to give you the gist before you read the whole thing. Which you should–it’s chockablock with gameplay, history, economics, philosophy, and trivia about your favorite/least favorite board game.

The game’s true origins…go unmentioned in the official literature. Three decades before Darrow’s patent, in 1903, a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a nineteenth-century writer who had popularized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land…George called private land ownership an “erroneous and destructive principle” and argued that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”

The Landlord Game’s chief entertainment was the same as in Monopoly: competitors were to be saddled with debt and ultimately reduced to financial ruin, and only one person, the supermonopolist, would stand tall in the end. The players could, however, vote to do something not officially allowed in Monopoly: cooperate. Under this alternative rule set, they would pay land rent not to a property’s title holder but into a common pot—the rent effectively socialized so that, as Magie later wrote, “Prosperity is achieved.”

Landlord's Game Board - Circa 1906In place of Monopoly’s “Go!” was a box marked “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

Sometime in 1932, [Charles] Darrow copied the layout of the board, the rules of play, the property names, the deed values, and the Chance cards, and made his own version of the game. His only innovation seems to have been to claim the mantle of sole inventor. He would soon be assumed into the pantheon of American heroes of commerce. The irony was [that] before being monopolized by a single person working in tandem with a corporation, Monopoly had in fact been “invented” by many people…

(Found at Harper’s Magazine.)

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