Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave, on 2019’s first hottest board game hit, Wingspan.

Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you about your first game release, Wingspan. Could tell us a little about what it’s about and gameplay?

Elizabeth: Wingspan is a card-based engine-building game about bringing birds into a nature preserve. There are 170 unique bird cards, and each one requires food and maybe eggs for you to play it. Each bird that you bring into your preserve makes your future turns more powerful, making you better at getting more cards, food, or eggs.

Every game has a creation story behind it, would you share with our readers, the story behind Wingspan?

Elizabeth: This game came out of a conversation with some friends about why there weren’t more games with themes that we’re actually interested in. I decided to try to make one. The first version was literally pencil on card-shaped pieces of paper. I worked on it off and on for a couple of years before taking it to pitch at GenCon in 2016. But that version was much more modest than the final form. I worked on it for over a year more with Jamey Stegmaier, amping up the engine-building and increasing the size of the deck.

Speaking of themes, you seem to like themes off the beaten path, birds with Wingspan and your second game, Tussie-Mussie, will have a Victorian flower theme. What draws you to these type of themes and do you put a lot of research into them?

Elizabeth: I’m just a big nature geek so these are things that occur naturally to me. Doing things based on the real world definitely requires more research. Even to come up with the 18 cards in Tussie-Mussie I found myself poring over lists that people have compiled from old Victorian flower dictionaries for several hours and then cross-checking them against the colors of the flowers to figure out which ones would work in the game. It takes some time, but I enjoy the process. And I really like the result. It’s like I’m telling people a little story about the world through the game.

Were you already into birds (a birder) when you were designing Wingspan or did that come through designing the game?

Elizabeth: I was already birding, but I definitely learned a lot through the research process. I knew just enough to get started in terms of things like the categories of food and nests, but for a lot of bird species, I didn’t know that type of information off the top of my head.

What do you think makes Wingspan stand-out from other engine-building games, outside of the theme and art?

Elizabeth: This is something I’ve been thinking about in retrospect because it sort of evolved during the development process. But I think one of the things that really makes Wingspan unique is that everything about your engine comes directly from the bird cards. I’m thinking about this in contrast to, say, Terraforming Mars, which also has super-cool theming and art on the cards. But so many of the cards you play in Terraforming Mars get set aside, and the main thing that you’re interacting with is this very abstract and uninteresting player mat. During development on Wingspan, as I was going back and forth with Jamey on things, I kept pushing for us to find ways to keep the birds at the center of things. The way that you interact with the bird cards directly and repeatedly creates a really immersive experience.

We’ve got to talk about that art! Do you have a favorite bird, artwise in the game?

Elizabeth: It’s so hard to pick. I think it’s safe to say that the ones that ended up on the cover and sides of the box were some of my favorites — it wasn’t my job to pick them, but I was so pleased with how they came out. The birds in flight are especially dynamic. I know those also took the artists a lot more time — you can see a lot more feathers when a bird is in flight!

What was the biggest hurdle you’ve faced in the design/development phase once you made the game a bigger game? How did end up overcoming the challenge?

Elizabeth: Managing a deck of 170 cards was definitely a big task. It’s quite a spreadsheet! I wanted to keep the habitats and the nests evenly distributed in the deck, and to have a reasonable distribution of food costs relative to the distribution of food on the dice, and to have a nice mix of different bird families. But I’m using real information about the birds — I can’t just randomly create a bunch of fictional cards that have exactly the mix of traits that I want. So I pulled information on way more than 170 birds and had to puzzle through which ones to use to make everything work. Then I had to figure out what each bird does in the game, which was an entirely different type of challenge.

Was there a bird or two that didn’t make it into the game, that you really wanted in?

Elizabeth: Oh gosh, there are so many birds that didn’t make it in — there are over 750 species that have been seen in North America. There are some really beautiful tanagers and buntings that didn’t make it in. Scarlet tanager is one that lives near me that got cut in favor of the even-more-beautiful western tanager.

Before we go, we asked fans on Facebook and Twitter if they have any questions for you and here are a few of them. Designer, Sarah Reed wanted to know what made you think of reducing the action tokens each round?

Elizabeth: That was something that Jamey thought of during the development process, but I loved it as soon as he mentioned it. We were trying to solve multiple problems at once: I really wanted to have some mid-game goals to give people some direction, and some players were having trouble keeping track of which birds they had activated. So the cubes were very practical for tracking both of those things, and the twist of having one less cube in each round adds a nice feeling of progression and almost urgency later in the game.

John du Bois, the designer of Avignon, wanted to know what your favorite bird in the game is?

Elizabeth: My favorite bird, in general, is the roseate spoonbill. But action-wise, I really like the birds that can move from row to row.

Multiple people asked if you plan on doing expansion(s) of birds found in other parts of the world in the future? And besides just added birds are there anything you would like to add mechanic wise to the expansion that didn’t make it into the base game?

Elizabeth: Yes, the goal as of right now is to do expansions for each continent. And I will try to add new mechanics with each one — I always like expansions that add something different, not just more of the same. I’ve got a running list of things I’ve thought of or that other people have suggested.

Ruth of The Five By podcast, asks – what is your favorite bonus card category since they’re so thematic?

Elizabeth: I like the ones that make you look at the names of the birds.

Karen C on Twitter asks –  if you know why the female pileated woodpecker was illustrated on the cards rather than a male – which tends to be the default?

Elizabeth: The illustrators picked all the reference photos they used for the birds, though I did weigh in sometimes when they had questions. My general guideline was to pick the showier sex when males and females are different, which is usually the males…but the female pileated is plenty showy enough on her own.

Finally, a friend of our site, Cassie Elle, wanted to know how does it feel to be an inspiration to up and coming women designers (like herself)?

Elizabeth: This is actually something that really means a lot to me. In my day job, when I started in the mid-90s, I was part of a couple of “women in health policy” groups, because women were really under-represented in leadership positions in that field. Breaking into board games feels like I’ve gone back 30 years in terms of gender parity, and I’ve joined those “women in” groups all over again. It just feels so weird to me to go to gaming and playtesting events and be one of very few women. If I hadn’t had an absolutely burning desire to get this game out there, I might not have kept going to those events. I think there are systemic things going on that have lowered the number of women who are gaming in general, and therefore the number of women designing games. But I do think it’s getting better — I’ve noticed some changes just in the few years I’ve been in the design world. I’d like to think Wingspan will help a little bit on the edges.

Wingspan features solo play. What makes Wingspan solo player worth a play?

Elizabeth: I don’t play a lot of solo games, so I don’t have a good basis for comparison, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people say that David Studley knocked it out of the park with his solo design for Wingspan. That might have been influenced by the fact that he was a frequent playtester for Wingspan before he started working on the Automa! I have played the Automa a few times and was really impressed by how he managed to capture the feel of the game and the tension of competing against an opponent, just with a small deck of cards.

I know Stonemaier Games tend to be a success, but did you expect Wingspan to be this big? I know that Stonemaier is already working on the 3rd printing and it’s not even technically out yet (retail-wise)!

Elizabeth: I would never have dared to dream of this! I mean, I had a certain level of confidence that Wingspan was a really good, solid game, and also that Stonemaier knows how to market games. But there’s never any way to know what’s going to really take off. I think the theme has really helped Wingspan stand out. But there was always the chance that non-birders would see a game about birds and be unwilling to give it a try.

Where do you go from here? There is Tussie-Mussie from Button Shy, which is on Kickstarter sometime in May or June. Anything else we should be on the lookout for?

Elizabeth: I’m in the process of pitching a game about monarch butterflies. I’m trying to figure out what less-finished game I’ll take to Unpub in March — I have a couple. And of course, the Wingspan expansions will take up a bunch of my design time as well.

As we wrap this up – thank you again for taking time out to do this interview, Elizabeth. Our last question is – what advice do you have for someone that wants the theme to be an important part of the game – as it is in both your games Wingspan and Tussie-Mussie?

Elizabeth: That’s something that comes very naturally to me, so it’s hard to articulate. I think picking a theme that was something I’m just legitimately fascinated by helped a lot. If it’s something you know a lot about, or want to learn about, it’s easier to infuse into the game. Both Wingspan and Tussie-Mussie have almost a stealth educational component: I’m teaching people about this theme through the game, without actually requiring them to learn anything if they don’t want to.

And then every step of the way, you just have to keep thinking about how things relate back to the theme. Who are players in the game? Do the things they do in the game give them an experience consistent with the theme? For example, I’ve seen a few people asking for negative player interactions in Wingspan, but it doesn’t feel like that makes sense in the context of a game about bird watching, which is one of the most peaceful and friendly activities you could do.


Readers if you like to talk with Elizabeth and ask her your own questions, you can find her on Twitter at @elizhargrave

Also for Wingspan fans or interested gamers, here are a few links for you: