The World’s Most Successful Board Game Was Created As a Metaphor For Hard Times
Successful entrepreneurs are people that always see opportunity in any situation. By nature they are positive and constantly seek innovations that address wants and needs that they identify in their contemporary environment. Currently we are in a dark economic period, and this will prove to be a fertile time for the introduction of novel innovations that will reward their creators with significant profit.
The world’s most famous, widely played and sold board game is Monopoly. Lizzie Phillips created the first version of the game that was to evolve into modern Monopoly. Her game was meant to promote the single tax theories of Henry George, and the play rules were heavily influenced by his populist philosophy. Ms. Phillips filed several patents on versions of her game around 1904. She enjoyed modest commercial success.
The game and its play rules were tweaked through the years. Subsequently, the various forms of Ms. Phillips rudimentary game that were introduced never enjoyed great sales but the game never quite disappeared. Then came the Great Depression.
The many causes of the Great Depression have been well chronicled and today most people are aware of at least the broadest reasons for the implosion of the world’s economy. Greed was the cause most often stated at the time to assign blame. Society was highly segmented by wealth, education, geography and class. Charles Darrow recognized opportunity in the misery of so many and crafted his classic version of Monopoly to address the perceived social sins of the times.
The play rules and component elements of Monopoly, little changed to this day, reflected the deep divisions in society. Darrow’s game, launched in 1935, displayed the whole range of opportunities for failure and success that could occur in a capitalist society. You could go to jail, be taxed, be fined, go bankrupt or land on owned property and have to pay rents to the hated landlord if the dice were unlucky for a player.
Likewise, you could “pass go” and collect $200, win dividends, buy property, build houses and hotels, own railroads (the classic metaphor for greedy capitalists) and collect rents if the roll of the dice favored you. Also, you could bankrupt your opponents and this occurred with frightening regularity in real life during the 1930’s.
Clearly Monopoly was a game that resonated during the darkest days of the Depression and still works as a leisure activity to this very day. Darrow attained great wealth from the sales of his version of monopoly. Monopoly was licensed by the British Secret Service through John Waddington Ltd. during World War II. The International Red Cross forwarded Monopoly sets to British war prisoners incarcerated in Nazi camps. These games included hidden packets of real money, maps, communication devices and tools for use in escape attempts.
Parker Brothers secured the rights to Monopoly and succeeded in internationalizing the game by assigning country-specific play features. For instance, in the American game, the most prized real estate deeds to own are Park Place and Boardwalk. In the British version the most prized blocks of real estate to own are the very tweedy Park Lane and Mayfair.
The game’s origins, history and ownership are surrounded by significant controversy. Parker Brothers attributes all of the creative, copyrights, play rules and component design of Monopoly to Charles Darrow. This lead to decades of legal wrangling over the true ownership as Lizzie Phillips and others claimed creative ownership of the game. These legal issues were not settled until the 1980’s.
There are a number of lessons for modern inventors to be taken from the profitable, but stormy history of the simple board game of Monopoly.
If the game has play rules that anyone can easily understand, play is fluid, play pieces are simple and attractive; then there is potential for commercial success.
You must protect your game with copyrights, trademarks and patents where applicable. Not properly protecting these valuable assets lead to much disagreement and expensive, extended legal wrangling in the case of Monopoly.
My consumer product development and marketing consulting company sees more toy and game submissions than almost any other product category. The barriers to entry in this class of trade are reasonable if the inventor is willing and able to bootstrap their offering. We recommend a play focus group to confirm that target players affirm the attractiveness and commercial appeal of the game or toy.
Recently, for a class project, a third grade teacher let us borrow her class of 23 students to play a new sports board game for half a day. We filmed the session. We also had the kids answer a series of simple questions of their play experience. Based on their reactions, we were able to adjust one basic play rule to further simplify and expand the appeal of the game. The change resulted in the final result of the game becoming much more closely contested, therefore exciting.
The perfect time to launch a new product is always now. Time is never the friend of the entrepreneur. If you wait for the perfect time, the best market conditions to appear, someone can beat you to market with a product that cannibalizes the best parts of your idea. This happens all too often. Waiting for a better climate is an excuse for inaction and a sure path to mediocrity. Charles Darrow’s launch of Monopoly in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression is a wonderful example to study.
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