By Blake Eskin
Sunday, November 21, 2010;
In 1935, the board game Monopoly arrived on the mass market like the Xbox Kinect of its day. One can imagine the appeal, in the middle of the Great Depression, of a diversion that gave anyone the chance to become Uncle Pennybags for an afternoon. By the end of that year, Parker Brothers had sold a quarter-million sets; in its first 18 months, the game sold 2 million copies. And for those who could not spare a couple of dollars for their own copy, former Parker Brothers executive Philip Orbanes explains in his history of the game, "Monopoly became a magnet drawing in friends and family to the homes of those who owned it."
Monopoly is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year in the bleakest economic climate since the 1930s, and its theme may fit our times better than it did the Depression. After all, it was at a Monopoly board that many of us discovered the concepts of mortgage and bankruptcy, where we first bought property that we couldn't really afford.
Then again, though its vocabulary is depressingly current, the game is in other ways completely inappropriate today. Instead, the great board game of this era is The Settlers of Catan. That game, which came out in Germany in 1995, is not a household name like Monopoly, and given that electronic games have eclipsed board games, it may never be. But it presents a world in which resources are limited and fortunes are intertwined, and serves as a model for solving contemporary problems such as trade imbalances, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. If we are reaching the end of a period of American supremacy, a winner-take-all game such as Monopoly teaches bad habits.
More than 275 million copies of Monopoly have been sold, remarkable for a game that's not particularly well designed. I don't mean the graphics (which are bold and appealing) or the components (which I remember being sturdier when I was a child, before everything was made in China), but the experience of playing. In Monopoly, much depends on luck; strategic decisions are limited; once someone has Boardwalk and Park Place, it's hard to beat them; there's little to keep you occupied when it's not your turn; and you can keep playing for hours after it has become clear who's going to win. A game of Monopoly can take three or four hours, and many players, especially adults, will be bored much of the time. Idleness may not have been an acute problem in 1935, but in 2010, it's a fatal flaw.
As Hasbro, which acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, has produced brand extensions for Monopoly and the other classic games it controls, smaller German companies have created hundreds of new board games that pay careful attention to strategy, pacing and interaction. Their attention to quality can also be seen in the boards, which are made of thick cardboard, and the solid-wood game pieces.
Settlers of Catan is the pinnacle of the German style. It is, like Monopoly, a multiplayer real-estate development game, in this case set on an island rich in natural resources to which players have limited access. You need ore to build a city, and if you can't mine enough yourself, you can trade - but the wood you surrender in exchange may help your partner, or boost or thwart someone else. In Settlers, the trading - and the interconnected fates of the players - keeps everyone involved even when they aren't rolling the dice; there are multiple ways to win; and players are often neck-and-neck until the very end. The game has been constructed to last an hour, 90 minutes tops. And each time you play, the board, which is made up of 19 hexagons, is assembled anew.
Thanks to the Internet, Settlers has spread from Stuttgart to Seoul to Silicon Valley, where it has become a necessary social skill among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (one tech chief executive calls it "the new golf"). Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg reportedly plays it with his girlfriend. It is popular among programmers and college students, a set of forward-thinkers similar to those who played Monopoly years before Parker Brothers got in on the action. We think of Monopoly as a game celebrating capitalism, but it actually evolved out of the Landlord's Game, patented in 1903 to promote a high tax on property owners proposed by economist Henry George.
Settlers is not a mass-market phenomenon in America, though it has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Even Hasbro seems to have taken notice. This year's Monopoly fall line includes U-Build Monopoly, which has hexagonal tiles that snap together in different configurations; the starter track promises a game lasting no more than a half-hour. You can also buy Monopoly card games, iPhone apps, and a 3-D version for the Wii and other game consoles.
Monopoly remains one of the few board games everyone knows, so it's one that everyone buys. It will be easier to find in stores than Settlers this holiday season. And a gift of Redskins Monopoly or "Simpsons" Monopoly is likely to get a better initial reaction from children than an unfamiliar game of German origin. But what about what's inside the box? Will they play more than once?
Try Settlers of Catan instead. It's more fulfilling and more fun. There should be more to life than rolling the dice and going in circles. Settlers teaches new ways of thinking and presents a different notion of winning: by a nose instead of by a mile. The game is won by earning 10 victory points, but points are earned by a combination of building settlements and cities, having the longest road or the largest army, or drawing cards. A Settlers win doubles as a lesson in a world where resources are finite and unevenly distributed. It's a game for a moment when no one - even Americans, happily playing board games - should expect a perpetual monopoly on power.
Blake Eskin edits the Web site of the New Yorker magazine.
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