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Monopoly’s bizarre beginnings

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Show me the money.

Cut-throat, competitive, and unapologetically capitalist, Monopoly's winner-takes-all gameplay has made it the world's most popular board game.

But it wasn't always quite so ruthless. Believe it or not, Monopoly began its life as an anticapitalist teaching tool, spent decades as an underground pastime played by early American progressives, leftists, and other radicals, went on to aid countless wartime prisoners escape from German camps, and wound up in a ten-year trademark dispute with a Californian economist. And you thought it was all about Boardwalk.

Birth of a Monopoly

Monopoly is usually remembered as an invention of Depression-era America, and the brainchild of an entrepreneur called Charles Darrow, but neither of those things are exactly true. In fact, the game was actually conceived some three decades prior by an Illinois progressive named Elizabeth Magie Phillips.

Phillips was a devotee of an economic ideology called "Georgism," which advocated the abolishment of all taxes save for a so-called "single tax" levied on land owners. In order to demonstrate what she saw as the advantages of Georgism and the injustices of land monopolies, she created an unusually intricate board game, named it the Landlord's Game, and in around 1904 she filed the first of a series of patents on its design. Monopoly was born.

Phillips' patents reveal she was one of the first to make a board with a looped, repeating circuit, rather than just a point-to-point race. Among familiar squares like "Go to Jail," the utilities, and the railroads were less recognizable stops named "Public Park," "Legacy," and "Mother Earth." The game ran until one player had completed five laps of the board -- and the winner was the player who had accumulated the greatest amount of property, cash, and goods.

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No such fortune awaited Phillips, however. By the time Monopoly made it big (in the middle of the Great Depression, no less) its ownership had passed -- via a somewhat unclear chain of friends and acquaintances -- to a Philadelphia plumber named Charles Darrow.

Darrow learned the game in 1932 and, impressed by its potential, created much of the iconography that we still associate with the game: the little green and red houses, the color-coded properties, the artwork. Beginning by hand-crafting copies of the game in his spare time, Darrow, a skilled salesman, managed to convince local department stores to stock his version of Monopoly. It was an immediate success.

By 1935 his efforts attracted the attention of Parker Bros., which added the game's metal playing pieces, and began mass-producing it in earnest. Parker's first edition sold for $2 -- and in less than two years it had sold over two million copies. Its place in board gaming history was secured.

Monopoly at war

Monopoly made Parker a household name, and Darrow a millionaire -- but it would be put to more creative use during the Second World War, thanks to a unique collaboration between its British publisher Waddington and the British Secret Service.

It's a story that sounds like the product of an overstimulated Hollywood producer rather than the bowler-hatted gents at the Ministry of Intelligence. But upon discovering that German authorities were happy to provide their prisoners-of-war with games and pastimes (perhaps in the hope that a little light entertainment would distract captives from plotting escape or other misbehavior), the British hit upon a plan.

They'd send Monopoly games to the German stalags.

As you might assume, these were no ordinary Monopoly games. Manufactured amid immense secrecy, their boxes hid secret compartments containing compasses, silk maps, and tiny files, and tucked amid the Monopoly currency were real banknotes, intended for prisoners to use in their attempts to flee mainland Europe. Q would have been proud.

How many prisoners did they free? Nobody knows. The veil of secrecy surrounding the program remained in place for decades after the war was over. No examples of the games survive. But certainly many thousands of British soldiers did escape German captivity, and it's not unimaginable that some of them did so with the assistance of a simple board game. Sure puts a spin on the game's "Get out of Jail Free" card.

Anti-Monopoly: the backlash

As irony would have it, Monopoly's anti-capitalist roots would wind up making an unwelcome re-appearance during the heady days of the 1970s. Hunting for a way to educate the public about the dangers of rampant monopolies -- and unimpressed with the economic principles behind Parker's board game -- a California economics professor named Ralph Anspach created an educational board game he called Anti-Monopoly. Bearing a pronounced resemblance to its namesake, it went on sale in 1973, and enjoyed no shortage of success.

Parker Bros. were not pleased. Unsurprisingly, they saw Anspach's game as a misappropriation of their valuable trademark, and filed suit. Anspach and his legal team tried to convince judges that Monopoly's decades of pre-Parker history rendered its trademark invalid, kicking off some ten years of courtroom drama.

Early judgements favored Parker, and even ordered Anspach to destroy all his stock of the game -- but after a lengthy series of appeals the opposing parties reached an accord. Anspach could continue to sell his game, and Parker kept their trademark. If you feel like a lesson on the evils of capitalism, Anti-Monopoly is still on sale today.

Who's Mr. Monopoly, anyway?

Tubby, moustachioed, and permanently raising his top hat, Mr. Monopoly has been representing the game since 1936 -- although he's only been known by that name for the last decade or so. Prior to that, he had the rather less stylish moniker "Rich Uncle Pennybags." But whatever you call him, Monopoly's mascot had a real-world inspiration: 19th-century banker and businessman J.P. Morgan, who cut a similarly rotund and whiskery figure.

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