10.11.07

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES. I've had an opportunity to follow up on a post from April and read Philip Orbanes's Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way, which is a relatively easy way to produce Book Review No. 32. That earlier post developed most of the themes the book explores in greater length: apparently the earliest antecedents of Monopoly(TM) were the work of Henry George's disciples and other critics of capitalism, bent on demonstrating the evils of earning income from land ownership. (A game to illustrate the blessings of a socialist alternative strikes me as a more valuable propaganda tool as well as of greater intellectual interest. Sorry ... no "that's Candy Land" comments, please.) Eventual Attorney General (and trustbuster extraordinaire) Rexford Tugwell made an attempt at producing a real estate game as a collegiate teaching tool, and some of his economics students attempted further refinements. (But none of them achieved trembling-hand perfection, alas.)

Later, there was a great deal of maneuvering by Parker Brothers to secure the rights to Monopoly(TM) and to competing games including Finance, which always struck me as a cheap imitation of the real thing with somewhat more contrived property names, and now I know why. More than a few of the home-made board games included didactic spaces such as "New York, New Haven, and Death Railroad" (long before Patrick McGinnis), "Goat Alley," "Rickety Row," and the intriguing "Hulett's Landing." Rich Uncle Pennybags turns out to be a somewhat less menacing avatar of J. Pierpont Morgan Himself.

The book does not touch on the feature of the game that strikes me as most paradoxical: it often plays much like competitive capitalism, wherein there are sufficient budget and capacity constraints that no player is able to dominate the board. (I have never encountered a Monopoly(TM) player, either enthusiastic or reluctant, who hasn't noted the inordinate length of most games.) There is one trick I wasn't aware of that does sound like a classic profit-maximizing monopoly. Buy three houses. The incremental rent is highest at the third house (I'd never analyzed the deeds that closely, but check it out) and the rules of the game do not allow the Bank to hire a builder, so if all 32 houses are on the board, nobody is able to build additional houses. Restrict output and raise price, forsooth, and preempt your rivals' building plans to boot!

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