One afternoon two summers ago, rising high school junior Josh Lafair was sitting around his kitchen table with older siblings Louis and Becca, trying — as they frequently did — to decide which board game they were going to play that day. They'd always been a board-gaming family (their favorite at the time was Settlers of Catan), but they'd also always been a political family, talking about elections and legislation around the dinner table with their mom and dad. That afternoon, the two interests would converge.
The Lafair family dinner table, you see, was in Texas’s 10th Congressional District, which comprises a little bit of Austin (where they lived), a little bit of the Houston suburbs, and a large swath of countryside in between. The gerrymandering of the 10th District is almost comically transparent: It goes to great lengths (literally) to submerge voters from two Democratic-leaning cities 160 miles apart into a conservative district represented by Republican Michael McCaul.
At the time, Josh wasn’t aware of the intricacies and history of gerrymandering. It had been a recent topic of discussion at one of those family dinners, and to Josh, it seemed bad — a way for politicians to rig their elections and bypass the will of voters. He also believed, as he and his siblings decided that afternoon, that it could make for a good game. “Scheming, strategizing, backstabbing — gerrymandering has all the right mechanics of a board game,” Josh told me. “Kind of unfortunately.”
Which is how, in March, Josh found himself outside the U.S. Supreme Court, teaching a long line full of tourists, activists, reporters and interns how to play his new board game. That day, the court was hearing oral arguments for two gerrymandering-related cases, and Josh and his family had flown up for the occasion to debut Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game.
“This is so much fun,” said Tim Ryder, who played Mapmaker at a table Josh had set up for people waiting to get into the court. The table was strewn with the game’s pieces: colored tokens representing the political parties that players can pick from, as well as thin black wooden rectangles that players take turns placing on the imaginary state’s hexagonal map. Players use these to gradually form borders, with the goal of distributing their voters in a way that will allow them to claim as many districts as possible. Whoever ends up with the most districts wins.
Ryder was playing against Sam Voorhees, who works on gerrymandering issues at Common Cause (one of the cases’ plaintiffs). “It shows you the strategies politicians use,” Voorhees said of the game. “Packing and cracking districts, trying to get all my opponents’ voters into a single place.”
“Yeah, but as a board game it seems less depressing and disenfranchising,” said Ryder.
The copies of Mapmaker that Josh unwrapped in front of the Supreme Court were fresh from the manufacturer, sent to him just a few days earlier. It had been a long journey from that brainstorming session two summers ago. Josh, Louis and Becca had spent the better part of a year nailing down the rules, going through four or five iterations and employing over a hundred friends, family members and random acquaintances at board-game nights to play-test their creation. They cannibalized parts and pieces from their family’s game collection to build prototypes. And they did their research, poring over articles and books on the subject, listening to podcasts like FiveThirtyEight’s “The Gerrymandering Project” and interviewing experts in the field like Jonathan Mattingly, a professor of mathematics and statistical sciences at Duke University.
On July 10, 2018, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing of Mapmaker. For a contribution of $3,000 or more, they pledged to send finished copies to all nine Supreme Court justices as well as the state legislatures responsible for drawing congressional maps and governors who have veto power over them.
The Kickstarter was a hit. The Lafairs’ goal was to raise $15,000. Word spread on Reddit and various board-gaming websites. Then, at 3:13 p.m. came a tweet by movie star, former governor and anti-gerrymandering activist Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Thank you, @MapmakerGame! What a fantastic, fun way to educate people about gerrymandering. I pledged and can’t wait for my game (and the ones that will be sent to leaders around the country)! Join me and let’s #terminategerrymandering.”
Schwarzenegger donated $3,000, ensuring that copies would be sent to the justices, governors and state legislatures. And the Governator’s endorsement pushed the Kickstarter into overdrive. Within an hour of Schwarzenegger’s tweet, the Lafairs had reached their $15,000 goal, and in the weeks following they would raise a total of $67,490 from 1,468 backers. “We were absolutely amazed,” Josh recalls.
Fast-forward to the Supreme Court steps in March, as Josh gave a demo of Mapmaker. The whole family was here: Becca and Louis, an aunt who traveled from Philadelphia, and Dad and Mom. (Mom Renee Lafair preemptively deflected any assumption that she aided her children in their quest: “All I did was rent the car,” she said.)
Mattingly, the gerrymandering expert, was also there and played a round while waiting in line. He gave the game a positive review: “It really did capture this idea of spreading your voters out, but not too thinly. You want to win the district but not win it by so much. There’s a tension between those two things.” (Indeed, during their game, Mattingly’s opponent corralled too many of her voters into the same district.)
Josh, now a senior in high school, had skipped classes for the past two days to travel to Washington. His teachers probably don’t mind — as the resident gerrymandering expert, he occasionally fields questions from them on the subject. Becca (a senior at Northeastern University) and Louis (who graduated last summer from Stanford) told me that their next step is developing a teaching curriculum around the game, for grade-schoolers to college students.
But before all that, Josh had one more thing to do. Common Cause and a few other activist organizations were holding an anti-gerrymandering rally outside the court that morning, and they wanted him to speak. His mom said that she’d heard his speech about 50 times already, as Josh incessantly practiced.
As oral arguments got underway inside the court, the rally started outside. There were speeches by executives from Common Cause and the League of Women Voters plus others. Then, suddenly, there was a mild commotion in the back of the crowd as a black SUV pulled up to the curb and several men in dark suits emerged. Among them was none other than Schwarzenegger, here to speak at the rally.
After his tweet during the Kickstarter campaign last year, Josh had sent Schwarzenegger a prototype of Mapmaker, which Arnold gleefully tweeted about, along with a photo of him playing. Now, they were speaking at the same rally. Schwarzenegger’s speech was pretty straightforward anti-gerrymandering stuff but garnered riotous applause when he declared — not once, but twice — “We must terminate gerrymandering!” After him, a parade of politicians spoke: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Andy Harris, who, after a recent redrawing of district lines, became the sole Republican House member from Maryland.
Eventually, it was Josh’s turn. Wearing a shirt that read, “Gerrymandering is not a game,” he launched into the story of his family’s invention and what it said about the ills of gerrymandering. “Mapmaker is a board game,” he said in his best protest voice. And then, to cheers from the crowd: “But what’s happening in the Supreme Court today is real.”
Michael J. Gaynor is a writer in Washington.