The Little-Known Origins of Monopoly, the Board Game

One of the games of childhood in the US, and in many other places around the world, is the board game known as Monopoly.  This classic board game pits players in a race to assemble monopolies of real estate so that they can charge higher prices and win the game by bankrupting their opponents.  Forming a monopoly is celebrated, along with the deceptions, predation and ruthlessness that any good competitor must show.  But hey, it's just a game! 

What is less well-known is the very different board game that preceded Monopoly and formed the basis for it.  The Landlord’s Game, as it was called, was originally conceived by actress Lizzie Magie in 1906.  She set forth a game in which people fought monopolies and cooperated to share the wealth.  The story of the true origins of Monopoly is masterfully told in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine by Christopher Ketcham.  “Monopoly is Theft” is the title of his article, which describes “the antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular game.”

Lizzie Magie was greatly influenced by Henry George, the author of the 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, who famously proposed a single tax on land as a way to fight unjustified monopolies of land.  She saw The Landlord’s Game as a way to popularize George’s teachings, especially the idea that no one could claim to own land.  As Ketcham writes, Henry George believed that private land ownership was an “erroneous and destructive principle” and that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.” 

The way that monopolies in land could be prevented – and the social value of land socialized for the benefit of all – was via a tax on land value. There was no need to overthrow capitalism; one need merely impose a single tax on land that would prevent monopolists from enjoying unearned, unfair "rents."  Ketcham provides a wonderful short history of Georgist thought and the great influence that it had in the late nineteenth century.  Henry George was celebrated by Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain and John Dewey as one of the great reformers of his time.  He was also reviled by the Catholic Church, landlords and businessmen as more dangerous than Karl Marx.

George even had a brief career as a politician.  Ketcham writes, “In 1886, the United Labor Party, fresh from the battles and boycotts of the first May Day, nominated George as its candidate for mayor of New York. His campaign offered a radical vision for the time: wherever railroads, telegraphs, telephones, and gas, water, electric, and heating utilities could be operated more efficiently at scale, as “natural monopolies,” the public would own them; transit in New York would be made free for all; city government would be responsible for social services; he would end child labor and mandate an eight-hour workday. The land-value tax would pay for his programs.”

It’s fascinating to learn how Georgist principles were the original basis for the anti-monopolist board game that later become Monopoly.  Ketcham excavates this history from arcane sources:

"The Georgist rules…. were known as the Single Tax set, and they went beyond having players simply pay rent into Magie’s “Public Treasury.”  They also aimed to teach the shared ownership of public goods. Under Single Tax rules, when the amount in the treasury reached fifty dollars, the player who owned the lighting utility was forced to sell it, and thereafter the utility cost no money to land on, as it was now publicly owned. This process repeated itself with the Slambang Trolley, then with the railroads, then with the Go to Jail space, which became a public college that, instead of sending players to jail, provided extra wages at the end of the game. After that, each fifty-dollar deposit in the treasury raised players’ wages by ten dollars. A “win” in Single Tax, which Magie later dubbed Prosperity Game, occurred when the player with the least amount of money had doubled his original capital. “The Landlord’s Game,” said Magie, “shows why our national housekeeping has gone wrong and Prosperity Game shows how to start it right and keep it going right.”

Since Magie first introduced her board gamein 1906, it morphed into many different versions along the way, as folk creativity often does.  In a real sense, she was not the sole “inventor” of the game but rather one of many who appropriated the idea and modified it, producing something new in the process (proving that creativity is really collaborative in nature, not solely the work of an individual). This did not prevent Parker Bros., the game company that eventually acquired a patent in the game, from declaring that one Charles Darrow had invented the game in 1932.  An upstart gamemaker who created a game called "Anti-Monopoly" sued Parker Bros. in the 1970s over its claimed trademark on Monopoly.  Though he eventually won, he was nearly ruined financially.  Parker Bros.' market power proved too formidable.

There is not enough safe here to recount the rich history of Monopoly – read the entire article for that – but suffice it to say that it underwent a great change as the entertainment value of competition became evident. It seems that Scott Nearing, a famous radical socialist, taught his students to play The Landlord's Game when he was a professor of economics at the Wharton School of Finance from 1906 to 1915.  He later said that he thought it might help students learn“the antisocial nature of monopoly,” and in particular “the wickedness of land monopoly.”  The game slowly went viral, as we would say today, becoming part of folk culture among students at universities.  “It would slowly lose its antimonopolistic message, however," writes Ketchan, “as players came to the conclusion that Magie’s vision of Georgist redistribution was not nearly as entertaining as ruining one another.”

Ketcham quotes one adult who recalls, “My brother taught me how to play Monopoly when I was five,” he had told me. “It was pivotal in helping me understand the importance of lying, cheating, and stealing.” So true.  From my own childhood, I can confess that at age 7 or so, when my brother Peter beat me in Monopoly, I was absolutely crushed and reduced to tears. If only I had known then that there were another set of rules and another version of the game that could be played!