Dec 112012

Matt Haynes

Monopoly. Everyone’s played it, and even those coming of age on some distant plashy fen and still yet to set webbed foot on our fabled city’s steepled streets, run twelve podgy fingers over our beautiful Tube map, or wedge a plastic policeman’s helmet over an oddly over-sized head, soon find its simple paintbox geography imprinted upon their childish minds; they might not yet know the way to their nearest bus shelter, or the best place to buy illicit fags or race stoats, but they know that owning property on the Old Kent Road just isn’t worth the hassle, that the four most important stations in London are King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Marylebone and Fenchurch Street, and that Londoners spend much of their daily lives disguised as dogs and coming second in beauty contests.

So why does no one ever question the profound political inconsistency at the game’s very heart? The fact that, though ostensibly a naked celebration of rampant free-market capitalism, Monopoly stifles those very instincts that should engender success by insisting that the planning departments at Westminster, Camden, Tower Hamlets and Southwark impose absurdly draconian building regulations, allowing for the construction of nothing but small green houses or big red hotels. You don’t, for example, get the chance to open a department store or computer showroom, or to have a small parade of bakers, greengrocers and shoe repairers. (By which I mean a row of shops containing the premises of these people, not some gaudy procession in which representatives of the baking, greengrocery and cobbling trades march along in traditional ceremonial costume whilst tossing skyward the occasional pom-pommed majorette – you probably knew that, but it’s best to be clear.) And any public spirits eager to make their newly purchased square home to a small repertory theatre, to apply for charitable status to run it as a city farm, or to simply leave it vacant for a nice piece of civic sculpture, can forget it. Frankly, for Monopoly to remain relevant, the game’s command-economy mindset needs to be opened up to market forces.

Let’s start with those stations. Obviously Monopoly was developed in the days when a station was somewhere one went to catch a train; providing a plethora of gimcrack retail experiences so that the hours spent waiting for the delayed 17:45 to Peterborough (incoming train held up at Stevenage due to blizzards, or possibly lizards, on the line) could be more profitably endured, was not deemed necessary. But this is the 21st century, so surely players should be allowed to build on the stations? – provided, of course, that what they build is a Knickerbox, Sock Shop, Victoria Wine or Dixons, thus allowing our weary passenger to freshen up his nether regions, visually enhance his feet, and drink himself into desolation after being insulted by a multi-pustuled eighteen-year-old who thinks he knows everything about digital cameras. Other players subsequently landing on these squares would hand over ten pounds per franchise and spend the rest of the game feeling strangely ripped-off. And, once all four franchises were in place, planning permission for a Holiday Inn Express would be a formality next turn. (This is a slight side issue, but I’ve never quite got my head round the concept of “Express” hotels – do puffy-eyed businessmen stumble into reception at midnight saying “Look, I need a good night’s sleep, but I’m a busy man… is there some sort of stripped-down, no frills service you can do me that’ll get me out of here by six, trousers pressed?”) Ownership of all four stations would not affect the “rent”, but would secure a place on the board of Network Rail and a decent pension, which can be priceless in long games.

Water Works and Electric Company would, of course, merge, each square becoming one new utility, WaterGen; landing on either would mean paying 100 pounds, and then paying again when you reached the other side of the board, due to a clerical error. Free Parking would be sold off to NCP, and twenty-five pounds levied per visit, unless it was after 8 p.m. in which case a special night rate would apply but you wouldn’t be able to move again till next morning.

We also need to sort out the whole geographical thing… you know, Mayfair being not a street but an area, the Angel being a pub, Trafalgar Square being a building site and the Old Kent Road being a thin murky line on the south-eastern horizon made visible only by the smoke rising from the shells of car-jacked Vauxhall Novas. These anomalies arose because Waddington’s – who, in 1935, acquired the rights from Parker Brothers to make a UK edition of Monopoly – were based in Leeds, and thus knew nothing of our sophisticated metropolitan byways. Eager to get a London version in the shops in time for Christmas, Waddington’s spurned serious socio-economic research and instead splashed out on a couple of day returns to King’s Cross for managing director Victor Watson and his secretary Marjorie Phillips, who duly headed south armed with a pad, a pen, and a bag of Pontefract cakes as a gift for the Lord Mayor. And, clearly, the first thing they did on arrival was turn left out of King’s Cross and head up Pentonville Road to the Angel for a stiff one, being amazed, as Marjorie later recounted, at how much bigger, brighter and stiffer everything was in London.

To rationalise the first side of the board, I’d get rid of Angel and the flat-rate income tax square altogether, replacing the latter with a much more progressive 25% rate payable once on each circuit by everyone and using the space thus gained to smear Old Kent Road out across three squares, thereby introducing a modicum of geographical fidelity and also providing enough space for players to open a slew of grim retail parks and a branch of Lidl. Similarly, the Trafalgar Square conundrum could be resolved by pedestrianising it to make a new public space, Just Busking, ownership of which would entitle the buyer to one pound every time someone landed on it, though in return he’d have to sing them the first verse of Wonderwall. Mayfair I’d retain, but only those prepared to remain anonymous for the rest of the game would be allowed to buy it, their token henceforth being moved round the board by a legally-appointed representative receiving instructions via a phone line from the kitchen.

This will all vastly improve the game but it still fails to answer my original question – why was Monopoly seemingly devised to quell imaginative investment and encourage an almost Stalinist strain of Barratt Home-ism? Well, perhaps the answer lies on the well-scrubbed doorstep of a nice Quaker lady from Maryland called Elizabeth Magie, who conceived Monopoly in 1904 as a morally improving ANTI-capitalist game which she hoped would make children aware of the evils of greed and speculation – there were even squares on which a tax was paid to the Public Treasury for provision of bread, coal, shelter and clothing. She called it “The Landlord’s Game”, but her idea was bootlegged widely across Maryland and Pennsylvania until a version based on Atlantic City, developed and sold in a self-funded run of 5,000 by a heating engineer from Germantown named Charles Darrow, was finally sold to Parker Brothers in the spring of ’35. Thereafter the capitalist rot set in, and the game was subsequently banned in the USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea and most homes throughout the UK on Boxing Day.

Monopoly isn’t alone in having Politically Correct origins. The first copies of Cluedo, for example, were sold outside tube stations on Saturday mornings by hairy people in donkey jackets to warn of the perils of country-house weekends, and Scrabble was devised as a liberating celebration of dyslexia – originally, you were allowed to put the letters down in any old order you wanted, as long as you knew what word you had in mind; insisting that it matched the accepted dictionary entry, thereby cowing the imaginations of poor spellers, came later. The political implications of Kerplunk remain obscure, but it probably has something to do with the Tory Party.

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 2 in 2003,
which may explain some of the references.]

About the author