Boardwalk Brouhaha: Monopoly Enters the Debit Card Era

For generations, Monopoly has taught kids the joy of mortgaging grandpa into bankruptcy. But in an apparent nod to the high-debt, no-money-down ethos of modern life, the new British "Here & Now" version of the classic game will come without its famous pastel-colored play money, only pretend Visa debit cards.

In one of the biggest changes ever for the 71-year-old classic American board game, players won't collect $200 when they pass "Go," at least not in cold, hard imitation cash. Instead, they'll stick their debit cards into a small electronic device and their accounts will be credited.

Britain is the first country to release Monopoly Here & Now Electronic Banking, but even in the United States, the game is undergoing big changes, and if the "Electronic Banking" version is a hit over there, it's likely to be incorporated in some of the new American editions.

"Nothing replicates the kind of social interaction that board games provide, especially for kids and families. But in these busy times, we don't have the time to invest that many board games require, so you're bound to see some changes," says Phil Orbanes, author of "Game Markers: The Story of Parker Brothers," published by the Harvard Business School Press.

During the Great Depression, Monopoly literally saved Parker Brothers (now a part of Hasbro) from bankruptcy, and it has kept the world board-silly ever since, selling more than 250 million editions of the game in at least 80 countries and in 26 languages.

If you're looking for a good trivia question: What's the only patented board game since 1935 to outsell Monopoly in a given year? The answer, of course, is Trivial Pursuit, which sold an amazing 20 million copies in 1981. But in almost any other year, Monopoly has looked down upon the rest of the gaming world from a posh hotel on Park Place.

Still, in the ultracompetitive world of family entertainment, Hasbro is also competing against video games, DVDs, electronics, and virtually anything that might vie for your child's idle mind.

That's one reason why big changes are in store for the American version, even if the British plan of electronic banking on the game board doesn't make it past Mediterranean Avenue.

Atlantic City Loses Monopoly on Monopoly

If there's such a thing as someone who is not familiar with the game, Mediterranean Avenue is the name of square one on the traditional Monopoly board. Like all locales on the board from Boardwalk on down, it's named after locations in Atlantic City, where the game originated.

Up until recently, Monopoly changed less than Atlantic City itself, which has had several makeovers, thanks to relentless developers bent on updating America's Playground, as it's known. The Reading Railroad no longer exists, St. Charles Place was leveled to make the Showboat Casino Hotel.

Still, many locales from the game still exist, and casino gambling brought some of the luster back to the Boardwalk. Residents of Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues actually used their status as Monopoly namesakes to thwart an initiative to change their names.

Then, in the mid 1990s, Atlantic City lost its monopoly on Monopoly as Hasbro sold rights to customize hundreds of branded versions of the game to TV shows, paving the way for such permutations as Elvis-opoly, Simpsons-opoly, and even Dogopoly.

For gaming purists, however, the traditional version of Monopoly remained intact, with the same Atlantic City flavor.

But alas, all that is changing, and Atlantic City is now threatened with being completely blown off the Monopoly map. The new American "Here & Now" version of the game will offer sweeping changes.

In April Hasbro let fans vote for 66 popular landmarks from 22 cities across the country, including New York City's Time Square, Boston's Fenway Park and California's Rodeo Drive - to provide the namesakes for the revamped Monopoly, which will be unveiled later this summer, and they will become the new Monopoly standard.

Talk about getting railroaded on the Reading Railroad: In the Internet vote, Atlantic City wasn't even one of the locales up for consideration. Perhaps Hasbro was just sparing Donald Trump the indignity of having one of his precious casinos outvoted by the Golden Gate Bridge or some other locale.

But for all we know, the Donald may have first sneered "You're fired" to other tikes who landed on his properties while he was still in diapers.

A Gamey History

You may say the renaming of Monopoly is just a coldhearted marketing ploy. But if so, how can anyone complain? Wasn't the whole point of Monopoly to extol the fun of squeezing the last dime out of the guy next to you?

If you want a real lesson in business, you might want to look at the history of Monopoly itself. While Hasbro traces the game back 71 years, there are those who say the game already celebrated its 100th birthday - and that Parker Bros. should never have been granted a patent for it in 1935.

Some game historians say other board games were strikingly similar to the one that Charles Darrow, an unemployed heating salesman, originally showed to Parker Bros. The Landlord's Game - popular at Quaker schools in Atlantic City in the '20s and '30s - even bore the same striking "Go to Jail" corner square that has menaced generations of Monopolites.

Monopoly and the Landlord's Game even contain the same misspelling on its board - Marvin Gardens. As residents of the New Jersey seaside community will tell you, the real name is Marven Gardens, even though gamemakers let "Marvin" stand as is for decades.

Unlike its rival, the Landlord's Game, patented by Lizzie Magie Phillips of Virginia in 1904, was hardly meant to teach kids to be real estate tycoons. Rather, it was meant to mock heartless enterprise. Phillips offered it to Parker Bros. in the early 1920s but the company declined. (Proof, perhaps, that capitalism is indeed evil.)

Parker Bros. eventually bought the rights to several similar games, effectively monopolizing Monopoly. And ironically, during the Great Depression, when a fifth of the country was unemployed, this capitalist board game became a leading form of entertainment for families left penniless by the stock market crash.

Over the years, Monopoly has become an international sensation, with worldwide competitions. According to the Hasbro Web site, the longest game of Monopoly lasted 1,680 hours (more than 70 days). Another Monopoly game lasted 99 hours in a tub, and someone somewhere played the game upside down for 36 hours.

Monopoly has also carved a unique niche in modern history, marking some unforgettable milestones. Here are a few:

Great Train Robbery Monopoly: When a 15-member gang hauled off the equivalent of more than $5 million from a Glasgow-to-London postal train in 1963, the press quickly dubbed it Britain's Great Train Robbery. If not for a game of Monopoly at their hideout, the robbers might have gotten away.

Holed up at an Oxfordshire farmhouse, the gang passed the time playing Monopoly (with stolen money, by some accounts). When it heard the police was on its trail, it fled a little too quickly.

Police lifted fingerprints from the game board, which served as damning evidence in the courtroom. Not surprisingly, the judge failed to honor their "Get Out of Jail Free" cards.

Great Escape Monopoly: How about some real-life "Get Out of Nazi Prison Camp" cards? American fliers held at Stalag Luft III (made famous in the film "The Great Escape") received phony passports, railroad tickets and other materials that had been glued within Monopoly game boards.

"We did some elaborate things at the outset," former soldier Lloyd Shoemaker of Salem, Ore., told The Seattle Times in May 1987, describing how Monopoly boards had to be cut apart and then glued back together again to accommodate the smuggled items. Real money for the escapees was slipped into packets of play money, and one can only assume that U.S. military intelligence had issued commands on secret codes printed on "Community Chest" cards.

Killer Monopoly: Monopoly has given rise to many a family fight. You never want to be that player who's accused of collecting more than $200 for passing Go.

But more than a spat broke out in February 1991, when 26-year-old Marc Cienkowski of Bensalem, Pa., shot his friend Michael Klucznik, 31, through the heart with a bow and arrow.

"Cienkowski wanted to be the car rather than the thimble or the hat," the district attorney told reporters. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty to criminal homicide.

Anti-Monopoly: Between Dogopoly and Elvis-opoly, it seems like anything can be Monopolized. Hasbro, however, believes otherwise. The company has kept lawyers working overtime to ban unauthorized games. Most recently, it has battled the maker of Ghettopoly, a twisted version of Monopoly where "playas" build crack houses on Cheap Trick Avenue rather than hotels on Park Place.

Another anti-Monopoly game - this one is actually called Anti-Monopoly - is back in production. In 1973, now-retired San Francisco State University economics professor Ralph Anspach set out to beat Monopoly at its own game - and he nearly did.

Parker Bros., then owned by General Mills, sued for patent infringement, and the two parties spent the next 25 years in a legal battle that made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. An out-of-court settlement was reached, allowing Anspach to license the game.

After languishing for several years, Anti-Monopoly was reintroduced by University Games last year at the New York Toy Fair while Monopoly was celebrating its 70th anniversary.

Any coincidence, I'm sure, is unintentional, although I'm sure Anspach delighted in it. Either way, that's just business.

Buck Wolf is an entertainment producer at