AUSTIN, Texas—Josh Lafair hasn’t even voted yet, but he probably knows more about gerrymandering than most. To start, given that his family’s from Austin, Texas, politics has never been a taboo subject around the Lafair dinner table. And in 2017, after the Lafairs watched another uncompetitive congressional election play out in their oddly shaped district (TX-10), Josh and his siblings had an idea: Is there a good gerrymandering board game out there? Could we make our own?
“Political games turn a lot of people off—political games tend to be really gimmicky,” says Lafair, the youngest (18) of the three siblings behind Lafair Family Games. “So while we did want this to be a game about gerrymandering, we also wanted to make a well-designed game. We wanted board gamers to think, ‘Oh, this is a good game. I’ll actually play this.’”
Mapmaker isn’t the first title from Lafair Family Games, as older brother Louis invented the popular Pathwayz as a kid (more recently while at Stanford, he even developed an AI that can literally beat him at his own game). But Josh was so young he simply served as “chief guinea pig” on that one, and he considers Mapmaker the first game he truly had a hand in designing. Recently, before Lafair debuted Mapmaker to the masses at Gen Con 2019, he walked Ars through the game’s creation while simultaneously taking us to task in a one-on-one battle.
If looking at Mapmaker’s board and district-laying mechanic in the gallery below has your mind drifting towards classics like Catan or Ticket to Ride, you’re not alone—that’s where the Lafairs’ went, too. Lafair tells Ars that while his siblings briefly discussed the possibility of making a card game, they settled on the concept of Mapmaker as a positioning and mapping game early on. “Ever since we were young, we’d buy board games, play them, and think they’re great games, but then we’d take the components of that game and create our own,” Lafair adds. “So one of our first prototypes of Mapmaker involved Ticket to Ride, Catan, Othello, and Cosmic Encounter.”
Ultimately, though, a Frankenboard couldn’t quite capture precisely what Mapmaker would evolve into. After tinkering with the concept themselves for half a year, the Lafairs took another six months and enlisted the help of 100-plus local playtesters spanning ages and gamer experience (including hosting some early rounds at Austin’s beloved cardboard destination Emerald Tavern).
While Mapmaker stuck with hexagons—squares proved too easy, octagons too hard—the final board became much larger than Catan’s because Mapmaker ultimately needed to accommodate entirely different play setups depending on player count. This game supports solo play on top of fairly distinct 2-, 3-, and 4-player experiences. Lafair says the other biggest tweak to come out of playtesting involved how many district lines to allow a player to place each turn—three made turns too short, five took too long, so four became the standard no matter the amount of competitors.
After the Lafairs settled on their end design, they launched Mapmaker on Kickstarter in July 2018—interested players funded the project in just six hours. Working with local Go Games for manufacturing and fulfillment, Lafair Family Games shipped finished games to backers (disclosure: including this writer) in April 2019. The game can now be found on Amazon and through calendars.com.
Gameplay so easy, a politician could do it
Despite the complex and heady inspirations behind both gameplay and theme, Mapmaker is simple in its premise and setup—the player with the most districts wins. You need to draw the lines to make said districts.
Your political party does this by using district lines to build complete districts of at least four counties (represented by each hexagonal map space) in ways that allow you to have the most votes and thus win the county. The only restriction is that counties cannot be complete if they can be split into smaller ones. To start the game, votes are randomly distributed on the board through party chips each containing a vote total, and a few chips (the purple 1s and 0) represent swing counties that can nudge one party to the win in the event of a tie.
The tiebreakers for Mapmaker are delightfully on brand, by the way. If a district has an even split of votes, of course the party that finished drawing the lines gets it. And if there’s an overall tie at the end and swing votes are evenly distributed, the second tiebreaker is whoever wins the most counties with the least total votes. “If you’re able to win with less votes, you’re better at gerrymandering,” Lafair says. Game time is advertised at 30-45 minutes, and that proved accurate during our testing.
Games begin with the first player laying one district line, followed by an opponent laying two, and so on until every player lays four lines per turn for the rest of the game. In one-on-one play, this mechanism turns the game into a sort of chess lite, where you’re attempting to build a few turns in advance without your opponent noticing (and you can suddenly find yourself drawing dead even if two or three districts remain live on the board). Some turns you may also be trying to foil whatever plans you suddenly notice your opponent considering—Lafair says aiming for swing counties is his best tip (it can dramatically simplify your endgame, allowing you to play for ties), but learning to box your opponents high voter clusters in together is a crucial tactic, too.
In three- or four-player games, that latter tactic becomes widespread. The board expands to include all hexagons (two player games only use the center ones, for instance), and you suddenly find yourself waiting for 12 district lines to be placed before you get another crack at the board. Just like in real world politics, scheming between organizations becomes rampant and at times impossible to avoid.
Compared to similar-looking games like Catan, Mapmaker excels in the fact that its setup takes mere moments to explain. This is not a game that will intimidate more social board gamers, yet as the game moves along, the amount of thought and strategy gets meaty enough for more serious board gamers. (There’s a reason Munchkin creator Steve Jackson blurbed the game for its Kickstarter and Lord British became a backer.) If Lafair Family Games wanted to reach the widest possible audience in the hopes of getting the maximum amount of players at least briefly thinking about gerrymandering, they nailed an ideal ratio of simple premise and strategic gameplay.
“For my birthday, the tradition was my siblings would line up all the board games we owned in our living room, and I’d come down at like 8am, and they’d all be there so I could choose whatever board game I want to play first. Our tradition is on birthdays, all we do is play board games,” Lafair says. “I distinctly remember the first game we ever received was Settlers, and I’d say that the combination of strategy and luck has become our sort of go-to game type. So while gerrymandering itself is extremely complicated, when people play this game we wanted it to be fun, hands-on, and approachable. We don’t want people scared to play, we want them excited to play.”