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Monopoly for Socialists

Can a socialist version of the Monopoly game teach the capitalist world about its economic system?

September 20, 2003

Can a socialist version of the Monopoly game teach the capitalist world about its economic system?

When my wife, who grew up in Hungary, casually mentioned that she had played a local version of Monopoly as a child, I was surprised and intrigued.

Did socialist children play capitalist games?

It turns out that in the long and convoluted folk history of Monopoly-type games, at least one Iron Curtain country managed to produce a socialist version.

It is called "Gazdálkodj Okosan" in Hungarian. Translated roughly, it means "manage your finances wisely." The next time we visited my in-laws, I was eager to see the game and try it out.

There it was, still buried in the back of a closet. We dusted it off, opened it up — and I realized that the board's layout was quite similar to the familiar Parker Brothers version.

"Go" is the factory where the competing proletarians work. Every time you land on or pass it, it is payday. "Wheel of Fortune" cards perform the function of chance and community chests.

There are also spaces designated for the butcher, the restaurant, the zoo, the shoe shop, the nightclub —and tellingly, right after payday — the liquor store.

Famous national destinations like Lake Balaton, Visegrad, Siofok, the Fishermen's Bastion, the Opera House and the National Gallery are also represented on the board.

All these destinations, however, are not grouped by color, because players do not actually buy properties.

They do not build houses — nor hotels, either. The aim of the game, in proper socialist fashion, is not to amass an empire of property and wealth.

It is to successfully buy, pay for and fully furnish an apartment.

The apartment can be bought in cash, if you have put up 30,000 forints when you land on the real estate square. Otherwise, you can make a down payment of 11,000 forints — and have the balance deducted from your weekly paycheck in 500-forint installments.

Once you have purchased an apartment, you can buy kitchen and bathroom furniture in the store on the 11th square. You can also get a radio, a washing machine, a sewing machine, and a vacuum cleaner from the store on the 32nd square.

If you are lucky, you will win some of these items from the Wheel of Fortune cards.

"Films both teach and entertain," instructs the card that sends you to the movie theater. So, evidently, do board games.

The game is full of moral lessons. Cards and squares encourage participation in sports ("Sport is entertainment and health").

And they discourage visits to the tobacco shop ("You have become addicted to smoking, which will cost you 100 Ft per month").

Other "vices" — like going to the liquor store and the nightclub — are among the most expensive squares on the board. Meanwhile, public cultural institutions like the National Gallery and the zoo are generally free.

One twist the game offers is that you can exchange cash for bank certificates that periodically pay you interest — a lesson for those predisposed to keeping their savings under a pillow.

The most telling rule is printed at the end of the instructions: "Players may not sell property and furniture to each other.

"If a player wins a piece of furniture from the Wheel of Fortune cards that he/she does not need, he/she shall receive the cash value instead from the Bank."

In other words, you can not sell your extra sewing machine to finance a radio, nor unload your vacuum cleaner to pay the traffic fine. This provides the lesson in socialist planned economics.

Your wage is your income, and that is fixed. You are not to profit off of your neighbors, even when that would seem mutually advantageous.

With no way of interacting commercially with the other players, the game is essentially a race — and a rather plodding one.

Paying off the mortgage in installments requires an excruciating 40 trips around the board — and the game comes with only one die, not two.

In short, the game is boring, which makes it lousy pro-socialist propaganda.

This sort of entertainment can not compare with wheeling and dealing and driving bargains. Playing this game, one can sense why black markets became ubiquitous in planned economies.

At the same time, of course, the standard Parker Brothers version of the game has its own weaknesses — which are equally telling.

Monopoly games may last for hours on end, but usually it is clear after only a few turns around the board who has a chance of winning — and who is destined for bankruptcy.

It is simply a question of who can scoop up the most — and the best properties. In real life, unbridled capitalism shares the same banality: Without checks and balances in the political or cultural sphere, the rich get richer — and the poor get poorer.

However banal the standard version of Monopoly, it remains a popular game — still the most popular board game in history.

This fact illustrates something about human nature, perhaps.

We like playing games that involve winners and losers — and we are eternally optimistic that we could be the winners, however badly the odds are stacked against us.

Monopoly mirrors and affirms conventional social and economic aspirations in the United States: With perseverance and a little luck, anyone can "make it big."

But the system does, of course, let a lot of people down. Any system that is calculated to produce winners and losers is a system that lets some people down.

Is there a board game out there that simulates a cooperative economy, one that produces only winners?

One that would not require you to prey off your neighbor (like Monopoly), or neglect your neighbor (like Gazdálkodj Okosan), but one in which there is an active collaboration to enhance the wealth of all?

I am imagining a game that would illustrate the type of competition envisioned by Adam Smith and practiced by Nature, a bounded competition that fosters not annihilation — but innovation, adaptation and diversification.

It is a game that would also illustrate the social and economic benefits of employee ownership, of small, nimble and locally-rooted enterprises, of long-term resource stewardship and conservation.

I can envision tournaments, where groups of players wheeling and dealing among themselves seek to produce the greatest cumulative wealth for their team. That is the sort of game we might want our national economies to model.