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Monopoly - too political or not political enough?

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Monopoly is, in many respects, a boring game. Tactics are generally very simple and a game can last a long time. When I was a child and played with my family, my Dad always won. He bought every property he could, mortgaging other properties if necessary, because he knew that, when all the land has been purchased, the owner of the most land is in the strongest position.

But more than this, Monopoly is a nasty game. A player can only win by impoverishing the other players. Many games have winners and losers, but few so thoroughly abuse the losers as to bankrupt them. I don't like playing Monopoly but I do find the game interesting.

A little history

The game called Monopoly, which was first released by Parker Brothers in 1935, was based on another game called "The Landlord's Game", which was developed in 1902 by Elizabeth Magie and modified by her and others over the ensuing years. In devising The Landlord's Game, Elizabeth Magie had a political objective - to highlight the problems of the concentration of land ownership and the benefits of a Land Value Tax in diluting land ownership and improving land use.

When Elizabeth Magie submitted her game to Parker Brothers in 1910 and again in 1924 they rejected it because it was "too political", so she published it through smaller distributors. In time the game increased in popularity and it evolved as players created their own sets with custom property names and modified rules until Charles Darrow presented his version to Parker Brothers in 1934. Parker Brothers subsequently bought Elizabeth Magie's patents on the game and published Darrow's version as "Monopoly".

The politics of Monopoly

Monopoly is sometimes touted as a celebration of free market capitalism, and some players bemoan the loss of the social conscience of The Landlord's Game. However I would like to present a different reading of the game, in which Monopoly has a strong social message at its heart.

In Monopoly, players acquire land, build properties on the land, and charge rent to others when they stop on their land. The winner is the player who most successfully develops and manages their property portfolio to the extent that eventually they own everything and all other players are bankrupt. This can be interpreted as an advocacy for the free market - after all the game celebrates the most successful property developer as the winner.

However, this is a game in which every player starts with the same resources, in money and potential, yet the game ends with one player owning everything and everyone else bankrupt. Even if players pursue exactly the same strategies, after a couple of hours one player will own it all and everyone else will be bankrupt. The only difference between the players is luck, literally the role of the dice.

Ask yourself, is this the world you want to live in? A world where the fortunate own everything and the slightly less fortunate own nothing. A world of massive wealth disparity, where most people struggle to put food in their children's mouths, while the lucky few own private jets and luxury yachts.

I suggest that Monopoly is a dystopian game that shows us a world we don't like so that we can consciously reject it.

Land Value Tax

What if we take this dystopian game and modify the rules to produce a more balanced, equitable society? Specifically, what would happen if we introduced a land value tax, as Elizabeth Magie had in her original Landlord's Game?

I propose that whenever a player passes Go they must pay a tax equal to the basic rental value (without buildings) of all their land. Thus, in the UK version of the game, the owner of Old Kent Road (the cheapest land) would pay £2 for that land when passing Go, and the owner or Mayfair (the most expensive land) would pay £50 when passing Go. This tax doesn't change when the player owns a set of properties or builds houses and hotels on them.

This tax would go straight to the bank. The objective is not to demonstrate how that tax money could be used to improve society, but to demonstrate how the act of charging the tax is itself beneficial to society.

The tax is far lower than the potential value of the developed land, but is high enough to make players wary of grabbing land that they have no immediate intention to develop. This complicates the playing strategy and makes any property purchase a consideration of its future cost as well as its value as a revenue stream and owning land simply so that other players can't own it becomes expensive.

The game would no longer be a simple race to acquire land followed by more leisurely accumulation of cash and building of properties by the player with he most land. Instead, players would need to ensure the land they own is productive. Owning the necessary properties to enable property development would be vital, and land would only be profitable if it has sufficient properties on it for the occasional rent to offset the regular tax.

This discourages the hoarding of land and encourages efficient, productive land use. It is quite possible, as a result, that the game would continue indefinitely as players prioritise land development over land acquisition, giving every player the opportunity to own a decent quantity of valuable land.

It would require experimentation to establish the optimum level for the land tax but it could be an interesting addition to the game. If you choose to try it out, let me know the results.

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