A celebration more fun than passing Go

Times Staff Writer

Think of it as Donald Trump Fantasy Camp in a box. For decades, the game of Monopoly has been helping people discover their inner capitalist.

It has been played underwater, aboard moving elevators, even by train robbers during a heist. Custom versions of the game have been built from chocolate, gold and granite. Monopoly has also spawned scores of imitators and spoofs, from Bible-opoly to Welfare Monopoly.

This spring, to mark the game's 70th birthday, toymaker Hasbro issued a special Art Deco edition of Monopoly, along with a compilation of oddball trivia (sample tidbit: The cop on the "Go to Jail" square is named Edgar Mallory).

Hasbro has also been propagating a few myths about the game's history, starting with Monopoly's age.

The world's bestselling board game was actually born 101 years ago. Originally dubbed the Landlord's Game, it was invented by a Quaker woman, Elizabeth Magie, as a way to promote the single-tax movement, which advocated a levy on land to replace all other taxes.

Magie presented the game to Parker Bros. in 1924, but the company declined, deeming it too dry and educational. "You would rather have a root canal than play it," says Monopoly historian Phil Orbanes.

But bootleg versions of Magie's creation started spreading, with tweaked rules and boards tailored to each town where the game appeared. In the early 1930s, a steam-radiator repairman named Charles Darrow was introduced to an Atlantic City mutation of the game, which had been renamed Monopoly.

Darrow, like Magie, approached Parker Bros., which again nixed the idea. Legend has it that Darrow's version was rejected because of 52 design flaws. That's a myth, says Orbanes. Parker Bros., which was later bought by Hasbro, cited only three "concerns": The game took too long to play, it was too complex for children and the board had no end space. "You just kept going 'round and 'round -- a novel idea back in 1935," Orbanes says.

Undeterred, Darrow hand-painted his circular game board on oilcloth and sold them through a Philadelphia department store. After Monopoly caught on, Parker Bros. reversed course.

Monopoly quickly became part of the social fabric, with such phrases as "Get out of jail free" and "Do not pass Go, do not collect $200" seeping into everyday language.

The game has inspired unusual devotion at times. Marathon sessions have been played underwater (45 days), in a treehouse (12 days) and in an elevator (16 days), Hasbro reports. And, according to Monopoly lore, British thieves played Monopoly with stolen loot during a 1967 train robbery.

Copycats

From the beginning, players have created their own rules for the game. The most common unauthorized bylaw is collecting cash for landing on Free Parking, Orbanes says. "That makes the game take forever to end, because there's too much money in circulation."

Some variations have triggered lawsuits. In 2003, Hasbro successfully sued the maker of Ghetto-opoly, a controversial knockoff in which players built crack houses instead of hotels. Ghetto-opoly was reminiscent of a 1970s National Lampoon spoof called Welfare Monopoly.

In February, Hasbro sued New Hampshire-based RADGames over an accessory board that fits in the center of a regular Monopoly board. The idea germinated when RADGames co-founder Robert Wilkins was 12 and wanted to avoid landing on his opponents' hotel-laden properties. He created "Elevator" squares that transport players to a second level of spaces. The board-within-a-board includes a "Subway" square that enables players to travel to any spot on the board. (Hasbro's lawsuit is pending.)

Most Monopoly clones, which reportedly number in the hundreds, have escaped legal trouble. Although Hasbro owns the rights to "Community Chest," "Go" and other standbys, such as the colored bars atop each property space, the rules to the game became public domain in 1952, when Darrow's patent expired, Orbanes says.

Today, the (blank)-opoly industry is thriving. In Cocktailopoly, for instance, players get sent to Hangover instead of Jail. In Catopoly, contestants buy litter boxes instead of hotels. Other copycats include Gayopoly, Motownopoly, NASCAR Monopoly, Coca-Cola Monopoly, Elvis Monopoly, Lighthouse-opoly, Lord of the Rings Monopoly, U.S. Army Monopoly, America's National Parks Monopoly and 60's Monopoly, in which players pass Go Go instead of Go.

The most common spinoffs are geographical, such as California-opoly and Canada-opoly, many of which are licensed by Hasbro.

And then there are the extravagant editions. Neiman Marcus once offered an all-chocolate Monopoly set for $600. And jeweler Sidney Mobell created a million-dollar version made of gold, rubies and sapphires.

San Jose is home to a monolithic granite Monopoly board (monopolyinthepark.com) with dice as big as TV sets and striped prison outfits that players wear when they're sent to jail.

Thanks for playing

Despite the rise of electronic games and other forms of entertainment, Monopoly remains surprisingly popular.

Two-thirds of American households with children ages 8 to 17 own and play the game, according to research by Hasbro. And Monopoly consistently ranks at or near the top among bestselling board games, according to the NPD Group, which analyzes entertainment trends.

"It's a rite of passage," says Mark Blecher of Hasbro. "It taps into a core fantasy....

"It lets you become Donald Trump."

Orbanes attributes Monopoly's enduring appeal to "the social interaction that occurs around the table." Players can wheel and deal and experience the pleasure of bankrupting their friends and family.

Monopoly owes at least some of its popularity to a succession of publicity stunts designed to keep it in the limelight.

Before Hasbro took over in 1991, Parker Bros. operated more like a book publisher than a toy company, Orbanes says. "They saw no need to exploit the brand to the fullest." For decades, the company sold only two versions of the game: standard and deluxe, he says.

Hasbro has punched up the game's marketing. In 1998, the company asked the public to vote for a new metal game token. The winner was a bag of money, which outpolled a biplane and a piggy bank. Two years ago, Hasbro conducted a national Monopoly tournament aboard a chartered train traveling from Chicago to Atlantic City. The contest, which was won by a UC Irvine student, garnered such widespread news coverage that "Saturday Night Live" spoofed it on "Weekend Update."

The latest gimmick is the 70th anniversary edition of the game, packaged in a metal tin, with skyscraper hotels and fancier tokens (the shoe is now a high heel).

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Grab your top hat

If there's ever a Monopoly edition of Trivial Pursuit, here are some questions that could be included:

How many little green houses have been constructed by Parker Bros.? (Answer: 8.25 billion)

What is Boardwalk called in France? (Rue de la Paix)

Why do players receive $1,500 at the start of the game? (It was the median annual household income in 1935, when Parker Bros. debuted the game)

What was the original name of Mr. Monopoly, the game's mustachioed mascot? (Rich Uncle Pennybags; his wife's name is Madge)

Which Atlantic City property is misspelled? (Marvin Gardens. The correct spelling is Marven Gardens. In 1995, Parker Bros. erected a bronze sign at the site acknowledging the error.)

What is the name of the inmate in the jail square? (Jake the Jailbird)

Which game tokens were retired in the 1950s? (Lantern, purse, rocking horse)

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-- Roy Rivenburg

Sources: Hasbro, Associated Press

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