I had the very great pleasure of sitting down virtually with Elizabeth Hargrave, designer of the 2019 Spiel des Jahres winner, Wingspan. We are still sheltering under the shadow of COVID, so the dinner is virtual, but the food is very real – on Elizabeth’s request, we both got Ethiopian food, one of my favorites. So read on for talk of berbere, birds, breads and boards. Alliteration!
DTD: Hello. Can you hear me OK?
EH: Yes, hello!
DTD: Oh, good, good. I was having a complete breakdown with the technology. My brain wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out what to hook up where, so I think I’m good.
EH: Oh No! [laughs] I’m going to go for the headphones; my husband is hanging out here. Or maybe he wants to listen to our conversation… I don’t know. He’s going.
DTD: Oh, it’s totally fine.
EH: I don’t know if you want me to be quiet, I will.
DTD: Not a problem at all, I think.
EH: These are both labeled vegetarian samplers.
It sounds like Elizabeth orders Ethiopian food like I do – combinations only. Everything is so good, but I never remember the name of individual dishes.
DTD: Ooh, OK! That’s awesome. I am so excited. By the way this is… I’m recording this. But I’m never releasing the recording or anything. I just want to make sure that’s OK with you.
EH: Right, you said in your email. Which is lovely, given that I’m eating, and like, that’s never pretty, right?
DTD: Well, you picked absolutely the most photogenic food: things you pick up with your hands, that stain your fingers permanently. I can’t tell you how excited I am that you picked Ethiopian food.
DTD: As soon as you picked that and I told my wife about it, her eyes just lit up. That’s her favorite, that’s what we have to get for her birthday, and for holidays.
I want to give credit to my wife’s favorite Ethiopian venue, Queen Sheba in Sacramento. So delicious.
EH: Oh, my gosh! Awesome.
DTD: So, I picked it up a little earlier, and my son and my wife just dove in. I’ve got leftovers.
It’s true. I photographed and watched my family eat a fancy Ethiopian meal before I quietly gathered their leftovers. I am not alpha here. Still super delicious.
EH: I’m digging in now.
DTD: Awesome, please do. I’ve got… I tried to be pretty. So, I’ve got… [showed off food]
DTD: Ooh, I know. Look at that.
DTD: So, it’s a little bit of everything.
EH: Yeah, I always get the sampler because I can’t pick.
DTD: Yeah, that’s the only thing I know how to order.
DTD: And our place is really funny, because the sampler changes. It’s different every time I order it, and the magical thing we look for, is one of the dishes comes with a hard-boiled egg.
DTD: And we only get it about one time in 5.
The mystery dish is almost certainly Doro Wot, a chicken stew. It comes with a hard boiled egg and a chicken leg, and we love it. But we only know how to order “Combination for four”, and this prompt does not always result in a stew with an egg. Please excuse my fancy polypropylene china.
EH: Oh, interesting. OK.
DTD: So, it’s always exciting to see if we got the egg this time, and this was a lucky dinner. We got the egg.
EH: You got the egg?
DTD: I was… Yeah. So, everything else is gravy. This is fantastic.
EH: Oh, my husband is saying that’s appropriate for Wingspan – you got the egg.
DTD: That’s it, That’s it. And it was, it was much bigger than that one, right? [holding fingers the size of Wingspan egg]
EH: Yeah, right?
DTD: Ah, this was an egg!
EH: Right, right? So, [Washington] D.C. has, like, the highest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia apparently.
EH: And within our house, there are probably at least 10 Ethiopian restaurants within like a mile or two.
DTD: I love it. That’s fantastic. I’ve got one. I bounce around in Northern California between a couple of different places, but right now I’m outside of Sacramento, and we’ve got one. So, they know me well.
EH: This was a place I hadn’t ordered from, that’s just 2 blocks from our house. It’s relatively new. It’s good. Their Misir Wot has something in it that is different.
Misir Wot is an Ethiopian dish of red lentils, often spicy from berbere, the spice mix of northern Africa.
DTD: Oh, it’s always exciting.
EH: It’s spicy.
DTD: And my, my son has Celiac-Sprue, he’s gluten intolerant, always has been his whole life. And the bread is, you know, it’s gluten free.
Injera, the traditional pancake-like ethiopian bread, is made from a grass seed called teff. Naturally gluten-free. Injera is not only the side dish, but also the utensil. One picks up a blob of food with the bread, and then carefully consumes.
EH: Yeah, do they do… Here you can choose, you have to pay extra for the gluten-free version.
DTD: Here, too, but extra is like 50 cents.
EH: And we actually, we have all these corner stores also, that are Ethiopian. So, you can go buy just like bags of fresh injera off the shelf.
DTD: That’s wonderful.
EH: It’s amazing, and you can buy… you can like see the ingredient list, right, and there’s like, pay a lot more for the teff.
DTD: I’m really jealous. I wish I had something like that.
EH: But, yeah, then you have ones that are like mainly buckwheat, I mean ones that are from wheat flour. It is really interesting to see the ingredient list.
DTD: Oh yeah! And the buckwheat, and barley sometimes, and all those. Those are off. Those are on our bad list. But the normal one, the teff grass. That’s on the good list.
It is not unusual to make injera with mixes of flours, sometimes wheat, sometimes buckwheat.
EH: Right, Celiac. I have a friend that is Celiac too, so that we, we do the same thing.
DTD: Yeah. I tried to make it once, and it turned into just a disgusting glop. Because you need to take the teff flour, and you let it ferment. You let it go bad a while.
The magic of injera is that the ground teff and water is fermented for a few days [four to five, usually]. This adds a sour flavor and wonderful, leavening bubbles. Unfortunately, if done wrong, fermentation is just called “rotting”.
EH: Right, it seems like a sourdough kind of, right?
DTD: Exactly. It’s a wonderful kind of fermentation. Not the kind I made. The kind they make. The kind I made turned into just rotten dough.
More like primordial soup. Which is a fantastic classic board game from 1977.
EH: I’m sure there’s something special about how you then cook it, though.
DTD: There’s a magic I do not know.
EH: I’ve seen for sale these big burner, platter things, that I think is what they make the bread on. But I haven’t seen them actually in use. I would have to look it up.
DTD: I don’t know much about it. I’m a foodie. I love all kinds of food. I’ve never really met anything I don’t really love. So, it’s always exciting. The pandemic kind of shot me right in the foot. I love doing these dinners with designers and I’m not beyond traveling wherever. But I can’t get used to the online. It just… both in board games and in the dinners I do. I just can’t get used to it. So, I’ve done all sorts of different strategies, so I apologize you’re a bit of a guinea pig still.
EH: I’m happy to be a guinea pig. It’s fine.
DTD: You’re much too kind. Much too kind.
EH: [I’m] happy for the excuse to get takeout, because I haven’t been much during the pandemic. We’ve been cooking our own food.
DTD: But will they DoorDash your Ethiopian food? That’s the question.
I don’t want to admit it, but I believe a majority of my pandemic meals are delivered by this company now.
EH: Oh, I’m sure they’re… yeah, yeah. I mean, this place was 2 blocks from my house, so I just walked over and picked it up.
DTD: Oh man, that’s the dream. That is the dream. Wow. So, I am a big fan. There’s some board game out there that’s got birds on it, or something, that I’ve played once or twice. You may have heard of it. What was that like? I mean, it was your first game, correct? Wingspan?
DTD: It was your first game, and it seemed like overnight, you became the bird game lady. It was instant fame from, you know, nobody-knew-your-name, to everybody-knew-your-name, and wanted to ask you about, you know, kookaburras.
It was the first bird I could think of. Kookaburra. I don’t know why. Very striking birds. Someone should put one on a board game box.
Interesting fact – almost all monkey noises in cartoons and movies are actually kookaburras. Look up a video of kookaburras yelling.
EH: [laughs] Yeah, it was… it was pretty wild. I came into it… The sort of conventional wisdom for new game designers is like, if your first game sells a couple thousand copies, you’re doing really well.
EH: So, I came into it with that mindset, and then like a month or 2 before Wingspan came out, Jamey [Stegmaier] hadn’t really shared with me his plans for how many copies he was printing or anything. I was just letting him handle all of it.
EH: Which I was happy to do.
DTD: And I’ve heard all sorts of stories about what happened behind the scenes there.
EH: Well, but… So, like a couple of months before Wingspan came out, I heard him [Jamey Stegmaier] say on a podcast, that his minimum print run is 10,000. And so, that I was…that already was kind of a shock to me.
DTD: A little bit of pressure.
EH: [laughs] Um, so I was like, “OK, I guess we’re going for 10,000 instead of 2,000.” And then, you know, the way that it sold out just immediately was pretty mind blowing.
DTD: Oh, Almost instantly.
When Wingspan came out, there was a FOMO furvor, and copies sold out completely. Stonemaier did their best to keep up with demand, but for a good year, the game was quite difficult to get ahold of.
EH: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And congratulations on that, and winning the Spiel. I mean, all deserved, and it was so much, so fast. It was such a cool Cinderella story, pardon the cliched thing. But it was fun, watching it from behind the scenes because I remember hearing Jamey say that he did his minimum print run. New designer and he wasn’t sure, and there were other hot games going on. It was about birds, come on. Who’s going to buy a game about birds?
Wingspan was the much deserved winner of the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres.
EH: Well, right. And he said he reached out to some of the distributors, too. To get their input on how many copies he should print. Like how many they would order from him. So that went into it too. It wasn’t just his personal opinion that he should aim low.
DTD: No, I’m sure he did his research on it.
EH: Other people were saying “Birds? I don’t know…”
DTD: It’s an odd theming.
EH: Turns out there was some demand.
Evidenced by the initial scarcity and frantic demand.
DTD: I suspect that it did OK. You may have heard otherwise, but I think… I think it did alright. So, did it start with the bird theming?
EH: Oh yeah.
DTD: So, from the get-go? Because you always hear about games getting re-themed all over the place.
It is not uncommon for publishers and developers to take a designer’s original game and re-theme it.
EH: No, I mean my… The whole way that I started designing, was that I was tired of the themes of the games that I was playing. Like, super mechanically engaged, but at one point, sitting around with some friends, my husband actually was like, “What would it be like to have a game about something we were actually into? Like birds or something?” And my brain just started going, right?
DTD: Well, you got just some of the most amazing artists on Wingspan. Those bird cards are incredible.
EH: Yeah, yeah. And that, again, I just let Stonemaier handle. And they found the artists. Natalia [Rojas] actually lives in Saint Louis.
DTD: Oh, cool.
EH: So, she’s local to the Stonemaier guys.
DTD: That’s awesome. How was it working with Jamey? Was it a very collaborative thing when you were working on Wingspan, or was it a very hands-off, hand it over to Stonemaier, and they just run, or…?
EH: So we did like back and forth on development for another year after he signed it.
EH: Which was…our process ended up being sort of, I would send him a copy, or the files, and he would play it a few times, and then send me long e-mails of like, “They tried this… This didn’t work… A question here…” Like, whatever. Just this long, long punch list of thoughts and ideas and questions. And then I would like go and work for a month, and send him another copy. So, it’s sort of back and forth like that.
DTD: Well, I mean that’s hard work too, sticking with it. Because I know it’s iteration after iteration after iteration.
EH: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I’m super lucky to have a great community of designers and playtesters here in D.C. because the playtesting really… To get people to play the same thing over and over and over…
DTD: That’s fantastic.
EH: Is a big ask, too. But there’s enough people here, and some other designers, where we just all kept playtesting each others’ games every week for years now at this point. Except during the pandemic.
DTD: Oh, everything’s changed. Are you embracing the online boardgaming?
DTD: I can’t do it. Now, I am doing some play testing. And I’m not… I mean, I’m not a hard core, you know, people lining up to hand me games. I have a couple things that I’ve been playtesting for a while. And that’s about all I’ve been playing online, is play testing on either Tabletopia or TTS [Tabletop Simulator]. Just for fun, for pleasure?
DTD: I can’t get into the games, and I don’t really understand why. I have a group of friends I’ve played games with forever, and they don’t understand why I’m not going online. And I can’t explain it, it just doesn’t feel right.
EH: Yeah, I don’t mind the games actually… Like Board Game Arena and what’s the French one? I’m blanking on the name now.
It is Boîte à Jeux. I, of course, knew this the whole time, and certainly did not send my research team to look it up.
DTD: I don’t remember.
EH: And like, I don’t mind those, and if some friends are getting together and playing, like that’s fine. I have actually been super frustrated by Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia for play testing. I have not been playtesting my own stuff on there yet, because every time I play someone else’s game, I just hate it so much. [laughs] Like, I’m signed up. Almost every day of the week there’s some group that’s got their play test going. They have put them all up on Cardboard Edison. You can just pop in. And I… Like in March and April, I was popping into those with the intention of like, “Sure, I’ll go for the four-hour session.” And I’ll play like one game, and I am just done.
DTD: Oh, it takes so long. Yeah, I’m…
EH: And it’s just so clunky. And I realize that I think part of the joy of board games for me is the tactile. Like being able to play with the pieces.
DTD: I’m old. I’m used to the physicality. I want to have big chunky pieces, and move them around.
I simply want to eat my tepid mush and chase children off of my lawn, so I can keep their ball.
EH: Right. And I have had people say to me, like there are certain things that are intuitive to them on Tabletop Simulator because of video games, that are not at all intuitive to me.
DTD: It might be a generational thing, too.
EH: So, I think that’s part of it too, that I don’t… None of the keyboard controls are at all intuitive. Like, I have to learn everything, and just feels stupid clunky to me. Like zooming in on the different views.
DTD: I had to put some time into it.
EH: And things that you could just do without even thinking about it, like picking up a handful of cubes or whatever, and putting them somewhere. You’re like, having to make sure that you outline the whole thing, and ugh! I hate it.
DTD: And I accidentally pick up my board and fling it off the table.
EH: And it takes 50% longer. The other thing I realized for playtesting is that I really feel like I’m realizing how much of the non-verbal interaction around a game, that I pick up on as a designer, when I am trying to judge whether people are getting it.
DTD: I was going to bring that up.
EH: Or engaged with the game. And I can’t see that on Tabletop Simulator in the same way. Even when I’ve done video alongside. Which some people can’t do, because Steam eats up so much of your computer already and doing video on top of it is like impossible for some people.
DTD: And Tabletopia eats it up.
Next time, between bites of food shoveled into my mouth, Elizabeth and I talk about the popularity Wingspan has encountered on social media. Plus birding, butterflies and a little victorian flower-arranging game.