Day 577: Uncle Pennybags’ Wild Ride

originally published July 30, 2013

At this stage in my adult life, when heading out to the bar requires a much higher douche-bag resistance quotient than I personally possess, not to mention an unfathomable tolerance for mediocre music and overpriced beer, I tend to pursue more sedentary party options. My wife and I occasionally indulge our socialization appetite through board games nights: friends, snacks, booze and a lot more Dr. John and Tower of Power than one would expect to hear at almost any happening night spot, in this decade anyway.

But beneath the scads of Scattergories pads and beneath the cache of Cards Against Humanity combos, one sad box that never gets cracked on games night is Monopoly. We have our reasons. A single game of Monopoly would dominate the entire evening. The game itself is 90% waiting for your turn, with no real options for creativity, which means that alcohol does not make the game more fun. And unless you happen to be the one with all the colorful paper cash at the end, then you probably stopped having fun a while ago.

But Monopoly was never meant to be a 3-4 hour romp of unrestrained mirth. It was meant to be a lesson.

That fun-looking lady with the fun-looking eyebrows is Lizzie Magie, who patented a game called The Landlord Game back in 1903. She wanted to espouse her confidence in Georgist economics – the belief that people should own what they create, but things like land should belong equally to everyone. She wanted the world to see that the concept of ‘rent’ enriched land owners and drained tenants to the poor house.

So the idea behind The Landlord Game, much like Monopoly, is that the person who wins is essentially the asshole who has prospered at the expense of everyone else. At game’s end, we are meant to look at the schmuck with all the cash and reason that hey, this is not an optimum arrangement. The object of the game is to reach the most detrimental societal circumstance. Knowing this takes a lot of the fun out of the game, but then unless you’re playing with a group of people with whom you’ll enjoy chatting and laughing with between a whole lot of turns, you probably aren’t going to have a lot of fun playing Monopoly anyway.

The Landlord’s Game was rereleased in 1924, and it caught on in colleges around the northeast over the ensuing years. The updated version featured actual Chicago streets. A woman named Ruth Hoskins did up her own board featuring streets in Atlantic City, and taught it to a group of local Quakers. The game was passed through a few more people before landing in the hands of Charles Darrow. Darrow kept the Atlantic City geography, tweaked some of the game’s finer points, and pitched the game to Parker Brothers.

They said no. Milton Bradley also said no. It was only when Darrow bagged some impressive numbers hawking the game himself over the Christmas season in 1934 that Parker Brothers called him up with an offer. They bought up Darrow’s patent as well as Lizzie Magie’s, and relaunched the game in 1935. The first edition contained no logo for Community Chest, no big ring for the Luxury Tax, and the Income Tax was a hundred dollars higher than it is today. Also absent was the mascot that would serve as the game’s icon – Rich Uncle Pennybags wouldn’t show up until 1936.

London was the first city to fire off a regional version of the game, with Park Lane and Mayfair in the coveted Park Place / Boardwalk slots. Apart from a brief foray into using a cardboard spinner instead of dice during the war when supplies were at a premium, the game itself didn’t change much until the 1990’s, when Parker Brothers felt they needed to make attempts to reinvent the game for the young, hep youth of America.

The game was not popular among the high-ranking Nazi officials, who declared that the “Jewish-speculative character” was not appropriate for Hitler Youth. The truth was that some officials actually lived on the streets depicted in the German version of the game, and they didn’t want to be associated with a frivolous game.

But for all the deluxe editions, local releases and speeded-up versions of the game, I’m still more interested in the original.

Yes, that’s ‘Marven Gardens’, with an ‘-en’. A typo that has endured through the ages, even after Parker Brothers formally apologized to the area’s residents in 1995 for the error. Also, the B&O Railroad never passed through Atlantic City, and ‘Short Line’ is an abbreviated form of the actual Shore Fast Line, a streetcar line that ran up until 1948. But otherwise, all the properties were once part of the Atlantic City landscape. Illinois Avenue is gone now, having been renamed Martin Luther King Blvd. during the 1980’s. St. Charles Place is also a memory, as it was razed to make way for the Showboat Casino Hotel.

While it was noteworthy that Monopoly came with metal tokens, some of them haven’t stood the test of time. The lantern, purse and rocking horse were retired in the 50’s, while the money-bag, the cannon, the iron and the man on horseback were phased out more recently. It was in the 2013 edition that the iron was replaced by a cat. I suppose dog people have had that Scottish Terrier to boot around the board since it replaced the lantern, so this was a fair move.

The Free Parking rule is perhaps the most contentious part of the game. Some prefer to tuck any money gained from Luxury Tax, Income Tax, or for a $50 get-out-of-jail bribe underneath Free Parking, awarding it like a lotto prize to whomever lands on the space. Monopoly’s rules are more realistic – there is no reward, and that money should all go straight to the bank, to whom we are all subservient.

If you land on an unowned piece of real estate and choose not to buy it, play doesn’t just move forward. No, the space is supposed to be auctioned off to all players, which really cuts down on time spent waiting for someone to finally land on Oriental Avenue and buy the damn thing. Another rule – if someone owns all the properties in a color group and has built just one measly house on one property, you still have to pay double the rent if you land on either of the other two properties in that group.

Oh, and if you roll doubles you get to go again – most people know that. But roll doubles three times in a row and you go to jail. You just can’t have too much fun at the system’s expense.

And if you win, you are the system. And everyone resents you. Congratulations!

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