This week, Hasbro announced the results of an online vote on the future of tokens in the board game Monopoly. The results are startling: the boot, wheelbarrow, and thimble have been expunged from the iconic game, replaced by a Tyrannosaurus rex, rubber ducky, and penguin. Voters passed up over 60 other contenders, among them an emoji and a hashtag. It’s the latest in a series of efforts to update the game, whose onerous play sessions, old-fashioned iconography, and manual cash-counting have turned some players away.
When today’s players play games, digital or tabletop, they identify with their token or avatar. It becomes “them,” representing their agency for the game. So it’s not surprising that players would want pieces with which they feel affinity. But ironically, affinity and choice in Monopoly token selection undermine part of the history of that game, which juxtaposed capitalist excess in an era of destitution.
Monopoly went through many evolutions. It was first invented as The Landlord’s Game, an educational tool published by Lizzie Magie in 1906 to explain and advocate for the Georgist single tax—the opposite take on property ownership that eventually became synonymous with the game (whose design Charles Darrow derived from Magie’s original).
By the 1930s, when Monopoly became popular, economic conditions were very different. To reduce costs of production, early sets included only the paper board, money, and cards needed to play. The tokens were provided by players themselves. As Philip E. Orbanes explains in his book Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way, Darrow’s niece and her friends used bracelet charms and Cracker Jack treats as markers in the game. The sense of choice and identification was still present, to an extent, but the feeling of making do and using things already at hand was more salient. It was the Depression, after all.
When Parker Brothers marketed the complete game that we know today, in the mid-1930s, the company elected to include four of the metal charms direct from the manufacturer that supplied the popular bracelet charms Darrow’s niece had adopted, along with another four of new design. Those original tokens—car, iron, lantern, thimble, shoe, tophat, and rocking horse—were joined by the battleship and cannon soon after.
Despite Hasbro’s attempts to modernize Monopoly, the game is really a period piece. It hides the victory of personal property ownership and rentier capitalism over the philosophy of shared land value in Georgism. And it juxtaposes the economic calamity of the Great Depression with the rising tide of industrialism and monopolism that allowed the few to influence the fates of the many. To play the game with a thimble—that symbol of domesticity and humility—instead of a T-rex, connects players to that history, both in leisure and in economics. Reinventing the game might appear to make it more “relevant” to younger players. But perhaps what today’s Monopoly players really need isn’t easy familiarity and identification, but an invitation to connect to a time when the same game bore different meaning, and embraced different experience.