Book Review – The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game

Written by Mary Pilon and published by Bloomsbury, 2015


I was thinking about it recently, and realized that the game I own the most books about, after Bridge, is clearly Monopoly.  Now, it’s not a close competition; I own well over 100 books about Bridge, and before I picked up The Monopolists, a mere 5 about Monopoly.  But for a game not in the public domain, that’s still a fair number.

I should say first – as with most modern board game enthusiasts, I am not a big fan of Monopoly.  But unlike many modern board game enthusiasts, I actually do like the game, and play it occasionally.  And, more importantly, I believe it was an integral step in the development of modern board games, every bit as much so as Tactics and Acquire and The Settlers of Catan.  In particular, the auctioning of properties, the decisions around what properties to focus upon, and most of all the trading in the game are elements entirely consistent with board games produced to this day.  So, having been brought up to respect my elders, as a board gamer I feel a need to respect – and study – Monopoly.

I actually acquired my first Monopoly book growing up – Maxine Brady’s The Monopoly Book.  It was an interesting book for the time, but lacked any of the pre-Darrow background on the game, and failed to recommend against the use of many popular house rules (if at least making clear that they _are_ house rules).  What was notable for me, at the time, was the detailed analysis of the game board, and the odds and returns on various possibilities.

If was only later I came across four additional books.  The first of these, The Monopoly Companion, provided a far more accurate history, in brief, along with some more refined play advice.  Philip Orbanes’ Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way told a somewhat different, and interesting, tale of the development of the game.  Ralph Anspach’s The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle was – a little dry, even for someone inclined to be sympathetic towards Anspach’s case.  That, and more than a bit self-serving; parts felt like an advertisement for Anti-Monopoly, a game which has never held the same level of interest for me as Monopoly – even if I did appreciate the choice to emphasize Elizabeth (Magie) Phillips’ importance in the game’s history.  Rod Kennedy, Jr.’s Monopoly: The Story Behind the World’s Best-Selling Game offered a unique perspective, pictorially, by focusing on historic pictures from Atlantic City, tying them in to Monopoly properties.

So I wasn’t sure quite what to expect with The Monopolists.  A simple retelling of any of these book’s tales would have been redundant.  And the first chapter suggested a focus on Anspach’s case, which I’d found occasionally difficult to get through in his own book.  But then, in the second chapter, Pilon turned her attention to Lizzie Magie – and not simply a story of her invention of The Landlord’s Game, but instead a story of her life.  Particularly compelling, in light of her later development and patenting of Monopoly, was the story of her earlier, 1893 patent for a gadget to allow paper to pass through typewriters more easily.  And suddenly, I was hooked; I quickly completed the remainder of the book, driven by this well written mini-biography of Magie, who before had primarily just been a name to me.

Looking at the book as a whole, there are really four main stories being told, all intertwining to provide a coherent narrative.  The story of Elizabeth Magie stood out the most – particularly the tale of how, a few years after The Landlord’s Game came out, she purchased an advertisement in which she offered herself as a “young woman American slave”.  Like many of her public actions, this was not intended quite how it sounded, but instead here was an attempt, to draw attention to the plight of bright, educated women at the time.  On the whole, Magie comes across as a far more interesting person than I would have guessed.

The second story of the book is that of Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly case.  I was particularly impressed her by Pilon’s skill in turning what I’d previously viewed as a rather dull David vs. Goliath story into a far stronger one, reducing the length without leaving out any key elements.  The story of the early development of Monopoly was also particularly well executed, in my opinion.  I’d seen elements of the story in Anspach’s book and Orbanes’ book, but felt there was an emphasis on how the game developed here that had been less well detailed in those books.  This did come at a price; Orbanes’ book, in particular, provides more information about the early competitors to Monopoly.  But this felt like a deliberate choice on Pilon’s part, and an appropriate one.

The final story of The Monopolists is that of Parker Brothers.  This story is an interesting one, but was more thoroughly covered in Orbanes’ book – and particularly in another book of his, The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit.  Both for the focus of this book on Monopoly, and for the presence of The Game Makers, this did not feel like a loss, but a deliberate concentration on other aspects of history.

Overall, I would recommend The Monopolists to anyone with an interest in Monopoly or in the history of game design.  It’s likely not a book for all board gamers, given the specific focus.  But the book is well researched and written; in many ways, it’s a template for the book I’d like to write myself based upon Sid Sackson’s diaries.

This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply