How a board game helped free POWs
By Brian McMahon
December 7, 2007
-- Park Place, Boardwalk, and a hidden map with a secret escape route?
For Allied POWs during World War II, MonopolyŽ games came equipped with
real-life "get out of jail free" cards.
During World War II, the British secret service hatched a master plan to
smuggle escape gear to captured Allied soldiers inside
Germany. Their secret weapon? Monopoly
The original notion was simple enough: Find a way to sneak useful items
into prison camps in an unassuming form. But the idea to use Monopoly
came from a series of happy coincidences, all of which started with
Smooth as silk
Maps are harder to smuggle than you might think. They fall apart when
wet, and they make a lot of noise when unfolded. Allied officials feared
paper maps might draw the attention of German troops, so they turned to
an unlikely source for help -- silk. Not only would silk maps hold up in
all kinds of weather, but they'd also come with the life-saving benefit
of being whisper quiet.
To produce these silent maps, the Brits turned to John Waddington Ltd.,
a company that had recently perfected the process of printing on silk
and was already manufacturing silk escape maps for British airmen to
carry. What else was Waddington known for? You guessed it -- being the
licensed manufacturer of Monopoly outside the
Suddenly, the popular board game seemed like the perfect way to get
supplies inside German-run POW camps. At the time, the Nazis were
hard-pressed to get provisions to their own troops, much less to the
Allied soldiers they'd captured.
Wishing to hide this less-than-stellar upholding of the Geneva
Convention, they happily welcomed Red Cross aid packages for POWs. So
throwing Monopoly games into the care kits along with food and clothing
was met with little scrutiny. Monopoly was already a well-known game
throughout Europe, and the German
guards saw it as the perfect way for their detainees to remain occupied
In 1941, the British Secret Service approached Waddington with its
master plan, and before long, production of a "special edition" Monopoly
set was underway. For the top-secret mission, the factory set aside a
small, secure room -- unknown to the rest of its employees -- where
skilled craftsmen sat and painstakingly carved small niches and openings
into the games' cardboard boxes.
Along with the standard thimble, car, and Scotty dog, the POW version
included additional "playing" pieces, such as a metal file, a magnetic
compass, and of course, a regional silk escape map, complete with marked
safe-houses along the way -- all neatly concealed in the game's box.
Even better, some of the Monopoly money was real. Actual German,
Italian, and French currency was placed underneath the play money for
escapees to use for bribes.
Also, because of its collaboration with the International Red Cross,
Waddington could track which sets would be delivered to which camps,
meaning escape maps specific to the area could be hidden in each game
set. Allied soldiers and pilots headed to the front lines were told to
look for the special edition game if they were captured. The identifying
mark to check for? A red dot in the corner of the Free Parking space.
Get out of jail free
By the end of the war, it's estimated that more than 35,000 Allied POWs
had escaped from German prison camps. And while there's no way to set an
exact figure on it, more than a few of those escapees certainly owe
their breakout to the classic board game.
But despite its brave and noble role in all of it, Monopoly's heroic war
deeds would go unrecognized for decades. Strict secrecy about the plan
was maintained during the war, not only so that the British could
continue using the game to help POWs, but also because Waddington feared
a targeted reprisal by German bombers.
After the war, all remaining sets were destroyed, and everyone involved
in the plan, including the escaped prisoners, were told to keep quiet.
In the event of another large-scale war, Allied officials also wanted to
make sure the seemingly innocent board game could go back into action.
goes behind the Iron Curtain
Believe it or not, it wasn't long before Monopoly found itself in the
middle of yet another international conflict -- this time defending
itself from Communist leaders in
Being that Monopoly is essentially a game in which one player gets rich
at the expense of others becoming poor, Soviet officials had long seen
the board game as an overt symbol of capitalistic frivolity and greed.
So, as its popularity soared, Communists took more and more efforts to
curb the enthusiasm.
the U.S.S.R., and other Eastern Bloc countries outlawed the game for
fear it would corrupt the public with positive notions about a
free-market economy. Soviet leaders even tried coming up with their own
Marxist-themed spin-off games designed to highlight the virtues of
frugality. The title of one such knockoff from Communist-era
loosely translated to "Save," while another in Russia had a
name that roughly meant "Manage."
But bans and spin-offs couldn't hold down the individualistic drive of
the human spirit. Monopoly became an underground success, secretly
coveted and played behind the Iron Curtain as a way of escaping the
drudgery of Soviet life. It wasn't until 1987, four years before the
collapse of the Soviet Union, that Monopoly was allowed to be legally sold
Today, Monopoly is licensed in more than 80 countries, and no fewer than
200 spin-off versions exist. Of course, playing it in the cozy confines
of your living room, it's easy to take for granted that there was a time
when, to many, Monopoly was a lot more than just a game.