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Boardwalk and Park Place go to war

In September 1944, a hungry, cold, terrified airman hunched over what remained of a recently arrived Red Cross package. He had been a POW since his Lancaster was shot down over the Ruhr valley in 1943. His excitement grew as he saw the tiny red spot. He had been briefed about it just before his first mission. To identify a “special” Monopoly set, a tiny red dot, designed to look like a simple printing glitch, was in the corner of the “Free Parking” square.

His hands trembled as he split the box cardboard in the dim light from the tiny barred window above his head. He had already ravenously eaten the food that was left in the Red Cross package and now found the strength to consider another escape attempt. A previous attempt had led to failure and severe punishment. Getting through the barbed wire had been relatively easy but finding his way through the snow and forests of Eastern Germany was not, nor was finding help or purchasing food or train tickets. He simply got lost until the patrols with dogs ran him down.

As he gently spread the layers of cardboard, he found two slivers of metal which screwed together to form a file. He broke the little wooden red hotel to find a tiny silk map of his region folded very tightly. Under the packaged Monopoly money was real German Reich marks ready to spend and, finally, inside the Scotty dog was a tiny compass. Here was what he needed to be among the estimated 35,000 Allied POWs who escaped from German and Italian camps during World War II. The contraband in the Monopoly games is credited with a least one-third of them.

During WWII, it is estimated there were 135,000 British (50,000 from Dunkirk alone) and 95, 532 U.S. prisoners of war held by Germany. By 1945, American and British POWs were mostly concentrated in about a dozen camps of several thousand each. Hitler, earlier, had decreed that all American and British prisoners were to be held at least 1,000 miles from the English Channel. In order to make successful escapes as difficult as possible, Germans located the camps as far east as possible.

As luck would have it, “games and pastimes” was a category allowed into packages sent by the International Red Cross to prisoners of war. To help prisoners escape, in 1941, the British Secret Service asked John Waddington Ltd. (the Monopoly manufacturer in UK) to add a few little secret goodies to some sets. The most valuable aid was considered to be the maps showing the specific area of the POW camp with places marked where an escapee could expect help.

There were several problems here. Maps were fragile and noisy when opened or closed. MI-5 came up with the idea of printing escape maps on silk. It is durable, can be folded up

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into tiny spaces, and unfolded as many times as needed – all silently. At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain that had perfected the technology of printing on silk and that was John Waddington Ltd. They were already printing silk maps for British and American air crews. They now started printing silk maps to be hidden inside Monopoly games. When processed, these maps were folded small enough to fit inside a Monopoly playing piece. Also, under the fake money was real French, German and Italian currency. Secret devices like files and compasses also were disguised as game pieces. Waddington’s also managed to add a playing token containing a small magnetic compass and a two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together.

In absolute secrecy in a guarded, inaccessible workshop at Waddington’s, a group sworn-to-secrecy was producing the sets. After the war any remaining sets were quietly destroyed. Everyone involved, even the escaped prisoners, were sworn to secrecy. The Cold War was now beginning so Allied officials wanted to ensure the innocent-looking board game could go back to war if required. This secrecy continued with the help of the British Official Secrets Act until 2007. The story then was declassified and surviving craftsmen and the Waddington firm itself was honored in a public ceremony.

Waddington’s no longer makes Monopoly, either as an innocent board game or as the “special” versions. On Nov. 30, 1994 Hasbro acquired the games division from John Waddington for 50 million British pounds ($78.22 million U.S.). The acquisition was approved by the Department for Trade and Industry.

Since Monopoly was invented in 1934, an estimated more than 500 million people have played the game!

Other facts:

  • More than 200 million Monopoly games have been sold worldwide.
  • More than 5 billion little green houses have been “built” since 1935.
  • A Monopoly game made at Alfred Dunhill, with gold houses and silver hotels, sold for $25,000.
  • The longest Monopoly game in history lasted 70 straight days.
  • The longest Monopoly game in a bathtub lasted 99 hours.
  • The game of Monopoly is so much a part of today’s popular culture that the game’s graphic elements have been trademarked. The Monopoly tokens, railroad, Community Chest, Chance, and Title Deed designs, as well as Boardwalk and all four game board corners are legally protected.

Last modified July 14, 2011

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