The Corner

Culture

Monopoly: The All-American Board Game

Jonathan Kay in The Atlantic has an interesting article on the rise of German and German-style board games like Settlers of Catan, and how they’ve changed the gaming landscape at a time when the video game was supposed to have turned board games into dinosaurs. Kay notes that these games’ creative turn away from war games reflects the ethos of postwar European consumers, but what seemed unnecessary to me is the article’s multiple potshots at Monopoly as the icon of the outdated “roll-and-move games”:

The gulf between the traditional American games of yore—“Ameritrash,” as the genre is dismissively referred to by the board-game cognoscenti—goes beyond the divide between militarism and pacifism. In Monopoly, that great bonfire of friendships, the conflict between players is direct, brutal, and zero-sum: You bankrupt me or I bankrupt you. Which is why so many rounds of Monopoly finish on a note of bitterness. The one game of Monopoly I ever played with my wife ended with her staring me down icily and declaring, without any hint of warmth or irony, “I have never seen this side of your personality.”

This is quite unfair. Monopoly, like any board game, has its drawbacks and its frustrations, but it has earned its place as the iconic, best-selling king of board games since the 1930s. More than any other game, it laid the groundwork for the whole concept of a multi-player board game that rewards strategy and adult skills like managing your budget, exploiting scarcity, and trading with your opponents – the very foundations of games like Settlers of Catan. Is the game a zero-sum battle that requires players to bleed each other dry? Sure. But even most of the modern, complex board games have some aspect of that.  Monopoly, unlike Settlers of Catan, doesn’t employ a robber or a pirate that allows you to out-and-out steal stuff from your neighbors – in Monopoly, only the government does that, by arbitrarily taxing and jailing you and assessing property taxes at irregular intervals.

To be sure, Monopoly reflects the all-American enthusiasm for economic competition, and in a small way maybe a game about Atlantic City real estate and hotel development played a role in paving the way for our current president. But the game also reflects America’s longstanding ambivalence about economic bigness, having been largely copied from a 1903 game designed by a progressive who believed in busting trusts to create competition, and having taken off during the Depression, when the idea of being a hotel magnate seemed all the more distant a dream for average Americans. (One of my favorite Monopoly stories: according to Peter Carlin’s biography, Bruce Springsteen originally got his nickname “The Boss” from playing Monopoly with other starving New Jersey musicians and freely bribing them with candy to give him favorable deals on property).

Competitive games are fun and require us to learn the skill of leaving grudges at the table, and tastes change over time: my family does play a lot more of Catan and similar games these days than Monopoly. But in the long run, most of today’s games are less a rejection of Monopoly than its heirs. If they have to compete for sales and game time, well, that’s the American way. But it’s not necessary to run down Monopoly to praise Catan.

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