Posted on 16th July 2019
Originally known as The Landlord’s Game, designed in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, Monopoly was intended as an educational anti-capitalist board game.
Magie (1866 – 1948) was a Quaker who wanted to illustrate the progressive economics of Henry George (1839 – 1897). George believed that while people were free to seek individual gain from work the value and wealth of land should be shared by all members of society, reminiscent of the 17th century Diggers and their use of common land.
George’s economic philosophy became known as Georgism and it went further by criticizing the high rent charged by those landlords that had a monopoly on owning land and property. The philosophical basis of Georgism dates back to several early thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Paine, but the concept of land value tax was widely popularized by George in his first book, Progress and Poverty (1879), as a remedy for the ill effects of land monopolism.
In Progress and Poverty, George argues:
“The equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence.”
The influence of George’s writing would run throughout Magie’s life. She was born in Illinois and worked as a stenographer as well being a short story and poetry writer, comedian, stage actress, feminist, and engineer. She was granted a patent for the Landord’s Game in 1904 and, with help from some fellow Georgists, it went into small-scale production. Upon the launch, Magie described the game as:
“A practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences. It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life’, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”
Two Sets of Rules
From its conception, The Landlord’s Game had two different sets of rules by which it could be played. The first set of rules were designed as anti-monopolist and known as the ‘Prosperity Rules’. Under the ‘Prosperity Rules’, every player gained money each time someone acquired a new property as land value tax was paid and evenly distributed among the players. All players would end the game with more money than they had started the game with and the winner would be the one who had made the most profit.
Under the ‘Monopolist Rules’, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner.
Unbeknownst to Magie at the time, it was the ‘Monopolist’ rules where you would dominate the market and crush your opponents that would later capture the public’s imagination.
The Landlord’s Game became popular with left-wing intellectuals and on college campuses. Over the next three decades the game slowly increased in popularity and a community of Quakers in Atlantic City customised the game by using the names of local neighbourhoods. This customization of the place names for different geographical regions is something that Monopoly carries on to this day.
The ‘Invention’ of Monopoly
It was in Atlantic City that an edition of The Landlord’s Game found its way to Charles Darrow. Unemployed at the time, Darrow began distributing the game and he soon realised he could make money out of it. Darrow changed the name to Monopoly and introduced new images onto squares such as the car on ‘Free Parking’ and the red arrow underneath ‘Go’.
Darrow claimed Monopoly as his sole invention and took it to games publisher Parker Brothers. Initially the company turned down Monopoly claiming it was too complicated to play. However, as Darrow steadily increased sales, the company reversed its decision and in 1934 it acquired the rights.
A year later, in 1935, Parker Brothers discovered Monopoly was merely a repackaged clone of Magie’s The Landlord’s Game. Therefore, they bought-out her original patent for a reported $500 to have undisputed ownership. Magie’s original patent expired six years later in 1941 and with that Parker Brothers were able to remove her name in connection with the game’s origins.
Magie would go on to make several more games, but all of them would fade into obscurity and she died, aged 82, in Virginia.