13 November 2019
Elizabeth Hargrave shakes off the down in her gorgeous board game debut, Wingspan. The designer and lead artist Natalia Rojas crack open the shell of their creation
A single conversation with Elizabeth Hargrave can see the designer wax lyrical about the meanings assigned to flowers by Victorians, the migration of monarch butterflies and a decades-long Russian experiment involving the genetic domestication of foxes.
All three of these seemingly unconnected topics have inspired games designed by Hargrave. 19th century floriculture was the basis of Tussie-Mussie, the micro ‘I split, you choose’ card game designed in a month that won last year’s GenCan’t Design Contest and announced Hargrave to the gaming scene. Butterfly migration and fox taming, meanwhile, serve as her leaping-off points for two upcoming designs still in the works.
“I keep a running list of game ideas or theme ideas – often it’s just like a couple words about a theme or a link to an article I read or something,” she says. “I tend to just sort of see something in the world and it triggers an idea in me about how that might play out in a game.
“I had Victorian flower language on that list. I had been playing a lot of New York Slice with a friend of mine’s kids, which is classic ‘I split, you choose’. I was trying to think about whether there was a way to use the mechanic to make an 18-card game feel bigger.”
I tend to just sort of see something in the world and it triggers an idea in me about how that might play out in a game.
Hargrave’s first major board game release is Wingspan, an engine-building title put out by Scythe publisher Stonermaier Games this year. It too arose from her eclectic fascination with the outside world.
“Partly it came out of a conversation with a bunch of friends of mine,” she reveals. “We all play games but we’re also big nature people; we’re as likely to go hiking together as we are to play games together. This conversation about, ‘Why are all the games about, like, ancient castles and space and nothing we actually like as our hobbies?’”
The idea was given further potential as a game by Hargrave’s realisation of “economic systems in nature that people have not exploited much in games”.
“There are resources out there that different animals need in different amounts, and lots of sort of supply-and-demand and ‘getting resources makes you stronger’ kind of things going on in nature just as much as they are in medieval Europe,” she contends.
Meanwhile, Hargrave and her husband had begun to get serious about birding after dabbling in the hobby for a long time.
“It was sort of the perfect storm to make this game about birds,” she says.
FLIGHT OF FANCY
Its staggering commitment to detail is one of the things that marks Wingspan out as more than just another strategy game with a pretty coat of feathers. Over 170 different North American birds make up the game’s deck of cards, each with a distinct diet, ability and habitat – all closely modelled on their real-life counterparts, down to the proportionately accurate number of eggs they can lay during the course of gameplay.
“I don’t know if there were particular challenges, but just, yeah, trying to sort of find the right balance between keeping it super realistic but also simplified enough to actually work as a game,” says Hargrave. “So the food is super simplified; there’s only five kinds of food, for example. Which I think has been true from the beginning, I just sort of [said]: ‘Okay, we’re going to have these five kinds of food, we’ll fit all the birds into that.’ All the nests are sort of simplified into four kinds of nest. That kind of thing. But within that simplification I did try to stick to reality.”
She laughs: “There’s a big spreadsheet involved, that’s for sure.”
The cards are the focus of players’ bird enthusiasts – uniting the passionate obsession of birdwatchers, ornithologists and collectors – who are trying to attract as many birds to their personal environment as possible. Doing so involves collecting the right food – boiled down to invertebrates, seeds, fish, fruit and rodents – exchanging the given number of eggs and introducing them to the rows of forest, grassland or wetland that make up their tableau.
Once in their habitat, the birds become a chain of abilities that players can trigger, activating an entire row in order to gain more food, lay eggs and a huge variety of different benefits offered by the dozens of unique cards.
“The most creatively challenging part was trying to come up with the powers for all of the bird cards that, where I could, I tried to come up with things that actually go along with things that the birds actually do,” Hargrave says.
She gives the example of the brown-headed cowbird, a bird that in real life only lays its eggs in other birds’ nests – saving it the trouble of having to feed its own young, making it the envy of human parents across the globe.
“I kind of riffed on that: when other people choose the lay eggs action then your brown-headed cowbird lays eggs in other birds’ nests on your own tableau,” Hargrave says. “Little things like that where I could think of a way to sort of reference something the bird actually does, that was probably the biggest challenge. Some of them are much more simple; just like, this bird lets you draw an extra card and that’s not really directly related to anything, but still is a nice engine-building power.”
Hargrave compares the vast number of combinations possible to weighty strategy titan Terraforming Mars – though stresses that, true to its name, Wingspan is a lighter experience – and reveals that she began with a much smaller scope in mind.
“When I started Wingspan it was 50 birds or something,” she says. “I was not ambitious at the beginning. Jamey [Stegmaier, Stonemaier co-founder] said that’s something that could really make this game unique: to really push the number of cards and really just make the gameplay so different every time because you’re seeing different birds every time.”
Players’ growing aviaries gradually expand the ability of each habitat. Activate the grasslands at the start of the game and you’ll gather a few eggs; trigger its full row of cards later on and it might produce a wealth of natural treasures.
“Sometimes you’ve got really elegant combos and sometimes it’s just stuff that’s not exactly working together but they’re all good for you. That sort of emerged during development with Jamey. I had some cards that had powers on them, but we really amped that up over time and the concept that an action in the game would be associated with one of the habitats in the game,” Hargrave says.
“Because the turns are so simple at the beginning of the game, it makes it pretty easy for people to pick up but then by the end of the game it’s this very satisfying, meaty turn.”
FEED THE BIRDS
Completing Wingspan’s pastoral look are dozens of miniature eggs and a three-dimensional dice tower decorated as a birdfeeder that holds the handful of wooden food dice rolled to randomly generate the pickings.
“Food originally started out as being on cards,” Hargrave says. “You could sort of draft them the same way you draft the bird cards. It went through a couple of different iterations before we landed on the dice. But I think that ended up creating some interesting dynamics in terms of player iteration.”
Although the dice inject a small element of luck into the gameplay, two unwanted food can be used as a wild, stopping any player’s birds from going hungry.
“I would say more randomness than straight up luck,” Hargrave retorts. “There are a few bird powers, actually, where it’s literally like ‘roll one of the dice that’s not in the bird feeder right now and see what you get’. So that’s pure luck, but it’s an extra food for you which is almost always good. I tried to design enough stuff around the dice that sort of mitigates the luck and gives you choices.
“There’s a little bit of luck involved but also quite a bit of planning you can do about when the dice get rolled and when you choose to take food based on what’s available. So I was pretty happy with the progression of that part of the game, as well.”
Hargrave says the thematic dice tower emerged from an earlier version of the game where players had to re-roll any used dice at the end of their turn, but kept forgetting: “A friend of mine said, ‘What you need is some thing that makes it more fun to roll the dice, and then you’ll never forget! You know, like the pyramid in Camel Up! No-one would ever forget to use the pyramid, because that’s the best part of the game!’”
“That led to having this fun little dice tower which served that purpose, but then I moved away from re-rolling the dice as often, which has positive implications for player interactions – that’s the right decision for the gameplay – but by then we were all in love with the bird feeder so it stayed in the game,” she laughs.
Responsible for much of the game’s incredible realism is lead artist Natalia Rojas, an illustrator specialising in highly detailed pencil drawings for whom Wingspan was her first board game project.
“As an emerging artist I feel very honoured to be a part of this project and to have been given the freedom to develop my artistic style,” she says.
Rojas began by researching the paintings of 19th century American wildlife artist John James Audubon, before being introduced to contemporary ornithologist David Allen Sibley through a book sent to her by Hargrave.
“Both Elizabeth and Jamey already had a very clear idea in mind for the final outcome when I joined the project, but they gave me the freedom to define the style and technique for the drawings,” she says. “Prior to this project I didn’t know much about birds and having Elizabeth’s knowledge was critical for me to make the right decisions so I could represent each bird accurately.
“I wanted to illustrate each bird to look alive, natural and realistic without looking like a picture.”
Hargrave credits Stegmaier with bringing together the team of artists to begin illustrating the 170 cards, starting before the gameplay had been finalised as a result of the scale of the project.
“I was in touch with the artists who were drawing the birds and every once in a while they would check in with me about questions they had about should they use this reference photo or that reference photo or that kind of thing,” she says. “Then they would send me some of the drawings every once in a while just for fun. That was a pretty amazing process to watch that all come to life. I had some placeholder art in my prototype, but a lot of the cards were just the name of the bird and a big blank space where the art would go.”
Rojas was one of three female artists who contributed to Wingspan, joined by Beth Sobel and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, as well as head graphic designer Christine Santana.
“The art you see in this board game was created by three female artists who brought their unique talent together to visually represent a game designed by another amazing woman,” Rojas says. “I’m particularly excited about this and honoured to have had the opportunity to work with them.”
“I like to hope that having a game out there with all-women names on the box will be an inspiration to somebody somewhere,” says Hargrave. “That’s a possibility.”
While Hargrave says she didn’t set out with plans to make Wingspan as big as it’s become, she hopes to add even more birds to the game.
“I am actively working on at least one expansion for Wingspan,” she confirms.
Among the designer’s ambitions is to introduce species from outside of North America, hoping to include cards representing birds from each continent – and more focused regional packs if Wingspan takes flight with players. Even with the potential for almost endless variations of bird (approximately 18,000 species exist in the world, at last count), Hargrave reassures that the game – and her future projects – won’t grow beyond its limits.
“I don’t think I would ever start out designing a game thinking, ‘This game is going to have a bazillion cards,’” she says. “You start small and you iterate and you iterate and maybe it needs to grow and maybe it doesn’t.”
Having tackled ambitious scale in Wingspan and compact minimalism in Tussie-Mussie, Hargrave reveals one of her finished designs lies in the middle of the complexity scale, at a “kind of gateway-level”.
“I don’t know that I have a personal sweet spot design-wise for game weight,” she says. “I kind of like playing a range of stuff. I would say the weight of Tussie-Mussie is not a weight I gravitate towards. So definitely heavier than that.”
When we speak, Hargrave is waiting to hear back about her game inspired by monarch butterfly migration that she had pitched to a publisher. She suggests that her game based on the experimental Russian domestication of foxes will likely become her next focus.
“It’s like trying to trace the genetics of what’s actually involved genetically in domestication,” she explains. “I have a game around that that’s definitely a heavier puzzley, thinky [design] – not necessarily more complex component-wise, there aren’t that many components, but it’s definitely a very thinky game in its current iteration.”
While Wingspan marks Hargrave’s major debut and the beginning of what could be a newfound stardom on the tabletop among players, for the designer it’s the long-awaited culmination of almost five years of work that have finally paid off.
“I pitched it to Jamey at Gen Con in 2016, and at that point I had been working on it on and off for a couple years but not solidly the whole time,” she says.
“To everyone else it seems like it came out of nowhere and to me it’s like I’ve been waiting for this for forever!”
Words by Matt Jarvis.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.