A breezy, fan’s-eye appreciation of one of America’s (and now much of the world’s) most popular board games.

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My fondest childhood memories of playing Monopoly revolve around two key phases of the game.  First, there was the selection of which token to play; I always wanted to be the dog, but if mom picked first, then I was darn sure not going to be the dog.  I usually went with shoe as a backup, or at least anything but the iron.  The next and by far the most pleasurable part of the game was the moment when, accepting that it was never going to end, we would finally throw in the towel, and agree that it was time to go do something interesting instead.

The folks featured in Kevin Tostado’s documentary “Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story” (2011) obviously played until the bitter end, and kept on playing right through adulthood and, in some cases, all the way to a world championship title.  The film’s aficionados are unabashed in their enthusiasm for their hobby bordering on obsession: Monopoly is “the most dynamic game in the world,” according to one proponent, to which I can only say “I challenge you to a game of Scrabble.”  But I digress.

Tostado follows several players en route to the 2009 Monopoly U.S. Championship and later to the 2009 World Championship in Las Vegas where representatives of more than 40 nations meet in hopes of being the first to have someone land on their hoteled (or at least three-housed) color group.  Monopoly is not an entirely random game.  There is a clear optimal strategy that might seem counterintuitive to amateur players, but the game theory involved is pretty simple to master.  When a group of players who know what they’re doing gather around the board, therefore, it’s almost entirely up to the dice, though a particularly savvy trader might be able to gain a skills-based edge.  

Tostado introduces us to a few colorful characters along the way, including sixth grade teacher Tim Vandenberg who uses the game to teach math skills to his students, and lawyer Ken Koury, who thinks that Tim is the “dark prince” of Monopoly and an “unsavory character” because of some minor alleged rules violation in a qualifying online game (the use of the word “minor,” I am sure, would set Koury off on another anti-Vandenberg rant).  We also meet a handful of obsessive collectors (what other kind are worth filming?) who surround themselves with anything bearing the likeness of Mr. Monopoly, formerly known, far more colorfully in my opinion, as Rich Uncle Pennybags, the one-percenter that everyone loves.

Since the chance element in the game is so high, I found the actual tournament scenes to be rather anti-climactic, particularly with new tournament rules designed to make the game run faster (and with even more luck involved).  But Tostado takes some interesting detours on his way around the board, stopping to talk about the history of the game as well as game theory.  Elizabeth Magie of Delaware designed The Landlord’s Game in the early 1900s to demonstrate how real life was rigged in the favor of land barons who would inevitably wind up with everything unless the rules were changed.  After a peripatetic journey, the game eventually wound up in Philadelphia in the 1930s where salesman Charles Darrow adapted it into more or less its currently recognizable form, which celebrates the very thing (someone winds up with everything) that Magie intended as a cautionary tale.  After Parker Brothers rejected his initial offer to sell the game outright, he marketed it through Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, and eventually negotiated a royalty-based deal with Parker that still pays off his family today.  That’ll buy a few Park Places and Boardwalks.

The game’s original streets were based on Atlantic City, NJ, but in recent years versions of the game have been adapted to locations throughout the world as well to hundreds of properties from TV shows to sports franchises, making Monopoly one of the greatest cash cows in board game history.  It has achieved as prominent a place in popular culture as it has at the living room table, whether it’s played at championship level or in the unending form featured in most houses.  One tip from the pros: play by the rules – no money for free parking, no double payout for landing on Go – and your game should end before your adolescence.

The documentary is narrated by actor Zachary Levi, of “Chuck” fame.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 ratio.  The interlaced transfer is about average, perfectly serviceable for a film that consists mostly of interviews and game footage.

The film can be played with Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks.  There’s no significant difference between them.  All of the dialogue is clearly mixed, and there’s nothing else to note in the audio design.  Optional English subtitles support the audio.

For game theory fans, the Extras are a bonanza.  Tim Vandenberg delivers a schoolroom lecture in three parts (approx. 40 min. total) discussing optimal strategy in the game, and dispelling some of the common myths about Monopoly.  I’m a number-crunching geek and I enjoyed this as much as the film, but your mileage may vary.  Hint: the orange properties kick butt.

The disc also includes footage of the entire 2009 World Championship Game (42 min.) which I planned to just check a bit of, and wound up watching the whole thing.  There are also extended scenes of the Australian Championship Game (5 min.) and the Canadian Championship game (5 min.)

You also get one minute of outtakes with narrator Zachary Levi, and the opportunity to take the 20-question 2009 U.S. Championship Qualifying Quiz.

Film Value:
“Under the Boardwalk” is strictly a soft sell, a breezy, fan’s-eye appreciation of one of America’s (and now much of the world’s) most popular board games.  It’s difficult to make the tournament games particularly exciting, but the comprehensive discussion of the history and the theory of the game keeps things interesting enough without ever bogging down in names and numbers.  And now I have incontrovertible evidence that Monopoly games really do end.


Film Value