When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, widespread financial hardship gave rise to something unexpected: a golden age for family board games. Scrabble, now a classic word game, may never have been developed had its inventor not been one of the millions of Americans out of work and struggling to fill their days. Monopoly took off, in part, because it gave cash-strapped Americans a way to play at being rich.

Elizabeth J. Magie, Monopoly’s originator, first received her patent in 1904 for the Landlord’s Game, which she designed to teach the world about the evils of capitalism. Her game spread throughout left-wing political circles for decades, until a version of it made its way into the hands of the Quakers in Atlantic City in the early 1930s. It’s a rendition of that game which was sold to Parker Brothers during the Depression and became a commercial success, saving the company from the brink of bankruptcy. Ironically, its inventor made very little off the iconic game.

The success of Monopoly befuddled many. Why, in a time of great financial despair, would families and friends want to gather around and swap cash and real estate?

Nor was Monopoly’s success isolated; it echoed a broader trend of board games flourishing during the Great Depression.

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Board games offered budget-friendly entertainment.

No one felt more surprised by the board game boom at the time than Parker Brothers executives. With most American household budgets buckling, it felt only logical to game industry executives that retail, particularly for diversionary products, would plunge along with the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Then, and now, there are many reasons why board games remain a bright spot in economic downturns, typically bleak spots for retailers. Board games are relatively cheap, reusable and can entertain a wide age range. One Monopoly board can keep a family occupied for many evenings, a plus considering the budget-stretching demands of the moment.

Another theory: People stayed in. Edward Parker, the grandnephew of the game company founder, George Parker, recalled years later, “During the Depression, people did not have enough money to go out to the shows . . . So they stayed home and played Monopoly.”

The game not only provided cheap entertainment, it also offered a psychological elixir, as Parker said, it gave people “a feeling of wealth.” “But what kept it going is the chance for individual gain. It appeals to the competitive nature of people,” he said. “The player can always say to himself, ‘I’m going to get the better of the other guy.’ People also can play Monopoly without it being the end of the world. Sort of a release from the tensions of everyday life.”

Board games in America date back to the earliest Native American communities and became more commercially marketed in the mid-19th century as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers grew their respective businesses in Salem, Massachusetts. But unlike previous economic crashes, indoor lighting was more ubiquitous during the Great Depression and offered a boon to the indoor recreation world. And with many people out of work, there was more time to kill than ever.

Scrabble was invented by a bored, unemployed man.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis/Getty Images
A game of scrabble.

Scrabble, as chronicled by Stefan Fatsis in his tome Word Freak, was the 1938 brainchild of Alfred Mosher Butts, who built his game off of a previous game he had invented called Lexiko.

The boredom of unemployment helped fuel Butts. "Well, I wasn't doing anything," Butts later recalled. "That's the trouble. I didn't have anything to do; I didn't have a job. So I thought I'd invent a game."

Sales numbers at places like the newly opened F.A.O. Schwarz, may not have reflected the game trend's whole picture. If a family couldn’t afford a store-bought Monopoly or Scrabble board, it was possible to take a look at a neighbor’s and make a bootleg copy, as countless families did with Monopoly, often localizing the properties to reflect their respective communities. Even more budget-friendly games flourished at the time, as well, like bridge, canasta and pinochle, which required far less equipment, in some cases merely a pack of playing cards. Jigsaw puzzles and miniature golf reigned, as well.

Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, longstanding New England rivals, also used the 1930s to breathe new life into versions of older games in their catalog, like the Game of Life and Chutes and Ladders. Other efforts proved less memorable. (A game of Wahoo, anyone?)

Manufacturing of the games also shifted. Sorry!, a commercial version of the ancient game of pachisi, hit American game shelves in 1934 by way of Waddington’s, a British company that would later unleash Clue on the world. While today’s versions of Sorry! are typically sold in long, slender boxes with plastic pawns, the American version that Parker Brothers sold is a more economical version in a small box with wooden tokens, less paper to print at a lower cost and a product better suited to last.

The 2008 financial crisis also bumped game sales.

More than 70 years later, the board game world experienced another renaissance, even as it faced stiffer competition from video and mobile games. In 2008, the financial crisis plunged and toy sales declined three percent that year, according to NPD Group Inc. But board game sales rose by six percent in 2008, one of only a handful of indicators (other than debt) that was up. Many of the titles leading the charge were stalwarts, like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, but other, new games like Settlers of Catan emerged as recession-era retail triumphs.

While some of the same forces at play in the 1930s remain, in recent times a desire to avoid screens has spurred board game sales.

"Catan has benefited from a growing desire to interact and socialize away from screens,” Guido Teuber, managing director of Catan told CNBC. “Specifically, Catan is a game in which players are always involved. There is no downtime.”

Then and now, board games represent an escapist fantasy of sorts, a form of role-playing that allow people to do things in one arena that they may not be able to do in reality, be that swapping real estate or channeling the role of a pioneering settler. 

Monopoly’s marketing in the 1930s represented similar magical thinking. In its promotion of the game, Parker Brothers told the Horatio Alger tale of Charles B. Darrow, a man who was unemployed and ginned up the game to try and brighten his family’s spirits in dark times. Selling the game made him a millionaire.

Monopoly's original inventor was overlooked.

Landlord's Game Patent
Public Domain
Elizabeth J. Magie's original two patents for "The Landlord’s Game," which originated the famous game of Monopoly.

The problem with the story is, however captivating, it wasn’t true. Magie became outraged when she saw her game spreading nationally during the Depression and she received no credit. Other offshoots of Magie’s game like Finance and Inflation also were sold around the same time. And, in an attempt to capitalize off of Monopoly’s success, Parker Brothers released another financially-themed game, Bulls and Bears, featuring Darrow’s face on the box.

In 1936, as the national Monopoly craze continued in full swing, Magie called reporters with the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post. She showed them versions of her boards and told them she made only $500 from her invention. “There is nothing new under the sun,” she told the Post.

Only in recent years has Magie become accepted as the game’s inventor. She died in 1948 and, according to court documents, never made more than that $500 off of her board game. She may have invented one of the most iconic games about money, but Magie, herself, never had her chance to “pass Go” and collect the profits.

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