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Monopoly by Philip E. Orbanes

Jackie Regales

Orbanes' passion for the game and devotion to its legendary status shines forth from every word and every page.

Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game -- And How It Got That Way

Publisher: Da Capo
ISBN: 0306814897
Author: Philip E. Orbanes
Price: $26.95
Length: 288
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-11
UK publication date: 2006-12

In popular culture studies, it's axiomatic that the object cannot be studied without its reception or without the historical context from which it emerged. In other words, Monopoly isn't that interesting until you realize it's the most popular mass-produced board game in the history of mass-produced games -- or that it emerged from a zany chain of rogue economists, commune inhabitants, and just plain folks making the game themselves with homemade boards and whittled tokens.

In many ways, Philip Orbanes is the perfect writer for this project, a loving study of Monopoly's origins and rise to the top of the board game heap. Orbanes started his first board game company in his junior year of college, featuring games he designed himself, spent decades at the executive level in major toy companies, judges global game tournaments, and wrote 1986's Monopoly Companion as well as The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers in 2003. I think any curious board game fan would be hard pressed to find a more knowledgeable author or one with a more varied range of involvement in the field. Also, his access to everyone from former executives to champion-level players of the game is surely unparalleled.

Unlike many amateur scholars, Orbanes does not neglect the effects of history on the object of his study. The origins of Monopoly spring from a game created in 1903 called the Landlord's Game, which Elizabeth Magie Phillips designed to show the advantage of a single tax, an idea propagated by her father, Henry George, a popular economic progressive and newspaper publisher who believed that only landowners should be taxed in order to remedy the great poverty caused by modern capitalism. Sound like fun for the whole family? Well, the Landlord's Game underwent many twists, turns, and patent wars before it became Monopoly, and Orbanes dutifully covers them all with the same zest he has for discussing the mathematical variations on game-playing he and other enthusiasts calculate in order to triumph at America's Game.

This makes the book sound drier than it is, which is my own mistake and not Orbanes'. His true passion for the game and devotion to its legendary status shines forth from every word and every page. Also, he turns up some fascinating nuggets -- did you know that editions of the game were smuggled into Allied prisoners of war during World War II with maps and rescue instructions hidden under the colorful paper money? Me neither. And while I might yearn for a study that dug as deeply as it ranged broadly, and while I might hope that someday the connections between Monopoly, capitalism, and the United States are interrogated further, for the true board-game fan, you can't go wrong with Orbanes' oeuvre, and especially Monopoly: The World's Greatest Game.

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