Welcome to part two of dinner with Wingspan designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Over virtual screens and broadband lines, we each are enjoying an Ethiopian feast of
extraordinary quite ordinary proportions. In this episode, we talk about the pastime of birding, game development and board game contests past. So get out those binoculars and read on!
EH: I got a new computer partly because of this stuff.
EH: But so anyway, like if you don’t…if you have video, it’s still not the same. And if you don’t have video. There’s just this whole category of stuff, that I didn’t even realize before this, that I really count on for that gut check of, like, is this working or not?
DTD: I think… I did dinner, one of the very first ones I did was with Matt Leacock. And he told me that when he’s play testing it almost doesn’t matter if the mechanics are working or the game’s broken, or how… All that mattered to him was, “Were the people having fun?” It was all the nonverbal stuff you’re talking about – reactions and excitement. Where’s the high points, where are the low points? Where are the stress points? And he actually, he videotapes people while they are playtesting, just to monitor.
EH: Right, right. I’ve talked to him about that.
DTD: Yeah, their attitude. He told me he’s got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours. It’s just…he’s a machine.
DTD: So, I can kind of get by without completely crashing the game and dumping the table on the floor. But it’s so not my favorite, and I was raised with computers. They were in the house forever.
EH: Yeah, me too. [laughs]
DTD: Oh, very cool. Well, I mean I think just judging from grayness [holding out hair], I think I’ve got a couple years on you.
Let’s just say I have a certain Santa-esque vibe going.
EH: I’m in my late forties. I had an Apple 2e. [laughs]
DTD: That’s, that’s pretty good. I mean, I can… I played with TRS-80s.
DTD: But I had, we had a mainframe in the house when I was…
EH: Oh wow.
DTD: Like before any of these were available. My dad works in computers.
EH: Yeah. My dad was a bench scientist, so he would bring his lab computer home.
DTD: Wow! What kind of science stuff?
DTD: I was neuroscience cell biologist.
A long time ago, in a university far, far away.
EH: Oh, wow.
DTD: In a former life.
EH: Fun stuff.
DTD: Yeah, I’ve… I can’t hold down a job. [laughs] So, were you always into games? Were games always part of the household, and all that stuff?
EH: I mean, yeah, we had a bunch of mass market stuff growing up. We played a lot of Scrabble. We played a lot of Hearts in my house. And Scrabble. Gin Rummy, when I was in high school. And then in college we played a lot, a lot, of games in the house I lived in. So, like Spades every night while we were waiting for people to make dinner. We’d sit around and play Scrabble in these epic games, where everyone’s just doing their homework between turns, so it didn’t really matter how long you thought about your word.
Scrabble is of course a meatloaf like dish made from pork and corn meal, most commonly enjoyed in Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas.
DTD: I miss those days! College was fantastic for that sort of stuff.
EH: So yeah, that kind of stuff. But then I kind of stumbled into hobby games in, like, 2005. So, it’s been a little while.
DTD: Very cool, wow. Yeah, I mean, you could just tell from your designs, that you’ve got a good feel for the different mechanism stuff. Sometimes you, you play a game, and you go, “Yeah, I could sort of tell this person hasn’t played a lot of games.”
EH: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: But Wingspan definitely has…I don’t know how else to describe it other than modern sensibilities. It didn’t feel dated or anything like that. it felt like a modern, researched, hobby board game.
Eric Lang is one of the rock stars of this quirky hobby, having designed classics such as Quarriors, Dice Masters and Blood Rage. Plus, I believe he is the undisputed world champion of “bunny ears.”
Eric – call me. Let’s get Shakshuka.
EH: “OK…” He was like, “I mean that as a compliment!”
DTD: [laughs] That’s very cool.
EH: Just like “stripped down” I think was his point, of not too many bells and whistles, and 15 different systems going on.
DTD: There’s an elegance to it, I know what he’s talking about. To me Mariposa feels like an interesting race game where you can decide to call the race at any point.
Mariposas is a card driven game wherein players migrate their butterflies up the board to goal spaces, but then receive bonuses if they can get the butterflies back to the start before the game ends.
DTD: And I’ve always loved board games where you can kind of dictate your own ending. You can decide, “This is as good as I’m getting, and now I’m going to back off.” Or, “I really need to get more, and I’m going to push it.” and I liked that a lot about Mariposas. I was very excited, I got to play it early at GAMA.
I was lucky enough to try out Mariposas on March 10, 2020. At 11:20AM.
EH: Oh cool.
DTD: The last convention before the world caught fire.
EH: Yeah. That was wild timing.
DTD: It was such a bizarre… I was just talking about it the other day, that to me the pandemic feels like it’s come a full year now. Because GAMA was the last thing I went to, and it was real at GAMA. People were canceling, and people didn’t show, and there was, there was this tension in the air, that nobody knew what was going on. And now they’ve officially announced that the next GAMA, this March, is virtual. So, it’s come full cycle, from a GAMA at the beginning of it, to a GAMA hopefully at the end of it.
DTD: Very weird, very weird. I tend to ramble, I apologize. I warned you, I’m not a good interviewer.
EH: No worries. I gotta eat. So, you know…
DTD: Well, the last interview that I did, I got in trouble because I didn’t let poor Ode eat. I made him talk and talk and talk and talk. Oh man. So, Wingspan comes out, and Wingspan is a hit. And for good or for bad you, I assume you kind of knew immediately that Wingspan was a big hit.
EH: Yeah, I think my first inkling, but even before the sales, before Jamey [Stegmaier] opened up the sales, he started the Facebook group as the place that he was putting pictures everyday, and sort of like stoking the fire. And that started feeling like, “Oh, this… Something might happen, this feels like people are excited!”
DTD: I was going to talk about that. Online, just the presence that Wingspan has on social networks is amazing!
DTD: There’s… I see so much of people showing pictures of birds, and this, and asking questions about the game, and showing combos. I have never seen such a presence of a single game before. I don’t know if it’s indicative of the audience that you’ve hit, that they are more social, talkative audience. Or more indicative of the game just inspiring everybody to just really get into it, but it’s great either way.
EH: I mean, I think that it helps that it has a real world parallel.
EH: Because there’s a whole set of stuff that people post that’s just like real birds, and linking it to Wingspan, right? And I think there’s a set of people, that this is…they’re birders.
EH: They might have played Catan before, but this is like their game.
DTD: You’ve opened the door for them.
EH: But they’re just playing Wingspan.
EH: It’s amazing. See, like there are people who have sent me notes, that they have played Wingspan every day during the pandemic.
DTD: I know some of those people! [laughs]
EH: It blows my mind!
DTD: That’s so cool.
EH: I’m lucky if I can play board games a couple days a week.
DTD: I recommend retirement. It really… You get so many games played. The pay is terrible, and the benefits are not good.
EH: You have to have people to play them with…
DTD: Well, see I have, I have a college son, who has moved home during the pandemic. So, I lucked out there, and he likes games.
EH: My spouse is happy to play games, but not every day.
DTD: Yeah, I bullied my wife into playing every day. It’s not going great, but it’s kind of working. [laughs] So, I would not go so far as to call myself a “birder”, but I am a retired veterinarian, and I worked with birds somewhat. And I certainly, I can recognize my fair share, and I can happily spend the day watching them. But I have several friends who are hardcore birders.
Merry Christmas, Tomas.
DTD: And I get pictures and stories from them, and they are the people that I’ve sent copies of Wingspan to, of course. So, would you call yourself a hardcore birder? I guess the definitive question is, what is your number?
For birders, the approved term for people who enjoy the sport of bird watching, a person’s “number” is the documented number of different bird species they have personally observed. I know this from a combination of my good friend Tomas, the book and the movie adaptation of The Big Year. I highly recommend all three.
DTD: Question answered. [laughs]
EH: I mean, so like, it depends what circles you’re in, whether that is…like, to some people that would be super hard core, and to some people that is not a very high number. So, I don’t know whether I count.
DTD: Just North American birds? Or is your 748 include like a trip to Belize, or a weird island, or things like that?
I have no idea why I spontaneously blurted out “Belize”. I assume they have interesting birds there, but I have no real evidence. Apparently under pressure my brain just goes to Belize.
EH: So, yeah, it’s a lot of Central America.
EH: And it’s some Morocco, Germany, England…
DTD: Oh nice! Well. Let me say, when the pandemic is over, I own a place in Napa Valley, which is one of the raptor centers of the US. We’ve got turkey vultures and bald eagles and golden eagles and all that good stuff. You are…you are welcome to Birdwatch.
EH: Well, thank you!
DTD: Also, turkeys, but they’re really not hard to find, or fun to watch. Those are giant dinosaurs, they’re really evil birds.
EH: I love turkeys!
DTD: Oh, wild turkeys are crazy. At the Napa place, It’s kind of quiet. It’s up on a hill. It’s in the woods, but we have pileated woodpeckers, and I absolutely love just watching them slam their head repeatedly against the oak trees. That bright red head, that’s… They are so impressive.
There have been some really interesting papers about how woodpeckers can do this trick without concussing themselves into oblivion. Their tiny brain and head padding is a feat of engineering.
EH: They really are.
DTD: Man. So have you made trips just for the birds?
EH: I would say we pick places that we want to go more generally. But then once we’re in a general area, we definitely will go to certain locations because of the birds.
DTD: That is awesome.
EH: So, like, we went to Morocco a few years ago, just because we wanted to go visit my husband’s uncle in England, and we were like “Oh, it’ll be warmer in Morocco lets go there, too. In the winter.”
DTD: Well, anywhere’s warmer…
EH: [laughs] I am from Florida originally, so my main drive in the winter, is like I have to go somewhere warmer than where I am right now. Um, so like once we were there, we sort of looked at eBird, and figured out interesting places to go. One of the places we ended up going is this place where there’s an endangered bald ibis.
EH: And it turned out to be, like, the most fantastic part of our trip. We stayed at this little place that had like these bedouin tents that you could stay in. And this guy who works there as a guide, we hired him to go take us up to see the ibis. We ended up hanging out with him for the next week, just as friends.
DTD: That is awesome!
EH: Making music with his group of friends, and going to visit his sister up in the mountains.
DTD: Those are the best trips!
EH: Yeah, right! And it all came just because, like, he was excited to show us these birds, we were excited to go see them.
DTD: It’s very cool.
EH: We end up going to super interesting places, and meeting interesting people because of the birds. And so, like we don’t do it only because we’re crazy birders, but also just because, like, the places that are bird hot spots, are just cool places to go.
DTD: That’s a bonus. Yeah. That is awesome. I know a couple of people who’ve done their trips, specifically because there is a list of birds they want to see.
DTD: It’s something to fall on, when you go anywhere. It’s like, “Well. There’s gotta be something here. Let’s see who flies around this area.” That is very cool. When I was in school I worked for a time at the California Raptor Center. Was a rescue center for Raptors. And it was, it was really fun. I got to handle, and do procedures, and (this was veterinary school, so…) Doing all sorts of neat things on eagles and kestrels and, you know, kites and all the weird birds. I remember one funny story; they had a vulture named Balzac. Lived at the Raptor Center, and he was a resident, because he couldn’t be released. He had a bum wing. And vultures have such an incredible sense of smell.
EH: Yeah. One of them apparently, yeah. I forget if it’s the black vultures, or…
DTD: Yeah, this was, I think this was the standard turkey buzzard vultures, our West Coast vulture.
EH: Yeah, apparently the other ones just follow the ones that can smell around, and I forget which way it is.
DTD: Really? I think that’s, I think that’s me in the board game world. I think I just follow everyone else around. I am not important, but I definitely can point to who is.
EH: [laughs] Anyway, sorry to interrupt, so they have a good sense of smell…
DTD: No, no, I don’t have straight…but you know, my train of consciousness has a lot of switch plates on it.
DTD: So, they really have a strong sense of smell. And this particular vulture got to know its handler, its keeper, who cleaned the cage and fed him really well. And was really nasty to everybody else. So, when she left the Raptor Center, the bird wouldn’t eat. So, she basically mailed the Raptor Center, on a regular basis, dirty laundry. So, her dirty clothes came in a care package, and whoever was taking care of Balzac would put on her old T-Shirts.
EH: Oh my gosh. Wow.
DTD: Apparently, she would get cheap clothes, go to the gym, and then mail them to the Raptor Center. And so, you just put on this, whatever. And you would…[phone rings]
DTD: My fault. [reaching] You’d put on this dirty clothes, and you’d go feed the birds, and Balzac thought you were the most wonderful person in the world when you were wearing it. I always thought that was fascinating with those guys. Of course, they do all sorts of incredibly rude and mean things if they don’t like you, so… They’re such impressive animals, the large raptors they’re just incredible up close.
EH: My brother lives in Boise. There’s a Raptor Center there. I don’t know, they’re doing California Condor breeding there, and reintroduction, and those things are enormous.
DTD: They are.
EH: Oh my God.
DTD: You see one every once in a while where I am.
EH: Do you? I’ve never seen one. I’ve tried before.
DTD: But they’re so high, and they’re just drifting around, lazily so… They look like a vulture, they look like a buzzard. But then you, you kind of get this impression as they’re banking, and they’re coming that they’re too big, and shaped a little weird.
DTD: Oh, it’s awesome stuff. So, after Wingspan, where do you go next? Did you already have this…
DTD: You knew this question was coming, you know? So, you’ve made Wingspan, and it did great. Did you have something already cooking, while Wingspan was in production?
EH: Um. I’m trying to remember. So, we finished up, and send it off to the printer in early 2018. I don’t remember if I was working on something, or if I… I think I might have just taken a break for a little while at that point.
EH: And so, the next thing that got published, that I worked on, was Tussie Mussie, which happened that summer. So it wasn’t that long a break. So, during GenCan’t, which is a little event that happens for people who can’t come to GenCon.
EH: They always have a design contest. That year it was sponsored by Button Shy, who specializes in 18 card games.
DTD: I had read this connection with Tussie Mussie, and the contest, so I was really curious what the story was.
EH: So, I heard about the contest and decided to enter and the due date was like a month later. I just, I don’t know, I threw it together, and threw my hat in the ring.
EH: I had just… I forget, which contest it was now, which is fine, because I won’t talk smack about anyone.
EH: But there had just been a contest that had, like, I don’t know… They narrowed it down to some number of finalists, and none of them were women, And it pissed me off. And I was like, “I’m entering every contest from now on.”
DTD: That’s awesome.
EH: So yeah, so that was like the extra little push to get me to do this 18-card game. Also, working on an 18-card game is delightful, after having worked on 170. So there was that.
DTD: Wingspan had one or two cards. And you keep just adding more and more cards to it. Where’s our 18 card Wingspan?
EH: Right, right? That would be fun to think about.
DTD: Wow. So, Tussie Mussie, did you know all the history behind that while you were… Well, you said it was like a month of design work for you, but I found the Victorian flower arranging and the messaging and all that absolutely fascinating. A friend of mine actually came over with it, and said, “You have to play this, and let me tell you about it.” And told me the whole story. And I thought it was just incredible. And it’s, it’s such a neat back and forth tug of war, little card game. It’s very well done. I’m not usually a fan of the micro deck games. Love Letter was not my favorite. I mean, it’s neat. And I can appreciate it, but I don’t pick to play it, usually.
EH: Thank you! Yeah, me neither. I mean, Tussie Mussie is not the kind of game actually, that I would normally choose to play.
EH: But it was a fun little design exercise, and I’m very happy with how it came out, for what it is, right?
EH: It’s just a little social like… “I know that you know that I want those… And so are you…”
DTD: A ha HA! [laughs]
DTD: I love those.
And so we take another intermission to chew and swallow some delightful Wot and Tibbs. Next time, Elizabeth talks about the early design decisions behind Wingspan and Mariposas, the eternal debate over whether you can create a game that you inherently don’t enjoy playing, and of course … gardening! Happy Holidays everyone!