Since the early 2000s, and especially since the onset of COVID-19 and long periods of lockdown, board games have seen a revival in popularity. The increasing popularity of board games are part of what Julie Lennett, a toy industry analyst at NPD Group, describes as the “nesting trend”: families have more access to entertainment at home and are eschewing expensive nights out (cited in Birkner 7). While on-demand television is a significant factor in this trend, for Moriaty and Kay (6), who wouldn’t “welcome [the] chance to turn away from their screens” to seek the “warmth and connection you get from playing games with live human family and friends?” For others, playing board games can simply be about nostalgia. Board games have a long history not specific to one period, geography, or culture. Likely board games were developed to do two things – teach and entertain. This remains the case today.
Historically, miniature versions of battles or hunts were played out in what we might recognise today as a board game. Trade, war, and science impacted on their development, as did the printing press, which allowed for the standardisation of rules. Chess had many variations prior to the fifteenth century. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution allowed for the mass production of board games, boosting their popularity across nations, class, and age (Walker 13). Today, regardless of or because of our digital lives, we are in a “board game renaissance” (Booth 1). Still played on rainy days, weekends, and holidays, we now also play board games in dedicated game board cafés like the Haunted Game Café in America, the Snakes and Lattes in Canada, or the Mind Café in Singapore. In the board game café Draughts in the UK, customers pay £5 to select and play one of 800 board games, including classics like Monopoly and Cluedo. These cafes are important as they are “helping manufacturers to understand the kind of games that appeal to the larger section of players” (Atrizton).
COVID-19 caused board game sales to increase. The global market was predicted to increase by US$1 billion in 2021, compared to 2020 (Jarvis). Total sales of board games in Australia are expected to reach AU$86 million in 2023, an almost 10 per cent increase from the preceding year (Statista "Board Games – Australia"). The emergence of Kickstarter, a global crowdfunding platform which funds new board games, is filling the gap in the contemporary board game market, with board games generating 20 per cent of the total funding raised (Carter). Board games are predicted to continue to grow, with the global market revenue record at US$19 billion dollars in 2022, a figure that is expected to rise to US$40 billion within 6 years (Atrizton).
If the current turn towards board games represents a desire to escape from the digital world, the Internet is also contributing to the renaissance. Ex-Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton hosts the popular Web series TableTop, in which each episode explains a board game that is then played, usually with celebrities. The Internet also provides “communities” in which fans can share their enthusiasm, be it as geek culture or cult fandom (Booth 2). Booth provides an eloquent explanation, however, for the allure of face-to-face board games: “they remind us of our face-to-face past, and recall a type of pre-digital luddism where we can circle around the ‘campfire’ of the game board” (Booth 1-2).
What makes a board game successful is harder to define. Phillip Orbanes, an American game designer and former vice-president of research and development at Parker Brothers, has attempted to elucidate the factors that make a good board game: “make the rules simple and unambiguous … don’t frustrate the casual player … establish a rhythm … focus on what’s happening off the board … give ‘em chances to come from behind … [and] provide outlets for latent talents” (Orbanes 52-55). Orbanes also says it is important to understand that what “happens off the board is just as important to the experience as the physical game itself” (Orbanes 51).
Tristan Donovan contends that there are four broad stages of modern board games, beginning with the folk era when games had no fixed author, their rules were mutable, and local communities adapted the game to suit their sensibilities. Chess is an example of this, with the game only receiving the fixed rules we know today when tournaments and organisations saw the need for a singular set of rules. Mass production of games was the second stage, marking “the single biggest shift in board game history – a total flip in how people understood, experienced and played board games. Games were no long[er] malleable objects owned by the commons, but products created usually in the pursuit of profit” (Donovan 267). An even more recent development in game boards was the introduction of mass produced plastics, which reduced the cost of board game construction and allowed for a wider range of games to be produced. This was particularly evident in the post-war period. Games today are often thought of as global, which allows gamers to discover games from other regions and cultures, such as Catan (Klaus Teuber, 1995), a German game that may not have enjoyed its immense success if it were not for the Internet. Board game players are broadly categorised into two classes: the casual gamer and the hobby or serious gamer (Rogerson and Gibbs). The most popular game from the mass production era is Monopoly, the focus of this article.
The History of Monopoly
Monopoly was designed and patented by American Elizabeth Magie (1866-1948) in 1902, and was originally called The Landlord’s Game. The game was based on the anti-monopoly taxation principles of Henry George (1839-1897), who argued that people should own 100 per cent of what they make and the land should belong to everyone. Land ownership, considered George, only benefitted land owners, and forces working people to pay exorbitant rent. Magie’s original version of the game was designed to demonstrate how rents enrich property owners and impoverish tenants. Renters in Australia’s property market today may recognise this side of ruthless capitalism. In 1959 Fidel Castro thought Monopoly “sufficiently redolent of capitalism” that he “ordered the destruction of every Monopoly set in Cuba” (McManus). Magie, however, was not credited with being the original inventor of Monopoly: rather, this credit was given to Charles Darrow.
In 2014, the book The Monopolist: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon re-established Magie as the inventor of Monopoly, with her role and identity unearthed by American Ralph Anspach (1926-2022), an Adam Smith economist, Polish-German refugee, and anti-Vietnam protestor. According to Pilon, Magie, a suffragette and progressive economic and political thinker, was a Georgist advocate, particularly of his anti-monopolist policies, and it was this that informed her game’s narrative. An unmarried daughter of Scottish immigrants, she was a Washington homeowner, familiar with the grid-like street structure of the national capital. Magie left school at 13 to help support her family who were adversely impacted upon by the Panic of 1873, which saw economic collapse because of falling silver prices, railroad speculation, and property losses. She worked as a stenographer and teacher of Georgist single tax theory. Seeking a broader platform for her economic ideas, and with the growing popularity of board games in middle class homes, in 1904 Magie secured a patent for The Landlord’s Game, at a time when women only held 1 per cent of US patents (Pilon).
The original game included deeds and play money and required players to earn wages via labour and pay taxes. The board provided a circular path (as opposed to the common linear path) in which players circled through rental properties and railroads, and could acquire food, with natural reserves (oil, coal, farms, and forests) unable to be monopolised. However, she created two sets of rules – the monopoly rules familiar to today’s players, and anti-monopoly rules in which tensions over human greed and altruism could be played out by participants. Magie started her own New York firm to manufacture and distribute the game, continued the struggle for women’s equality, and raged against wealthy monopolists of the day such as Andrew Carnegie (Pilon).
By the late 1920, the game, mostly referred to as the ‘monopoly’ game, was popular, but many who played the game were playing handmade versions, likely unaware of the original Landlord’s Game. In 1931, mass-produced versions of the game, now titled Finance, began to appear, with some changes, including the ability to purchase properties, along with rule books. Occurring at the same time as the emergence of fixed-price goods in large department stores, the game, which now included chance cards, continued to be popular. It was Charles Darrow who sold Monopoly to Parker Brothers, even if he did not invent it.
Darrow was introduced to one of the variants of the game and became obsessed with the game, which now featured the Community Chest and Free Parking, but his version did not have a set of rules. An unemployed ex-serviceman with no college education, Darrow struggled to provide for his family. By 1932, America was in the grip of the Great Depression, with housing prices collapsing and squatting common in large American cities. Befriending an artist, Darrow sought to provide a more dynamic and professional version of the game and complete it with a set of rules. In 1933, Darrow marketed his version of the game, titled Mr Monopoly, and it was purchased by Parker Brothers for US$7,000 in 1935. Magie received just US $500 (Farzan). Monopoly, as it was rebranded, was initial sold for $2 a game, and Parker Brothers sold 278,000 games in the first year. In 1936, consumers purchased 1.7 million editions of the game, generating millions of dollars in profits for Parker Brothers, who prior to Monopoly were on the brink of collapse (Pilon).
Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists also reveals the struggle of Ralph Anspach in the 1970s to sell his Anti-Monopoly board games, which Parker Brothers fought in the courts. Anspach’s game sought to undermine the power of capitalist monopolies, which he had witnessed directly and negatively impact on fuel prices in America in the early 1970s. Hence the aim was to produce a game with an anti-monopolist narrative grounded in the free-market thinking of Adam Smith. Players were rewarded by breaking monopoly ownerships of utilities such as railroads and energy and metal reserves.
In preparing his case against Parker Brothers, Anspach “accidentally discovered the true history of the game”, which began with Magie’s Landlord’s Game. Magie herself had battled with Parker Brothers in order to be “credited as the real originator of the game” and, like Anspach, reveal how Parker Brothers had changed the anti-capitalist narrative of the game, making it the “exact opposite” of its original aims (Landlordsgame). Anspach’s court room version of his battle with Parker Brothers was published in 2000, titled Monopolygate: During a David and Goliath Battle, the Inventor of the Anti-Monopoly® Game Uncovers the Secret History of Monopoly®.
Monopoly is now produced by Hasbro. It is the highest selling board game of all time, with an estimated 275 million units of Monopoly sold (Lee). Fan bases are clearly large too: the official Monopoly Facebook accounts report 9.9m likes (Facebook), and 68% of American households report owning a version of Monopoly (Statista "Which"). At the end of the twentieth century it was estimated that 550 million, or one in 12 people worldwide, had played the game (Guinness World Records "Most Popular"). Today it is estimated that Monopoly has been played by more than one billion people, and the digital Monopoly version has had over 100 million downloads (Johnson). The ability to play beloved board games with a computer opponent or with other players via the Internet arguably adds to the longevity of classic board games such as Monopoly.
Yet research shows that despite Monopoly being widely owned, it is often not played as much as other games in people’s homes (d'Astous and Gagnon 84). D’Astous and Gagnon found that players in their study chose Monopoly to play on average six times a year, less than half the times they played Cluedo (13 times a year) or Scrabble (15 times). As Michael Whelan points out, Magie’s original goal was to make a statement about capitalism and landlords: a single player would progress round the board building an empire, whilst the others were doomed to slowly descend into bankruptcy. It was “never meant to be fun for anyone but the winner” (Whelan). Despite Monopoly’s longevity and impressive sales record, it is perhaps paradoxical to find that it is not a particularly popular or enjoyed game.
Board Game Geek, the popular board game Website, reports in 2023 that the average rating for Monopoly by over 33,000 members is just 4.4 out of 10, and is ranked the 23,834th most popular game on the site (Board Game Geek). This is mirrored in academic studies: for example, when examining Orbane’s tenets for a good board game, d’Astous and Gagnon (84) found that players' appreciation of Monopoly was generally low. Not only is appreciation low for the game itself, it is also low for player antics during the game. A 2021 survey found that Monopoly causes the most fights, with 20% of households reporting “their game nights with friends or family members are often or always disrupted by competitive or unfriendly behaviour”, leading to players or even the game itself being banned (Lemore). Clearly Orbane’s tenet that the game “generates fun” is missing here (Orbanes 52). Commentators ask why Monopoly remains the best-selling board game of all time when the game has the “astonishing ability to sow seeds of discord” (Berical).
Despite the claims that playing Monopoly causes disharmony, the game does allow for player agency. Perhaps more than any other board game, Monopoly is subjected to ‘house rules’. Buzzfeed reported 15 common house rules that many people think are official rules. In 2014 the official Monopoly Facebook page posted a video claiming that “68% of Americans have never read the official game rules” and that “49% of Americans had admitted to playing with their own ‘house rules’”. A look through these rules reveals that players are often trying to restore the balance of power in the game, or in other words increase the chance that a player can win. Hasbro has embraced these rules by incorporating some of them into the official rules. By incorporating players' amendments to the game, Hasbro can keep the Monopoly relevant.
In another instance, Hasbro asked fans to vote on new tokens, which led to the thimble token being replaced with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This was reversed in 2022 when nostalgic fans lobbied for the thimble’s return. Hasbro has also been an innovator by creating special rules for individual editions: for example, the Longest Game Ever edition (2019) slows players down by using only a single dice and has an extended game board. This demonstrates that Hasbro is keen to innovate and evolve the game to meet player expectations. Innovation and responsiveness to fans is one way that Hasbro has maintained Monopoly’s position as highest-selling board game. The only place the original Monopoly rules seem to be played intact are at the official competitions.
Collecting and Nostalgia
The characteristics of Monopoly allow for a seemingly infinite number of permutations. The places on the board can be real or fictional, making it easily adaptable to accommodate different environments. This is a factor in Monopoly’s longevity. The number of Monopoly editions are endless, with BoardGameGeek listing over 1,300 versions of the game on its site. Monopoly editions range from collector and commemorative editions to music, television, and film versions, actor-based editions, sports club editions, editions tied to toy franchises, animal lover editions, country editions, city editions, holiday editions, car brand editions, motor bike editions, as well as editions such as Monopoly Space, editions branded to popular confectionary, Ms Monopoly, and Go Green Monopoly. Each of these contain their own unique modifications. The Go Green version includes greenhouses, dice are made from FSC-certified wood from well-managed forests, tokens are made with plant-based plastic derived from sugarcane, a renewable raw material, and players can vie to have monopolistic control over renewable energy firms, solar farms, and bike paths.
Licencing agreements allows Hasbro to leverage two sets of popular culture fans and collectors simultaneously: fans of Monopoly and its different versions, and fans of the Monopoly branded collectable, such as the Elvis Collector’s edition and Breaking Bad Monopoly. Apart from licencing, what else explains the longevity of Monopoly? Fred Davis demonstrates that nostalgia is an important sociological phenomenon, allowing consumers to re-imagine the past via iconic items including toys. Generation Y, also known as Millennials or digital natives, a cohort born between 1982 and 1994 who have grown up with technology as part of their everyday lives, are particularly interested in ‘heritage-inspired’ goods (Marchegiani and Phau). These consumers enjoy the past with a critical eye, drawn by the aesthetic properties of nostalgic goods rather than a direct personal connection (Goulding 575).
Popular culture items are a site of widespread collecting behaviour (Geraghty 2). Belk argues that our possessions are used to construct our social selves. Collectors are a special kind of consumer: where consumers use and discard goods as needed, collectors engage with goods as special objects to be maintained and preserved (Belk 254), which is often achieved through ritualistic behaviour (McCracken 49). This is not to say that items in a collection are removed from use entirely: often being used in the normal manner, for example, clothing collectors will wear their items, yet take care of them in the a way they see akin to conservatorship (Hackett).
Collections are often on display, often using the flexibility of the Internet as showground, as is the case with Neil Scallon’s world record collection of Monopoly’s 3,554 different versions of the game (World of Monopoly). Monopoly has low barriers to entry for a collector, as many sets retail at a low price-point, yet there are a few sets which are very expensive. The most expensive Monopoly set of all time retailed for US$2 million, and the cost was mainly borne out of the luxurious materials used: “the board is made from 23 carat gold, rubies and sapphires top the chimneys of the solid gold houses and hotels and the dice have 42 full cut diamonds for spots” (Guinness World Records "Most Expensive").
The recent resurgence in board game popularity has only served to highlight Monopoly’s longevity. Through clever marketing and leveraging of nostalgia and popular culture fandoms, Hasbro has managed to retain Monopoly’s position as the number one board game, in sales figures at least. Despite its popularity, Monopoly suffers from a reputation as a conduit for poor player behaviour, as one person triumphs at the downfall of the other players. The game dynamics punish those whom fortune did not reward. In this regard, Elizabeth Magie’s initial aim of teaching about the unfairness of capitalism can be considered a resounding success. In re-establishing her role as a feminist and inventor at the turn of the century, embraced by progressive left-wingers of the 1930s, her story as much as that of Monopoly is a valuable contribution to modern popular culture.
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