Board Games, Capitalism, and Piracy

Heather Cox Richardson

It’s fairly widely known that the game Monopoly was developed in America in the late nineteenth century to illustrate the evils of land monopoly. Rising prices, especially in the cities, in the 1870s and 1880s brought fortunes to a lucky few and misery to many. Ideas for negotiating this rough transition to a modern economy sprouted from all sorts of fertile minds, but few held the popularity accorded to Henry George’s Single Tax plan. George had lived both in California and New York during land booms and argued that land values rose through public development, rather than through individual enterprise. To restore equality, he argued, the government should take this unearned wealth back from the pockets into which it fell by taxing the value of the land.

This seemed a remarkably easy way to address the problem of growing inequality. Henry George clubs sprang up across the U.S. and even spread to Europe. George came close to winning the mayoralty of New York City in 1886 (he won more votes than newcomer Theodore Roosevelt). And Elizabeth Magie invented The Landlord’s Game, Monopoly’s forerunner, to explain the principles of land monopoly to potential Single Tax acolytes.

As anyone who has endured a rainy afternoon as a child knows, playing Monopoly was also a brutal lesson in the harshest form of capitalism. Invariably, one player emerged early as the canniest trader, or was lucky enough to capture Boardwalk and Park Place. S/he would slowly bleed the rest of the players dry over the long, painful course of hours. The only real option for a losing player was to rob the bank (something that, sadly, I didn’t figure out until I watched my children play the game). As someone said to me today, a young loser did not figure out the game was rigged, but rather assumed s/he was just bad at the game.

The structure of “land monopoly” and the internalization of failure, of course, were what Henry George’s followers were trying to highlight.

In contrast to the long, slow death of Monopoly stands the original Pirateer, a game that took the toy world by storm in 1994. It was produced independently, very briefly, by the Mendocino Game Company. In 1996, it won the Mensa Select Award for board games. In Pirateer, four gangs of pirates compete to collect a treasure from the island at the center of the board. They must then get it back to their own harbor before their ships are sunk by the other pirates, tacking according to wind patterns and the roll of dice. It is a rollicking game, essentially a free-for-all, but one that is bounded by natural laws (the wind), limited elements of luck—the roll of dice—and by a player’s strategic skill.

Crucially, anyone can win Pirateer right up to the very last play of the game. A clever four-year-old seeing the patterns of the board differently than his opponents can beat a seasoned player. No one can have a lucky break that determines the entire cast of the game. Everyone stays enthusiastic. No one gets an early advantage that means success four painful hours later. And the resentments at the end of Pirateer are correspondingly minor compared with those after Monopoly.

The contrast between these games hit me today when someone suggested that the true secret to the success of capital accumulation was protecting goods from piracy. The discussion was of the 1400s and the importance of walled cities, but it seems to me to hold true for colonial settlements in America, and even for modern-day attempts to regulate the internet.

Monopoly and Pirateer. Worth thinking about.