The Surprising Origin of Monopoly

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most popular board games in the world is Monopoly. 

Millions of copies of the game have been sold and thousands of different versions have been published. 

However, the origins of the game are not what most people think. In fact, the game was originally designed not as a way for people to win by amassing properties but rather to demonstrate why that was a bad idea.

Learn more about the surprising origins of Monopoly, one of the most popular board games in history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m going to assume that most of you listening to this episode are familiar with the board game Monopoly. 

I don’t know how popular board games are anymore, but growing up, it seemed like every family had a Monopoly game stashed somewhere in the closet. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game or need a refresher, Monopoly is a board game where players buy, trade, and develop properties on a board that is supposed to resemble a city. The goal is to strategically accumulate wealth by collecting rent from opponents who land on your properties, making shrewd decisions on property purchases and trades, and managing your finances wisely. 

The game combines elements of luck, strategy, and negotiation as players move around the board, aiming to bankrupt their opponents while avoiding bankruptcy themselves, all in a race to become the wealthiest player in the game.

Believe it or not, the origins of Monopoly actually go back to a game that was trying to teach people the exact opposite of what the modern game is about.

If you have previously heard anything about the history of Monopoly, there is a good chance that what you’ve heard is either completely wrong or woefully incomplete.

The history of the game actually started in the early 20th century with a woman by the name of Lizzie Magie. 

Born in 1866 after the US Civil War, Magie came from a family of abolitionists. She was very intelligent, having a patent on a superior way for paper to get through the rollers of a typewriter. She was an outspoken advocate for women’s right to vote, and for the purposes of this story, she was a Georgist, a follower of Henry George. 

Henry George and Georgism was an economic ideology that held there should be a single tax on rent from land and all other natural resources. Labor and trade should not be taxed. 

So Georgists were against income taxes, sales taxes, and tariffs and thought that they should all be replaced with forms of property taxes. They felt that this was the most efficient, fair, and equitable way to finance the government and run an economy. 

An odd mix of socialists and free-market capitalists has historically supported Georgist ideas on taxation. 

Lizzie Maggie felt that speeches and pamphlets weren’t the most effective way to demonstrate Georgist ideas. She thought that a game could demonstrate how rents made property owners rich and impoverished tenants. 

So, in 1903, she created The Landlord Game”. The Landlord Game is played on a square board. Players moved around the board and landed on properties that you could buy. Each property had different values, with the top properties being Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. There were also spaces for railroads and a space for jail.

If this all sounds shockingly familiar, that’s because it is. 

The game had two sets of rules: monopolist and anti-monopolist. With the monopolist set of rules, you win by bankrupting everyone else. In the anti-monopolist, also known as prosperity, set of rules, the game was over when the player with the least amount of money doubled their wealth.

The game was granted a patent in 1904. In 1906, she and other Georgists created a company to publish the game known as the Economic Game Company.

In 1909 they pitched the game to the board game company Parker Brothers to have them publish it, but they declined, saying the rules were too confusing. 

The game developed a niche following in the northeast United States among intellectuals, college professors, and Quakers. The game was mainly spread by word of mouth, with some people making their own boards and creating their own rules. 

The patent on The Landlord Game expired in 1921, and she applied for another patent which was granted in 1924.

The 1924 game has small changes to the rules, including the ability to charge higher rents when you own all the properties of a certain type and the ability to improve properties with tokens. 

She again went to George Parker of Parker Brothers about publishing the game, and he again turned it down, saying it was too political. However, he was the one to encourage her to get another patent. 

Different versions and homemade boards kept popping up everywhere. Daniel W. Layman produced a version of the game called Finance, which included spaces and cards for ‘chance’ and ‘community chest.’

In the early 1930s, a woman named Ruth Hoskins learned the game in Indianapolis, where she was a teacher, and took it back home to Atlantic City, New Jersey. There she made a new board using the names of streets in Atlantic City. 

Hoskins taught the game to another Quaker named Eugene Raiford, who taught it to his friend Charles Todd, who in turn taught it to a woman named Ester Darrow. 

Ester Darrow was the wife of Charles Darrow. 

After Charles Darrow played the game for the first time, he asked Charles Todd if he had a written set of rules. Todd found the request odd as there really were no written rules for the game. 

That was the last time Charles Darrow ever spoke to Charles Todd. Soon afterward, he began selling a board game he called Monopoly, complete with all of the Atlantic City street names from the version he played with Charles Todd.

In fact, on Todd’s board, he misspelled Marvin’s Gardens, using an ‘i’ instead of an ‘e.’ On Darrow’s game, he kept the same misspelling, copying it almost exactly. 

Darrow and his son created handmade versions of the board and the cards until eventually hiring a printer. Many of the features of the board, including the red car on Free Parking, the light bulb and faucet on the utilities, and the black locomotives on the railroads, were all created at this time.

In 1934, Darrow took the game first to Milton Bradley, who rejected it, and then to Parker Brothers, who again rejected it for the same reasons they rejected the original Landlord Game. It was too complicated.

There was one thing that made Parker Brothers change their mind: money.

Darrow sold the printed versions of his game at FAO Schwartz in New York and Philadelphia, and it sold very well over the Christmas season.

Parker Brothers came back after Christmas, and in March, they purchased the rights to the game and helped Darrow take out a patent on it. 

However, despite adamantly insisting he was the inventor of the game, Parker Brothers soon learned that he wasn’t the inventor and that he basically got it from the Landlord Game. 

To cover themselves, Parker Brothers purchased the rights to Lizzie Magie’s 1924 patent and all the copyrights of the game she held for $500. They likewise also purchased the rights to the game Finance. 

Parker Brothers began selling the game in 1935. They added the metal game pieces, which were originally a battleship, a cannon, a clothes iron, a shoe, a top hat, and a thimble.

Very soon after the game was released, in December 1935, Parker Brothers received a transatlantic call from Victor Watson, Sr. of Waddington Games in Great Britain. Transatlantic calls were very rare and expensive at the time, and it made a big impression on the people at Parker Brothers as to the importance of the calls.

Watson loved the game and ended up purchasing the rights to publish the game in Europe and other Commonwealth countries other than Canada. The first thing they did was changed the name of the properties to places in London. The top properties, instead of Boardwalk and Park Place, became Mayfair and Park Lane.

The game became a hit in both the UK and France. However, the game was soon banned in Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels said it was banned due to its “Jewish-speculative character.” However, after the war was discovered, the real reason it was banned was because so many high-ranking Nazi officials lived on the streets with the highest values in the game. 

The game went on to become a massive hit. Arguably the most popular board game of all time, excluding games such as chess and checkers. 

When Parker Brothers told the story of the creation of Monopoly, they completely omitted everything that happened before Charles Darrow and claimed that he had been the sole inventor of the game. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the story of Lizzie Magie and the Landlord Game came to light, based on the existing copies of her game that survived, as well as the patents she filed.

Monopoly has gone on to sell an estimated 275 million copies worldwide, having been printed in 37 languages. There have been an estimated 7500 different versions of Monopoly created for different regions, as well as special events, as well as different versions of the game over time.

The largest collection of Monopoly games has over 3500 different versions. 

There has been a world championship of Monopoly held since 1973. However, it is held infrequently. The last championship was held in 2015 in Macau, and it was won by Nicolò Falcone from Italy.

I’d like to end this episode with some practical advice. The next time you play Monopoly, what strategy can you use to win?

Monopoly is a non-deterministic game. That means that there is no one strategy you can use to win because the dice offer a random element you have no control over. The best you can do is increase your odds of winning. 

So with that, the first thing you can do, which will significantly increase your odds of winning, is to go first. Assuming you play a rational strategy, which I’ll get to in a bit, your odds of winning are always greatest, no matter how many players, if you go first. 

In a two-player game, whoever goes first has a 53.5% chance of winning. In a three-player game, you have a 37.2% chance of winning. 

Once the game has started, your best strategy is to buy as many properties as you can as quickly as you can. There is obviously an element of luck here, but even lower-valued properties can have value later on when conducting trades. Moreover, if you buy it, no one else can buy it.  The exception to this rule is utilities, which should be avoided.

The most valuable properties on the board are the orange and red properties. These are the ones immediately before and after free parking.

The reason is that the most frequently visited square on the board is jail. Given the odds of dice rolls, these will be visited more frequently than any other properties on the board. 

Most players assume that the blue properties are the best ones to own. They are nice, but you should be willing to trade a blue property to get one or two other monopolies. 

The other thing you should do is build houses as soon as you can. In particular, you want to have three houses on each property as soon as possible, as three is the number that has the largest inflection point in terms of rent increases.

Also, according to the rules, there are a limited number of houses and hotels that can be built in the game. The quicker you get them, the fewer there are for other players. 

These strategies were developed over millions of computer-generated Monopoly games using what is known as a Monte Carlo Simulation. 

Monopoly is a game where players are encouraged to amass properties to charge exorbitant rents to their opponents to bankrupt them. What most people don’t know is that the game had its origins over 120 years ago as an educational tool whose goal was the exact opposite of what the game ended up becoming.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s three-star review comes from listener El Dorado Bonito from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Everything Everywhere

I really like this podcast for the concept that it brings. It brings a lot of information in a short period of time but it is presented too quickly! I probably won’t subscribe to this podcast or be able to listen to it very frequently, if at all, because it’s too quickly presented. The orator speaks too quickly. :(

Thanks, El Dorado Bonito! I’m not sure what to say. I’ve gotten comments in the past saying I speak too fast, but I’ve also gotten comments saying I speak too slow. This is how I speak, and after 1100 episodes, I’m probably going to stick with it.

That being said, most podcast apps have the ability to speed up or slow down a podcast. If you find it too fast, you can play at 75% speed on Apple Podcasts. 

Or you can do what I do and listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed. To each their own.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.