Games People Played

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Board games were and still are the backbone of the industry. The excitement of Charles Lindbcrgh’s flight across the Atlantic was captured in a game called Lindy. When everyone seemed fascinated with the ways of wicked Hollywood, the perilous voyage from starlet to stardom was captured in a satirical game called Polly Pickles, Queen of the Movies, in which a little girl from the country tries to find happiness in Tinsel Town. In 1924 Mah-Jongg swept out of the Orient and quickly became the premier fad of the Roaring Twenties. Based on an old Chinese gambling game adapted by James P. Babcock, an American living in Shanghai, Mah-Jongg had been a great favorite of the European clubs in the Orient. Imported to America, it suddenly became not only a success but an absolute rage in this country. Americans paid from four to 150 dollars per set of its intricate compilation of ivory tiles and bamboo counters, and the cry “Pung!” was heard throughout the land. Interior decorators did a tidy business selling customers special Mah-Jongg accessories for parties. Some of the more opulent aficionados had an entire room in their homes redone àla Chine and dressed themselves in Oriental robes just to play. The crash of 1929 hit Mah-Jongg hard, and the fad quickly receded. When George Parker’s nephew Edward, who is now president of the company, joined the firm in 1934, he found hundreds of expensive sets gathering melancholy dust in the company’s Salem warehouse.

Hard times didn’t doom all board games, however. In fact, it was the Depression that spawned Monopoly, the behemoth of them all. In 1933 Charles Darrow, a one-time heating contract salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, was out of work, along with several million other men. To help while away the time until business picked up, Darrow sketched out a game on an oilcloth that covered his kitchen table. Remembering the happy days of the twenties when everyone had money and he could take his family to Atlantic City for holidays, he devised a game based on buying and developing real estate in that Jersey resort, which by then must have seemed as far away as Xanadu. Every space on the track represented some choice snip of Atlantic City property, ending with the famous boardwalk itself. For a few hours a night in the Darrow household he and his friends, clustered around the kitchen table, were no longer leading lives of quiet panic in the Great Depression. They were big-time wheeler-dealers carving out real-estate empires and throwing their cash about as recklessly as any robber baron. Darrow’s friends suggested he try to market his game. He made up a few sets and sold them to department stores in nearby Philadelphia. Encouraged by local sales, Darrow wrote to Parker Brothers, trying to interest them in handling Monopoly nationally.

Edward Parker, then just starting with the company, remembers the day well: “We played it several times, and although we personally enjoyed it, everyone felt it could never be a popular success. It violated several of what we thought were elementary rules for a family game. We always felt that forty-five minutes was about the right length of time for a game, but Monopoly could go on for hours. Also, a game was supposed to have a definite end somewhere. In Monopoly you kept going around and around. The rules, involving mortgages and rents, seemed much too complicated. The decision to turn it down was unanimous.”

A letter was duly dispatched to Darrow refusing his brain child and informing him, “Your game has 52 fundamental errors.” If Darrow had had a steady job at the time, Monopoly might have died right there. But since the game was just about his only asset, he went ahead like a man who invests everything he has putting up a hotel on Baltic Avenue, and continued to peddle his game locally. When Parker Brothers heard that Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia was stocking Monopoly in wholesale lots for the Christmas season, they reconsidered and agreed to take it on.

Apparently unaware of its fiftytwo fundamental errors, Monopoly proved to be an instant Wunderkind. Like the bumblebee, which by all laws of aerodynamics and nature cannot fly but somehow does, Monopoly took glorious wing. In 1935 a new game could break even by selling twenty-five thousand sets. A sale of a hundred thousand gave it the cachet of a runaway best seller. In the first year Parker Brothers sold more than one million sets. Still not believing in his gold mine, George Parker was convinced that the game was a lucky fluke, with no staying power. He sent a memo to his staff to halt all production of Monopoly sets as soon as the pre-Christmas orders were filled. With memories of surplus Mah-Jongg sets undoubtedly clouding his vision, he was determined to cut his inventory for the traditional postholiday lull. Instead, he was swept up in a deluge. During the Christmas season people who received sets for gifts had been playing furiously, and now their friends wanted their own. The Salem office was a madhouse of back orders, and the Parker staff had to stack them in laundry baskets in the hallways while they cranked out new sets. Ever since, Monopoly has been the largestselling game in America, and each year’s sales have outstripped those of the previous one. More than sixty-two million sets have been sold since its debut.