Local Journalist Reveals the Scandalous History Behind a Major Board Game

Mary Pilon on her new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game

By Marty Patail April 2, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

How did you end up writing a book about a board game?
I was writing about business and finance at the Wall Street Journal in 2009. You remember: things were very depressing. I had grown up playing a lot of games and video games. I grew up in Eugene, where it was cold and rainy. I was going to have a throwaway line in a story about how Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression. I kept looking around [at the history], and it wasn’t adding up. 

So what’s the real story?
Most people think Monopoly was invented by a guy in the Great Depression, this man Charles Darrow. But the history starts far earlier. It was invented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in 1904. And her game spread pretty extensively among left-wing intellectuals, especially in the Northeast. A version of that game was sold to Parker Brothers. 

How was her original game different?
Early Monopoly was called the Landlord’s Game. Magie created it as a protest against the monopolists of her time. She was an impassioned follower of [Progressive Era economist] Henry George, who was talking about income inequality. So she used her game as a teaching tool to teach people about the evils of monopolies.

How did we end up with our version?
Lizzie Magie’s original game had two rules sets: a monopolists’ rule set and an anti-monopolists rule set. And I’ve always wondered why the monopolists’ rule set took off. Maybe because in real life, most of us can’t be tycoons crushing people, let alone our friends and family. It’s very ironic to me that something that was intended to be one thing ended up as its total opposite. We can’t blame Lizzie for all of that. The game has very much evolved as we have played it.  

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