Elizabeth Hargrave Invented a Board Game With Scientific Integrity. It’s Taking Off.

How Elizabeth Hargrave turned a passion for ornithology and spreadsheets into a popular game about birds.

The New York Times, March 11, 2019
Lexey Swall

COLLEGE PARK — The roseate spoonbill is roughly the size of a great blue heron, with the pink plumage of a flamingo and a giant spoon-shaped bill — “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close,” according to the Audubon Guide to North American birds. It is Elizabeth Hargrave’s favorite bird.

“Crazy bills get me,” she said on a recent sunny Saturday. Ms. Hargrave, a health-policy consultant in Silver Spring, Md., is an avid birder, and her favorite local winter birding spot is the Lake Artemesia Natural Area. Fringed with woods, the lake is artificial, excavated during the construction of Washington’s Green Line in the 1970s; in those days, the area was known as Lake Metro.

Setting out on a trail around the lake, bird guide close at hand, Ms. Hargrave had barely set up her scope when she spotted another species of her beloved crazy-billed birds: “Oh, fun!” She’d caught two northern shovelers, their beaks submerged, trawling for invertebrates. “There are diving ducks and dabbling ducks,” she said. “The northern shovelers are dabblers.”

Ms. Hargrave is more diver than dabbler. A spreadsheet geek with a master’s degree in public affairs, she spent more than a decade as a policy analyst with NORC at the University of Chicago. There, she studied, among other things, prescription drug trends for the report to Congress by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. She is now self-employed.

“I came for the social policy, wanting to help people,” she said. “But then, working in the field, I realized how much I also enjoy the crunchy analytics.”

And in her spare time, she’s been crossbreeding her analytics skills and her birding hobby to hatch something new: a board game, her first ever, about … birds. In “Wingspan,” published Friday by Stonemaier Games, players assign birds with various powers — represented by 170 illustrated cards, hand-drawn by two artists, Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo — to wetland, grassland and forest habitats.

Aiming to design a game with scientific integrity, Ms. Hargrave pulled data on North American birds from eBird, a citizen-science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She also made use of the lab’s All About Birds website, as well as Audubon’s online guide.

Then she built a spreadsheet. At its most extreme, it ran five hundred and ninety six rows by nearly one hundred columns — sorting, for instance, by order, class, genus, habitat, wingspan, nest type, eggs, food and red-list status. (Endangered birds confer special powers.)

Within the spreadsheet tool, Ms. Hargrave embedded formulas calibrating the score for each bird as the sum of various assets, such as the value of its eggs. What hooked Jamey Stegmaier, president of Stonemaier Games, was Ms. Hargrave’s wonkish ability to strike a fine balance, using so many cards, between the two driving components of game design: mathematics and psychology, with the latter taking precedence. “The key for me wasn’t the birds, but the satisfying feeling of collecting beautiful things,” he said.

Ms. Hargrave also has a card game, Tussie Mussie, about the Victorian language of flowers, launching in May, and a game about monarch butterflies, with the working title Mariposas, due for release next year. She is among the few women in game design — which was something she planned to research, until last December, when she noticed a newly published study exploring exactly that: “Assessing Gender and Racial Representation in the Board Game Industry.”

During the hundreds of Wingspan play tests, some gamers scratched their heads and said, “Birds? Really!?” They expressed concern that our feathered friends might not resonate with a community usually drawn to zombies, dragons, spaceships, farming, civilizations and (of course) trains.

But during the pre-order period in January, more than 5,000 games sold in a week; the game is now on its third print run, with a total of 30,000 games in English, and 14,000 in various foreign-language editions. On official release day, demand so exceeded supply that the publisher issued a public apology. Between birders and gamers, and the birder-gamer hybrid, Wingspan has found its followers — especially, naturally, on Twitter.

Boards of a feather

Ms. Hargrave’s home habitat, which she shares with her landscape-designer husband, Matt Cohen, is its own nature reserve, with vegetables in the backyard and a row of blueberry bushes out front. Inside, her watercolor paintings, of mushrooms and wildflowers, hang on the walls, complemented here and there with shells, snake skins and animal skulls.

The idea for Wingspan came to her after a game night with friends. They got talking about why there weren’t any board games tied to subjects they found interesting. Ms. Hargrave loves the game Castles of Burgundy, but pretending to be an aristocrat in high medieval France isn’t exactly her thing. She wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had Race for the Galaxy” — another game that often hits her table, about building galactic civilizations — “but with birds?”

Wingspan bills itself as a card-driven, engine-building board game: players start with limited strength and slowly assemble their gameplay mechanism, which becomes more powerful with each turn. A classic example is Monopoly, in which players accrete real-estate empires, although hobby gamers would point to more sophisticated examples, such as Terraforming Mars.

In Wingspan, the assets from which players reap points are the birds, their eggs and their food sources. Each player assumes the role of a birder, collecting birds and deciding which to deploy on the board and cultivate.

For instance, the roseate spoonbill is worth six points at the end of the game. Once it is placed in the wetland habitat (at the food cost of one invertebrate, one seed and one fish), it can lay two eggs, which also generate points. And as its special power, it allows the player to draw two new bonus cards and keep one.

Game-design theory coalesced as a discipline barely two decades ago. It includes at least two competing perspectives: ludology (from the Latin ludus, “play”), the study of game rules and mechanisms and narratology, the study of player story lines and experiences. Ms. Hargrave is familiar with the philosophy. But taped to the wall facing her is a list of the essential elements outlined by Marc LeBlanc, a designer and programmer, in his book “Eight Kinds of Fun”: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression and submission. Every so often, she said, she asks herself, “How many of these am I using?”

“The beginning of the game design process is about finding the fun,” said Matthew O’Malley, a game designer and one of Ms. Hargrave’s perpetual play testers. “The focus is on creating interesting decisions.” At each turn, do you want to play a bird, or gain food, or lay an egg or draw a new card?

“Later you focus on the mathematics of things, making sure that everything is balanced, and that players feel everything is fair,” he said. Where Wingspan really succeeds, he added, is in giving players lots of agency. It offers numerous paths to victory (the Holy Grail in game design) without inducing “analysis paralysis.”

“There has to be some human spark”

On Sunday, the day after birding at Lake Artemesia, Ms. Hargrave was up early for her monthly play-testing session — a focus group with gamers — at the Board and Brew Café in College Park. The “Break My Game” crew, with 20 or so players, was in the back corner as usual, digging into half-baked games over pancakes and avocado toast.

Kyle Catanzaro, 14, was there to play-test his game Monaxem, which he loosely translates to “chuck” in Latin (Marmota monax being the scientific name of the woodchuck). It’s a card game, with sixty tokens — “a food fight gone mental,” he said, but with “psychotic chickens and angry yetis.” Franklin Kenter, a mathematician at the United States Naval Academy, was testing his card game, Bobsled, with players arranging their chairs in a cozy line rather than at a table.

Ms. Hargrave was there seeking feedback on Wingspan’s first expansion deck, and wanted to test out the new bird powers. (Several new decks of bird cards are in the works, one for each continent.) The game neatly combines and disguises a great deal of math: the probability of acquiring certain food items with the roll of dice; the balance between a bird’s cost, in food, and how its powers play out at different points in the game.

“There’s a large amount of math under the hood,” said Mr. Kenter, a steadfast Wingspan tester. “But you don’t need to know the math to play the game.”

The design question for Ms. Hargrave, always, is when to abandon perfect accounting and instead tweak the math to get the players more invested. “Something that works perfectly, mathematically, can be perfectly boring,” she said. “There has to be some human spark.”

By the end of the Sunday session, Ms. Hargrave was feeling good about the expansion deck. “It’s close,” she said. She gave it another test the following weekend, at an invite-only 12-hour play test party at the home of Steve Cole, a game designer. She also spent time that day play testing a game called Symposium, by Dan Cassar. It’s a card game about competing theories during the time of the scientific revolution; the players are wealthy patrons, exerting their influence over which papers get published, and which never see the light of day.

Near the end of March, Ms. Hargrave is off to Baltimore, for the annual Unpub convention, where hundreds of designers and thousands of gamers spend the weekend play testing games in various stages of undone. Ms. Hargrave had an idea for a game about mushrooms, but she thought instead she might test a game about a Russian experiment breeding foxes into dogs. A couple of days later, she shelved that idea.

“It needs quite a bit of work,” she said. But she has no shortage of options: “I also made a quickie prototype this week of a game about stunt people, which would be way more silly, and probably more fun.”