It's hard to imagine a board game more representative of U.S. history than Monopoly, with its land-grabbing gameplay and capitalist objectives. It has sold hundreds of millions of copies and is found in practically every home. For decades the story of its purported creator, Charles Darrow, was included with every game. His rags-to-riches tale might have fueled as many fantasies as the wads of fake money players get to handle.
Forty years after Parker Brothers launched the game, an economics professor named Ralph Anspach introduced his own game, Anti-Monopoly, and incurred the legal wrath of the company. In defending his right to produce Anti-Monopoly, Anspach uncovered a largely oral history of the game that is quite different from the official Parker Brothers legend. In "The Monopolists," Mary Pilon tells both stories: Anspach's David and Goliath-style legal battle against Parker Brothers, and the true history of Monopoly.
That history is interesting even if you don't love the game. It begins with Elizabeth Magie, a writer, game designer, early feminist and economic reformer. Her 1904 Landlord's Game was meant as an instructional tool (ironically, on the evils of monopolies) and had limited success. From Magie, Pilon works almost as an epidemiologist, tracing the spread of a viral idea through utopian communities, college fraternities and seaside resorts until Darrow plays the Monopoly Game on a handmade board at a dinner party. Given that the story is a century old, and some of it previously undocumented, this is a remarkable piece of research.
Pilon's account leaves no doubt about the origins of the game but shies away from moral absolutes. For example, it's clear that Magie's didactic game never would have found the same success as Monopoly. Darrow, though telling unforgivable whoppers, gets some credit for the finishing touches that helped Monopoly capture the public imagination, such as the cartoonish elements and peculiar tokens.
Anspach's story is more grounded in righteous outrage: the little guy falling deeply into debt, straining his marriage, rejecting generous settlements to stand by his principles; the big company throwing its weight around, perhaps defending its ownership of the rights to Monopoly precisely because its claim to them is so dubious.
Both are good stories, and Pilon knows the limits of her material. Readers are spared minute details about the game industry or the finer points of trademark law. Hard-core game fanatics hoping for an exhaustive history of Monopoly will have to keep waiting, but for the casual fan, "The Monopolists" is a quick, enjoyable read that takes less time than a game of Monopoly.
Kurtis Scaletta is a writer in Minneapolis.