En route to selling a mind-blowing 250 million copies worldwide since it was first mass-produced in 1935, Monopoly has generated a story more epic and entertaining than playing the game itself. From its prehistory as The Landlord's Game (created and circulated by critics of American capitalism in the early 20th century) to the current Mega Edition (featuring larger stakes and 52 spaces around the board rather than the traditional 40), Monopoly has been a curious reflection of and even a participant in world events and changing attitudes toward the free enterprise system. In particular, the proliferation of variations on the basic game illustrates capitalism's ability to morph in response to ever-changing consumer desires.
In his recent biography of the planet's best-known board game, Monopoly (Da Capo), Philip E. Orbanes displays not only a deft touch with his pen but an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. Orbanes, author of the 2003 book The Game Makers, has worked at Parker Brothers and other game companies. He fills his narrative with fascinating characters, such as Elizabeth Magie Phillips, creator of The Landlord's Game, who saw her invention as a way of winning folks over to the crank ideas of single-tax enthusiast Henry George; Columbia University economist Rexford GuyTugwell, who used Phillips' game as a teaching tool and who, as a member of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal "Brains Trust," pushed for "a full state-administered economy" during the Depression; and the unemployed plumber and "ordinary American" Charles B. Darrow, who created--and wisely patented--Monopoly in the form we've all come to know and love.
Financier J.P. Morgan is in the tale too: He provided the model for the game's mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Penny bags and later dubbed Mr. Monopoly. During the depths of the Great Depression, suggests Orbanes, playing Monopoly was a way of escaping economic privation while aspiring to the power of a Morgan.
That's one of the reasons the Soviet Union outlawed the game until 1987, even though samizdat versions were as popular as Levi's jeans and rock music as a way of dissenting from the Kremlin's dictates. It wasn't an accident that a game of Monopoly was prominently displayed in the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow's Sokolniki Park, made famous as the backdrop of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev's famous "kitchen debate. …