Mia, my eldest daughter, is 18. I love her to death, and would do anything for her: fight tigers; swim raging rivers; drive her to parties when she misses the bus because she has no concept of time. But the moment has come when even my wife and I have to admit that she is a filthy, avaricious, stone-cold, money-grubbing extortionist who is quite willing to send her two youngest sisters and father into penury, and laugh while she does so.
She already owns four houses in The Rocks, a hotel in Bondi, most of Oxford Street and – get this – the motorway at Eastern Creek, even though, as she has told me multiple times, she hates motorsports. When I broke down the other night and told her I couldn’t pay the rent, she looked me in the eye and said: “Sucked in, loser.”
Such are the horrors of Monopoly. Describing itself as the “fast-dealing property trading game”, Monopoly is sold in 103 countries, but it’s hard to imagine a board game better suited to Sydney, where property is a perennial talking point and a licence to print money for those on the make. (Jailed former NSW Labor MP Eddie Obeid must have blitzed Monopoly as a boy. Maybe when they update the Sydney version they should include coal licences and an option for negative gearing that is only available to players over 60.)
Needless to say, COVID-19 has supercharged sales of Monopoly, along with many other board games. An article in The Age last year quoted Marnie Hipkins, owner of Melbourne’s two Mind Games stores, saying business in the first round of Victoria’s stage three restrictions was comparable with Christmas. Among the bestsellers were Pandemic, a 2008 release in which players battle a virus, Awkward Guests, where an unpleasant character called Mr Walton is repeatedly murdered, and Monopoly.
According to the game’s official history, Monopoly was invented in 1934 by an unemployed heating engineer from Pennsylvania named Charles Darrow. He made the first sets by hand, using an oilcloth as a playing surface. The cards were handwritten, the houses and hotels were made from wooden scraps, and the player tokens – the race car, the thimble, etc – were metal charms from Darrow’s nieces’ bracelets. A year later, he sold the game to Parker Brothers (now a part of Hasbro), becoming fabulously wealthy in the process. It’s an inspirational rags-to-riches story which also happens to be almost entirely false.
Monopoly actually began in 1903, with a woman called Elizabeth Magie, a stenographer and typist in Washington, DC. A left-wing feminist and staunch progressive, Magie set out to design a game that underscored the dangers of runaway capitalism. She called it The Landlord’s Game. According to The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game by Mary Pilon, Darrow came across a version of The Landlord’s Game in 1932, which he then adapted. When Parker Brothers found out about Magie’s game, it bought the patent for $US500. By that time, Darrow was a millionaire; Magie, meanwhile, died in 1948, a widower. Her last job was as a typist at the US Office of Education.
When I found this out, I tried to explain it to my daughters. I pointed out what a cruel irony it was that a game originally intended as a critique of corporate greed now had as its sole objective sending your fellow players bankrupt. They couldn’t have cared less. They were too busy privatising electric companies and water utilities and evading tax and paying their way out of jail.
I hadn’t played in a long time, so there were a few things that I wasn’t aware of. One of them was that if a player landed on one of my properties, it was up to me to demand the rent. But it’s easy to miss if a player is on your land, especially if you are affected by alcohol. We were about halfway through the game when my middle daughter, Rosey, who had appointed herself banker (my first mistake), laughed and told me that I had missed out on hundreds of dollars in rent because I hadn’t noticed when she was on my land. I asked her why she hadn’t been honest and told me and she said, “because who volunteers to pay rent?“, which was a pretty good point.