Enjoying a monopoly of the games market

It’s been 80 years since Monopoly, the game that gave us the ‘Get out of jail card’, hit our shelves and players are showing no signs of getting bored with it, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler
Enjoying a monopoly of the games market

Last week WSBTV in Atlanta, Georgia reported that 69-year-old John Litton turned up at the 7th annual Stone County Monopoly Tournament in Branson West, only to discover organisers had barred him due to inappropriate behaviour at the same event last year. On hearing of the organiser’s decision to give him the boot (or not to give him the boot) Litton turned nasty and a brawl ensued. At the end of it all Litton, if you haven’t already guessed it, had to ‘go to jail’.

The timing of Litton’s outburst could scarcely have been better. This week marks 80 years since Monopoly first appeared on our retail shelves and gradually etched itself into our global subconscious. Monopoly is the McDonald’s or Coca-Cola of board games. It has given us terms such as the ‘get out of jail card’ and ‘...didn’t even get past go’. It has divided and brought families together and who knows it may have even had an influence on global housing markets by perpetuating myths about desirable and undesirable neighbourhoods. During the Second World War, Monopoly boards and the game’s money were used to smuggle files and real cash into PoW camps, it was the first board game in space and when in 1972, the mayor of Atlantic City, the town the original game is based on, proposed changes to the name of some streets that appear on the board his voters told him where to go...and let’s just say it wasn’t jail.

Monopoly can be found in no fewer than 114 countries across the globe and is played in 47 languages. It is estimated that over one billion people around the world have played it at some point. Yet when Philadelphia inventor, Charles Darrow, first presented the game to Parker Brothers in 1933, the company rejected it. They pointed to over 50 flaws, including the theme of the game, the length of time it took to play and the complexity of its rules. Undeterred, Darrow decided to publish alone and he sold the game locally. It did well and Parker Brothers were forced to reconsider. In March 1935 they bought the licence to market the game and it went on sale on November 5 of the same year.

The original game was made from materials from Darrow’s own home. A piece of oilcloth covered the board and the cards were handwritten. The original houses and hotels were made from wooden moulding scraps. The now famous tokens were inspired by Darrow’s nieces who recommended the use of metal charms off bracelets.

The original game included 10 metal tokens including an iron, purse, lantern, racecar, thimble, shoe, top hat, battleship, cannon and rocking horse. Many more have been added and taken away over the last eight decades.

Within a year 35,000 copies were being sold every week in the US. Though historians now tend to agree that he did not work alone, Darrow became the first millionaire game designer.

The first Irish edition of Monopoly appeared in the early 1970s. Since then, Cork has been given its own version and, on the 80th anniversary edition, Belfast was chosen to represent the island. It’s quite fitting then that the current UK and Ireland Champion hails from Northern Ireland.

Natalie FitzSimons entered this year’s competition in Belfast “just to have something to do” while her husband, Andrew, competed in the heats.

As it turned out Natalie was the one who went through to the UK and Ireland finals in London. Much to her own surprise she won that too and found herself on a plane to Macau to contest the World Championships where a prize of $20,580 (the pot in Monopoly) was up for grabs.

“There are people who take it very seriously and go to competitions all the time,” says the 25-year-old.

“I remember being asked about which strategy books I had read and having a laugh to myself. I think the fact that I was in it initially just for the fun was to my advantage because nobody anticipated me winning any games really.” After the first round of games were completed in Macau, Natalie was seeded second and in the semi-finals.

Ultimately she was unsuccessful — Nicolo Falcone from Italy is this year’s champion — but getting so far was quite an achievement. Natalie puts it down, in part at least, to her job as a software developer.

“A lot of what I do is about logic and spotting patterns,” says Natalie. “So I think a lot of it is down to spotting what’s going to be happening and coming up with a strategy to deal with it — trying to make sure you’re always part of the deals that are happening or making sure you get into a good position. Every game is different but thinking ahead is important. And a little bit of luck too.”

Had Natalie gone on to win the title in Macau, she would have been the second Irish person to do so.

In November 1975, John Mair, a banker from Dublin, became the first non-American to win the world title. Natalie is keen to emulate that success.

“I’d love to go again,” she says. “But I think this time they’ll be watching out for me.”

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