Monopoly: A Family-Friendly Pastime or America’s Cruelest Board Game?

Governor Earl Warren of California and four of his six children spend a pleasant evening at home with one of their favorite family games.” Pleasant evening? Right! (Quote and photograph from Library of Congress)

Let me begin by acknowledging our daughter Sara’s contribution to today’s Andy’s Corner. First, she texted me a link to a recent New Yorker review by Simon Parkin of a new PBS series “Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History.” Sara noted that the topic seemed like “fodder for Andy’s Corner” and she was right. And, I should add, Sara’s two boys (AKA our grandsons) spent a good chunk of their childhood demonstrating to me why Parkin was correct in claiming that Monopoly is America’s cruelest board game.

A picture is worth a 1,000 words. I love this Illustration by Kyle Ellingson from the New Yorker.

Despite the many (and I do mean many) hours spent with the grandsons, rolling dice and praying that I wouldn’t land on a property graced with one of their hotels, I knew next to nothing of the game’s origins nor gave much thought to its social, economic, and psychological implications. Anyway, who would want to contemplate such heavy issues when having so much “fun” while being economically devastated and psychologically humiliated by one’s own grandchildren? Parkins’ New Yorker article offered some solace by suggesting that I was not alone with my thinly-veiled resentment toward those family members sitting across the board from me:

Move by move, territory is lost to competing landlords, who work to bankrupt their rivals, acquire their assets, and establish a monopoly. By the end of the game, all but one player sit, frowning, indebted to the friend or family member who has negotiated, through an infuriating combination of luck and avarice, domination of the board… Most games invite players to best their opponents; few require such total humiliation as Monopoly.

Lizzie Magie, a “charismatic feminist, actor, and poet.” (photo from

But the humiliation I and countless others have experienced playing the game pales in comparison to that of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie. Her story, the topic of that PBS documentary, is a tale of a progressive woman struggling to promote a game meant to be a critique of capitalism in a male-dominated capitalist system .

The game was originally designed in 1903, by Lizzie Magie, a charismatic feminist, actor, and poet. At the time, most board games, like most novels for children, were viewed as vessels for moral instruction. Magie called her creation the Landlord’s Game, basing it on [the theory] that the value of land should be shared by the people rather than extracted by property owners.

The Landlord’s Game, which became Monopoly, was created by Elizabeth Magie. Photo from the NY Times article, Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass ‘Go

But her Landlord game suffered an unexpected turn. Here’s a brief account from a NY Times article entitled “Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass Go:”

The Landlord’s Game, which Magie self-published, became a cult classic. And eventually, it drew the attention of a man named Charles Darrow.

Darrow distributed his own version of the game — called Monopoly — and, despite not being the original creator, licensed it to a large-scale family business called Parker Brothers. 

In November of 1935, Parker Brothers bought the invention patent for The Landlord’s Game from Magie for $500, then in ads for the game credited Darrow as Monopoly’s sole inventor.

Charles B. Darrow took credit for creating Monopoly and became a millionaire. Photo from The Atlantic.

Darrow went on to reap the benefits of Monopoly‘s success, retiring as a millionaire a year after selling “his” game to Parker Brothers and raking in the royalties after that. Monopoly turned out to be the all time best selling board game in the U.S. (more than 275 million copies) and has been translated into 47 languages and is played in 114 countries. Not bad for a little plagiaristic creativity!

Meanwhile, beyond the $500 Lizzie received from Parker Brothers, she had nothing to show for her creation. According to a 2019 Washington Post article, “She never made any royalties off what she described as ‘my beloved brainchild,’ and when she died in relative obscurity in 1948, no mention of the game appeared in her obituary.”

I definitely can empathize with Lizzie. Indeed, my dismal record while playing Monopoly with my two grandkids was somewhat reminiscent of Lizzie’s experience with Darrow. The boys learned at a very young age (which for them was not so tender) that under-the-table collaboration and other forms of conniving were effective ways to compromise a superior opponent (such as their grandfather). Of course, casting the dice does lend some element of chance to the game, but the cheating (at least that’s the way I interpret their collusion) always seemed to trump my solid planning and above-the-board integrity. Looking back on all of this realistically, I would have to say that Monopoly probably provided my grandkids with some useful tools as future entrepreneurs and leaders of this country (heaven forbid!).

Moss and Silas in 2010, honing their illicit collaborative strategy in a game of Cat-opoly (the equivalent to a minor league Monopoly game).

While searching for material for this blog, I learned that there are dozens of versions of Monopoly, including Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, National Parks, and The Simpsons to name just a few. But the one that caught my attention is the Cheaters Edition which was introduced in 2018. In this version players are not only encouraged to cheat but are rewarded each time they successfully get away with their cheating. Evidently, the object of the game is for the best cheater to “own it all.”

At least the grandkids would be following the rules for a change.

But wait a minute! Isn’t that exactly the version of Monopoly that Moss and Silas created long before 2018 through their own ingenuity? Did they, like Lizzie, get stiffed by the board game cartel (now Hasbro, which owns all Monopoly rights)? And are they too being denied the share of the profits that their creation would earn on the market?

What all of this suggests to me is that if Monopoly is indeed a “vessel of moral instruction,” the lesson would not be that “cheaters never prosper,” but rather that cheaters who control the market will always prosper. Think about this the next time you spend a “pleasant evening” at home playing Monopoly with your grandkids. And be sure to watch your back.

After my blog had gone to the printers I came across this 1988 strip from one of my favorite comics. It appears that our grandkids may not have been the first ones to have come up with creative innovations to the rules of Monopoly!

Calvin & Hobbes Comic strip – January 24th, 1988 (source

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