Film Review: Ruthless: Monopoly's Secret History

by Julia DeKorte | 31 Mar 2023

Book Reviews

American Experience, a documentary series directed by Steven Ives and produced by PBS, now in it’s 35th season, has released a deep dive into the true story behind a classic American board game: Monopoly. Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History follows Ralph Anspach’s mission to uncover the truth about how the game really came to be. A story of betrayal, a female progressive icon, and multiple court cases. Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History is entertaining, captivating, and full of investigative information.


As many featured historians, scholars, and game designers explain, Monopoly was one of the last folk games, or games that are passed through generations like stories, each owner bringing his or her own twist to the game. It wasn’t until 1935 that Parker Brothers began mass producing the game that Charles Darrow claimed to have come up with. Ralph Anspach created a counter game, and called it Anti-Monopoly. Played like Parker Brothers’ Monopoly, it instructs players to break apart monopolies – steel monopolies, oil monopolies, etc. When Anspach receives a cease and desist from Parker Brothers, warning him of legal action if he doesn’t immediately take Anti-Monopoly off the market. Anspach, however sues Parker Brothers first, trying to prove that the patent they had was fraudulent, on account of the buried history of the true origins of the game.


So, Anspach goes on a mission to discover how Monopoly truly came to be. This is how he learns about Lizzie Magie, a progressive, feminist icon of the early 1900s. An engineer, actress, writer, and political presence, she created the Landlord’s Game, a game rather similar to Monopoly, that followed political theorist Henry George’s ideas about land, landlords, property, and how it should be taxed. Further into history, Anspach tracks down Charles Todd, who first showed the game that came to be Monopoly to Charles Darrow, who claimed it as his own.


The court case comes and goes, and Anspach loses, refusing to take a settlement offer from Parker Brothers. Howvever, this does not stop Anspach. He goes to the Supreme Court, and miraculously, they side with him, and Anspach is awarded not only money for damages and court costs, but the rights to keep producing Anti-Monopoly and share the true history of Monopoly.


Through expert animation and captivating storytelling, Ruthless: A Secret History has gone into more depth than any history book on board games that I’ve ever read. With interviews from historians, game designers, economists, scholars, and those who’ve loved and played the game, it covers every base – entertaining, interesting, and informative.

monopoly anti-monopoly the landlord's game charles darrow lizzie magie elizabeth magie charles todd ralph anspach

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