The Toys That Built America (2021) s01e04 Episode Script

Board Game Empires

1 Americans buy hundreds of millions of them every year, generating over 4 billion dollars in revenue.
You can’t underestimate the impact of the American board game on society.
But 150 years ago, they’re almost unheard of.
George, I don’t have money to gamble on card games.
This isn’t cards.
The Parker Brothers.
They were visionaries.
They saw something that no one else saw.
And Milton Bradley.
The idea that board games could be a product that people would purchase, that was really revolutionary.
Their rivalry will spur the most iconic games in American history.
It’s a game about life.
Parker, this game will open people’s eyes.
But the battle for supremacy- I’m afraid it has no chance of success.
Is no game.
You almost have to ask yourself: Did he think he could get away with this? What now? You make a deal with her.
All of a sudden, this new thing changed board games forever.
America is a divided nation in the fall of 1860.
The country is consumed with slavery.
And as America expands west, the question is: Will the western territories be slave or free? And in Massachusetts, a 24-year-old struggling printmaker hopes to capitalize on the crucial presidential election.
It’s a young Milton Bradley.
Milton Bradley grew up in a very religious, pious household.
His father was a poor textile worker who became destitute when he made a very bad investment.
He was introverted, filled with ideas, but he had a warm personality and made many friends.
Bradley’s betting everything on printing costly lithographs of an unlikely presidential candidate: a country lawyer and one-term congressman from Illinois.
A lithograph of Lincoln on your wall woulda been a statement of where you stood on the issue of slavery and woulda been a very popular thing to have at that time.
But an 11-year-old from Upstate New York writes Lincoln a letter that changes everything for Bradley.
It’s a little girl who suggests that he grow a beard to sorta look more stately.
And the moment he began to appear in newspapers wearing his new beard, sales of the poster dried up and Bradley had this big unsold inventory.
All the lithographs that Milton Bradley made of Lincoln now we’re worthless.
In fact, people that bought Abraham Lincoln lithographs from him ended up asking for their money back.
The Milton Bradley name will become synonymous with the most iconic games of all time, creating a business worth $350 million and changing the way America plays.
But right now, with a young wife to support, Bradley is on the brink of ruin.
His close childhood friend, named George Tapley, happened to be in Springfield, struggling to make it as a bookbinder, and gets together with Milton Bradley and says in so many words, "Life sucks.
"Let’s us go play a game.
" George, I don’t have the money to gamble on card games.
Well, this isn’t cards.
Tapley has with him one of the very first American board games, called the Mansion of Happiness.
There were no board games per se, outside of a few of like the Mansion of Happiness.
And although Bradley’s parents had played games with him as a child, chess, checkers, or anagrams, he had never seen a board game.
Games in the mid-1800s were incredibly education focused and morally focused.
They were a vessel by which people could teach about life and death, religion.
They weren’t exactly fun the way we think of now.
But not every game.
Other games had kind of shady reputation.
Card games were big, in large part because people were gambling, and this set off alarm bells among certain puritanical elements.
It was a sin to gamble.
Playing cards were known in some religious circles as the Devil’s pasteboard, cardboard that would lead you into a life of gambling and bad moral choices.
And dice were probably even worse.
The original Mansion of Happiness in England had dice.
But when it came to the States, it turned into something we call a teetotum, which was a wooden spindle that had a hexagonal base to it with six numbers on it.
Players go forward by landing on virtues, like honesty or sincerity, while vices like drinking or breaking the Sabbath move you back.
The goal of this game, you wanna get to the Mansion of Happiness, which many people say truly represented Heaven.
Four, five, six The Mansion of Happiness.
So? I think it’s magnificent.
Here was a game printed on a label attached to a piece of cardboard, and he’s in the printing business.
So, very quickly, the idea dawns on him, "How about if I invent a game?" And after weeks of tinkering, he’s cracked a new game that mirrors life.
Players start on the infancy square and navigate the board until they reach happy old age.
But it’s not all fun and games.
The original version of The Game of Life actually is pretty dark.
Among other things, it has a suicide square.
The square on the board is a man hanging by a noose.
I mean, it’s actually troubling to look at.
This is a square that once you land on this, game is over.
Because in real life, if you commit suicide, game over.
Because the path of life had ups and downs and it mirrored his own checkered life, he instinctively called the game The Checkered Game of Life.
It’s the first version of a game that will eventually sell more than 50 million copies and become one of the most enduring board games of all time.
But now, Bradley is manufacturing them by hand in his print shop.
There wasn’t a lot of margin in a board game, so you couldn’t afford to hire an outside printer.
So, the fact that he had his own press and could make his own games himself was quite an advantage.
To Milton Bradley’s delight, the Checkered Game of Life was a hit.
His initial run of 400 printed games sold out in no time flat.
Just as Milton Bradley’s new board game business starts to take off, Lincoln wins the election of 1860.
The America at 1860 is a very tense place because, obviously, the country is about to embark upon the worst tragedy of American history, the worst trauma of American history, which is of course the Civil War.
The Civil War has a disruptive impact on small businesses.
So, for people like Milton Bradley, at least in the beginning, it begins as a moment of ruin.
Sales of The Game of Life have dropped off significantly and it looks like Milton Bradley will once again fall on hard times.
Bradley considers making weapons for the Union Army to make ends meet, until He has a better idea.
A company of Massachusetts infantrymen are in Springfield.
And when Bradley walks past, he noticed that although they’re off-duty, they have nothing to do.
Bradley sees a captive audience for board games if he can make an important modification.
He creates the world’s first travel-sized games.
You could play chess or checkers with little cardboard playing pieces.
Of course, there’s The Checkered Game of Life in there too.
There’s Domino’s.
It’s reported that Bradley sold 270,000 of these within the first year.
This, probably more so than The Game of Life, established his business.
Suddenly, everybody knows who Milton Bradley is.
At the war’s end just four years later, Bradley is well on his way to bringing board games to the masses.
But just 100 miles away, another New Englander is about to change everything.
He’s just 16 years old, and his name is George Parker.
By 1883, nearly 20 years since the Civil War, board games are becoming more popular, as new household conveniences and the eight-hour workday give Americans leisure time.
Instead of spending all of their hours maintaining the household, they could relax for a few hours.
And since prices were coming down, they could buy more.
From the mid-1870s until 1890 was called the gilded age because of that.
But most board games have an agenda.
There is this effort on the part of many reformers in areas such as temperance to deal with what they think is the moral decline of the nation.
So, you have games that seek to address this by trying to inject moral truths back into American life through gaming.
And in Massachusetts, 16-year-old George Parker wants to lighten things up.
Care to make things a little more interesting? George Parker was much more interested in fun and play and amusing people rather than educating them for moral benefits.
Parker had two older brothers, and he was the different one among the three.
He was perpetually filled with ideas.
Their father had been a successful sea captain and then a merchant, but died at a young age.
And the family income stopped suddenly, confronting the Parker Brothers with needing to do something and to make a success of their lives and to make money to make ends meet.
Money is central to Parker’s thinking and influences his first big idea.
It used to be capitalism was at odds with what it meant to be a good white Christian.
That changes, and now capitalism can be just an expression of God’s bounty.
Back in 1840, there were 60 millionaires in all of the US.
By 1880, there’s 1,000 millionaires, and people are beginning to fantasize what it might be like to have that kinda wealth.
The game he creates is called Banking.
But when it’s rejected by two Boston publishers, he spends his life savings to print 500 copies.
He received permission from his teacher to take off the month of December and peddle his game by rail all around New England.
Parker sells nearly all of his sets, ending with a profit of $80, equal to about $2,000 today.
Not a fortune, but enough to give him a taste of success, and George wants to keep going.
He wants to create games that aren’t all about virtues and vices, but kinda show what’s going on in life.
This is an era of robber barons and industrial magnates and high-finance experts, people like Andrew Carnegie in steel, Cornelius Vanderbilt in railroads.
People admired these wealthy individuals and the success that they had had.
They wanted to be like that guy.
This is what Parker was tapping into, that vicarious thrill that I may not be running a big company, but I can make money around the kitchen table as we play one of Parker Brothers’ games.
I think you’re really onto something.
His company began to grow and he discovered something, a real problem.
He didn’t like business.
He liked inventing and he was a terrific salesman.
To supplement his weakness, he convinced his middle brother, Charles, to quit his job and come join him.
And in 1888, a new gaming company is born.
Parker Brothers.
Meanwhile, Milton Bradley is expanding.
He’s got games, he’s getting into puzzles.
He is really cashing in on fads that are going on.
In the two decades since the Civil War, Milton Bradley has even become the first in the US to make croquet sets, writing rules that have become the standard to this day.
And now he’s pioneering another idea common today, aiming games towards children and combining education with fun.
Milton Bradley was very interested in games as a way of teaching.
He really saw the potential that games had, particularly for children.
The first board games were not really marketed for kids.
Today, even though games could be educational, there’s so many lessons that can be learned, and that was not the case then.
But his investors aren’t happy about what the shift in focus could do to their bottom line.
The investors are saying we need to market to adults, not children without any money.
They’re plain wrong.
The children are good business.
You capture their imagination and the adults will follow.
Stick to your guns.
I’ll make up their share.
It takes time, but with George Tapley’s financial backing, it’s a risk that eventually pays off.
By the 1890s, he’s the leading game maker in the United States.
But he’s about to meet his match.
Budding rival George Parker is grown up and determined to take over the game industry.
One of George Parker’s problems as a entrepreneur is the fact that he was still very young and he looked even younger.
So, it was suggested to him that he grow a beard and a mustache.
It certainly made him look older, and he learned the merit of dressing very well in very fine suits, so the transformation was then complete.
Parker also pushes his games to evolve.
New titles like Crossing the Ocean are role-playing adventures.
The thing about the ocean game is people couldn’t do that yet.
Except the uber-wealthy, who is taking ships?! The idea that you actually took on a role when you played a Parker game was very exciting to kids of that era.
Now, of course, we know that role-playing games are a huge business today.
The roots of those games go back to George Parker’s early adventure games.
But to top Milton Bradley, Parker aggressively pursues better ideas.
He realized that the American toy industry got its ideas every year from Europe.
Parker said, "Uh-uh, I’m gonna get a leg up "on the competition.
" He sailed to England.
And while he was there during the 1890s, he discovered tiddlywinks, ping-pong, and he beat Bradley in every one of those areas.
By 1893, Parker Brothers’ annual sales hit over $3 million in today’s money.
The success gets the attention of his rival.
When Milton Bradley takes notice of George Parker, he really thinks a lot of his games are showy and kind of gaudy.
The term vulgar comes to mind.
He knows his young competitor is closing in.
Parker was now causing Bradley to chase him.
I don’t think Milton Bradley really liked that, because here was this kid who was now beating him to the punch.
But soon, a new player emerges with a game that will turn the fortunes of Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley upside down.
At the turn of the 20th century, the most popular games, like Parker Brothers’ Banking, allow players to dream of big wealth.
But the reality of the times is much different for most Americans.
In 1900, 7 out of 10 US workers made less than 20 cents an hour and they were working six days a week.
There’s no such thing as minimum wage.
There are very few protections for workers.
The problem in America at that time was this horrible and, in fact, an egregious gap between the very wealthy and the very poor.
And one woman takes an innovative approach to reform this wealth gap.
Her name is Elizabeth Magie.
This woman writes stories, writes poetry, she’s a comedian, she’s an actress.
She was an outspoken feminist, and she was very politically active as well, specifically following this man named Henry George.
A lot of us don’t know about Henry George today, but he was a hugely famous political economist in his times.
Henry George had the opinion that land should be a common resource and people shouldn’t be able to buy and sell their neighbors or create economic problems.
And she wanted a game to prove how terrible it would be to have a moneygrubbing landlord who was driving you into bankruptcy.
So she creates one, called The Landlord’s Game.
It was a game that taught against the evils of monopolies, how landlords shouldn’t be allowed to increase their rents and, you know, in essence, bankrupt tenants.
It’s pretty ingenious because people are sitting in the shoes of folks and seeing how these theories actually work.
And the game is groundbreaking for another reason.
For the very first time, there is no starting point and ending point.
Now you have a game that you can go around and around and around, so that was completely different than anything that anyone’s ever seen before.
Magie self-publishes the game, finding modest success at colleges and universities.
But for the Landlord’s Game to have a significant social impact, she needs a major distributor and sets her sights on one of the biggest in the game.
Miss Magie, please, have a seat.
This game will open people’s eyes.
Like working-class families everywhere, people will have to make their meager wages stretch to cover rent.
And if they can’t, they go to the poor house or jail.
Meanwhile, the railroads, the banks, and the government get rich.
Hmm Wonderful.
But I’m afraid it has no chance of success.
People wanna be empowered when they play a game, not oppressed by forces they can’t control.
It had a lot with morals and I had a lot with values.
It was the stuff that Parker actually rebelled against.
Parker closes the door on the Landlord’s Game For now.
But soon after, there’s a seismic shift in the business.
In 1911, Milton Bradley, the man credited with launching the board game industry is dead, opening a window of opportunity for George Parker.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his best chance at topping Milton Bradley’s company may have already walked out the door.
The 1920s are a really fantastic time for both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, the game industry overall.
And there’s a huge boom in consumer spending, so it was much easier to convince people to spend their hard-earned money on games.
But at the end of the decade, the good times come to a screeching halt.
The great boom of the 1920s was followed by the colossal stock market crash of 1929.
The economic devastation was severe.
A lot of retailers fell on hard times.
This immediately had an adverse effect on both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley.
By 1932, the Great Depression has put 15 million out of work and Americans across the country struggle to make ends meet.
The simple eradication of thousands of banks and everybody’s deposits and small businesses and farms.
It’s economic suffering on an unprecedented scale in American history.
One of those unemployed Americans is a former heating repairman named Charles Darrow.
In 1932, the Darrow family was struggling and Charles Darrow did all kinds of odd jobs to try to earn money from patching concrete and walking dogs.
As Darrow scrambles to make ends meet, he also works on an idea to pass the time.
It’s a board game that deals with buying and selling property.
He calls it Monopoly.
Even though we all know the Monopoly game to be square, the first version, Darrow actually made it in a circle.
The reasoning was simple: His kitchen table was a circle.
In the spring of 1934, Darrow submits his homemade Monopoly game to the Milton Bradley Company, now run by George Tapley’s son, William.
Milton Bradley gets back to him and they just give a terse, "No thank you.
" Darrow’s next stop is their rival, Parker Brothers.
Parker Brothers gets back to him.
"Thank you for submitting the game.
"We don’t think it fits our line right now," and then a signature.
As Christmas 1934 approaches, Darrow makes a desperate move.
After Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers rejected Darrow and he knew he was on his own, he took the incredible risk of printing copies of the game, which during the Depression was an amazing risk.
He then convinces Wanamaker’s, the prestigious Philadelphia department store, to sell them.
Department stores like Wanamaker’s weren’t just stores, they were experiences.
So, to be able to sell anything there, particularly a game, that was a huge deal for Monopoly.
Next, he travels to New York City and the mecca of toy stores, FAO Schwarz, who also agree to sell the game.
And then he waits.
The most nerve-wracking part for those in the toy industry is putting stuff on the market at Christmas.
What was even worse is it was during the Depression.
But in both stores, Monopoly strikes a chord with the public and sells out.
It was just a fantasy that so many people who were hit so hard economically just couldn’t resist.
It was the perfect game at the perfect time.
And word of mouth spreads quickly.
A friend of Sally Parker-Barton, the daughter of George Parker, receives a phone call from an old schoolmate who’s now living in Philadelphia.
And this school mates simply says to her, "I just want you to know that there is a game "that’s selling really well down here called Monopoly.
" Remember, Darrow first went to Parker Brothers to try and sell the game, and they reject it.
And Parker Brothers in the early-1930s is a firm in trouble, like many others.
They need a hit and they need it fast.
Now, George Parker is desperate to fix his company’s mistake.
What in God’s name were you thinking? Now, get him in here before someone else does.
Darrow is already on the market and he was actually ramping up production when the phone call came in.
Darrow agrees to sell the rights to Monopoly for $7,000, which is about $135,000 in today’s money.
It’s not the kinda money that’ll make you rich, but Parker agrees to pay Darrow a certain percentage on every game sold.
This is gonna make Darrow a very rich man.
But before unleashing Monopoly on the rest of the country, George Parker puts his own stamp on it.
Darrow, believe it or not, didn’t supply any game tokens with his game.
He simply stated in his rules, "Use small household objects "to represent your playing pieces.
" Parker adds the iconic game pieces.
The other key to success was the rewriting of the rules.
Darrow’s rules were sketchy.
George Parker had one enduring skill.
It was writing immaculately clear rules, and he revised the rules for Monopoly.
Monopoly instantly becomes a phenomenon unlike anything ever seen in the board game business.
In 1936, Parker Brothers sold 1.
8 million Monopoly.
And the printing presses of that era were not fast, so 1.
8 million was all they could supply.
Sales could well have been more than that.
Come on, now let’s have one shaking hands.
The press picks up on the story and Darrow is thrust into the national spotlight.
Being unemployed and badly needing anything to take my mind off my troubles, I made by hand a very crude game for the sole purpose of amusing myself.
But I suppose Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
For a nation in the grips of the Great Depression, Darrow’s creation story of Monopoly makes great copy.
There’s just one problem: Almost none of it is true.
In 1936, Monopoly becomes a smash hit for Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers.
It’s on its way to becoming one of the greatest selling board games of all time.
But Darrow’s success story is not exactly what it appears to be.
Monopoly is clearly taken from a 30-year-old board game Parker Brothers rejected: Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game.
The Landlord’s Game was really popular in colleges and it actually grew in popularity when the college students would go home for the summer.
They were localized boards.
So, if you were playing in Boston, you would put Boston properties on.
If you were playing in Chicago, you’d throw the Loop on there.
In New York City, you would have Broadway.
In 1932, Charles Darrow was introduced to one of the localized versions of The Landlord’s Game at a dinner party he attended with his wife.
It so happened that friends suggest that they play a new handmade game that had come up from Atlantic City.
The Quakers in Atlantic city were the ones that gave it the theme that we know today, which is Boardwalk and Park Place.
All the street are Atlantic City names.
Significant modifications are made to the look of The Landlord’s Game, creating the now-iconic board, but the rules are strikingly similar.
There was four railroads and the same amount of spaces, same amount of utilities, and a go-to-jail card.
When Darrow sells Parker Brothers the rights to Monopoly, they don’t patent it right away.
It’s the patent examiner’s responsibility to search all prior patents of that class and see if anything similar turns up which might disallow it.
It’s not until after Monopoly hits the market that Parker Brothers and Darrow finally apply for a design patent.
And when Parker Brothers went to the patent office, they found they had their uh-oh moment.
Elizabeth Magie had patented her original version back in 1904 and again in 1924.
So What now? You make a deal with her.
George Parker goes to convince Magie to sell the patent.
With the game just gaining popularity, neither knows that untold millions are at stake.
It’s not the money, Mr.
I’ll sell you the rights to my game on one condition.
Besides Monopoly, you manufacture my original game, The Landlord Game, just as I created it.
You have a deal.
Parker Brothers strikes up a deal with Darrow that allows for him to receive a pretty large lump sum, as well as residuals that continue to this day.
With Lizzie Magie, the best we can tell they paid her $500 and no residuals, and that was that.
Meanwhile, Parker Brothers produces 10,000 copies of the landlord’s game, as promised, but the game and its anticapitalist message is a bust.
If you say, "Wow, this is a game about economics "and we’re gonna teach you about single taxes," who is gonna run and buy that game? Who? Show of hands, who? And in the end, they took back almost 10,000 copies and all of ’em were burned up.
Monopoly’s success allows Parker Brothers to leave Milton Bradley in the dust for the next decade.
Bradley had a competing product called Easy Money, but its sales never really approached that of Monopoly.
Milton Bradley was in rocky shape.
They had a lot of investors who were anxious for profits, and now here comes Parker Brothers with the biggest game ever.
As Milton Bradley struggles, a school teacher from San Diego named Eleanor Abbott is inspired to create a game during a dark moment that will change both their fortunes.
She was recovering from polio in a San Diego hospital and she took pity on all the poor children who were there with her and decided she would cheer them up by inventing a simple children’s game.
A game that didn’t require any reading skills, you didn’t have to know your numbers.
All you had to know were colors to have a success.
Launched in 1949, Candy Land becomes one of the biggest hits of all time, eventually going on to sell 40 million copies.
Candy Land actually becomes the cornerstone of a larger line of games for children and it hearkens back to Milton Bradley’s original roots of making things for children and making them fun.
But for Milton Bradley to reclaim number one from Parker Brothers, they need another smash hit, and they just may have it in a 100-year-old idea from Milton Bradley himself.
In the late-1940s, Parker Brothers is riding a wave of unprecedented success.
Parker Brothers is just hitting it outta the park.
Who can not love Clue? It’s actually in our lexicon.
If you sit there at a dinner party and you say, "It was a Colonel Mustard in the library "with the candlestick," people know exactly who you’re talking about.
But of all the games Parker Brothers brings to life, Monopoly continues to be the crown jewel.
By the 1950s, sales reached $13.
5 million, the equivalent of $150 million today.
Monopoly sets become as ubiquitous in American homes as refrigerators and cars.
So, I think that Monopoly ends up becoming this really interesting artifact that people really cling to as a sign of tradition and America.
But Parker Brothers’ oldest rival isn’t surrendering.
In 1959, Milton Bradley puts their hopes into an old relic from their founders past.
What they did is they went back to the Checkered Board of Life, the game that was ove a hundred years old at this time, and this was really a risky idea.
In 1960, the new Game of Life debuts at the New York City Toy Fair, refreshed for a post-war world.
I made $50,000 in the stock market today.
That’s life! The Checkered Game of Life used this new thing called lithography, while the Game of Life in 1960 added plastic to the game.
And this was a breakthrough because prior to the perfection of injection molding, board games were entirely flat.
And the Game of Life from 1960 was labeled a 3-D game.
The game itself is filled with things like not so much the virtues and the vices as much as it’s making career choices and whether you’re going to college or getting a job.
It’s not about reaching a happy old age anymore.
It’s about being a millionaire.
Games and toys are often a depiction of the society and economic conditions at the time, and I think that that’s the case with the Game of Life.
The update is a wild success with the public, going on to sell 50 million copies.
The Game of Life as revised became the biggest selling board game in Bradley’s history, far eclipsing the original Checkered Game of Life.
Competition between Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers continues for another two decades, but ultimately ends at the hands of another giant corporation.
In 1984, toy giant Hasbro buys out Milton Bradley for about $350 million and then in 1991 acquires Tonka, which owns Parker Brothers, for over a half a billion dollars.
As for Monopoly, today its sales approach 300 million copies and it continues to be one of the most popular board games in the world, sold in 114 countries and printed in 47 languages.
You got the world championships.
Monopoly is a great diplomat.
It unifies the players who have never met from the various countries because they know it.
It’s a common denominator.
Ironically, the board game that celebrates capitalism has also brought renewed attention to the story of Elizabeth Magie, the passionate social activist who invented the original version, The Landlord’s Game.
I’ve talked to so many girls and women and game designers, and Lizzie Magie is an important North Star.
I think it’s really important to see representation and see people like her who just keep charging through to make their ambitions and their ideas become a reality.
In 1861, the modern board game was born out of one man’s desperation.
But today, Milton Bradley’s inspiration has grown into a global $10-billion-a-year industry.
Board games give families, especially these days with all the screens, opportunities to sit down and to play together.
It’s amazing to me that people predict old-fashioned board games will go away.
But I think board games are important because they allow people the luxury of actually communicating with one another.
It’s not so much the game itself but the conversations that happen around the game that make games so wonderful.

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