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Between random and democratic practices: the commons board game

10.06.2015 by Carmen Lozano Bright

Photo by Julio Albarrán (cc)

Report about table 5 of the #ReclaimtheCommons Hackcamp: Commonspoly. Original language: spanish («Entre lo aleatorio y lo democrático: el tablero de los bienes comunes»)

We arrived in Seville with a mission and few rules: to sit down for three days to produce the Commonspoly . In other words, starting from the common idea of Monopoly, the game we’ve all played, we had to think about a derivation of the board game whose goal wasn’t winning through accumulation but through collaboration. And making it a prototype. And explaining it to inexperienced players. All of this in three days. It was table number 5 of the Hackcamp #reclaimthecommons and luckily we got a place near the coffee machine patio.

Pictures by Carla Boserman

There was a matter to clarify before getting down to work. The origin of the famous board game on which you play capitalism and real estate speculation has little known roots. Its predecessor was called The Landlord’s Game and was patented in 1904 by Elizabeth «Lizzie» Magie. The goal of this North-American woman’s design was to explain the perverse effects of monopolizing land and the usefulness of taxing property. She was convinced that educating children in the belief that the accumulation of goods had unfair consequences would show its effect when they were adults. On her own she produced several editions with different distribution companies until she sold the patent to Parker Brothers in 1935 for 500 dollars. From then on, the company produced the famous Monopoly and its unending variations in geography and subjects.

Monopoly original board game

Returning to the roots was a key step to understanding the challenge of producing the Commonspoly: restoring the board game and giving it back some of the features Lizzie conceived more than a century ago. The key wasn’t to produce a new game with the resulting waste of a hypothetical production and distribution processes, but hacking the board game every family has at home and playing it with different rules. Repair in Spanish is a word with more than one meaning. This variety of meanings contributed to defining our new board game: it can mean repair in the sense of fixing, in its Spanish term reparar; it also means to realize; in addition we were also inspired by the free interpretation in English of re-pair as re-couple o reunite.

After three working days we found the key: in Commonspoly you’re playing against time. In a set number of turns, the goods at stake will be privatized. And the players are challenged to liberate them for the commons. The dice determine the stage of the game for each object at stake on a scale that ranges from «Pure Mad Max Horror» (near Margaret Thatcher’s wettest dreams) to «Commonsfare Utopia» (a fantasy beyond Elinor Ostrom). The scale comprises private, public and communitarian goods.

Commonspoly, photo by Julio Albarrán (cc)

The goods under threat belong to four categories: urban, environmental, related to the body and to knowledge. In order to prevent privatization, each player has «welfare points». And, as in real life, the initial well-being conditions are not the same for each player. They differ according to gender, class, citizenship and skill. Furthermore, by investing welfare to unblock the privatization of goods, players gain legitimacy points.

Legitimacy and welfare are liable to disappear, at least to a great extent, if the player happens to fall into the square called «Tragedy of the Commons». Time is also lost – in the form of turns - while points are won if chance takes us to the Bureaucracy or Assembly squares.

But why play if there’s no competition? Does a board game rewarding «good», where the commons is the best and only possible world, make any sense? Of course not. The challenge is in the ability to preserve the commons in general without losing one’s individual well-being. From this point of view; no one is the winner – we all «don’t win».

The scale of the game has many things in common with the camps that filled squares in 2011. We mean that Commonspoly is not a particular city, nor does it refer to a global board, but it represents a link with the ephemeral villages built and dismantled in so many cities and in so many formats: from 15M to Occupy, from the Arab Spring to Syntagma, from Brazil to Gezi Park.

Commonspoly is, finally, a little representation of the board game of life: it is decided somewhere between random and democratic practices. But in order to achieve an open code game it was necessary to supply it with documentary evidence and define certain rules. For this task we had the help of Rubén Martínez from the epilogue of his Audiovisual Source Code We’re all contingent, but you are necessary . The sound of Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends singing Rules & Regulations inspired some of the rules and situations of the game.

This little corner of the hackcamp, where we pooled knowledge, opinions and fun, was composed very wisely of Virginia Benvenuti, Carla Boserman –irreplaceable drawer of cards and boards - Vassilis Chryssos, Francisco Jurado, José Laulhé, Carmen Lozano, Rubén Martínez, Peter Matjašič, María G. Perulero, Natxo Rodríguez, Igor Stokfisiewski, Menno Weijs, Mario Munera and Guillermo Zapata in the task of dinamizing the scene.


  • You can find documentation on the process and a summary of the game’s rules in this pad.
  • While investigating about the origins and derivations of the original board game we came across the Anti-Monopoly (which also has lawsuits and patents affairs).
  • We’re not the first to think of the Commonspoly, and we’ll probably not be the last.
  • Journalist Eva Belmonte, has recently published through the Civio Foundation the book Españopoly , a journey through the real estate bubble, speculation and corruption in Spain.

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