Have Some Fun

Baron Arnold de Rosnay and his game 'Petropolis.' Photograph by Ken Regan. Source: Smithsonian Institution
Baron Arnold de Rosnay and his game 'Petropolis.' Photograph by Ken Regan. Source: Smithsonian Institution

Dressed up like a tycoon. An ash-tipped cigarillo steadied between two fingers. Instead of posing with tasteless art and overwrought window dressings, he’s parked inside an under-furnished flat with aluminum blinds: like a huckster, on the run before you know it. For now, he wants you to focus on him and a spread. Come on, he says, let’s have some fun.

The man is Arnaud de Rosnay, a Frenchman trying his luck in the US. To acknowledge his aristocratic roots, American reporters address him as “Baron.” He’s promoting his new board game Petropolis. It’s pitched to “those wishing to control the world’s oil supply.” The year is 1975, and the 1973 fever around oil prices still weighs on the West’s carbon-heavy aspirations. Literally, controlling Arab Gulf petroleum is a US foreign-policy talking point. Is the game, for two to seven players, meant to exploit an ongoing, and often racist, commotion about oil wells in faraway lands?

In 1967, de Rosnay posed for Vogue in a two-piece stretch Lycra suit, on a Velocette motorcycle. He belonged to the jet set of Paris who required weekend houses in Morocco. Not long after, he started a life as a fashion photographer, touting his work for Vogue, although it appeared more often in Women’s Wear Daily. There’s nothing remarkable about his photographs, but artistry wasn’t the point. Work couldn’t be just work, and play couldn’t be just play. Life behind the camera had to be equated with the life in front. Fun. He gave parties in his house/photography studio. Like Warhol, but without the irony.

I gather that de Rosnay’s wings got clipped in the early 1970s, his work/play scenario short on cash. He purportedly made a “small fortune” by hawking a luxury backgammon set for travel. Backgammon was enjoying a US resurgence, with its marbleized stones and leatherette surfaces. De Rosnay apparently traveled the world playing the game, maybe for money, just as those Silicon Valley brats play poker today. With Mesopotamian roots, backgammon has a varying pace, and its rounds don’t last too long. It invites players to make expressive, ritualistic movements, the way the game dominoes does, filling empty space with gossip, dares, and intuition. In contrast, Petropolis is just a mugging of Monopoly, its cardboard therapy and fake money originating out of the US Great Depression. Like its source, Petropolis must be tedious and boring. A drag to clean it up.

Women's Wear Daily, for whom de Rosnay had worked, promoted the women's touring backgammon set with space for "makeup box, passport and money holders, jewelry box and all backgammon essentials." For sale for $450, about $2,250 today, at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf's. (May 24, 1974).

In Petropolis, Atlantic City streets are replaced by the global harbors of petroleum: including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Iran, but also the US and Egypt. Splayed out on what seems a map of airport concourses, the lands are for the gamers’ conquest. The board is black, a barrenness trimmed in gold and punctuated with color-coded ogee arches, more Arab/Persian than Venetian gothic. Oil, apparently, can make an Orient out of any location, be it Ecuador or Kuwait. Accessories include gold-plated derricks, Telex messages, concession titles, and a pocket calculator. De Rosnay wanted $790 for the leather case version, just under $4,000 today.**

Petropolis received coverage in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, but it could not have bankrolled the baron. Who, after all, wanted to play a game that strained to sensationalize localized extraction and global abstractions? While a game of global conquests was a reflection of the real, it didn’t foresee the real fun—the worlds that petroleum was preparing for consumption.

Architectural historian We’Aam Al-Abdullah recently posted a New York Times article from 1972. She highlights the article’s inaccurate portrayal of Kuwait as just getting started on building civilization atop “its sandy wastes.” In reality, the cash flows from oil were well underway toward realizing infrastructural development in Arab Gulf states. Unbeknownst to de Rosnay and the journalist at the Times, petroleum profits were being marshaled to build cities. Ongoing transformation revved up through the mid-1990s, as Dubai’s government readied to launch “freehold” property sales. Soon after, the world was invited to invest in skylines as get-rich schemes. Other Gulf cities repeated the formula. Why spend $4,000 on a board game, when you can play for real estate? It wasn’t long before salespeople at real estate fairs were selling unbuilt properties off printed spreadsheets, like tickets for a boardwalk game. “Off-plan” property purchases and “house flipping” bonanzas ensued. The game got real.

Just before the launch of Petropolis, de Rosnay tried marrying into serious wealth; Time called his wife a “billionette.” As a wedding present, the groom reportedly gave the bride a 2,400-acre island in the Mozambique Channel. A purchasing trend in luxury soon followed de Rosnay’s move, just not in the way he had packaged it in a leather briefcase.

The Taiwan Strait, Arnaud de Rosnay's final board. Source: Wikipedia

In 1984, at the age of 38, the baron vanished. Five years earlier, he had recast himself in a final role: extreme sportsman pursuing world records across more of the earth’s smooth surfaces. He claimed to have invented “speed sailing,” something one does over “sandy wastes.” He was also an accomplished windsurfer, the pinstripe suit traded in for blond highlights and a tanned chest. In a British accent set to a surfer’s tempo, he described how he wanted to “show the great meaning” of windsurfing, that its “peaceful vehicle” could whisk you across borders without arrest. After crossing the Bering Strait on a sailboard, de Rosnay pursued the next traversal in his global trot to keep the paying sponsors piqued—from Taiwan to “Communist China.” Neither his board nor sail was ever found.

Arnaud de Rosnay had bartered in emptiness, first trying to luxuriate in its geopolitical angst, then later extolling it as a surface for movement. On islands and straits. His game board missed the mark. On his surfboard, though, he did capture an ascending fascination—mobility, especially the kind that disdains political borders and that the privileged can flaunt. Ultimately, that is the most desired possession in the game of life.

* Robert Vitalis’s recent book Oilcraft offers terrific analysis of the years around leading up to and after 1973.

** Hugh Hefner’s monogrammed issue of the game recently sold at an online auction for $1,152. Priced at less than its original value adjusted, the game has hardly become a collector’s item..

Please sign up below to receive notice when I’ve posted more about Dubai and its 20th-century transformations.


This is the seventh dispatch around the publication of Showpiece City. You can read the first six: Telephones & Dynamite, A Season of Migrations, West, A Circumscribed World, Gathering at a Roundabout, John Harris Comes to Dubai, and Wild Machines over Dubai.