You May Pass Go, but Do Not Collect $200: Assessing Vintage Monopoly Games

An example of a 1935 edition of the game. Note that Mr. Monopoly could not yet afford a top hat.

For most folks, the term “board game” is practically synonymous with Monopoly, the venerable game of real estate ownership patented by Charles Darrow in 1934. The game is a ubiquitous cultural institution, its particular iconography and lexicon including the “Mr. Monopoly” mascot and phrases like “do not pass go, do not collect $200” are recognized the world over. Variations and themed versions featuring everything from college campus landmarks to Star Wars characters have been published and spin-off games such as a stock market expansion and a recent edition that does away with paper money in favor of VISA-branded play debit cards have made the brand tremendously successful. But Monopoly as we know it today was originally something quite different.

Although Mr. Darrow’s name is on the patent, Monopoly is a sort of codified edition of a number of games that predate the filing by as many as 30 years. In 1903-1904, Elizabeth Magie of Illinois designed something called The Landlord’s Game. Interestingly, the game had a distinct political and economic perspective, as Ms. Magie intended for the game to educate players about rent, land ownership and the effect of taxation—specifically reflective of the “single tax” concept promoted by economist Henry George. Early patent images clearly show the origin of the familiar roll-and-move path lined with properties of the more familiar Monopoly board. The game was originally hand-made and passed among friends until it was patented in 1906. Ms. Magie would re-patent the game and republish the game in various forms over the next several years. Ironically enough, Parker Brothers declined to publish the game.

This is the original hand-drawn board for the Landlord Game that Lizzie Magie patented.

Charles Darrow tends to get the credit for designing Monopoly. It was a later version of The Landlord’s Game that he solicited to Parker Brothers in 1934 with that title, and the firm again declined until a year later when they not only bought Darrow’s version of the game but also Magie’s patent on The Landlord Game. George Parker would make several revisions to the design, but most significantly the political context was somewhat lost. What was initially a game warning about the danger of land monopolies became one rewarding rapacious capitalism and exploitation, with fun and fortune-taking center stage over serious agendas or messages. The game was initially published in six different editions, covering a wide range of component qualities and of course, price points. As early as 1936, foreign editions began appearing, including a UK printing overseen by Waddingtons, who would later go on to publish many great English family board games.

Monopoly today remains popular as and its brand is among the most successful in tabletop gaming. Multiple spin-off games including card and dice games with similar mechanics, unofficial add-ons, and novelty knock-offs abound year in and year out. There’s even a feature film in the works with director Ridley Scott attached in some capacity. Monopoly is just about as seminal and important as a board game can possibly be and from a modern gaming perspective its combination of theme, player interaction and economic mechanics were innovative and groundbreaking. However, most hobby-oriented game players today either willfully shun the game for a number of reasons or simply no longer play it in favor of more intricately designed economic games.

A Star Wars Monopoly board circa 1997. There have been numerous Star Wars Monopoly games released and these remain the most popular licensed versions of the game.

As with most board games, this makes evaluating early editions somewhat tricky. No doubt, collectors might highly prize earlier editions of the game or special printings such as a 1991 limited edition of 650 copies that commemorated the final Parker Brothers printing of the game. But actual game players might value even the best examples of vintage copies of the game much lower.

Regardless of how much that 1935 Popular Edition you’ve found in grandma’s attic is worth, Monopoly remains an important game and a fascinating cultural artifact. Beyond its obvious social significance—particularly in reflection of the economic ups and downs the game has seen in its 75 years of print in its most recognizable form—the game is undoubtedly the source of many memories of good times spent with friends and family. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have at least one good Monopoly story.

Examples of the original 1935 Monopoly game can be found in the Worthopedia, selling for between $12 and $30, depending on condition.

So, whether it’s the time somebody’s kid brother landed on Boardwalk without two dimes to rub together so he flipped the board or the time somebody was caught dipping into the bank till, the history of Monopoly isn’t about whether Magie or Darrow should be credited or what the market fluctuation on antique copies shows about its value. It’s a popular history of people getting together to have a fun time making lot of play money while pushing around a metal shoe.

The 2005 modernization of Monopoly with play VISA debit cards reflecting our cashless society

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.


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