One should perhaps spare a jot of sympathy for Elbridge Gerry. He was one of America's Founding Fathers, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the USA's fifth Vice President. He is now, however, only remembered for the partisan division of electoral districts for which he was responsible as Governor of Massachusetts. In order to ensure electoral advantage, his bizarre shifting of boundaries meant that a voting district in Boston ended up looking like a salamander, and thence the word gerrymandering entered the English language.
And it's gerrymandering that's the subject of Matt Petering's quite challenging two-player abstract strategy game, Distrix.
The game is played on a modular board made up of 36 tiles. These each represent a community and show its electoral preference, expressed as a number from 1-9 in red or blue. The 36 tiles are evenly split between the two parties (colours) but their layout is randomised in a 6 x 6 grid and will differ with every play. There are nine electoral districts and players take turns placing out cubes to create the districts, subject to some basic rules - a 'home base' has to be placed first to start off any district and home bases cannot be placed orthogonally adjacent to another home base. Districts can be expanded by placing out orthogonally adjacent cubes but only up to a maximum of 4 squares (communities). Rules also allow for a community to be 'reassigned' from a large district to a small district provided the large district still has all its remaining communities connected. There are special rules affecting 'trapped' districts that are surrounded by other districts that prevent them from expanding to four communities.
The electoral balance for each district is shown on a central board and it's important for players to record each turn the effect of the cube they place so that you don't lose track of the ebb and flow of area control. For some players it will be an initial culture shock playing cubes of various colours but without 'owning' any of the colours. What you always need to be conscious of are the red and blue numbers on the tiles. Your focus has to be on how the balance of votes looks in each district, so you'll want to gerrymander districts of four communities where your party has the most votes but ideally winning the district by only a small margin. But given that each players' total number of electoral preferences (ie: the total of the numbers on all the tiles) are equal, then it's very much in your interests for your opponent to win districts by a large majority because that leaves them with fewer votes to contest more marginal districts...
The game ends when no more placements or legal adjustments can be made, and the winner then is the player whose party controls the most districts. In the majority of games this will come down to a 5-4 district win; indeed in our Board's Eye View plays we found ties (4-4 plus a 'hung' district) were a more likely outcome that wins of 6-3 or better.
Tho' you're only adding and subtracting small numbers, Distrix feels like a mathsy game. It's also a game where you'll need good spatial awareness, keeping track of where and how districts can expand and where reassignments may be possible and how they might swing area control. The actual turn-by-turn game play is super simple - you're only ever placing out or switching a single cube - but there's a lot to take in and you may very well find that after the board is full it takes a while to check and confirm what other legal 'moves' are possible. Tho' there have been other attempts to build games around the notion of gerrymandering (including from Slightly Offensive Games, Warp Spawn, Academic Gaming Review and Lafair Family Games) Distrix has an abstracted purity to its design that eschews any nod towards political satire.
The notional setting for Distrix is a fictional 51st US state but the game is equally applicable to other democracies with manoeuvrable boundaries. In Britain, the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies are periodically altered by the UK's Boundary Commission with the stated aim of broadly equalising the number of electors in each constituency, but competing party advantage frequently comes into play: gerrymandering isn't just a US phenomenon!
Distrix is a well-designed abstract strategy game but the publishers have thrown in some surprises. For no discernible reason, the game includes two ten-sided dice. According to the rulebook: 'These bonus items are not used in the game Distrix or any expansion game. Congratulations...these are yours to keep!' The dice are actually a vestigial of an earlier game design which had introduced a (now eliminated) chance element to a district's voting. In addition, there's a 'bonus' board and rules booklet covering expansion variants that can only be played using two matching copies of the game or two complementary copies (the edition shown on Board's Eye View is designated 'Set A' but there's a 'Set B' with different markers and the two sets can be combined to create a larger playing grid).
Tho' Distrix is very clearly a two-player game, you can try soloing it as a puzzle game where you set yourself the challenge of achieving electoral balance between the parties. Even tho' it's not offered as an official variant in the rule books, this solitaire option makes for a very satisfying game.
And for solitaire players who get hooked, Matt Petering has compiled a great puzzle book that's designed to be played pen & paper but which can also be used in conjunction with any Distrix set.
If you have any difficulty finding the Distrix games and/or the Puzzle Book at your friendly local game store, click here to order them directly from the publisher.