The announcement of Monopoly's new cat token reminded me of a piece I wrote about Monopoly for an airline magazine in 1995. The occasion was the game's 60th anniversary. It goes a little something like this.
Memo to Ken Burns: The Civil War and baseball documentaries you presented on PBS were swell ideas. But why nor explore a truly classic icon of our civilization? I refer to Monopoly — a game for all seasons and all families and all nations. (A little banjo music, please.) Monopoly is played on rickety card tables and elaborately carved oaken antiques. It is at once a city game and a country game and, yes, maybe even a condo time-share game. It is played by the fireplace, on the picnic meadow and on the beach, lit by a fiery setting sun. And now it is played in cyberspace, thanks to the new CD-ROM edition.
Monopoly has enriched the language. We do not just reprove malingerers. We tell them they cannot “pass go.” And doesn’t everyone yearn for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card? Each game is a saga of laughter and tears (and let’s not forget triumph and defeat). Youngsters get to play adults as peers in a rite of passage.
Ever since unemployed engineer Charles Darrow created the game in 1933 on his kitchen table, more than 160 million sets have been sold in more than 103 countries. (It’s printed in 37 languages.) Darrow approached Parker Brothers (no doubt, top hat in hand) with the hope of selling his idea to the game manufacturer. The company found too many ‘design flaws” and turned him down.
Darrow was not afraid to roll the dice and do it on his own. His success inspired a change of mind. In 1935, Monopoly became a Parker Brothers game. (In this; the 60th anniversary year, there is a special commemorative edition.)
In 1936, George Parker wanted to foreclose on Monopoly. It’s not a good game, he argued. Too many things go wrong. But sales figures inspired a change of heart. Parker was right. Monopoly is not an elegant game. Its cumbersome rules and slow-motion play defy entertainment guidelines. And therein lies its appeal. Monopoly is both total escape and absolute mirror of — dare I say it — life. The rules are complex and sometimes you have to make up your own. The real action does not take place on the board. It happens in the feverish and fertile minds of the players.
Edward H Parker, former Parker Brothers president, identified the game’s charm as “clobbering your best friend without doing any damage.” We get to experience the taboo sensations of greed and reckless abandon. We thrill to our own desperation. And there is hope. We know our first property purchase will lead to a monopoly and then houses and then hotels and then money, money, money.
Monopoly is a certainty. Unlike baseball, it has not changed. Oh, the packaging gets a facelift every 10 years or so, but the colors, the symbols, the artwork, the prices and the rules are the same as they always were. There is no designated banker rule. There is no MTV version of Monopoly. There are only the sounds that are part of our heritage — the clatter of dice, the whisper of transferred deeds and money and the tap. tap. tap of tokens marching across the board.
And, Ken, you’ll have fun with the visuals — from the deeds to the chance cards to the animated graphics in the CD-ROM version. Nowhere in this memo have I bothered to describe the game. That is the simplest proof of its place in our society. Without ever having met you. I know that you can feel all the delicious sensations evoked by the very word, Monopoly.
May all bank errors be ‘in your favor.