How Monopoly Works

By: Dave Roos  | 

Monopoly
More than 1 billion people have played Monopoly since it was released as a board game in 1935. txking/Shutterstock

Monopoly is one of the most popular board games of all time. Since Parker Brothers first began selling the game in 1935, more than 250 million sets have sold worldwide, and an estimated 1 billion people have played the game. For gamers, Monopoly offers the perfect balance of chance and strategy. For children, it's one of the first times parents give them "money" to spend as they like. And everyone loves the "Get out of jail free" card, right?

The game is relatively easy to play: Simply rack up as much money and as many properties as possible while you bankrupt other players. That said, the history of Monopoly is more complicated than Parker Brothers — or Monopoly's current brand owner Hasbro — would care to admit.

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The official Monopoly creation story takes place during the Great Depression. An unemployed radiator repairman from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow invented the game, had his prototype rejected by Parker Brothers, and then sold enough copies out of his house to convince Parker Brothers to produce the game, sparking an overnight success.

That's the official history; the actual history of Monopoly started back in 1904, when an economic activist named Elizabeth Magie patented the Landlord's Game. The Landlord's Game challenged players to buy properties and charge rent to demonstrate the inequalities of turn-of-the-century capitalism. Parker Brothers rejected Magie's game, largely because they couldn't figure out how it would end.

Over the next 30 years, Magie and others published their own versions of the game, often naming the properties after streets in their hometowns. Over time, Community Chest and Chance cards were added, and some games included a financial advantage for owning a group of nearby properties, known in the game as a monopoly.

In the early 1930s, Darrow played a version of Magie's game at the home of some friends in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The local board included Atlantic City streets and locations like Marvin Gardens (a misspelling of Marven Gardens), St. James Place and the boardwalk. Darrow saw the genius of the game immediately and quickly created his own version called Monopoly, which he didn't bother to patent before selling copies at Wanamaker's Department Store in his hometown of Philadelphia.

When Parker Brothers executives saw how well Darrow's game was selling, even in the middle of a depression, they offered to buy his idea. But before they could do that, they had to buy Magie's patent. As part of the deal, Parker Brothers offered to sell a few of Magie's other game ideas, none of which approached the colossal success of Monopoly.

Monopoly Board and Game Pieces

Monopoly
Every game of Monopoly comes with the same amount of money, token pieces and playing cards. CaseyMartin/Shutterstock

When you open the Monopoly box, you'll find the following:

  • a Monopoly board
  • two dice
  • 12 game tokens
  • 32 houses and 12 hotels
  • 16 Chance cards and 16 Community Chest cards
  • a title deed card for each property
  • Monopoly money

There are 40 squares on the standard Monopoly board, although technically there are 41 possible squares upon which to land, since the "jail" square is divided into two sections. There are 22 property squares named for streets in or around Atlantic City. There are four railroad squares named for the early 20th century railroad lines, and two utility companies, the Electric Company and Water Works. That makes 28 total squares that can be purchased.

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In addition, there are three Community Chest squares and three Chance squares that require players to draw a card. Both Chance and Community Chest cards can be good or bad. There is the famous "Get out of Jail Free" card, but there's also the "Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200" card.

The two most potentially disastrous cards are those requiring "street repairs" and "general repairs" for all houses or hotels you own. The "street repairs" card requires the player that draws it to pay the bank $40 per house and $115 per hotel, which is a tough blow to folks who have invested heavily to improve their properties. The "general repairs" card isn't much better, charging $25 per house and $100 per hotel. Other unfortunate squares include Luxury Tax (which carries a $100 penalty) and Income Tax ($200 or 10 percent of your net worth).

The four remaining squares are the corner squares. GO is where play begins. Every time you land on or pass GO on subsequent turns, you collect $200, referred to as your "salary" in Monopoly. Free Parking is the only space in the game that requires you to do absolutely nothing. The "Go to Jail" square only results in jail time if you land on it, not if you pass it. The Jail square has two sections: "Just Visiting" is if you roll and land on Jail; and "In Jail" is when you get sent to jail.

Next we'll look at the official Monopoly rules, which are useful when arguing with your sister about the penalty for rolling three doubles in a row.

Monopoly Rules

Monopoly
The rules of the game are simple: Create a monopoly and win. How you do that is up to you. Hasbro

All the following Monopoly rules come from the official game instructions that have accompanied standard U.S. Monopoly sets since 2008. If they differ from the way your family plays, that's perfectly fine since Monopoly has always fostered a rich culture of "house rules."

The object of Monopoly is become the wealthiest player by buying, selling, trading and collecting rent on properties. Depending on how long you want to play, you can either play until all but one player has gone bankrupt or set a time limit and crown the richest player the champion.

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  1. To start the game, each player chooses a token and one player is selected as the banker. The banker distributes $1,500 in Monopoly money to all players: two each of $500s, $100s and $50s; six $20s; and five each of $10s, $5s and $1s.
  2. Whoever rolls the highest number on the dice goes first.
  3. Every player starts in the GO square and moves clockwise around the board according to the number they roll on the dice. Depending on the space your token lands on, you are entitled to buy real estate — or pay rent, pay taxes, draw a Chance or Community Chest card, or "Go to Jail," etc.
  4. If you land on an available property, you can buy it by paying the banker the price listed on the title card. The advantage of owning properties is your opponents will have to pay you rent when they land on squares you own. If you own all of the properties in the same color group, then you have a monopoly. That means you can then charge double the listed rent and you can start building houses and eventually hotels, raising rent even higher. Of course, you have to pay rent whenever you land on an opponent's property.
  5. If you land on an available property, but decline to buy it, then the banker can auction the property to the highest bidder. The banker starts the bidding at any price and all players can participate, including the banker and the player who originally declined the property.
  6. You can get sent to jail three ways: Your token lands on the space marked "Go to Jail"; you draw a card marked "Go to Jail"; or you throw doubles three times in a row. Remember, when go to Jail, you can't collect your $200 salary in that move since, as the card says, you must go directly to jail.
  7. You can get out of jail three ways: Using a "Get out of Jail Free" card if you have one; rolling doubles on one of three consecutive turns; or paying your way out with $50. If you don't roll doubles after three turns, you must pay the banker $50 to get out of jail. You then get out immediately and move forward the number of spaces on your last roll.
  8. Trading and private sales of properties between is highly encouraged. The only thing that players cannot do is give private loans. Only the banker can mortgage a property. The fixed interest rate for "lifting" a mortgage is 10 percent of the price on the title.
  9. Finally, a player goes bankrupt when he or she doesn't have enough cash or assets to pay the bank or another player. Players can sell houses and hotels back to the bank for half of their original value, but if that doesn't provide enough cash, the bankrupt player forfeits all properties to the bank or an opponent and is out of the game.

Monopoly Tips and Strategies

Monopoly
There are a lot more strategies to winning at Monopoly that you might think. LightField Studios/Shutterstock

The overall best strategy for winning at Monopoly is to do everything in your power to create monopolies and block your opponents from completing them. This means buying every property you land on initially and then using trades, sales and negotiation to get the best deals and build your real estate empire [source: Darling].

Serious Monopoly strategists also pay a lot of attention to probability and return on investment. The quickest way to make money in Monopoly is to create monopolies on the most trafficked parts of the board. According to computer calculations, several squares on the Monopoly board are landed on with far more frequency than others. The three properties in the orange color group, for example, are six, eight and nine spaces away from the Jail. This means that everybody who rolls their way out of jail has a relatively high probability of landing on an orange square. If you're able to build some houses or a hotel on those squares, you're going to get an excellent return on your investment.

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Interestingly, those same computer calculations have figured out that hotels don't provide the best return on investment (i.e., they cost more than they earn over the span of the game). Instead, the best investment strategy is to build no more than three houses on each property in a monopoly since the rent increase from two to three houses is so steep [source: Collins].

According to the probability experts, the very best return on investment comes from buying all four railroad properties [source: Darling]. First of all, they're relatively cheap. And since there are four of them, there is a higher probability that an opponent will land on one and have to pay the $200 rent. One of the worst investments is a utility company. Even if you own both, the rent is 10 times the roll of the dice or a maximum of $120 or as little as $20.

Here's a tip about jail: If you end up there in the beginning of the game, pay the $50 immediately to get out of jail so you can continue buying properties. If it's later, you can linger there longer since moving around the board puts you at risk of landing on Boardwalk with a hotel, which will set you back $2,000 in rent.

Originally Published: Jul 21, 2011

Lots More Information

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  • Collins, Truman. "Probability in the Game of Monopoly." Jan. 5, 2005 (Aug. 27, 2021) http://www.tkcs-collins.com/truman/monopoly/monopoly.shtml
  • Darling, Tim. "How to Win at Monopoly — A Surefire Strategy." Nov. 2007 (Aug. 27, 2021) http://www.amnesta.net/other/monopoly/
  • Hasbro.com. "Monopoly: Parker Brothers Real Estate Trading Game." (Aug. 27, 2021) https://www.hasbro.com/common/instruct/monins.pdf
  • Huesnner, Ki Mae. ABC News. "Get Out of Jail Free: Monopoly's Hidden Maps." Sept. 18, 2009 (Aug. 1, 2011.) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/monopolys-hidden-maps-wwii-pows-escape/story?id=8605905
  • Williams, Juan. NPR Morning Edition. "Present at the Creation: Monopoly." Nov. 25, 2002 (Aug. 2, 2011.) http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/monopoly/