The Landlord’s Game

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Every game from Rock Paper Scissors, to Tennis to Mario Kart is a design system.

EZ: I like to think of game design as a design discipline that is sort of shoulder to shoulder with other design fields like graphic design, or architecture, or industrial design.

RM: This is Eric Zimmerman.

EZ: I work at the N.Y.U. Game Center. I’m actually a professor of game design; If you can believe that.

RM: The raw materials that game designers work with are the rules.

EZ: What game designers do, in essence is create the rules of the game. But when players enter into the system of the game and decide to follow the rules, what results is play, and play is the opposite of rules. So while rules are fixed and rigid and logical, play is improvisational and creative and spontaneous; And that’s such an amazing, weird little paradox of games.

RM: The goal of a good game design is what Eric calls meaningful play.

EZ: And it’s sort of a shorthand for making sure that you’re taking care of your players.

RM:Ensuring that players stay engaged, and that their actions have consequences.

BE: All of that make sense.

RM: That’s Blake Eskin. He makes The Observatory podcast for Design Observer.

BE: But there’s one game, It’s a really popular one. And when I play it, I don’t feel taken care of as a player. I feel bored, I feel trapped. I Feel like it’s never going to end.

AT: Here I go (rolls dice).

BE: Monopoly.

AT: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. (Everyone yells “Ohhhhhh!”)

BE: I get some money, you get some money. I get some money, you get some money.

RM: You are a racecar, or a hat, or an iron, or a Scottie dog.

(Gang is playing Monopoly)

RM: You’re circling around and around the board. Passing Go, collecting 200.00, buying property. Having to pay when you land on someone else’s property, building houses, passing Go again, circling again.

“Oh no!”

BE: That’s usually the critique of Monopoly. That it’s very very slow and long, and it ends up being this very gradual slog where one player gradually survives the others as you know, everyone is bleeded out for money from each other.

EZ: Exactly.

“No, I hate it!” (evil laughter)

BE:: Here’s Louis C.K. talking about playing the game with his kids.

LCK: The monopoly loss is dark. It’s heavy. When she loses at Monopoly I got a look at the little face and I go, “Okay so here’s was going to happen now, ok? All your property, everything you have, all your railroads, your houses, all your money, that’s mine now.”

RM: Monopoly can be slow. The losses as Louis C.K. pointed out, can be dark. And yet, the game is incredibly popular.

EZ: It breaks all of these classic rules of good design but in very interesting ways.

BE: When monopoly was created, It wasn’t supposed to teach children to be ruthless capitalists. In fact it was just the opposite.

EZ: It became the embodiment of everything that it originally set out to critique. And I think that’s maybe part of the fascination of Monopoly. Maybe buried inside this capitalist fantasy are somehow the seeds of it’s opposite. Hidden there somewhere within the design.

BE: The game we call Monopoly goes back to the Gilded Age. A time of great prosperity in America, at least for the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. The rest of the country was not doing so well. Income inequality was growing, but an economist named Henry George thought he had a solution.

RM: Henry George proposed a single tax theory which would completely upend the American capitalist system as we know it. Land ownership would be abolished. Instead all land would be public property. Individuals and companies would rent land, and that rent would get taxed, and this in theory would create an economy where wealth is distributed more fairly. The theory is much more complicated than that, but that’s all you going to get from me. Go listen to Planet Money or something….

BE: This single tax theory gained a lot of followers. Including one woman named Lizzie McGee.
MP: Lizzie was a woman who I consider be very before her time.

BE: That’s Mary Pilon, author of The Monopolists Obsession: Fury and The Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. The story that starts with Lizzie McGee.

RM: Lizzie McGee decided to spread the word about single tax theory. In 1904 she patented a board game that she called The Landlord’s Game.

MP: Landlords at the time were considered to be bad people.

BE: McGee took a white square board, labeled one corner “Go to Jail”, another one she labeled “Public Park.” And the rest of it was rimmed with rectangular spaces that players could rent or buy. There were no colors, no graphics. Just black rectangles and writing on a whiteboard.

RM: Players roll dice and circled the board, buying up properties and railroads, collecting money and paying rent. Players who ran out of money were sent to the poorhouse. Players who trespassed on land were sent to jail.

MP: And she created two rule sets, there was a Monopolist rule set, and then a Single Tax Rule set.

BE: if you played with the single tax rules, when one player develops property everyone benefits. But in the Monopolist rules, the goal is to create monopolies and crush each other. The hope was you would play with both sets of rules, see the differences, and come away totally sold on the single tax theory.

MP: The more vice laden one clearly has taken off, ironically enough.

RM: Of course everyone preferred the Monopolies rule set because in a board game being evil is fun, and the landlord’s game had a greater capacity for evil than most board games at the time.

EZ: If you look at games that are like late, very end of Nineteenth Century, early Twentieth Century games, there’s not a lot of depth to them. They’re mostly games where you’re just kind of moving characters along a track rolling a die. And I think in that context The Landlord’s Game probably stuck out as something really interesting, weird, different, and innovative.

BE: The Landlord’s Game made its way around the Northeast to college campuses, and activist circles.

RM: Folk variations organically popped up in different cities, and properties on the board would be named after real streets and locations.

BE: And around the time of the depression, a man named Charles Darrow stumbled upon a version of The Landlord’s Game that was made in a Quaker community in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It featured locations like Marvin Gardens and Vermont Avenue, and the boardwalk. Darrow basically nabbed the Quaker version of The Landlord’s Game and started to tweak it into a board game that he would sell himself. He called it, Monopoly.

MP: Darrow, my reporting has yielded that you know, that he was in fact unemployed at the time. He was in fact living in the Philadelphia area, and this game made him enormously successful.

BE: Darrow made one game a day by hand. He sold them out of his home for 4.00 a piece. He used bright cheap paint, and he misspelled a few of the locations in Atlantic City. And yes, he totally stole the concept.

RM: The look of the game was pretty much The Landlord’s Game, but Darrow improved the graphics and added some color.

EZ: There’s a kind of graphic clarity to Monopoly that’s really satisfying.

BE: And the game started selling like hotcakes. Maybe because it was really fun to handle all of that fake money, especially during the Depression.

RM: And then Monopoly attracts the attention of a family owned company called Parker Brothers.

MP: They buy the Darrow game, and they buy his leftover stock. It saves the firm from the brink of destruction.

BE: But Parker Brothers wasn’t pleased when they learned that Darrow had not actually invented Monopoly. So they start to stamp out all the different versions of Lizzie McGee’s game. And finally they buy her patent.

MP: Lizzie McGee as best as we know got about five hundred dollars for creating you know, the Landlord’s Game which is what I consider to be the foundation of Monopoly.

RM: Monopoly then becomes the sole property of Parker Brothers and for years, Parker Brothers perpetuates the myth that Darrow just invented the game out of whole cloth. Monopoly made a lot of money for Parker Brothers then eventually got acquired by Hasbro.

BE: And of course today, Monopoly everywhere. There are hundreds of variations on the game. International competitions, that McDonald’s promotion. And all kinds of shirts and mugs and neckties printed with Monopoly graphics.

RM: But just because people buy it doesn’t mean they play it.

MP: I think that people buy Monopoly, not necessarily to play it as a great game but because it’s Monopoly. And it’s something you have in your closet, and something you should have.

EZ: To me Monopoly feels like a cheesy Christmas album. Like you know, Bing Crosby or something where it’s not something that you would normally listen to, but it’s kind of something that you might drag out in an ironic way, or in in a nostalgic way.

RM: And that nostalgia feeds itself.

EZ: Then you have parents with kids that are getting the nostalgic about the games that they played, and they want to introduce those games to their children and play them again.

BE: In other words Monopoly isn’t popular because it’s a great game. It’s only popular now because it was popular then, and we don’t even play by the real rules.

MP: Well nobody plays right to begin with. How many people actually read the rule set that comes in a commercial Monopoly set?

RM: For example. The way most people play, if you land on an available property that you don’t want to buy or can’t afford, nothing happens, and that is technically wrong.

BE: According to the directions if you land on an available property that you don’t want or can’t afford it gets auctioned off. This could make the game way more exciting. Though not necessarily faster.

EZ: If you can imagine every turn it’s not like a quick decision, “Do I buy this or not?” it’s like, “Let’s start an auction, what do you think? Well let’s auction this, and who’s going to bid higher?” and so it drags out the game.

RM: But Eric is reluctant to accuse anyone of playing Monopoly, wrong.

EZ: The way we play Monopoly, even all the cheating that happens, Monopoly is notorious for people cheating and hiding money and taking money from the bank and things like that that. I mean that is monopoly, right? Monopoly is not just a set of rules. Monopoly is all of the cultural meaning, and all the ways that we play it, and all of the ways that we that we use and misuse the game.

BE: And this is why some game designers defend Monopoly.

EZ:The game designer Richard Garfield; He’s a brilliant game designer he invented collectible card games with Magic the Gathering. I’ve heard him defend Monopoly and say there are some things about Monopoly that are actually kind of interesting.

RG: I was at a convention and came back and my son told me that he had played Monopoly for the first time with a sister and that they really enjoyed the game.

BE: That’s the legend himself.

RG: I said “All that’s great. How many times did you play and who won?” And he looked at me
with a strange look in his eye and said “Oh you don’t win Monopoly, you just play it.” It’s not as much about the rank at the end. If you’re having fun doing the process of play, for a lot of kids that’s a game.

RM: So for kids, meaningful play in Monopoly comes when the game is treated less like playing chess and more like playing house.

RG: Collecting property is a good thing, getting money is a good thing, being the scottie dogs a good thing, and not going to jail is a good thing. But there’s not necessarily an end to it all. this It’s just you’re following rules are making decisions and accumulating good and bad things.

BE: For me this was a total revelation.

RM: I think there may be something to that, but I have to say I played Monopoly for the first time with my boys recently and they were totally in it to win it. Carver crushed us all; And when we went bankrupt he would continue to give us little bits of money. Just so we would stay in the game and he could crush us all over again. He was exactly the kind of capitalist that Lizzie McGee was trying to warn us about. And he loved it.

CM: My favorite part in Monopoly is taking money from my brother when I made huge hotels. I really like annoying. My brother.

99% Invisible was produced this week by Blake Eskin in and Avery Trufleman as the iron. With Sam Greenspan as the hat, Katie Mingle as the Scottie dog, and game winner Kurt Kohlstedt as the wheelbarrow also playing with Morgan Dewey as my favorite, the race car. Eric Zimmerman co-wrote a handbook on game design called Rules of Play in it he and Katie Salen tell you pretty much everything you need to design a good game. And you can easily take those tools to design a good anything. Special thanks as week to Emily Kwong and Jesse Fuchs, Matt Forbeck, Sophie Belkin-Sessler, and everyone at the NYU Game Center.



Producer Blake Eskin of the Observatory podcast spoke with Eric Zimmerman, Professor of Game Design at the New York University Game Center and co-author of Rules of PlayMary Pilon, author of The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game; and Richard Garfield, game designer and creator of Magic: The Gathering.

  1. Sean Redmond

    I play hour-long monopoly with my kids at home.
    The rules are simple: the person with the most money after an hour wins. Property, houses & hotels count for nothing.
    It completely changes the dynamic of the game. If you buy too many properties, you have to be very lucky very quickly to recoup your investment.
    If you buy very little or nothing, then you have a greater chance of paying rent to others.
    Staying in prison becomes a viable option when you are rich.

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