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Keith Plocek
Keith Plocek

The Story of Class Struggle, America's Most Popular Marxist Board Game

Keith Plocek
Keith Plocek

The box for the Class Struggle board game features Karl Marx arm-wrestling Nelson Rockefeller. They’re using their left arms, so of course Marx is winning. Inside the box, a pile of Chance Cards includes messages such as “You are treating your class allies very badly” and “Your son has become a follower of Reverend Moon.” The ultimate goal of the game is to avoid nuclear war and win the revolution.

When the game was released in 1978, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. were locked in the Cold War and the specter of communism was still scary to the average American. Even then, Class Struggle sold around 230,000 copies. Before it went out of print, it was translated into Italian, German, French and Spanish.

Just how did this game become so popular? The story begins with a quirky Marxist professor trying to change jobs and ends with him getting sucked into the very system he was trying to subvert.

Professor Bertell Ollman had been teaching at New York University for a decade when he was offered the opportunity to chair the University of Maryland’s political science department, pending approval from the provost. The possibility of a noted Marxist scholar heading up a university department was not one to be ignored by the D.C. press, and they hopped on the story with a quickness today’s political bloggers would appreciate. Maryland’s governor and state senators started weighing in, and the approval process slowed way, way down.

Around the same time, Ollman was researching board games, in search of a socialist alternative to Monopoly. As he discusses in his 1983 memoir, Class Struggle Is the Name of the Game, Ollman learned Monopoly was actually based on The Landlord Game, which was invented in 1903 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie.

The original version had a different message, however, and as late as 1925 the game included the following instructions: “Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money.”

Of course the Parker Brothers version that inflames family arguments today has flipped the script, which left Ollman pondering just how he could make a game that gives players equal chances yet still teaches them about the inequalities of capitalism. Then came his breakthrough. “What if the players are not individuals, but classes?” he writes. “One could make capitalists and workers roughly equal in power, though of course the sources of their power are very different. The game could even explore these different sources of power, and when and how they are used. The game could deal with the class struggle.”

Ollman had his game, whose rules involve two to six players taking on the roles of capitalists, workers, farmers, small businesspeople, professionals, and students. They move around the board while dealing with elections, strikes, wars, and whatever the Chance Cards throw their way, including, “Yesterday you shook hands with Republicrat Senator Kennewater, and you believed him when he said he is the workingman’s candidate. Lose 1 asset for being so gullible.”

What Ollman didn’t have was any practical knowledge of small business, and the first run of the game was destined for dusty storage until a New York Post article picked up the story and attached it to the University of Maryland controversy. Articles soon followed in the Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. The Village Voice called the game a “shade prim” for saying marijuana and alcohol were opiates of the people.

The game was a hit, and Class Struggle started appearing on shelves alongside Monopoly. But Ollman soon learned getting orders was not the same thing as getting paid, and the Marxist scholar quickly became an expert in how small businesspeople get squeezed. Many radical bookstores never paid him for the games, and relations became strained with his initial investors, who also happened to be his good friends. Bad publicity followed when a small group of striking workers at Brentano’s Bookstore asked him to pull the game and then used his refusal to promote their own fight.

“Even my political commitment was beginning to fray at the edges,” he writes in his memoir. “I had always been delighted by each downturn of sales reported in the marketplace — ‘People buying less junk,’ I thought. Now, the same news appeared somehow threatening. I caught myself thinking, ‘If the collapse of capitalism could wait just a little longer, until we got our business on its feet.’”

Success was always right around the corner, but the costs kept rising. When Ollman and his cohorts did not have enough money for the second run of the game, they seized upon a small difference in quality to refuse payment to the manufacturer. Lawsuits ensued. (A word of advice: Never go into business with a Marxist.) The University of Maryland’s provost punted the decision about the political science department to his successor, who denied Ollman’s appointment. More lawsuits. Ollman’s game was still selling, but the enterprise was sinking further into debt.

“Being broke is bad enough,” he writes. “Being broke and mistaken for a millionaire—by everyone but the bank, that is—is about as funny as coughing up blood.”

Ollman was grinding his teeth so badly that four of them cracked, and after three years of struggle, the professor and his partners sold the game to Avalon Hill, a company that specialized in war games. The game disappeared in 1994.

As for Ollman, he is still a professor at New York University, and when asked about the game’s legacy, he tells Mental Floss:

“As long as there is a class struggle (and there certainly is in the U.S., where it may have gotten more intense, especially during the current economic crisis), there is a great need to help young people understand what it is, how it works, and where they fit into it. They are certainly not going to learn any of this from the mainstream media or in most of their formal education. The game could still contribute to this important work.”

Just watch out for Republicrat Senator Kennewater.

All photos by Keith Ploceck

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'Puggle,' 'Emoji,' and 298 Other New Words Added to Scrabble Dictionary
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Scrabble aficionados and wordsmiths around the world will soon have some new reading material to bone up on. In celebration of National Scrabble Day today, the makers of the classic word game announced that 300 new words will be added to Scrabble’s official dictionary.

The new words will be published in the sixth edition of Merriam-Webster’s The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, which will be released this fall, according to Mashable.

Here are just a few of the new additions:

Emoji (noun): A small computer symbol used to express emotion
Ew (interjection): Used to express disgust
Facepalm (verb): To cover the face with the hand
Macaron (noun): A cookie with filling in the middle
Puggle (noun): A kind of dog
Sriracha (noun): A spicy pepper sauce

Some players of the 70-year-old game may be surprised to learn that “ew” isn’t already a word, especially considering that Scrabble recognizes more than 100 two-letter words, including “hm” (another expression), “ai” (a three-toed sloth), and “za” (slang for pizza). If played strategically and placed on a triple word square, “ew” can land you 15 points—not bad for two measly letters.

New Scrabble words must meet a few criteria before they’re added to the official dictionary. They must be two to eight letters long and already in a standard dictionary. Abbreviations, capitalized words, and words with hyphens or apostrophes are immediately ruled out.

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told Entertainment Weekly, “For a living language, the only constant is change. New dictionary entries reflect our language and our culture, including rich sources of new words such as communication technology and food terms from foreign languages.”

The last edition of the Scrabble dictionary came out in 2014 and included 5000 new words, such as "selfie," "hashtag," "geocache," and "quinzhee."

[h/t Mashable]

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25 Double-Letter Scrabble Words to Have in Your Back Pocket
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The best Scrabble players are the strategic ones who keep adding words to their player vocabulary. Once you've mastered a number of two-letter words and the high-scoring ones (that are admittedly very difficult to play), start looking to double-letter words to take advantage of the multiples on your tile rack.

1. AGLOO

seal on snow
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Don't have an I for IGLOO? Use an A for AGLOO, meaning an air hole through the ice made by a seal.

2. ALLEE

allee
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Instead of an ALLEY, use this double-double-lettered word meaning a tree-lined walkway.

3. BETTA

betta fish
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Rather than BETA, use that extra T to mean the freshwater fish.

4. BRATTICE

Coal mine
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A BRATTICE now means a heavy curtain or barrier in a mine to help direct air flow, though the medieval meaning was simply a temporary partition along a wall.

5. DRESSAGE

Dressage
Adam Ihse, AFP/Getty Images

The fanciest of all horse training and equestrian events, DRESSAGE is the obedience and discipline riding competition, rather than the racing.

6. FUGGY

man holding his nose because of terrible smell
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To FUG is to make something stuffy or odorous, but its adjective form (FUGGY) and past and present participles (FUGGED, FUGGING) will take care of any extra Gs on the board.

7. GHYLL

two people looking into a ravine
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Not only will GHYLL, which is a deep ravine, utilize a double-letter, but it will help if your tile bar is sorely lacking in vowels.

8. GRAAL

gold chalice
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GRAAL is an older form of the word GRAIL, but it's also a technique used in glassblowing.

9. HEELER

Shoemaker holding high heels
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Don't have an A for HEALER? A HEELER is a person who puts heels on shoes (as well as an Australian cattle dog).

10. HELLUVA

cursing key on keyboard
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If you're having a HELLUVA time getting rid of a few letters, this nonstandard combination word is actually Scrabble-approved.

11. INNAGE

worker examining containers
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INNAGE is the quantity of goods remaining in a container when received after shipment.

12. LARRUP

man defeating other man at video games
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To decisively defeat someone or trounce them is to LARRUP.

13. MAMMEE

tropical island
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Another double-double-letter word, a MAMMEE is species of tropical tree with large red fruit.

14. MOGGY

cats
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A MOGGY or MOGGIES (plural) is the cat equivalent of a mutt.

15. OLLA

Salad in glass jars
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A quick word to tack onto some common board letters, an OLLA is a wide-mouthed pot or jar.

16. OUTTELL

woman with megaphone mural
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OUTTELL, OUTTELLS, and OUTTELLING all refer to speaking out or declaring something openly.

17. PERRON

outdoor staircase
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A PERRON can refer to both large outdoor stairways or the stone platforms of certain columns and edifices.

18. PIGGERY

pig in pig pen
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You're surely prepared with PIGGY, PIGGIE, and PIGGISH, but a PIGGERY is a pigpen.

19. QUASSIA

Quassia amara
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Score extra points with a well-place Q. A QUASSIA is another tropical tree whose bitter bark is sometimes used as a digestive aid or an insecticide.

20. SCABBLE

clay in hands
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No, not Scrabble. SCABBLE means to shape roughly.

21. TIPPET

tippet
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A TIPPET is a covering for the shoulders, or a ceremonial scarf worn by clergy.

22. TYPP

balls of yarn
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A TYPP (or TYPPS, plural) is a unit of yarn size. It's an acronym for thousand yards per pound.

23. VALLUM

Vallum at Hadrian's Wall
Optimist on the run, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The VALLUM was part of the defensive wall of earth and stone surrounding Roman camps.

24. WEEPIE

man and woman crying in movie theater
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While WEEPY is an adjective for tending to weep, a WEEPIE is a very maudlin movie.

25. WELLY

child wearing wellingtons
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According to the official Scrabble dictionary, WELLY is an acceptable form of WELLIE, the British rainboots.

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