What Is Mapmaker?
Mapmaker is a game about gerrymandering for 1-4 players, ages and up, and takes about 30 minutes to play. It’s currently available on Amazon and other fine retailers.
Mapmaker is GeekDad Approved!
- One game board
- 110 wooden district borders
- 73 cardboard voter tokens
- 28 district markers in 4 sets of 7
- 4 heavy-duty cloth bags to hold pieces
This is a finalized, retail edition of the game, and as you’d expect from that the components are very nicely done.
The board is a map of hexagons, divided into three zones. The inner zone contains 37 spaces, referred to as “counties” in the game, which are used every time you play, including in the solo and two-person versions. Around the edge of that are 6 groups of 3 hexes, which add 18 spaces for the three-person game, and those in turn are roughly surrounded by another 18 spaces for the four-player variant.
Unlike a lot of other politically-themed games, the board itself is completely abstract and doesn’t represent any real place. Playing pieces, though, are not abstract at all. The four colors–red, blue, yellow, and green–represent the four(ish) main political parties in America: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green.
These colors are also represented by common symbols for each party: the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, the Libertarian porcupine, and a leaf for the Green party. (Prior to playing the game, I honestly had no idea that the Libertarians used a yellow porcupine as their semi-official symbol, but it turns out they do.)
Important note: While players will therefore be taking on the role of a particular real American party, there is nothing else even vaguely political in the game. At no point do any specific issues or anything else come up.
Players use two sets of markers for these parties. One is the cardboard tokens that represent their voters on the board. Each player has 18 tokens with values 1-10 on them. There’s one 1, one 10, and two of each of the other numbers. The tokens are both color-coded the the party, as well as containing the party’s symbol. There’s also a single, 0-value neutral token.
Players also get a set of district markers. These are nice, thick wooden pieces in the shapes of the party symbols, and are some of the nicest (and frankly, cutest) pieces I’ve seen in a game in a long time. Each player gets seven of these.
All of these pieces can be conveniently stored in the really, really nice, heavy-duty cloth bags that also come with the game. I was very surprised at how nice these things are. I’ve seen games that use their cloth bags as actual playable components in the game that aren’t as nice as these.
The final components are the district boundaries, which are simple black wooden pieces in the size and shape of Catan roads–something I assume is basically a standard-order game component at this point.
How to Play Mapmaker
Mapmaker is one of those games that is easy to set up, easy to learn, and easy to play, yet which still contains plenty of strategy.
The goal of the game is to end up with the most districts for your party.
Setup of the game is pretty easy. After each player has selected their party, they mix all of their cardboard tokens, face down, with those of the other players and the neutral token. These are then distributed randomly around the board, using the spaces designated for the number of players. The wooden district boundaries are placed within easy reach of everyone. Those gorgeous cloth bags? Surprisingly, they aren’t used at all.
The person who last voted for something goes first, and takes a single district boundary and places it anywhere on the board, except along the edge. The second players then places two boundaries. If there’s a third player, they place three. From then on, everyone always places four boundaries.
The goal is to section off portions of the board into “districts”, which are then claimed by the person who has the most voters in that district. The only major rule that needs to be followed at this point is that districts cannot be smaller than 4 counties. They can be bigger, but only if they cannot be divided into smaller pieces that follow the 4 county minimum. In practical terms, that means that almost every district will contain 4, 5, 6, or 7 counties, although it is possible to create a truly odd-shaped district of 8 counties that cannot be sub-divided. In the image above, the districts on the right and left are complete–one (right) has four counties, and the other (left) seven. But the middle district has eight counties, and can still be subdivided, so it is not yet complete.
Once a district is created, players look at the tokens in that county, add up the votes from each party, and award the district to the winner. In the case of a tie, the player that created the district–the one who placed the last boundary to close off the area–gets to decide which party wins the district. The winner of the district places one of their party markers (the wooden animals/leaf) in the district. In the image above, the previously too-big middle district has been split into two four-county districts. Previously, the Democrats had claimed the district on the right, as their 10 voters (the seven plus the three) have a majority in that area. Also, the Republicans had used their 14 voters to beat out the 12 voters from the Greens to win the district on the left. Once the middle district was split, the Libertarians won the bottom one 12-7-2, while the Republicans eked out a close win in the upper one 9-7-4-2.
If a district ends in a tie, then the player who created the district, i.e. the one who placed the final boundary closing off the district, gets to determine which party claims it. Note that it’s not only possible, but in fact common, to finish districts that you do not win yourself, so this can be a key strategic decision as you have to give the district to one of your opponents.
The rules contain two solo variants: an easy version and a “competitive districts” (i.e., hard) version.
In the easy version, you use just the red and blue pieces. (That’s what the rules say, anyway, but of course you can really use whichever two parties you want.) You distribute those two party’s tokens around the board (including the neutral one), just as you would in a two-player game. Then, you simply place district borders on the board until its divided into districts (the four-county-minimum still applies) and see if you can manage to end up with more districts than the other party. The only rule change here is that tied districts are not allowed.
In the harder solo version, you start by once again setting up the board as if you were playing a two-player game. But this time, the goal is to get tied districts. You only win if every district is tied between the two parties. Then, you score 10 points for each tied district you managed to create, minus one point for each district border you used.
Play continues until no more districts can be created. At that point, each player tallies up the number of districts they claimed, and whomever has the most wins. Ties are broken via swing county. The neutral token, and one token from each party (the token valued at 1 vote) has its number in purple, which designates it as a swing country. Which ever player has the most swing counties in their district wins the tie. If there’s still a tie at that point, whichever voter has the fewest total of their own votes in their districts wins.
Why You Should Play Mapmaker
At first glance, Mapmaker seems like a pretty simple game: try to surround your counties to claim districts and you win.
But pretty early on, a different, more insidious (and unfortunately realistic) strategy emerges. It’s not enough to simply block off your own voters. The random placement of tokens ensures that your voters will be spread all over the place. So while trying to create districts you can win is important, equally important (in fact, probably more important) is trying to create districts that group the highest concentrations of your opponents’ voters. Because each district is won by a simple majority, and anything above that are wasted votes, the basic math is straight-forward: you want the districts you win to be close, thus wasting as few of your own votes as possible, while at the same time creating districts your opponents will win in landslides, thus wasting as many of their voters as you can.
Of course, while you’re doing that, your opponents are trying to do the same to you. So with every move, you have to consider both offense and defense.
Given the fact that you can only play 4 borders at a time, but of course the spaces, being hexes, have 6 sides, and the minimum size of any district is 4 counties, you will very rarely be able to block off an entire district in one move. Thus, a second layer of strategy emerges: if you play 4 of the 6 borders needed to block off a large number of an opponent’s voters, they are going to get a turn before you can finish, and they may be able to play their 4 pieces in a way that saves them. But, not playing those 4 pieces on your turn might give them a better chance of reversing what you’re trying to do.
These varying levels of strategy make Mapmaker a much more compelling game than it might appear to be at first glance. The fact that games tend to be relatively quick–about a half hour–mean that rematches are common. Our play sessions almost always included three or four games as we all tried out tweaking our strategies to see what might work differently. But of course, the strategy that worked last time might fail this time, because the random setup of the board ensures that each game is entirely different from the rest.
There’s also a really great educational component to the game, but it’s Karate Kid-style education: your kids will think they’re just playing a game, but just as Daniel didn’t know that waxing the car was really teaching karate, they may not realize at first that playing the game and learning its strategies will be teaching them about one of the most topical issues of our day. (And if you need some assistance explaining gerrymandering to them, including the origin of the term, the last few pages of the rulebook has a great explanation.)
While we are a family that was probably inclined from the start to like Mapmaker, since we’re a pretty politically-minded group and have several other games in the same theme that regularly make it to the table, I was nonetheless surprised at just how much we all enjoyed playing it. I have no doubt that we’ll be playing it a lot more in the future, which is why I have no reservations naming it as a GeekDad-approved game.
If you’re looking for a fun and quick game that will get you thinking and might just teach you a thing or two, you’ll definitely want to put Mapmaker on your list.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.