In Debt to Monopoly
(by Jamie Doran)
Let me summarize a century of articles about the game called Monopoly; It's great!, It sucks!, Wow look at those sales numbers! Repeat.
Without fail, most people roar about how much they hate this game because it’s the game that makes enemies of friends. It’s about greed and propels the evils of capitalism! Yet, Monopoly is the quintessential board game, and has been for 100 years!
Let's put this in perspective, Monopoly has sold almost 300 million copies and earned billions since it was first published. I don't think anyone knows the total sales figure mainly because no one can count that high. But, how can a game that most people hate, remain the king of games?
To figure this out, we need to start at the beginning to get some perspective.
The original concept for the game, called the Landlord's Game, was invented by Lizzie Magie, in 1904, to illustrate the evils of monopolies. In particular, how the ultra rich oil and steel tycoons bought up real estate and amassed great wealth while common folk suffered in slums and paid taxes. Wait a minute, isn't that still happening?
The game, in its original form, looked a lot like the game we know and hate. It was square, with properties running around the perimeter, and sported other familiar squares like 'Jail' and railroads.
Mrs. Magie sold her game in small numbers via a couple small publishers until around 1935 when she sold her patent to Parker Brothers, who she thought would be a great vehicle to spread her anti-monopolist message. But, since it first appeared in print around 1905, her game was being copied and played by creative types and students all across the eastern US seaboard; in fact, it was being improved upon with each new version. Numerous variations existed and it wasn't until a guy named Charles Darrow came on the scene, that the game settled into the form that's lasted since 1933. Darrow's version, apparently copied from a variation that the Quaker's were playing, included all the best features of previous incarnations and came with some super cool metal player tokens. He packaged it and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935 as his own invention! Parker Brothers eventually figured out that the game had dubious origins and that's why they bought Lizzie Magie's patent and eventually Darrow's patents, and even paid off another guy names Rudy Copeland who had a claim to the game. Despite the mess, Monopoly could not be stopped; it sold more than 20,000 copies per month in its first year, and 145,000 per month in its second year!
It hit the shelves in 1935 and has remained nearly unchanged till this day. Of course, there have been subtle modifications to the rules over the years and new tokens released with great fanfare. But, Monopoly has been the king of board games for 100 years. That is simply, fucking unbelievable!
So we must concede that Monopoly doesn’t suck, it must be great in some ways. I contend that Monopoly has influenced almost every game created in its wake. At the very least, it has helped us understand why games can suck and what we’d prefer game play to be.
Monopoly the Mentor
The game of Monopoly has had noteworthy influence on almost all games that followed in it's wake. Let me take a minute to lay this out for you.
Monopoly's Community Chest & Chance decks defined the concept that fate could be found in a deck of cards. In earlier games, these 'good luck/bad luck' squares were right on the board. In Snakes and Ladders a player might land on a ladder and climb higher, or the player might land on a snake and slide down. Monopoly’s ladders are the positive Chance or Community Chest cards that give you money or other advantages, and the opposite is true for the cards that shift power and punish players. Basically, Monopoly informed future games how to a use a randomized stack of cards to introduce chaos or joy into the game play. I estimate that more than 50% of games out there today have at least one deck of cards. Cards can add layers of complexity to a game and the element of chance, that's why they appear in so many popular games today.
Monopoly taught us that collecting stuff (properties and cash) during game play could give us powers that other players didn’t have. Collect three properties of one type and you could build houses and hotels; collect the railroads or utilities and you could charge more for your services; and collect houses and hotels and just wait for the windfall. We should thank Monopoly because collecting assets is now a really common feature of games. Many top selling games see players collecting different types of cards, treasures, minions, armies, cities, monsters, magic items and sometimes combining them to acquire powers or other advantages. Monopoly also taught us that the winner of the game can be the player with the most assets; whether we like it or not.
You might have heard that dice have been around since ancient Greece; actually, they are much older than that because a dice game was unearthed in a Mesopotamian tomb from the 24th century BC! For 5000 years or so, games have been using dice to allow players to advance in some fashion. The first board games were very linear and so players would just roll and move their piece or pieces. Monopoly popularized dice rolls that had special powers, for example, rolling doubles allowed a player to have another turn, but rolling doubles three times sent you to jail! Dice powers are common in today’s games, where rolling various combos means can something special. We even see many games were special dice are used, with things other than numbers on the faces, or dice with more than 6 faces. The 1960's gave us polyhedral dice with faces numbering 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, and higher. Dungeons & Dragons went to town on dice power and took rolling the bones to a whole new high, or low in the case of rolling a one.
Chess has always had cool player tokens, but players weren't really supposed to related to them on a personal level. Monopoly introduced metal tokens in the shape of things people could relate to. Charles Darrow got the idea from his daughters who suggested he use the trinkets from charm bracelets. Lots of games still opt for the basic coloured tokens, mainly because it's cheaper to manufacture, but others take a nod from Monopoly and use little figurines or cards that depict player icons. Some use archetypes like The Hero, The Princess, The Warrior, The Explorer, The Magician, The Ruler, The Jester, etc.; some use races (human, elf, dwarf, giant, etc.); some use classes (fighter, thief, merchant, king/queen, assassin, spy, wizard, etc.). I often feel cheated if I open a game and find blue, red, yellow and green tokens – I want to be the dog because dam it, deep down inside, I am a dog!
Now I have to state this right up front, Monopoly did not get this right, but it did show future games what they might do to create a better balance between players and features that allow players to succeed. Monopoly is a game where the player balance can get way out of whack quickly. Games such as this, where one person dominates and it’s impossible for others to catch up, are terrible. They create animosity between friends and that’s bad. Newer games avoid this and tend to allow power to shift from player to player – it adds excitement to the game. Newer games have embraced cooperation where players can work together to beat a common opponent or in the case of Pandemic, all players work together to win the game. Thank you Monopoly for showing us that there must be a better way.
Game transactions occur when players must interact on or between turns to resolve an event in the game. Transactions in Monopoly might mean dealing the banker, trading properties, getting a loan, or making a side deal. People have always really loved this aspect of Monopoly because it meant that they were doing interesting things even when it wasn't their turn, now this feature shows up in all sorts of games. These in-game transactions also change the stakes and shift the power dynamics to build excitement. That's why games today tend not to be my turn, your turn, repeat. They embrace features that overlay the turn-based system to maximize player interactions.
Monopoly has houses and hotels. That’s not a small thing because up until it’s release, games didn’t really have these sorts of accessories. Now games might come with all sorts of items that players will need to play the game.
Licensed Versions & Overlays
Monopoly was the first game to have licensed versions. The first one was a license to the City of London, where all the Atlantic City properties were changed to London ones. Tons of cities followed suit, now every place has its own version of Monopoly. It wasn't until the 1990's that thematic overlays became the rage; welcome Star Wars Monopoly; Star Trek; Peanuts, Pokemon, and so on. Wanna see a list? Click here. This is partly the reason why Monopoly has sold so many copies, close to 300 million and counting! In North America, thematic overlays for game are more popular than in Europe. It's sort of sad that a game can't stand on its own - instead it needs a recognizable brand for consumers to buy it. Maybe sometimes it's a great thing.
Monopoly certainly wasn't the first game to encourage players to invent their own rules variations but it surely has the most disrespected official rules of any game. What are your home rules? Did you pile all the money in the centre when people had to pay bills, so that whomever landed on Free Parking got the windfall? Jacob Davenport has done an awesome job cataloguing all the monopoly house rules - check it out. We played a version where instead of paying bills you had to put candy or chips in the middle and Free Parking got you the all the treats! Now, many games come with rule variations or encourage players to develop their own house rules. Game designers love this because they can learn how the players themselves modify the game to make it 'better'. Let the players rule.
What are your thoughts on this classic game? Do you think it had a big influence on the board game world? Tell us what you think by visiting us on facebook. (www.facebook.com/KyfakCanada)