“I don’t know who my friend murdered to get me a copy of Wingspan, but I’ve been so grateful,” Sharon Stiteler, well known for her Birdchick blog, told me over the phone when we discussed the unexpected success of the new board game recently released by St. Louis-based Stonemaier Games.
Not only did Wingspan sell out within a week of its release in March, but in late April it was entering its sixth print run. By then, more than 30,000 copies had been printed in English and 14,000 in foreign-language editions. Plus, expansions — one dedicated to birds on each continent — were already in the works. The success was so swift that Stonemaier had to issue an official apology to fans for underestimating sales. (The game is again available from Stonemaier and will be back in stock at game stores in mid-August.)
What is all the fuss about? Creator Elizabeth Hargrave, a Silver Spring, Maryland, resident who works as a health-policy consultant, has parlayed her passion for ornithology into one of this year’s most successful board games. Wingspan is a card-driven competitive game dedicated entirely to birds where the players assume the roles of bird enthusiasts — researchers, birders, ornithologists, and collectors — and try to attract the best birds to their specific wildlife preserves. It’s a strategy game that involves 170 gorgeously illustrated bird cards, each with unique powers; as each bird is added to your preserve, in one of three habitats, they enable you to perform more actions and become more powerful with each turn.
A focus on birds isn’t the only unusual aspect of the game. In an industry traditionally dominated by men, Wingspan also stands out for its all-woman creative team: designed by Hargrave, with bird art by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, player mats and a majestic birdhouse dice tower designed by Beth Sobel, and graphic design by Christine Santana.
A female design team is unusual, and Hargrave’s website speaks to this disparity in the gaming community directly: “Tired of being called one of the very few non-male game designers, I started compiling a list and ended up with almost 200 female and non-binary designers.” Though she is clear that “we have a long way to go before we see parity” for gender and racial representation, Hargrave sees a cultural shift happening and is cautiously optimistic about a more diverse landscape, since “as you get a more diverse pool of designers making board games, that’s going to bring ideas that are different from what has been the mainstream.”
Wingspan is turning out to be a game changer on many levels, and the president of Stonemaier Games, Jamey Stegmaier, believes the fact that an all-woman team created “one of the most popular games on the planet” will “move the needle in terms of diversity in this industry.”
The reception has been positive, often even effusive. The game has received significant mainstream media attention from outlets ranging from The New York Times and The Guardian to Science Magazine, all of which applaud the game not only for its fine strategy but also for its scientific rigor and the way it contributes to diversifying board game audiences.
Friendly competition is something birders are familiar with, but this game appeals just as much to non-birders. When I poked around on Wingspan’s Facebook group, I was most surprised by the diversity of comments, which ranged from hardcore game enthusiasts discussing the finer points of strategy and point accumulation to bird puns, cute photos of hummingbirds, and random bird trivia. It’s a collision of worlds that nobody could have predicted. Hargrave describes it as a “Venn diagram in action of people who play board games and people who enjoy birds, and it turns out there’s significant overlap between these two worlds.”
The atmosphere in the Facebook group mirrors the general buzz surrounding the game: unexpected enthusiasm. Most exciting for Hargrave has been “watching some of the gamers in the group ask for advice about how to get started birding and the birders who ask what kind of other board games are out there.”
A self-proclaimed lifelong “low-grade general outdoorsy naturalist,” Hargrave set out to design a game that spoke to her love of nature, and birds in particular. The popular Dungeons and Dragons-type “high fantasy themes” or games that deal with “dry, historical, vaguely European castle-building or trading in the Mediterranean” didn’t particularly appeal to her. She wondered whether instead of an “economic- type trading game where you have resources like wood and ore and cloth,” you had resources that birds would eat, then the game could mimic the “whole supply and demand going on in the natural world.” In that sense, her game “could be a sort of parallel to a more traditionally themed board game but with birds.”
The game was the product of three and a half years of work before Hargrave pitched it to Stegmaier, who appreciated the game’s strategy and “how the theme and mechanisms for each bird card were intertwined. I also really enjoyed the feeling of collecting my own unique tableau of birds.” In early iterations, the game focused more on the work involved in running a nature preserve, but over time — and more than 100 test runs — Hargrave realized that people most enjoyed direct engagement with the birds. So, she abandoned all the park infrastructure details in favor of a purely bird-centered game.
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And yet the game isn’t preachy or trivia-based. “I didn’t want anybody to feel you were at school,” Hargrave says of the game experience, which doesn’t reward memorization during play. Nevertheless, knowledge is certainly transmitted in an understated way. Each card has a fun fact about the bird’s behavior. The game notes, for example, that Burrowing Owls “often uses old prairie dog burrows for their underground nests.” Hargrave explains that players are “engaging with the birds and actually participating feeding seeds to a goldfinch, so maybe you’ll remember that finches eat seeds.”
As an all-round naturalist, Hargrave’s next games to be published speak to her versatility: Mariposas is about migrating monarch butterflies, and Tussie-Mussie focuses on Victorian flowers. She sits on the board of her local mushroom club and has vast knowledge of native plants in the Mid-Atlantic region, which she developed alongside her husband, a landscape designer who specializes in environmentally friendly residential gardens.
“When we’re out walking in the woods, we know most of the plants and birds we’re looking at, and it really transforms the experience,” she says. Her pace is sometimes so slow that a friend of Hargrave’s calls it the “naturalist shuffle.”