Book Review: Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game, by Philip Orbanes

Right up front I need to admit that I am a big fan of the board game Monopoly. I own about a half-dozen different versions and as I learned the game on an English set, I am far more likely to think about playing the game in terms of Euston Road and King’s Cross Station than I am to consider the original American equivalents of Ventnor Ave and Reading Railroad.
Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game, by Philip OrbanesNot only that, but years ago I subverted the largest minicomputer at HP’s Fort Collins Networking Operation facility on weekends to run Monopoly simulations so I could amass very large amounts of statistical data regarding which properties were most likely to be landed upon, which offered the best cost/benefit ratio, etc. This involved simulating dice rolls, the Chance and Community Chest cards, and even modeling the rules of getting into, and out of jail.
As I sit here and type this blog entry, I can glance up and see my (relatively rare) Express Monopoly card game, Monopoly Jr., a big hit with my kids, and a new “opoly” game called Horse-opoly, thematically tied into the world of equestrians where you’re buying breeds, not property. I also just recently bought The Anti-Monopoly Game, an anti-establishment game from the mid 70s, after reading about it in Orbanes’ book, though I haven’t yet had a chance to play it.
Suffice to say, I’m probably the perfect person to read and review Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way by Philip Orbanes. I didn’t realize it when I started reading the book, but I already have – and have compared notes and findings based on my analysis with – Orbanes’ previous book, The Monopoly Companion, wherein he presents his own statistical analysis of the board and offers up some smart playing strategies. For the record, our findings are quite similar. 🙂
When Da Capo Press sent me this book for review I admit I thought it would be interesting, but pretty dry reading, insularly focused on the evolution of the game within Parker Brothers. I was completely wrong. In fact, this is a fascinating book that spends far more time talking about the economic and historical situation during various points in the evolution of Monopoly than the nuts and bolts of the modern game itself.

The book starts out with a discussion of the first real ancestor of Monopoly, The Landlord’s Game, introduced around 1910 into the marketplace, then explained how this early game was adopted and, most importantly, adapted by different people to teach financial and economic topics. At one point along the way it became a torchbearer for single-tax proponents too.
In a strange twist, The Landlord’s Game was licensed in England and published under the name The Brer Fox Game as it continued to evolve. By 1925 Alice and Roy Stryker had again reinvented The Landlord Game, and through them Charles and Oliver Todd joined the ranks of fans who would play the game with friends of an evening.
Charles Todd just happened to be old schoolmates with Esther Darrow, whose husband was a chap named Charles Darrow. Like many, he quickly grew enamored of the game, but contrary to the mythology, Darrow did not invent Monopoly at all. He just retitled and tweaked The Landlord Game, adding color to the board and normalizing some of the rules.
Obranes excels at telling these sort of stories in this engaging book and has had access to lots of interesting corporate history too as a former SVP of Research and Development at Parker Brothers (he’s now head of Winning Moves games). His research included reviewing surprisingly many patents for different board games; I didn’t even realize that games were patented, though in retrospect it should be obvious that you have to protect your ideas in the gaming world. Philip Orbanes has also served as a judge at a number of different Monopoly tournaments, and those anecdotes are quite entertaining and interesting too, even if you never plan on getting into that cutthroat world.

Styker's Landlord Game
Stryker’s Original “Landlord Game”

Interestingly, the book is organized by historical eras, starting with 1903-1910, then every 5-10 years thereafter. During this time, and quite importantly, the Great Depression occurs, World War I and World War II help Americans spread ideas (and games) to Europe and elsewhere, and even President Ronald Reagan makes a guest appearance in one chapter.
The book also includes an extraordinary number of appendices, ten, that include the original rules of Parker’s 1936 edition of Monopoly, an excerpt of The Landlord Game’s 1904 patent application, rules for another important predecessor called Finance, a list of official affinity versions of Monopoly, foreign editions, and much more.
Weighing in at 249 pages, including about 20 pages of black and white photographs in the middle of the book and 50 pages of appendices, Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game is relatively light reading, but still far more interesting than you might imagine, even if you aren’t a big fan of the board game itself.
Here are some little-known facts about the game Monopoly too, just for fun:

  1. General Dwight Eisenhower played Monopoly to relieve stress.
  2. The iconic character of Mr. Monopoly was inspired by monopolistic financier J. P. Morgan’s natty attire.
  3. The Beatles played Monopoly during the 1964 tour of the United States.
  4. Over 200 million copies of Monopoly have been sold since its introduction in 1935.
  5. The game’s metal tokens were inspired by charms for charm bracelets, something that was hugely popular in the 1930s.
  6. The original deck of Chance cards included one that read “We’re off the Gold Standard.”
  7. The B&O railroad is the single most landed upon space and the most landed upon property group is orange.

I know, I know, you probably are now wondering how anyone can be quite so interested in a board game, but I’m telling ya, play a game of Monopoly with someone and you’ll learn quite a bit about them. 🙂
Anyway, I was very impressed with Philip Orbanes’ book and recommend it to anyone interested in history or gaming, and if you, like me, are a big Monopoly fan, then this is a must read, as is his earlier book The Monopoly Companion.

5 comments on “Book Review: Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game, by Philip Orbanes

  1. Wow, really cool article about Monopoly! I love the “little known facts” at the ending. :}
    I can’t say that I’m a big player (I’ve played it only a few times), but after reading this I think I’ll play Monopoly more often. :}

  2. Do you know anyone that remember a game called “Big Business”? It was all about oil wells. I remember playing it. I remember Pennsylvania Oil was one of the yellow properties.
    No one seem to remember… I think it was the early 60’s.

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