“I don’t know who my friend assassinated 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 launched by St. Louis-based Stonemaier Games.
After Wingspan was released in March, it sold out within a week. By late April, Wingspan had into its sixth print run.
At that point, more than 30,000 copies had been printed in English and 14,000 in translations of other languages. In addition, there were already plans for more expansions, one for each continent’s bird species.
Stonemaier had to offer an official apology to fans for underestimating sales because of the rapid rise in popularity. (Stonemaier has re-released the game and it will be back in stock in mid-August.)
What’s the big deal? As a health-policy consultant in Silver Spring, Maryland, Elizabeth Hargrave uses her love of birds to create one of this year’s most popular board games.
Bird enthusiasts, whether researchers, birders, ornithologists, or collectors, compete in a card-driven competitive game called Wingspan in which they aim to attract the most desirable species to their respective wildlife reserves.
Each of the 170 beautifully painted bird cards in this strategic game has a different set of abilities, and as you collect them in one of the three habitats, you get the ability to do more and more each time.
The game’s uniqueness extends beyond its emphasis on birds. All-woman creative team: Wingspan was developed by Hargrave, with bird art from Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, player mats, a gorgeous birdhouse dice tower by Beth Sobel, and graphic design from Christine Santana.
“Tired of being dubbed one of the very few non-male game designers, I started compiling a list and ended up with around 200 female and non-binary designers,” says Hargrave’s website.
“A female design team is unique.” When it comes to gender and racial representation, “we have a long way to go before we see parity,” Hargrave says, “but I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.” “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,” she adds.
At Stonemaier Games, the president of the company behind Wingspan feels that the fact that an all-woman team created “one of the most popular games on this planet” will “move the needle” in terms of diversity in the business.
The general buzz about the game is reflected in the Facebook group’s atmosphere: surprising enthusiasm. Hargrave’s favorite part has been “seeing some of the gamers in the group seek for guidance on how to get started birding and the birders who wonder what kind of other board games there are out there”
With her lifetime passion for birds and nature, Hargrave set out to create a game that would reflect her brand of “low-grade general outdoorsy naturalist” ideals. She wasn’t a fan of “high fantasy” or “dry, historical, vaguely European castle-building or Mediterranean trading” games like Dungeons & Dragons.
While playing the game she pondered if it would be possible to “replicate the whole supply-and-demand going on in the natural world” by substituting commodities like wood, ore, and fabric for those that birds eat.
She says it “might be a sort of counterpart to an older traditional themed board game but with birds.”
Hargrave worked on the game for over three and a half years before pitching it to Stegmaier, who was impressed by the game’s complexity and “how the theme and processes for each bird card were entwined.
I also found the process of putting together a unique collection of birds to be very satisfying.” It wasn’t until Hargrave ran more than 100 test runs that he learned that the most popular aspect of the game was the direct interaction with the birds. As a result, she decided to focus on birds instead of the park’s infrastructure.
Despite this, the game does not have a preachy or trivial feel about it. In the game, “I didn’t want anyone to feel like you were at school,” Hargrave says of the experience, which doesn’t reward memorization during play. Nonetheless, knowledge is conveyed in a subdued manner.
You can learn something new about the bird’s habits from each card. Burrowing Owls, for example, “frequently exploit ancient prairie dog burrows for their underground nests,”
according to the game’s notes. By feeding goldfinch seeds, gamers are “connecting with the birds and actively participating providing seeds to a goldfinch,” says Hargrave.
Hargrave’s upcoming games demonstrate her breadth of experience as a naturalist: Monarch butterfly migration is the subject of Mariposas, while Victorian flowers are the center of Tussie-Mussie.
With her husband, a landscape designer who specializes in environmentally friendly residential gardens, she has a deep understanding of the Mid-Atlantic region’s native species.