We get a fair amount of promotional emails here at the DWP. On July 3rd, we got an email from an outfit called Outset Media out of Victoria, BC. I want to quote it in full to preserve its context, but you can scroll past it if you wanna and come back to it later. The TL;DR is that they’ve published a Toronto-themed version of Monopoly and ain’t that grand:
People are playing games now more than ever, and there is no better game to play than one based on your local community. Outset Media gives you the chance to do that with the Toronto-Opoly board game (based on Monopoly, the best-selling game of all-time)!
“At Outset Media, we are ecstatic that the citizens of Toronto have welcomed us into their homes and included us in weekly game nights with friends and family.” Said Jean Paul Teskey, Senior Vice-President of Outset Media. “This game was designed to serve as a way for the people of Toronto to commemorate all of the beautiful things the city has to offer. We look forward to continuing the celebration of Toronto and other local communities across Canada.”
Canadian owned and operated Outset Media and Walmart Canada has launched a limited-edition board game shining a light on some of the great things Toronto has to offer. Toronto-Opoly is available at Walmart stores and online at Walmart.ca. This game takes a distinctive local spin on the classic game of Monopoly where the properties and places are staples of the Toronto community. Landmarks and attractions featured include the Royal Ontario Museum, Massey Hall, CN Tower, and many others!
Please let me know If you’re interested in learning more about Toronto-Opoly and would like a sample of the game. I could also set up an interview for you with Jean Paul Teskey, Senior Vice-President of Outset Media. We look forward to celebrating Toronto with you!
Don’t worry, I will not be reviewing Monopoly here. (Actually, I wrote about how to play it properly last year.) No, instead I want you to follow me as I take you on a journey into the heart of Tabletop monoculture…
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I knew that there had already been a game called Torontoopoly back in the 70s or 80s. Of course it’s on BGG (turns out it came out in 1990), and here’s a shot of the board:
It’s cheesy and commercialized up the wazoo–every single space was clearly sold as advertising space–but it positively oozes Toronto, especially the made-to-order central graphic. I expected this new edition to be an updated version, and looked forward to seeing who they’d managed to con into participating.
I responded to the Outset Media email saying, “Sure, send me a copy.” Within a week, it had arrived. Here is the box front:
Take note of the term “Hogtown” in the banner. It’s a nickname that used to be popular in Toronto–twenty or thirty years ago. (The origins lie in either the city’s slaughterhouses or the fact that, even a hundred years ago, most of Ontario thought Torontonians were a self-interested, entitled bunch).
In a 2016 Forum Research Poll on Toronto nicknames, it wasn’t even given as a choice, and since only 8% of respondents picked “Other” that means at most one-twelfth of actual Torontonians still use the term. My point is whoever decided to use “Hogtown” on the box as a signifier of “authenticity” either had had no contact with Toronto for years or just Googled “Toronto nicknames” and decided “Queen City” sounded too risqué.
Before I show you the back of the box, I want you to make a list of what you think the tokens to a Toronto-themed Monopoly game could be. And if you’re not from Toronto, I want you to make up a similar place for the place you live or your hometown. Seriously. Take half a minute.
In my case, after thirty seconds, I had: maple leaf; CN Tower; basketball; hockey stick/puck; turntable/mixing desk; the TORONTO sign at City Hall. I’m sure your list is better than mine. Unfortunately there’s no photo on BGG of the 1990 edition player pieces.
Here’s the back cover of the new Toronto-Opoly. Oh look, ha ha instead of Jail they have “Traffic Jam”–that is very Toronto.
What are we looking at here? Who picked these six objects as somehow representing Toronto? And who decided that the cheapest properties should be U of T and York University? Or that the most expensive property should be “Downtown Toronto”?
In that moment my mind went “aWOOOga aWOOOOga”. I knew that Toronto-Opoly must be only one of a series of city-themed Monopoly games published by Outset Media. And lo and behold, on a local CBC news website in Saskatchewan, I hit the jackpot.
“Canadian cities are getting customized ‘Opoly’ games; Prince Albert’s a top seller” said the article, with the sublead “40 small cities in Canada get custom boards based on iconic game”. Among the small cities getting their own version: Thompson, Man., Nanaimo, B.C., Peterborough, Ont. and Gander, N.L.
Here’s a shot of Prince Albert-Opoly from the article:
For the next fifteen minutes I just typed random Canadian cities in, added Opoly, and pretty well every time I came up with a hit. Here’s a picture of Nanaimo-Opoly:
And here’s Halifax-Opoly:
It looks like every Canadian urban centre has traffic problems…and really likes pretzels…
Each article talks about how <X>-Opoly “celebrates” <X>, with the box-cover dropping a nickname (“The Harbour City”, “Home of Privateers”) that locals would probably never use. I went back and looked at Toronto-Opoly. There is, on or in the entire box, exactly one graphic unique to Toronto, and that’s the snapshot of the CN Tower on the box cover. The rest of the game is either generic or formula-driven; you can practically see the template text fields.
In the case of Miramichi, New Brunswick (I’m going to stop posting photos; I think I’ve made my point), local business owners were pleasantly shocked to hear their establishments had been used as properties in the game and ran out to buy multiple copies for promotional purposes. And I mean, who wouldn’t? But the implication is that, unlike the makers of 1990’s Torontoopoly (and the Cityopoly series it belonged to), Outset Media never bothered to contact local businesses. They just swooped in with their cookie-cutter lazy-ass zero-research games knowing they could make a mint from locals who would be thrilled to see their names in a Monopoly game.
In at least once case, this interfered with local versions. In Flin Flon, Manitoba, some townspeople had put together a truly home-grown (but more expensive) version featuring photos by local photographers and approved by the municipal council as a fund-raiser for a community centre. The carpetbagging (and $20 cheaper) version selling at Walmart was siphoning money away. Naturally, Outset had had no idea, and when asked about it Vice-President Jean Paul Teskey said, “I’m definitely going to bring this up, just so everyone is aware. The last thing we’d want to do is take away anyone’s money makers for charity. That’s not the intention at all.” You do that, JP. You bring it up.
One thing about the articles I’ve linked to is that they’re all from 2019, March through November. But I only heard from Outset Media at the beginning of this July. I wonder if they decided to sell to the smaller cities first and avoid coverage in the larger markets. Us big-city folk are more cynical about things, after all; small-town folk appreciate it when someone wants to “celebrate” them.
Here’s the thing: I can take or leave Monopoly, mostly leave it (I did recommend making these changes if you’re going to play it). From a licensing and sales standpoint Outset Media’s campaign makes perfect sense. It’s just incredibly…lazy. I mean, the Eurogames that come closest to Monopoly in terms of geographically-localized expansions are, off the top of my head: Catan; Ticket to Ride; Power Grid; 18XX; Empire Builder; Age of Steam. (Note to self: four of those are train games. Interesting.)
Anyway. In all of those cases each expansion is individualized, if only the map, but usually with graphics and special rules which reflect the local theme and give players new decisions to make. People actually took the time and made the effort. I’m sure that raised production costs. But at least it resulted in product that wasn’t insultingly bland. How is Toronto-Opoly–or any of the Outset Media Opolies–”celebrating local culture”? Please.
I’ll guess that Outset Media and Walmart had other market targets in mind as well. Tourists, of course–you don’t have to be an obsessive Monopoly collector to want to snap up a copy if you’re on vacation. And don’t forget about folks looking to get “something nice” for that kid in their life who “likes boardgames”. The thing is, if any of them actually open the box they’re going to be disappointed at how generic and bland it is.
I’ve allowed myself to express more than the usual degree of umbrage writing about Toronto-Opoly because it represents much of what I hate about commodification of creativity. I know it’s nothing new. Brian Epstein licensed the Beatles up the wazoo to wig-makers, bubble-gum card manufacturers, and worse. And over a century ago Sam Loyd made tons of money selling puzzles he claimed he’d invented but which in fact he’d stolen (the most famous is the 15 Puzzle, which you still see around).
It’s just that the reason Toronto-Opoly exists has to do with the hunger we all have to see ourselves reflected and represented in our culture. It confers status. Getting namechecked in Monopoly means something. It has nothing to do with the game itself. It’s being associated with the brand.
Outset Media–and Walmart–are selling people back their self-regard and nothing more. So to all you fledgling game designers out there in Nanaimo, Miramichi, Halifax, and Flin Flon, I hope you take this up as a challenge. Make games that really reflect–and truly celebrate–your home. People are hungry for them. Provide an alternative to factory-farmed Tabletop and turn your neighbours into boardgame locavores.