If you were asked to name the first board game that comes to mind, would that game you name be Monopoly? Arguably, Monopoly is the most celebrated board game in the history of board games. It has recently had its 75th anniversary and there is no sign of it’s popularity slowing down. Monopoly is as much part of pop culture as it is a board game. And there are so many ways to play the game, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone these days that hasn’t heard of the game. With a game as popular as Monopoly, you almost have to wonder why it took so long for there to be a documentary about it.
What is it about Monopoly that has made the game such an enduring success for so many decades? San Diego based filmmaker, Kevin Tostado decided to find out. Not only did Tostodo explore the history of the game, he traced the enduring legacy of the game in popular culture, met with serious collectors that like to collect just about anything that the Monopoly brand has licensed, and even spoke to a winner of the million dollar grand prize in McDonald’s annual Monopoly game. Perhaps the highlight of Tostado’s exploration of Monopoly was following some of the game’s most competitive players through the 2009 international championships, where every four years the national champions from over forty countries compete in hopes of being crowned the newest World Monopoly Champion. Kevin Tostado compiled his findings and presents an extensive look at the world of Monopoly in his new movie entitled “Under The Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story.”
In creating a movie that not only is entertaining, but informative, Kevin Tostado has done a really expert job balancing the movie between the historical aspects about the game and the more human element of the people who play the game. To start with Tostado provides a brief overview of the game, and then showcases how the game is so well loved around the globe because as one man in the film puts it, the game doesn’t get translated, it get’s localized. The game is the same the world over even though the names of the properties are different in the various localized versions. Could the game of Monopoly be a universal language? Perhaps as the world championships often show, it doesn’t require a common language to be able to play the game together.
The origins of the game prove to be quite interesting in that the game was originally created as educational tool under the name “The Landlord’s Game” created by a woman named Elizabeth Magie who’s purpose for the game was to promote an anti-capitalist stance about the unfair advantages land owners had over renters. Magie did try to sell the game to Parker Brothers but was rejected as it was far more complicated of a game than most on the market at the time. Magie showed the game to a business professor who in turned taught it to his students, one of his students made his own version, where it was introduced to other friends who in turn introduced it to another professor, and essentially this journey of “beta testing” with modifications seemingly made with each introduction, for example the naming of the properties after Atlantic City streets occurred closer to the end of its journey before being introduced to Charles Darrow, who in turn is credited with the modifications that have become the Monopoly game that was licensed to Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) we all know and love today.
That’s right, the game was LICENSED to Parker Brothers as even Parker Brothers rejected Charles Darrow’s version until Darrow took matters into his own hands and started creating homemade versions until he needed a printer to keep up with the demand for the game. When Parker Brothers came knocking, Darrow no longer wanted to sell the rights to the game, and that smart decision ensures the Darrow family still continues to receive royalties for the game to this day. One of the gentlemen who used to head Parker Brothers that was interviewed for the film said that generally if a game is marketed and lasts five years, it’s good, 10 years even better, but for Monopoly to last 75 years, he described it as a dream.
The movie even spends some time offering tips and strategies. Perhaps the biggest complaint about Monopoly is how long the game game can take. I know in my home growing up as a child, we played the game many times, but I don’t recall a single game that actually ended because anyone won the game. It was usually because we got tired and bored of playing. According to the Monopoly enthusiasts featured in the film, the people who perceive the game as taking forever, don’t actually read and follow the rules as specified in the game. Apparently people have invented variations such as prize money pots for landing on Free Parking (which I will admit my family did) which aren’t actually in the rules for the game. All this does is prolong the game, and a properly played Monopoly game can be completed in about an hour to an hour and a half. Who knew? Perhaps the biggest eye opening tips were which properties to be trying to collect and when it can be advantageous to land in jail.
I was fascinated by the section of the film that explored the game’s role in World War II where the British licensee for the game was able to help the war effort. I don’t want to steal the film’s thunder by telling what happened here. I will say it was very clever and lives were saved as the result of what was done.
When focusing on the pop culture aspect of Monopoly, the game has taken on a life well beyond the board game. The many clips of the game’s appearance in television shows and movies, just prove how pervasive Monopoly is in the culture. The amazing variety of licensed merchandise covering the gambit of creativity, such as shoes, towels, clothing, and spawning spin off games. Probably the most enduring proof it’s its ability to be adapted, are the specially licensed versions of the game which essentially merges Monopoly with another pop culture brand including Disney, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Simpsons, The Beatles. All of it started with a local San Diego based company that licensed the Monopoly game to create local versions of the game, starting with a San Diego edition, but quickly exploded into specialty versions of the game, which not only appeals to Monopoly enthusiasts, but fans of those other properties that have also been licensed to merge into the game. I have been tempted many times to get the Star Trek: The Next Generation version of Monopoly, but never ultimately did. Perhaps I should try my luck on eBay to get one of these out of print sets.
The driving human element of the movie is showcasing the diehard fans and competitive players of the game. While most of the focus is on American competitors looking to claim the 2009 US National Champion title including the reigning 2003 national title hoping to defend his title, some of the national champions of other nations are featured surrounding the international championship that was held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The competitors come from all kinds of walks of life, such as a teacher, a student, some lawyers, and even a show manager for one of the shows in Las Vegas. Where Director Kevin Tostado shines is in presenting these folks who happen to really love Monopoly without making fun of them.
A true highlight is Tim Vandenberg, a sixth grade teacher from Victorville, California. He uses Monopoly to teach his students better math skills and in the process is instilling a lifelong appreciation for math through a fantastic game. Not only is he creating a lasting skill set for his students, he’s providing practical application for those skills so that the kids can see a connection to why they need to learn those skills.
About the only featured person who comes out looking like a real jerk is Ken Koury, one of the lawyers. While early in the film he’s showing off what is probably one of the Charles Darrow hand made sets which is very interesting and he’s likable there. Things change where he declares Tim Vandenberg and Dominic Murgo as cheaters in a semi-final competition prior to the US Championship. Never mind the fact his practice team includes the very first Monopoly champion, and another championship player, he singles out these two for minor infractions that ultimately Hasbro had to officially declare were not cheating. Vandenberg on the other hand is excited to have won his first competitive game against adults since he mostly plays the game with 11 year olds in his classroom. Koury comes across as such a bad sport when he makes it his personal vendetta to eliminate Tim Vandenberg from the US national championship, and I was applauding and cheering on Koury’s bankrupting out of each of his rounds in the national championship ensuring he had no chance to act upon his vendetta. The end credits do show a little redemption for Koury as he’s seen playing with both Vandenberg and Murgo on the giant life size board of Monopoly in San Jose.
Kevin Tostado’s “Under The Boardwalk” is a wonderful documentary and does a wonderful job showcasing the game of Monopoly in both a historical perspective and pop culture perspective. The look at the lives of some of the game’s most diehard fans presents the fans of the game as mostly likable people and most importantly, the film makes you want to play a game of Monopoly. Fortunately there’s many options on how to do that these days, whether it’s over a physical game board with some friends, or a virtual game board on computer, online, on cell phones, mobile gaming devices, and there’s even a version of it that plays on the Amazon Kindle. I’m sure even Charles Darrow would have been surprised by the longevity of his little game he first started selling to feed his family.
If I had to single out one thing that I was disappointed not to see a mention of in the film, was that Monopoly had been adapted into a game show in 1990 as a summer game that aired on the ABC network on Saturday nights through the summer. It actually was a really neat game and I liked how it was played to fit the constraints of a half hour time slot and the theme song from it was a lot of fun too. It was the sole reason why I picked up the CD of game show themes it was featured on and it is on my iPod to this day. Why the show never translated into something beyond that one summer, I’ll never know, but at least one episode can be found on YouTube to help relive Monopoly as a game show.
For San Diego residents, do yourself a favor and go see “Under The Boardwalk: The Story of Monopoly” at the UltraStar Cinema at Hazard Center March 4th thru March 10th. The director Kevin Tostado will be on hand for question and answer sessions during the evening screenings all week. My friend Dan Baggett and I attended the first matinee screening and had the opportunity to meet and get autographed DVD copies of the film from both Kevin Tostado and Craig Bentley, who both produced the film.
As the movie has been independently produced and distributed, the producers of the film are trying to raise $20,580 (which is equal to the amount of money that a game of Monopoly comes with) to help bring the movie to more cities around the country. If you’d like to help pledge your support, please visit kickstarter.com by clicking here to pledge your support before March 11th. It’s a great movie and deserves to be seen in a city near you.