Man’s life is made up of many elements, from clothes to food, from games and toys to technology, from furnishing to houses. So we can reconstruct the history and feel the spirit of the times attending unusual museums such as the Toy Museum in Zagarolo, near Rome, and playing horse games.
I had already experienced this emotion when I met an old and lively man who had founded the Button Museum and he opened an unusual slice onto Italian history, but in Zagarolo I entered into an enchanted world.
Apart from the richness and variety of toys displayed, from the stories told by the guides and the beauty of the frescoed rooms of Palazzo Rospigliosi, my attention was caught by the showcase dedicated to horses and the game of Totopoly.
My passion for horses is well known and, wherever I go I look for games or art connected with the equestrian world. Horses have always accompanied man with whom they establish a special bond that often arises with the young, as with my daughter who has always played horse games and with the live versions. In Zagarolo I learned something new about the role of horse games thanks to the stories told me by the curators of the museum.
Monopoly and Totopoly were born about the same time and at their onset had a double purpose, fun and educational. Monopoly was invented in 1903 by a woman, Elizabeth Magie, to explain the theories of economist Henry George and was called “The Landlord’s Game”. It was an educational game to support anti-trust theories that instead has became the main tool to reward players who become ‘monopolists’.
Totopoly is about horse racing (that may explain the origin of the name Totip, the old Italian national bet agency) and was launched in 1938 by Waddingtons, a British games company. The passion of the English for racing and betting is legendary but the game was not based on the money won but on the attention to the horses.
The game takes place in two halves just like in real life: a training phase and a competition that are played in a totally different way. During the training you can win “advantage” or “disadvantage” cards that then can be used during the race. At the race stage, however, there is betting and the first three horses receive a prize.
Horses must be fed and cared for, similar to what happens in some electronic games and in Tamagochi, very much in fashion in the 2000s, a digital creature that requires constant web attention or else it gets sick.
Initially the winner of Totopoly was the one who came first in the competition, but later the role of betting and money prevailed and the winner became the one who had “earned” the greatest amount at end of the game.
A curious detail is that the horses of Totopoly had the names of the winners of the Lincolnshire Handicap editions from 1926 to 1937, a race that took place in Lincoln since 1853 and today is still running at Doncaster.
The game of Totopoli arrived in Italy in 1950 by the “Editrice Giochi” and the Museum of Zagarolo has versions of 1960 with beautifully preserved examples of early uses of plastics for recreational purposes.
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In addition to Totopoly, the collection of the museum has other versions of horse competitions such as the French one called Ascot (mischievously the French have called the game with the name of the world’s most famous racecourse: the English course, Ascot). Very close to the English game, it has two phases but the words on the board are written in French.
In the Italian version of the “Game of Racing” horses are made of lead and the game is based only on which horse travels furthest thanks to a system which “thrusts” horses along a straight track. With the launch of the dice, boxes and milestones disappear and only “speed” remains as the variable and there is no reference to the preparation and training of animals.
It is interesting to note the cultural shift that occurred to these games after World War II that reflects the spirit of the times. Before the war, during the depression, a spirit of education prevails and then, in the post-war economic boom, the spirit become mainly of speculative entertainment.
Finally, a real “gem” for horse lovers is a kind of ‘horse-roulette’ where players take turns to run their “animals”. It is a box with a rotating disc on which three pairs of horses move as a result of pushing a lever on the side. The players take turns and the player whose horse comes closest to an agreed signs wins. The game looks a bit ‘boring’ but the attention to detail and the quality of the craftsmanship in the construction make me feel that I absolutely need it in my collection.
It is thanks to places like the Toy Museum in Zagarolo which preserves our roots that we can understand how a good society begins by playing “healthy” games with children. Maybe Monopoly should return to explain the evils of finance and Totopoly should taught love for horses.
And we all could play them all our life long!