board games

Lessons at a Monopoly board

Monopoly_v3As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, Sunday, September 15, 2019.

While my brother Rob and his affable friend Steve were majoring in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was studying English at Brown, and my roommate, Mark, was well on his way to becoming an electrical engineer.

The four of us, however, all minored in the same subject: Monopoly.

Several nights a week, around 9:30, Rob and Steve would scoot up College Hill to Sears 117, the cozy dorm room on Wriston Quad where Mark and I lived sophomore year. A Monopoly board sat on a makeshift table in the center of the room, with each player’s signature token poised on the Go square: the racing car (Mark), the cannon (Steve), the top hat (me), and a shiny penny (Rob, appropriately enough, since he was known for his parsimonious ways when haggling over deals).

Our boisterous games usually spilled into the early morning hours, fueled by beer and Seagram’s 7 whiskey. It was a long way from playing Monopoly as a kid – or “Monotony,” as one of my friends called it then. On good nights, Rob, Steve, Mark, and I would get in two games; over a weekend, maybe three or four.

Charles Darrow is cited by many as the inventor of Monopoly, which he sold to Parker Brothers in 1935. However, according to Mary Pilon, author of “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” the origin of the game can be traced back three decades earlier to an artist, writer, feminist, and inventor named Elizabeth Magie.

In 1904, Magie received a patent for her brainchild – The Landlord’s Game – in which players circled a board buying up railroads and properties, and collecting rents. It was the progenitor of Monopoly as we know it today, but with a twist.

Pilon relates that there were two sets of rules for the game – “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist” – and that, as a staunch critic of the railroad and oil titans of the day, Magie wanted to demonstrate the evils of unrestrained greed. In 1906, she told a reporter that through her game, she hoped “men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.”

Interestingly, as Rob and Steve stumbled back down College Hill after our epic late-night Monopoly games at Brown, they likely passed “the Rock,” i.e., the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, named for the philanthropist son of the famed tycoon Magie railed against.

Homemade versions of The Landlord’s Game circulated up and down the East Coast, from the early 1900s right into the Depression. That’s how Darrow discovered the game, which he tweaked and renamed Monopoly. When Parker Brothers learned that Darrow wasn’t the game’s sole inventor, it paid Magie $500 for her patent. The rest is history.

Monopoly sold 278,000 copies in its first year; more than 275 million sets have been purchased since. And despite Magie’s hope that the game would alert players to the wrongs of accruing vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others, quite the opposite occurred. Once, on a family vacation, my 12-year-old daughter placed a hotel on Boardwalk – Monopoly’s most punishing rental – and then exploded with glee when I landed there to give her the game.

While Monopoly may be timeless, some of its particulars have evolved. Take the game’s beloved mustachioed mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags. He still preens on one of the Community Chest cards, having won second prize (and $10) in a beauty contest. However, after an unfortunate name-change in 1999, Uncle Pennybags is now blandly known as Mr. Monopoly.

Not by Rob and me, though. When we formed a company to buy a building for our ad agency, the corporation’s name seemed pre-ordained, invoked from the Monopoly marathons of our college days.

Pennybags Realty closed the deal.

A winning day on a rainy island

Yahtzee

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 15, 2018.

I awoke to the sound of rain pattering insistently at the bedroom window. “Might not be a beach day,” I thought.

My wife, Deb, and I were renting a house on Block Island for the week. It had become an annual tradition – taking our three children to this serene spot off the Rhode Island coast for a summer vacation. The kids called it Pork Chop Island because of its shape, so recognizable on souvenir T-shirts and hats. Deb and I called it heaven because it let us escape the hectic pace of everyday life at home, at least temporarily.

On sunny mornings, we’d ride boogie boards in the pristine surf at Mansion Beach. In the afternoon, the kids would set up a lemonade stand at the foot of our driveway on Spring Street to hawk cold drinks to people making the uphill trek to the Mohegan Bluffs. On clear nights, the five of us would gaze across Block Island Sound to Point Judith Light, 13 miles, and a universe, away.

From the look of things outside on this morning, however, such activities might have to wait until the following day.

We headed into town to have breakfast and kill time. At Aldo’s Bakery, Peter, our oldest, asked if he could have a mint chip ice cream cone instead of pancakes.

“Why not?” Deb said, loosening the parental reins. “It’s vacation.”

At Blocks of Fudge on Chapel Street, our 10-year-old, Evan, asked if he could get a bag of Skittles. It was 9:30.

“Why not?” I said, following Deb’s lead. “It’s vacation.”

After ducking into the arcade at the National Hotel during a downpour, Deb and I tried to coax the kids into going to the Island Free Library, which was right around the corner.

“Can we go back to the fudge store?” our daughter and youngest child, Juliana, asked.

We climbed into our minivan and drove at island speed, which is not a lot faster than walking, through the rain to our rental house. It was 10:15. What would we do all day?

Play cards and board games, of course. War, Go Fish, Pictionary, Blokus, Monopoly – they were as much a part of our summer vacations as sunburned shoulders and sandy towels, especially when the weather was crummy.

On this morning, we settled on Yahtzee, a perennial family favorite. The game incorporates elements of poker as players roll five dice on each turn to make various scoring combinations. A five-of-a-kind scores 50 points, the highest of any category.

On her first roll, Julie defied the 1-in-1,296 odds of having all five dice come up the same.

“Yahtzee!” she yelled, rising from the table with her hands over her head.

The rest of us had seen this before. Julie was a Yahtzee wunderkind, having once posted a score of 508. The chance of scoring 500 or more points in a single game is about 1 percent. I was generally happy to reach half that.

In a later game on this rainy day, after rolling two sixes and needing just one more to win, I shook the dice and watched a pair of threes and a five tumble onto the table. A curse flew from my lips.

“Dad!” my daughter said with feigned shock.

“It’s vacation!” I said with a grin as I scooped up the dice for yet another game. The kids erupted with glee.

Fast-forward 15 years to Father’s Day 2018. With Evan and Julie home to celebrate, Deb announced that she was “feeling a board game.” Sure enough, after lunch, the old, scuffed Yahtzee box came out. We put down our phones, picked up the dice, and played deep into the evening, just as we had done so often “on the Block.”

As usual, Julie seemed to notch the top score in most games, but that night, laughing and breathing together, we were all winners.

Take Me In To The Ball Game

photo

You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

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