Dec. 17, 2010 was a nail-biter for the staff at the National Museum of Play. Its curator made the 250-mile trip from Rochester, N.Y., to New York where he sat in Sotheby's wood-paneled auction room. "It was our curator and a phone bidder—just the two of them," recalled collections vp Christopher Bensch, "and it was all over in under a minute." The museum parted with $146,500 but gained a crown jewel. The world's oldest known Monopoly board had been sold.
Monopoly turns 80 this year, and while you might think that the digital age and the effects of the Great Recession would dampen enthusiasm for a board game that's all about foreclosures and bankruptcies, neither has. Monopoly remains the most popular game of all time, with over 275 million sets sold in 114 countries and 47 languages. "It's the ultimate American board game," Bensch said, "and it celebrates capitalism in all its wonders."
No kidding. The story of Monopoly is eerily like a game of Monopoly—right down to the trickery, the fortune and the failure.
In 1903, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie, a fiery progressive with a visceral dislike for robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, invented The Landlord's Game, "a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing" that levied players with exorbitant rents until they were destitute. It was an educational game, if not really a fun one.
By 1932, the game's fans included an unemployed Philadelphian named Charles Darrow, who began to tinker with it. Darrow simplified the board, incorporated property names from nearby Atlantic City and added quirky characters like the jailer and Rich Uncle Pennybags. Darrow called "his" game Monopoly, and after selling it to Parker Brothers in 1933, it made everyone rich.
Except for Lizzie. The miserable $500 Magie received from Parker Brothers didn't equal her legal costs in fighting for her split—which means that her own game, conceived to expose the rapaciousness of capitalism, bankrupted its own inventor.
Darrow has been accused of stealing Magie's idea—and, in a sense, he did. But Darrow was also the man who made the game marketable, and that says plenty about capitalism, too. Today, owner Hasbro licenses some 300 variants, including Walking Dead Monopoly and Cat-opoly. Whatever version you play, Bensch said, the vicarious thrill is still there: "It's a socially sanctioned way to exact revenge and money from your family and friends." What could be more capitalistic, and American, than that?
This story first appeared in the Aug. 31 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.