Notes from Toyland: 100 years of Toys and Games in Montana

Board games during the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, many people had significantly more time than money. It's not surprising, then, that board games saw a huge increase in popularity during the 1930s. Board games are cheap, can be played over and over again, and almost always require several people to play. They can even be acquired for free, if someone who owns the game is willing to let you make a copy of the board and any game pieces. Bootleg board games can then freely be modified and customized as much you want.

The board games that took off the most tended to be quite involved, potentially taking several hours to play and leading to very different experiences each time:

  • Scrabble was invented in 1938, although it was initially called Lexiko. Its precursor Anagrams, in which players use letter pieces to make words without a board, experienced a resurgence in popularity after a new edition was created in 1934. 
  • In 1936, Go to the Head of the Class challenged players to answer questions that teachers might ask in class while moving across a classroom-themed game board.
  • In 1937, a game called Jury Box cast players as members of a jury and asked them to solve mysteries using the provided clues and photographs.
  • Sorry! was copyrighted in the United States in 1934, and offered a less mentally taxing game for when people weren't in the mood for things like spelling or mystery solving.

But more popular than all of these was one game, whose history was murky and whose message seemed to contradict the reality in which most people lived: Monopoly.

"The Landlord's Game is based on present prevailing business methods.  This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist has absolute control of the situation.  If a person wishes to prove this assertion -- having first proven that the principles of the game are based on realities -- let him do so by giving to one player all of the land and giving to the other players all other advantages of the game.  Provide each player with $100 at the start and let the game proceed under the rules with the exception that the landlord gets no wages.  By this simple method one can satisfy himself of the truth of the assertion that the land monopolist is monarch of the world.  The remedy is the Single Tax."
-Excerpt from the rules of The Landlord's Game
Monopoly as we know it came out in 1935, but is based on an earlier game called The Landlord's Game, which was invented in 1904 by American political activist Lizzie Magie. The Landlord's Game was meant as a criticism of the kind of land-grabbing and rent-hiking that are now associated with Monopoly the game. The base rules of The Landlord's Game are close to those of Monopoly, but the idea was to demonstrate how the system of private ownership and rent-paying leads to one player owning everything and the others bankrupt. Therefore, The Landlord's Game also comes with a second set of rules called the Single Tax. Named after a real-world economic policy that Magie supported, this rule set equalizes the game by having players pay rent into the public money pool rather than directly to other players. In 1932, Charles Darrow, a Philadelphia salesman, took The Landlord's Game and modified the rules, taking out the Single Tax rule set and re-naming it Monopoly. Darrow sold the rights to his version of the game to the large game company Parker Brothers, without telling them that he hadn't invented the game himself. When Parker Brothers found out about The Landlord's Game, they simply bought the patent from Magie and continued to sell their version of the game.

The 1935 version of Monopoly became an instant hit. The game appealed to people's competitive natures, pitting them against each other ruthlessly. It also allowed players strapped for cash in their real lives to, at least for a few hours, fantasize about being wealthy. The story of its creation also offered hope -- Darrow had been out of work and broke when he sold his version of the game to Parker Brothers, and Monopoly made him the first millionaire game designer.

Back to the 1930s

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