Prior to starting this project, I associated systems games with complexity. I thought of convoluted games like Rimworld, Timberborn, and the like, where you needed entire spreadsheets to keep track of the different variables at play. It turns out, that isn’t the case: we modeled (not entirely successfully, but fairly well!) gerrymandering with a much simpler set of mechanics, and without opening Excel once.
I think the most successful piece of the project was our attempt at modeling the byzantine and arbitrary mechanisms by which districts are drawn: in our case, with tetris pieces. Although this was, on face, a very simple process, it drew out a lot of complexity, and evoked the experience of gerrymandering as a system very effectively. In playtests, players expressed frustration with the same kinds of issues as in real gerrymandering, and the kinds of decisions they were making were the same ones lawmakers actually do when gerrymandering (just more abstracted). I think the zero-sum objective of the game really helps with getting people into this mindset.
However, we did have some trouble drawing together the entire system into a cohesive whole. The first phase – where the players bid for cards and pieces, and influenced the electoral map via cards – consistently felt somewhat disconnected from the second phase, and it was hard to get players to feel like they had much agency during that period. It was difficult to come up with adequate solutions for this. For example, do we make it 2v2, and allow them to play cards on their teammates board? If so, how does that actually reflect the real world system? Should we assign population values to squares, and require a certain population per district? How do we do that without making the complexity of the piece-placing phase overwhelming?
Although I do think we got closer by making the cards more impactful, I’m not sure that we got the entire ecosystem working together perfectly. The idea of a shared resource – coins – to get cards and pieces made sense, but it wasn’t clear that there was a meaningful limitation on pieces, so it seemed like people tended to just both get as many cards as they could, and then still had enough pieces afterwards. I think this may have made it feel like less of an inter-related system, and more like two distinct pieces. I’m not sure if the solution is combining the actions into a single phase, or rebalancing, but it could still use a bit of work.
Ultimately, I actually think a version of the game with just the second phase might be the most successful at modeling the decisions, and emotional impacts, of gerrymandering, even though it might model the actual system as a whole less comprehensively. Even though one really compelling mechanic couldn’t get us all the way to a full systems game, it did get us to a fun representation of part of that system.