Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map: Austin Siblings Raise Awareness of Gerrymandering with Board Game
Each Mapmaker player belongs to a political party, represented by the red elephant, blue donkey, yellow porcupine and green leaf playing pieces. Players take turns placing district borders, splitting voters into districts. Whoever has the most voters within the district claims that district. Whoever has the most districts at the end wins. Courtesy: Lafair family
By Tonyia Cone
Growing up in Texas congressional district 10, which stretches from northwest Greater Houston around Austin to the Northwest part of the city, siblings Josh, Louis and Rebecca Lafair have experienced firsthand that gerrymandering—the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency in order to favor a political party—is a serious issue, and wanted to do something about it.
Josh explained that the family had always played board games like Settlers of Catan together as a family pastime, and Louis invented the award-winning game Pathwayz when he was 11. So when they decided in summer 2017 that they wanted to start conversations around the country about gerrymandering, their memories of discussions around their own table while playing games came to mind.
When they could not find a gerrymandering game with the mechanics of a great board game—scheming, strategizing and backstabbing—they decided that was the direction they wanted to take to address the issue.
“Gerrymandering is a major cause of our current political climate: it protects incumbents, limits competition, and increases polarization. In districts across the country, it robs voters of their voice. Nevertheless, gerrymandering doesn’t receive enough targeted attention,” the Lafair siblings explain on their Kickstarter campaign page.
“Most news coverage and money pours into federal elections—even though local state elections are what influence gerrymandering. In 37 states, the state legislature is in charge of redistricting. Before inventing this game (and doing more research) we didn’t realize that most governors in these states have veto power over gerrymandered maps. It’s our responsibility to bring gerrymandering into the spotlight, to put pressure on legislators and governors who gerrymander. Redistricting happens every ten years. Before 2021 redistricting, which will affect elections for the next decade, we hope to add momentum to the anti-gerrymandering movement,” they added.
Josh, a 17-year-old senior at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, recent Stanford grad Louis, and Rebecca, who is studying finance and economics at Northeastern University, spent the next six months creating iterations of Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game with pieces from other games they own. More than 100 family friends and people from Dragon’s Lair Comics and Fantasy and Wonko’s Toys and Games playtested the game before the Lafairs came up with the final iteration, which they believe mimics cracking and packing, tactics used in redistricting to dilute minority votes.
Designed for one to four players ages 8 and up, the Lafairs created Mapmaker with experienced gamers in mind.
“We wanted to create a game that was elegant and tense. We wanted people coming back again and again. We wanted ‘gotcha’ moments. We wanted Mapmaker to feel like you were really gerrymandering,” they explain on Kickstarter, which includes the endorsement of Austinite and Munchkin creator Steve Jackson.
Too young to be very involved when his brother created Pathwayz, Josh was that project’s “chief guinea pig,” charged with playing that game.
“That was one of the things I was most excited about this time,” Josh said. “I was one of the co-inventors of this game, so I was a lot more involved in the Kickstarter and everything, along with my sister.”
Lafair Family Games offered different Kickstarter pledge levels ranging from $10 to $3,000. Some levels including a game sent to politicians around the country, including Supreme Court justices, who rule on maps; governors, who can veto maps; and legislators, who draw maps.
More than 150 copies of Mapmaker have been ordered for governors and legislators around the country and 82 games were ordered to be sent to the Supreme Court. Lafair Family Games included a “Gerrymandering is Not a Game” proclamation in each box, Josh said, “to teach politicians that voters should be choosing their politicians, not the other way around.”
Josh explained, “We were amazed and overwhelmed by the support,” for the Kickstarter campaign.
The project was funded within six hours with support from Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School; actor and former two-term governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also tweeted about Mapmaker; author, FairVote senior fellow and gerrymandering expert David Daley; and anti-gerrymandering advocates from around the country.
As of mid-September, 1,468 people backed Mapmaker on Kickstarter, surpassing the 28-day campaign’s $15,000 goal, raising $67,490.
Lafair Family Games blew through all four of their original Kickstarter stretch goals, and on top of that, hit two more stretch goals that they added later.
While watching playtesters experience Mapmaker for the first time, Josh was excited to see the concepts of cracking and packing click for players, who would often go on to talk more about gerrymandering.
Teachers really responded to the game as well.
The Lafairs started getting messages from teachers around the country through Kickstarter saying they were planning on using Mapmaker in their classes to teach about gerrymandering. In response, the siblings are planning to next create a curriculum to help teach as many people as possible about gerrymandering.
While the Mapmaker Kickstarter is finished, people can still back the game and can preorder Mapmaker from the publisher, Austin-based Go! Games. Lafair Family Games expects to ship the game in April 2019.
The Lafair siblings want to stress is that gerrymandering is bad for everyone, no matter who is responsible for redistricting, said Josh, who looks forward to being old enough to vote even though he knows that because of gerrymandering, his vote will not count as much as it should
“Both parties do it and the main thing it does is put the future of our democracy at risk,” he said. ■
For more information about Mapmaker, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1639370584/mapmaker-the-gerrymandering-game. To purchase the game, visit www.calendars.com/More-Games/Mapmaker:-Gerrymandering-Game/prod201900019412.