When 'Monopoly' was on the left: the anti-capitalist origins of the board game that returns every Christmas

Because of Monopoly, the most popular of the board games patented in the 20th century, almost all of us have been real estate speculators at some point. It has been our particular school of bulimic capitalism and social Darwinism. It has taught us to collect streets and hotels like a stamp collector, to conceive of life as a frantic race in circles collecting tolls, accumulating indecent amounts of money round by round, crushing the competition and doing everything possible. for avoiding that pair of twin curses that are prison and taxes.

One of the rituals of passing Barcelona children and adolescents has spent decades spending a quintal of play money to buy the duo of blue streets that was going to make us rich, Balmes and Passeig de Gràcia. The same goes for Madrid with the Prado and Castellana promenades, Americans with Boardwalk and Park Place, Parisians with rue de la Paix and the Champs Elysees or Londoners with Mayfair and Park Lane. And there are also editions dedicated to Cairo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaga, Tokyo, Nairobi, Bilbao, Cape Town, Prague, Berlin, Istanbul, Bogota or Lima.

In total, more than 200 local or thematic editions distributed among 103 different countries contribute to giving a universal dimension to this game converted to date into 37 languages ​​and of which, according to estimates by Hasbro, the current owner of its rights, more than 250 million copies. Its implementation is such that between 1975 and 2015 a Monopoly world championship was held, in venues such as New York, Monte Carlo, Bermuda, London, Berlin, Las Vegas or Macau. In 2004, a man from Madrid, Antonio Zafra Fernández, was proclaimed world champion in Tokyo, the king of table real estate speculators, and pocketed an amount in cash equivalent to the total money that moved in the original version of the game: $15,140.

Crying game

Surely in these days of Christmas holidays many of you have again incurred the guilty pleasure of playing Monopoly with family or friends. It is much more democratic than chess, more intuitive than Stratego or Cluedo, less childish than goose or ludo, more substantial than tic tac toe, not as stressful as Trivial and somewhat less depressing and ideologically questionable than Risk .

It has fierce detractors, of course, and many of them insist on what is almost obvious by now: that it's an outdated hobby (so old-fashioned that the rich still go to jail for it), that it's usually only enjoy if you are winning, that games tend to go on forever, that sooner or later the unscrupulous predator that we all carry inside will be brought out, that winning or losing is a simple matter of luck (no matter how much those who win consider themselves same financial geniuses and formidable strategists) and that its rules, despite the fact that everyone thinks they know them, continue to be the subject of infinite controversy.

However, if something can reconcile us with Monopoly, it is its random and very unconventional history. Because this playful arm of global capitalism was actually the brainchild of a left-wing feminist who envisioned it as a pedagogical tool, a kind of crash course in the risks of speculation and the toxicity of unrestrained capitalism. Years later, a salesman who had lost his job as a result of the Great Depression appropriated that alien idea, distorted it without even intending to, and ended up selling it to a multinational toy company that was still in its infancy at the time, Parker Brothers.

What do we play

The penultimate chapter of this intricate story begins on a fall soiree in 1932 in Philadelphia. That night, Charles Darrow, an unemployed door-to-door salesman at the time, played for the first time, together with his wife Esther, an unnamed game at the home of their close friends, Charles and Olive Todd. The pastime consisted of traversing a rectangular cardboard board while buying property, building hotels, and collecting passing taxes from players unfortunate enough to stumble upon your possessions.

It was fast, simple and addictive, although Charles Darrow was struck by the fact that its rules were somewhat imprecise. Charles Todd insisted that he had learned them as he went along, that during his business trips he had had the opportunity to play the game in various corners of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and that in each of those places it was played by different rules. At Darrow's insistence, Todd made the effort to collect all the rules he knew of and put them in writing.

Darrow stuck with the variants that seemed most coherent to him, created a better-looking handmade board than Todd had at home, and made an appointment with local Parker Brothers representatives, to whom he offered the game as if it were his own invention. . The toy company did not show excessive interest in this rather rudimentary hobby, so Darrow, despite his precarious situation (he had been unemployed for several months) chose to register it and try to market it on his own.

Against all odds, it was somewhat successful: it sold several hundred copies in the next two years. Furthermore, the game was reported as a curious novelty by the Philadelphia and New York press, and Parker Brothers, this time, approached Darrow in 1935 to buy out his patent and make a first professional edition of the game, which was christened Monopoly.

I patented it because it was mine (or nobody's)

Darrow always insisted that this was not an act of misappropriation, because the game did not seem to belong to anyone, it was played on improvised boards and with not entirely defined rules. It was, from his point of view, the result of a process of collective creation that was decanted over the years, and what he did was give it a certain entity and coherence. Turn an informal and somewhat chaotic pastime into a fully fledged board game.

As the journalist Mary Pilon explains in an article in The Guardian, Darrow's was for decades the official version of the origins of Monopoly, "a very suggestive and very profitable myth, since it attributed all the credit to a brilliant entrepreneur that it was going through a rough patch, which gave the story a certain dimension of an American parable, and granted Parker Brothers the rights to exploit the product.” But the point is that the game itself, its general concept, board, and rules, had been created and patented in Washington, D.C29 years before the Darrows and Todds spent that fall evening playing Monopoly of the future.

The mother of the idea was the activist, journalist, designer and inventor Elizabeth Magie. In 1903, at the age of 37, Magie presented in the enlightened leftist circles of the capital of the United States a brilliant occurrence called The Landlord's Game (the game of the landlord) whose purpose was to show in a practical way the ideas of one of his intellectual mentors. , the heterodox economist Henry George.

Capitalism with a human face

George believed that the original sin of the American economy was that it was controlled by a landed elite, urban and rural, which held back innovation, technological development, and the redistribution of wealth. In his opinion, it was that economic caste born of privilege, not effort or talent, that had the moral duty to finance the nation's development. And because she wasn't willing to do that, George was proposing to replace all federal taxes with a single, very high rate that landowners would have to pay.

Elizabeth Magie believed in this fiscal doctrine, the so-called Geordicism, and the game she had created was an attempt to show the benefits of the idea. In The Landlord's Game, you could play in two ways: cooperating or competing. In the first case, all the players prospered reasonably, the areas of influence were distributed harmoniously and they developed their business initiatives based on mutual respect and the desire not to interfere. In the second scenario, stark competition ruined all but one.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was immersed in a period of prosperity and optimism that came to be called the Progressive Era. The country had also endowed itself with legal protections against monopolistic practices such as the Sherman Act of 1890, an attempt to guide national development along the lines of free competition, thus preventing the collective effort from being exclusively capitalized by the selfish elites that George denounced. Magie, a stubborn progressive, was convinced that those who played her game would end up understanding as well as she did the benefits of harmonious cooperation and the absurdity of developing a predatory economy, with a letter of marque, destined to create prosperity for a few, the less scrupulous, and misery for the rest.

How to lose (and how to win)

What happened between 1903 and 1932 is that The Landlord's Game gradually acquired a life of its own, completely outside the intentions and expectations of its creator. It had been marketed very modestly, as Magie had always envisioned it as an educational project, not a business, and it was sold mostly to schools and libraries. However, many of those who had the opportunity to play it found it downright fun, and began to create homemade variants that circulated profusely on the east coast of the US and, most especially, the States of Pennsylvania and Illinois.

As it diverged from its original referent, the game gradually became skewed. The idea that sensible and balanced cooperation was the way for everyone to win within the framework of a capitalist economy oriented to the common good ceased to be intuitive after the First World War, in those years of convulsive and frenetic prosperity that were the ferocious years twenty (roaring twenties), and not to mention from 1929, when the Wall Street crash gave way to the Great Depression and an even worse intensification of the logic of every man for himself.

In the home version of the game that the Todds taught the Darrows that night in 1932, it was no longer about learning about economics and ethics, but simply about winning. Of being the smart type, with initiative and without fuss that ruins the rest. Any other way of conceiving it was already beginning to be supremely naive. In fact, as Pilon explains, among the little that had survived of Magie's spirit was "that order written in capital letters in one of the corners of the board, GO TO JAIL (go to jail)" that the activist intended to be a warning for sailors: if you act against society, society will end up acting against you.

To add to the ridicule, when Parker Brothers got hold of the patent and gave Monopoly the final form in which it was released commercially, almost identical to the current one, the names of the streets were taken from those of Atlantic City, in the state of New Sweater. It was not a random choice. This was the city most Americans associated with that decade of speculative, riotous growth that was the 1920s, the time when Elizabeth Magie's and Henry George's worst nightmares came true. You can get a rough idea of ​​what Atlantic City was like back then by watching the Boardwalk Empire series, chronicling the rise of a local gangster, Nucky Thompson, who would certainly have made a terrific Monopoly player.

The color code chosen for the streets of the game also has sinister connotations. As the final stretch of the board approached, the players entered the segregated area of ​​the city, that is, prohibited to African-American residents and, in general, those who were not wealthy, Protestants and Anglo-Saxons. The pair of blue streets, Boardwalk and Park Place, were the epicenter of that ghetto of white opulence where the middle class dreamed of one day settling.


Elizabeth Magie died in 1948 without even bothering to claim motherhood from the game that had been usurped from her. It had to be another heterodox economist, Ralph Anspach, who took it upon himself to do him some retrospective justice. In 1974, Anspach created Anti-Monopoly, a countercultural inducement to cooperate instead of compete very much in the spirit of what Magie had done 70 years earlier. He was sued by Parker Brothers, and in his research work to prepare his legal defense he ended up finding the patent for The Landlord's Game. That document related to the prehistory of board games allowed him to reach a very advantageous agreement and continue to market his variant.

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