We talk about moving from birds to butterflies
Elizabeth Hargrave returns in her full-sized post-Wingspan follow-up butterfly migration game, Mariposas.
Elizabeth Hargrave is somewhat of a star of the hobbyist gaming world. We all (nearly at least) agreed that Wingspan was the best game of 2019. It even won a Kennerspiel des Jahres, which may as well be the prize for the coolest game of the year. It’s rare for a designer to have so much success with their first game, for it to be so universally acclaimed, and also, to have not put a foot wrong with anything else they’ve released since – albeit the small but perfectly formed Tussie Mussie.
Hargrave has spread her wings, a little, with her new game – Mariposas – and while we’re no longer in the world of bird portraits, we are at least migrating, and there is a bit of egg laying too. Mariposas takes us on an epic journey across the North American continent, following the multi-generational migration of the Monarch butterfly. Hargrave introduces the game for us.
“Mariposas is a game that tells the story of the migration of Monarch butterflies who travel as much as 3000 miles each way on their migration between all of Eastern North America. And then they go to a very specific part of Mexico for the winter, like about 12 different mountains in specific range of Mexico,” says Hargrave “I wanted to create a board game that sort of tells the story. So, you’re moving butterflies around on a map and you’re doing it over three seasons of spring, summer and fall.”
In the broadest strokes then the game is one that maps this migration in some abstraction. The real butterflies that we’re talking about are driven by a series of cross-generational urges, little understood, to migrate and lay their eggs on milkweed. These eggs then hatch into hungry, but discerning, caterpillars who only want one thing – the aforementioned milkweed. Once they’ve had their fill they do that caterpillar thing and become butterflies.
And when this next generation is born, they are compelled, somehow, to move on with their parent’s journey. Hargrave models this through the use of shifting goals – a little like the ones faced by real Monarch butterflies, “The way the variable goals are set up for each season in general means the ones in the spring are sort of causing you to head North from Mexico and in the summer you’re sort of multiplying and spreading out your butterflies. And then in the fall it’s a race to get as many butterflies as you can back to Mexico,” she says.
The board of butterfly meeples migrate northward, expands each generation, scatters, and then collapses back into itself before plunging southward. If this sounds like something that echoes those ecosystems created in other Hargrave games, then you’d be right. Here however, it is shared system rather than that of a personal board created by a careful bird curator – and players are all caught in the same genetic drive.
The concept of the game came from a couple of sources, “I just thought it was a cool story to tell,” says Hargrave, before offering the biographical “I had actually been to one of the preserves in Mexico many, many years ago… in maybe 2003. It’s amazing because it’s 300 million butterflies converging on this tiny mountain range in Mexico. You look at the trees and you think you’re seeing autumn leaves because the trees are orange – and then you realize they’re just solid butterflies. It’s amazing.”
“And then, a decade later, I was reading a book by Barbara Kingsolver called Flight Behaviour,” says Hargrave, “which is a sort of a speculative story of climate change forcing the butterflies away from Mexico, and how, now, they start migrating to the Appalachian mountains in the US.” The novels of Kingsolver often have environmental and social justice themes, and they take paths through the Southeast US, Hargrave’s homeland. It’s natural then for a game about going away and coming home again to emerge from the feelings created by this book and that journey undertaken a decade before.
“So many years after having actually been there, I read this novel and that was when I was starting to work on Wingspan,” says Hargrave, “I had my game design brain sort of ‘turned on’ and just started thinking about how you could portray this event with game mechanics. But my first draft never quite came together. I never even played tested it with other people because it just wasn’t working when I played it by myself.”
“That was how I came to want to design. When that novel got me thinking about the story again the gears just started turning. And then when I pulled it off the shelf the second time, it all just sort of clicked. I think partly because I had been through the whole process of designing Wingspan, playtesting so many other games and thinking more critically about how games come together. I have become much faster as a designer,” says Hargrave.
There was an additional motivation, AEG, the publisher of Mariposas had put a call out for more women designers to submit their games. We joke that she is the only woman in board games as far as much of the industry is concerned, or at least the go-to woman in board games. Hargrave adds, “but yes, I got invited to every convention this year – partly for Wingspan but also because it’s like ‘Oh, now there’s a popular woman’.” It’s also worth noting that anyone approaching Hargrave to speak on the subject is likely to be directed to several other very talented female game designers in what is a particularly graceful bit of solidarity.
Butterflies are deeply adaptive creatures. Because of their short lives, they can respond to their surroundings though a few generations, and many times within a human lifetime. Similar to the moths of the industrial revolution in England, which went from a variety of colours, to darker, sooted wings as the world was consumed by coal-smoked industry. Those who did stand out from the now blackened bark of trees and cities would be eaten, as they were easier to spot, and those who were camouflaged in this grubbier world survived.
Interestingly for Hargrave, Mariposas is probably the game that is going to be judged as the follow-up to Wingspan. Interesting because, both Mariposas and Tussie Mussie were both designed in the period between finishing Wingspan and it being released. It’s meaning for the designer has had to adapt over the short time from its creation to its release. The designer takes us through the timeline.
“I was done working on Wingspan in the spring of 2018 – they were just finishing the art and the physical manufacture of it, and getting it to retail takes months,” says Hargrave, “then in the summer of 2018 there was a little design contest that Button Shy ran for 18 card games, which is what they do. So, I designed Tussie Mussie for that. And then immediately after, I started working on Mariposas that fall. So I basically did Tussie Mussie and Mariposas in between the time of having finished Wingspan and the time that Wingspan came out.”
Tussie Mussie and Mariposas are both unaffected, in their creation at least, by what came after the release of Wingspan. The closest Hargrave has had to a ‘difficult second album’ is in the Tussie Mussie Kickstarter “Tussie Mussie, when they did the Kickstarter, was a little bit of a second album, right?” says Hargrave, “it had been kind of ‘out’ for the people that followed the design contest, but really it came out in the summer of 2019 with the Kickstarter. And that was a very low pressure second album. People’s expectations for an 18 card game are just not going to be high. Mariposas feels like the one that people are going to be judging in the light of Wingspan.”
What is Mariposas like then? It’s set out as a kind of gateway game, it has fewer moving parts than Wingspan, and is simpler in nature, smaller in scope. There won’t be hundreds of unique cards, but there will be charming art and the elegant and robust gameplay we’re used to from the designer.
“It’s a lighter game. I think that people who are already feeling that Wingspan is not quite as heavy as they would like, but they’re playing it because people in their family enjoy it, or they’ve got friends to play it, Mariposas will be another game that those friends will like.” says Hargrave, “but they as gamers will be like, ‘Oh, this could be heavier.’ But it’s still a very satisfying game to me as a gamer. Like every turn is an interesting decision about where you’re going and what you’re going to do. So, it’s not like super simple – I’d say it’s probably gateway-ish.”
Play is predicated, like the best gateway games, on simple decisions that give meaningful outcomes. Here we are given two cards each turn for moving and collecting flowers. Players start with just one little butterfly meeple at the southern end of the board. The cards you choose from give you options for moving and collecting the flowers displayed on the board – collect sets of these flowers and you can breed more butterflies
“On your turn, you can either move farther and pick up fewer flowers or move shorter distances and pick up more flowers. That’s the general are sort of decision between the different move cards,” explains Hargrave, these are ranged as you might expect between move one pick up five, move two sets of two and pick up one flower at each location and so on.
“What seems like it should be pretty simple decision between just two cards that you have for movement – because you’re moving on hexes and there’s lots of different flowers – can actually be a pretty thinky movement decision about how you’re going to use your cards most effectively,” says Hargrave of the main play hooks.
Each round has a variety of different goals to score on. These might be having butterflies on a certain coloured section of the map-board, to have your butterflies near a certain city, or simply having made more butterflies, or being really far north.
“And then on top of that, on each city a there’s a little tile that if you land there, you can flip it over and get a special token that’s a whole separate set collection. These then builds up into special powers,” explains Hargrave of the unfolding depths of the game “so you might get an extra turn or something like that from collecting those sets and extra points as well.”
The board itself is notable. A lot of games that have this level of abstraction would find a way to flatten or smooth out the board, but here it’s simply the vague shape of Eastern North America. It’s something that maintains because, like all of Hargrave’s games to this point, we should remember that this is a game about real life, the real world, and a natural story that occurs within it. While a lot of games are influenced in setting by ‘real events’, or historical and cultural moments, few are formally as tied to modelling the metaphors of reality as Hargrave’s games are. It is mechanically interesting too for these ties to reality.
“It creates some interesting nooks and crannies that we did things with. Some of the spaces that are harder to get to, we make them pay out double flowers on them and things like that. And there’s a little stretch, you know, all the way across the board where you can hit three cities in a row,” says Hargrave, “those tokens are easier to collect, if you make it that far in the first place. There’s a lot of trade-offs like that.”
The game offers depth in your butterfly distribution strategy as well.
“We tried to make it so that there are several different paths to victory where you can really be focusing on the flowers and getting lots of butterflies from that set collection. And the end of round goals. Or you can ease up on some of that and focus more on going to the cities and do that collection,” says Hargrave, “And we tried to get that all balanced so that, out of those – the flowers and making lots of butterflies, the end around goals and the set collecting from the cities – if you pick maybe two of those three to really focus on or go really hard on it, then that you might be competitive.”
We asked Hargrave about whether this game has that same deeply contemplative, gentle and good-natured feeling of playing Wingspan.
“It’s definitely in that same family of games where you can’t really do anything to actively hurt people,” says Hargrave, “there are ways that you can sort of piggyback on things that people have done. So, the city tokens are face down at first and then after the first person goes there, you know what it is. If you’re building a set you can wait for someone else to uncover them or you can do it yourself. But you can’t block someone from landing on a space. It’s very friendly, just like trying to do your best with the resources that you have, but not really getting in other people’s way.”
“People enjoyed it and I think players enjoy the little bit of puzzling and figuring out where to move, and in the right order to pick up the things that you need to do what you want to do. It’s puzzley and not full of conflict. So, it does have a lot of that same feeling of Wingspan. And it’s got pretty butterflies and flowers, right?” she says, laughing.
It’s not unfair to brush off these comparisons – it’s lush looking and brightly contrasted game. Possibly we could enjoy it merely for its connection to the truly staggering natural story and it’s delicious presentation. Josh Wood (Cat Lady, the upcoming Santa Monica) took art direction for the game, and together they steered away from the what has become the aesthetic staple of what we’ll tentatively call ‘the butterfly genre’.
“So there have been these butterfly games that have come out that have had sort of a similar aesthetic,” says Hargrave, referring to the very clean and delicate art on white backgrounds which, while appealing, didn’t feel right for Mariposas, “We were trying to brainstorm what we could do differently – and I said what if we found like a Mexican artist and doubled down on the concept that they’re migrating to Mexico? And so the part of the inspiration for the dark board and ‘candy skull’, Day of the Dead look took shape. The artists we found, Indi Maverick, it does just amazing line drawing art. I was so pleased she agreed to do it.”
Does a Butterfly Remember Being a Caterpillar?
After escaping the possibility of another fragile looking butterfly game, we instead have something that homes in on what the story is about – a huge and impossible migration, where those butterflies that start their journey will never see its end. This is an important part of not only the central story here, but the story of a butterfly’s life, which includes a kind of self-destruction in its metamorphosis. We pose the question to Hargrave, does a butterfly remember being a caterpillar?
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says to what, in truth, might be the strangest question we’ve asked in an interview about a board game, “I mean that’s part of the amazing story of the whole Monarch migration too, is that it’s like this genetic hardwired thing. The butterflies that come back in the fall are the great grandchildren of the ones that go north in the spring. Like, how do they do that? And when they transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly, they turn into goo inside of their chrysalis – their whole body dissolves.”
While we don’t have a conclusive answer, even after a brisk discussion of butterfly goo, we do come back to the strange tragedy of the migration and how Hargrave built it into the game.
“I actually worked that into the game, where the butterflies are numbered with their generations. Generation one dies off at the end of the first round. You have to put up more butterflies of generation two and then three, and then it’s generation four that goes back to Mexico. So yes, there is a certain amount of butterfly slaughter that happens,” she says, laughing, “It’s just so fascinating to me that this happens. I wanted to work it into the game.”
And this is a good connection back to the way Hargrave makes games that aren’t simulations, but are euphemistically or metaphorically ‘real’. For example, Wingspan’s ‘tuck’ mechanism where a larger, predatory, bird causes you to draw a card from the deck, and if the drawn bird is below a certain size it is ‘tucked’ under the larger bird. The tucking here, we assume, goes with the word ‘in’ and possibly some kind of bird bib.
“You don’t want to get into so much of a simulation that it becomes tedious, but to the extent that I can kind of work in little nods to the stuff that actually happens without having it bog down the game, that can be really fun,” says Hargrave. And there’s plenty of fun here.
These mechanisms are the metaphors in the game that not only make it compelling to play, but also easy to internalise. You’re not learning by rote; you’re simply applying what you already know about the world and the game accepts it. Hargrave gives us an insight into her process for making sure these mechanical metaphors are present and true.
“I do try to sit down in the beginning before I ever like come up with the mechanics that I want to try and say who do I think this game is for and what are like the core pieces that I think it needs,” says Hargrave, “So, for Mariposas, I wanted it to be sort of a family-weight, gateway-weight game because I think the theme is broadly appealing to those folks. And I wanted it to show the physical migration, right? So, I knew it had to be map based and then I wanted it to have like nectar flowers and the importance of that.”
“That led to the set collection of the flowers and I wanted to work in somehow the fact that the butterflies need milkweed to reproduce. To actually make new butterflies when you turn in the sets, you have to be next to certain spots on the board that have little milkweed holes on them,” explains Hargrave, “I come up with these fundamental principles that I may like. So, the map changed, and the way that you get flowers changed, but the fact that there was a map and the fact that there were flowers and milkweed was there from the beginning. I just had to work out exactly how they would work.”
Expanding wings further
Mariposas is scheduled for release July 31 from AEG. For Hargrave there’s a few other projects in the works, including the Wingspan Oceania Expansion slated for October. Interestingly, Hargrave is working on an expansion for Tussie Mussie, “We’re looking at doing an expansion, which is like ‘how you do an expansion for an 18 card game?’ – but you know, we have some ideas,” she says, laughing, “It’ll be a very small expansion.” This is set to be the first protype she hopes to get on Tabletop Simulator.
Aside from this, during lockdown, Hargrave has been running kids RPG sessions over Zoom. She recounts how their game of No Thank You Evil included time travelling watch the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, while bringing the CD of the musical with them, at the request of the kids, “I have not done a ton of roleplaying in my life. And being a DM for eight-year olds is testing my boundaries for sure,” she says, with a laugh.
Elizabeth Hargrave Games
The seminal bird game that asks you to build an engine out of a habitat to attract birds who will eventually flourish. One of the few truly serene board games. experiences out there, now with multiple continents of birds to attract, nurture, and ‘tuck’.
A game exploring the meaning assigned to flowers using only 18 cards. An artful bluffing game using an ‘I-Divide-You-Choose’ mechanic.
Hargrave’s latest translation of the magic of the natural world on to our tabletops. Take your butterflies on a multi-generational pilgrimage and choose your path wisely.
Words by Christopher John Eggett
This article originally appeared in issue 44 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.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products