Welcome back! We are halfway through a delightful Ethiopian feast with game designer Elizabeth Hargrave, only slightly hampered by the necessities of pandemic life. Along with some talk about the development and history of her hit games Wingspan and Mariposas, we also divert into the realms of gardening, birding, and of course, Antarctica.

DTD: So, that kind of begs the question. To make a good game, do you have to love playing that game? And it sounds like no, you can design something intellectually interesting… You know, you can make a proof-of-concept game, and not like that genre. Do you agree with me?

EH: In general, I would say yes, you should like the game. Because in general, you’re going to need to play test it way more. And it will be miserable to play test the game if you do not enjoy playing it.

DTD: Let’s just say it’s less miserable if you like the game.

EH: [laughing] Fair. Fair.

DTD: No, I can’t even begin to appreciate the perseverance of playtesting these games hundreds and hundreds of times, especially if you’ve got more than 18 cards in your game. And you have to play test what happens if the, you know, yellow bellied sapsucker is actually played on the same turn with the Gallus gallus.

OK, I thought that Gallus gallus was the wild turkey, but it turns out it is the red junglefowl, a close relative to the chicken. I’m just going with my original plan and putting up a picture of a turkey. Don’t tell the research department.

The yellow bellied sapsucker is Sphyrapicus varius. Just doesn’t roll of the tongue as well.

EH: Yeah, I was never that specific. I did definitely mark up my cards, to make sure they were all getting played. But it was never… With that many you can’t possibly, be sure to play test what happens for every permutation of…I mean, what would all the permutations of 170 be?

DTD: Let me just pull that right off the top of my…

EH: You can’t do it.

It is a lot. 7 with 306 zeros after it. That’s more than a googol (100 zeros). But not more than a googolplex (one googol zeros). This is how many ways you can mix up the whole deck of 170 cards.

But let’s say that, on average, during Wingspan a player uses 10 cards. All combinations of 10 cards from the 170 card deck would be only 4 quadrillion combinations (15 zeros). This should certainly be testable.

DTD: It’s a lot. I did it for 52 recently, for a piece about probability, and it was it was stupid high.

Less than a googol. Only 67 zeros this time.

EH: Exactly. So yeah, I did not try to literally answer what happens with every possible combination, but I did really try to make sure that all the cards were getting played. I kept track of, if someone kept it, and played it on their board, or if they drew it but then discarded it at some point. And the ones that were getting discarded a lot, I tried to see if there if there was some reason. That kind of thing.

DTD: Oh yeah. Cards that got used versus cards that never used.

EH: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

DTD: What people got excited about. Were there, were there ideas in Wingspan during development that got chucked? Were there things that were exciting early ideas, that just ended up not working?

EH: I mean, it changed a lot over the course of time, for sure.

DTD: Too much to pick out things.

EH: [laughing] I just did a whole hour long talk about this to NYU!

NYU Game Center has a wonderful lecture series, usually streamed live. Elizabeth Hargrave spoke on October 1, 2020.

Go Violets!

DTD: Oh, I’m sorry.

EH: So, I can tell you some of them.

DTD: Oh cool!

EH: Because I had to actually go back and look at some of my Emails and stuff to even remember… Like, I blocked a lot of it out! A lot of it was stuff that got added, actually. Like, the player mat got added after it was signed with Stonemaier [Games].

DTD: So, it was just a card game before that?

EH: It was just a card game. Well, it had poker chips for the eggs. [laughs]

DTD: Oh well, of course. That makes sense. It’s harder for them to come out, but in the long run, they are more durable.

Bad biology joke. My apologies.

EH: They’re round, you know…almost ovoid. Worked a lot on the on the engine building. One thing that came out, was I had this whole set of cards that were like… You had to build your habitats. And you had to start different nesting programs for the different nest types. It was much more like you embodying a park manager, and were buying land, or restoring land, for your park.

DTD: Wow.

EH: As I was playtesting I kept getting feedback from people, that that was the least interesting thing in the game, and people were just all about the birds, and so… You know, between that and playing with different ideas about the engine building, we sort of came up with the player mat, as a way to… OK, you already have all the habitats. You don’t have to buy them.

DTD: Oh, it’s great because it just kind of restricts the actions into just a few choices. Oh, it’s delightful. Well, so… So, when did you start working on Mariposas? When did that one start coming about?

EH: I had made an early draft of that before I finished Wingspan.

DTD: Oh, OK.

EH: But it never really came together.

DTD: Was it also birds originally? Bird migration?

EH: No, it started… It was very specifically inspired by the story of Monarchs.

Monarch butterflies have one of the most fascinating migration habits, especially considering they are small insects. Monarchs travel thousands of miles to central Mexico for the winter, then return in the summer. Interestingly, no single butterfly makes the entire trip; new generations are born along the trip.

DTD: It’s really cool. Yeah.

EH: It’s a super cool phenomenon.

DTD: Oh, insects are so crazy, and what they do. It’s unbelievable that this little nothing can do these super complex things.

I don’t mean to disparage insects; they outnumber us by quite a bit, and I do not wish to be subjugated by our new overlords. Even if they have under a million neurons in their brains. We have at least 10,000-fold more neurons. At least some of us.

EH: Yeah. But yeah, it just never really jelled. And it’s hard for me to work on two different things at once. I find it hard to pick things up and put them back down, and I need to be, like really in the thick of it. So, I kind of shelved it. And then, so after Tussie Mussie, I… Not long after that, there was an announcement from AEG, or right around that time, I think. That they really wanted women to submit games to them. Because they, I think at that point, did not have any women in their catalog.

DTD: Well, hardly anyone did.

EH: Yeah, Point Salad came out since then, so I was not the first woman in their catalog. Yeah, so they put out this call for women designers, and it was due like at the end of November or something, so send them games. So, this was before Wingspan came out.

Molly Johnson is one of the designers in Flatout Games, designers of Point Salad, Truffle Shuffle, and Dollars to Donuts.

Call me, Molly. Let’s get waffles. Not salad. Waffles.

DTD: Really? Oh, I didn’t make that connection. OK. Wow.

EH: And so, I kind of pulled Mariposas off the shelf, and thought that it was conceivable that I could whip it into shape. When I took a look at what I had done, you know a year or two earlier, I had a bunch of ideas about how it, how it would work. And that really came together pretty quickly, once I started working on it again.

DTD: That’s great.

EH: Although there was a lot of trial and error. I started out thinking, “Oh, maybe it could be a bag builder.” And that didn’t work.

DTD: Bad builders are hot. And you know what would be really good – if it had zombies. That would just make it the best.

EH: Yeah, right. And on that one, really the design problem was simplifying and simplifying and simplifying it. And then we added a little bit more. My conception about the decision space when I started working on it, was like… Created way more complexity than I realized, when I did it, and then I had to back off and back off and back off.

DTD: Well, both of your games are unusual for a first time designer, because most of the time, early designers will add more and more and more to their game, and seasoned designers will take away more and more and more from theirs. That’s like the… everybody says it. And both games [Wingspan and Mariposas] have an elegant decision space. They’ve got complexity based on simplicity. There’s not many choices, and before you know it, you really are thinking hard about what you do with your 2 choices.

EH: Yeah, I think, I personally really enjoy that kind of decision, where it’s like, I want to do 2 things, and I can only do one of them, and I have to pick. Not like, there are 20 options! You can do anything!

DTD: [laughs] That’s a euro game isn’t it?

Looking at you, Feast for Odin! Man, I love that game. I just don’t know why.

EH: Yeah, I mean, things have moved in that direction. I mean, I’ll do that sometimes, but my sweet spot is, you know, there’s just, there’s… I want to do more than I can, but I still can’t… I don’t know, I’m botching the way to articulate it.

DTD: But I still really only have a choice between about like 3 things.

EH: Yeah, Yeah, at any given time. And those 3 things might change over time, so that the decisions stay interesting.

DTD: I’ve always… Well, I’ve played board games for a really long time, and I’ve kind of felt that in the early days, and we’re talking 70s and 80s, games were very complex. The whole deal with a board game was they sold better if they had longer rulebooks, more pieces, more complexity. That’s what sold in the 70s. It was Civilization and these big Avalon Hill Games. And over time, games have simplified, and right now, the golden child… the game that everybody wants, every publisher wants, is the elegant, tiny, simple game that just makes people go “wow”.

I know, I am kind of obsessed with this topic.

EH: Yeah.

DTD: So, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that… Because you talked somewhat about some complexity, and then not complexity. I always ask people, do they think I’m out of my mind by saying this?

EH: [laughs] Yeah, I’m in the middle of the latest episode of Ludology; it’s all about all the different kinds of complexity, right? Because there’s sort of, like, they’re asking people to do a lot of arithmetic.

The Ludology podcast is a great forum discussing the deeper questions of game design and game theory. Current hosts are Gil Hova, Scott Rogers, and Emma Larkins.

DTD: Yeah.

EH: There’s asking people to think about how things fit together spatially. There asking people to think many moves ahead. There’s a lot of different kinds of complexity, right?

DTD: Oh, it’s true. It’s crazy.

EH: Yeah, I don’t know. I think with Mariposas, the hex map was part of the reason that… Every decision that you have to make is multiplied by the fact that you can move in any direction, right? I’m telling you, you can move 2 spaces and pick up a bunch of flowers, or you can move 5 spaces and pick up one flower, but that’s like a huge range of places that you can go on the board, between those two, right?

DTD: It is. And it’s kind of a curved board, and you know you’ve got to make it back.

In Mariposas, players use cards to move multiple butterflies from the bottom of the board upwards and right as far as they want, collecting flowers. Bonus points are awarded for making it back before the game ends.

EH: Right, right.

DTD: That was the biggest decision point for me, and I think I talked, I alluded to it a little bit earlier, was that idea of, “When do I turn around?” or “Do I turn around?” You know, is it worth it for me to head back? Do I just go 3 spaces out, and then head back, and then I just sit at home, and I’ll be the happy monarch who never traveled. [laughs]

EH: [laughs]

DTD: Oh, that’s really a delightful one. So, what’s coming next? What’s on the work board, or are you still in vacation phase from Mariposas?

EH: Um, well… The….

DTD: You have the “I can’t tell you” face.

I’ve learned to recognize the look.

EH: Well, and the latest Wingspan expansion, too.

DTD: Oh, Oceania, yes!

Oceania had just come out, but of course, Elizabeth was talking about the unannounced third expansion. I am going to guess it is Wingspan: Brooklyn. Honestly, with Europe, Oceania and North America done, all that is left are South America, Antarctica and Africa. And Brooklyn.

EH: I’m working on the next Wingspan expansion. Although I kind of hit a wall there, and I’m taking a break from that.

DTD: That’s allowed.

EH: It is… I’ve decided.

DTD: I say Antarctica. I’m waiting for the Antarctica expansion. There will be like a 10-card deck. Couple of them are blank.

EH: There’s like 60 birds in Antarctica!

According to the research department, there are 235 known species of animals in Antarctica, 46 of them birds.

DTD: I knew you were gonna correct me.

EH: They might get glommed on to South America or Africa. I don’t know, I need to… I need to do some more reading to figure that out. Part of the problem with the Antarctica birds, is that they’re all water birds.

DTD: Yeah. Or migrated there.

EH: Yeah, I gotta figure that out. I have not figured it out yet.

DTD: I know everybody… I know a lot of people that have gone to Antarctica, some for birding and some not.

EH: Yeah.

DTD: And it’s always through South America. It’s always down Tierra del Fuego. That’s the route. And then you just basically hit the very tip of Antarctica, say you’re there, and then you turn around and come home.

EH: Fair. [laughs] Yeah, that is one destination that, like, has zero appeal. Zero.

DTD: I have not done it. My parents did. And they talked about tiny ships, no comfort, and bad seasickness. And then it’s a little chilly.

EH: Oh, see, you just told me three things that I didn’t even know, that make me less likely to want to do it.  

DTD: This isn’t selling it? This isn’t making it better for you? And they brought home all these pictures of unidentifiable people in large red puffy coats. And they point to one of them and go, “That’s me.”

EH: “There’s a penguin!”

DTD: And penguins everywhere, because they don’t…they don’t care. They think you’re just fine and dandy.

EH: But the trick is, you don’t have to go all the way to Antarctica to see penguins.

DTD: Oh, you can go to the tropics and see lovely penguins. I spent some time in Galapagos, and they’ve got absolutely gorgeous penguins. And it was…it was fascinating because most of the animals in Galapagos really don’t care about people. They don’t run, they don’t hide. They just sit there.

EH: This is what I’ve heard. Pretty amazing.

DTD: Yeah, so you’re told, “Don’t touch anything.” But then they come up to you. Yeah, the boobies come and land on you.

EH: It’s not your fault if they come to you, right?

DTD: They do! In Antarctica, they come to you. No, in Galapagos. So… What was Elizabeth Hargrave doing with herself, before board games came along and imposed their ugly head? What were you doing before you became a BOARD GAME DESIGNER? Those were all capital letters, by the way.

EH: Yeah, I was a health policy consultant. So, I first came to D.C. to work for the federal government and worked for the Department of Health and Human Services, and then I worked on Capitol Hill for a while. And then it’s a very typical D.C. career path to then become a consultant.

DTD: Yes.

EH: Except, a lot of people do it in more of a lobbying sense. But I was doing research, so I am… I did a lot of research for a couple foundations, and a little commission, that are very interested in making the Medicare and Medicaid programs better.

DTD: Cool.

EH: So, I was doing a combination of number crunching stuff, but also a lot of qualitative research. I ran a lot of focus groups and stuff like that. Interviewing people about how things work ,and what needs to be better kind of stuff.

DTD: You seem like the right person for it. You seem interested and passionate, and you definitely know what you’re talking about. I have nothing to add because I know zero about it.

Honesty in journalism.

EH: [laughs]

DTD: I found, I know a lot of people who live in the Maryland area, and it seems to me that if they work for the government, they they talk about their home as D.C., and if they don’t work for the government, they talk about their home as Maryland.

EH: It’s interesting. I usually say D.C. suburbs. I mean, I originally moved to… I lived in D.C. when I first moved here. So that may also impact things.

DTD: So, I was, I was guessing there was government connection in there.

EH: It’s funny when we moved to our neighborhood here in Maryland, it was really amusing to me how many people were like, “Oh where are you moving from?” “Oh, you know, Dupont Circle”, which is right in downtown D.C. and whoever had asked the question would be like, “Oh yeah, we moved here from Dupont Circle 5 years ago.” It’s very typical, like move out to the suburbs…

DTD: There’s a natural migration of people.

EH: Yeah. You want land. We wanted a garden. Like, if we were not gardeners, we might have stayed in the city much longer, then. We wanted some land.

DTD: Oh, I understand. I grew up in New Jersey. And it was suburbs, and things just don’t grow there. You know, I was a kid, and we didn’t grow food. Nobody we knew grow anything. Then I bounced all over the place and ended up in California, where everybody can supply their own food for a year if they wanted to, and I’m absolutely fascinated with the fact that I can grow food in my yard. I mean, this is a foreign concept to me. So, I’m just giggling every summer – “Look what’s growing now!” So, we zucchini and spaghetti squash and hot peppers and…

EH: Nice.

DTD: Yeah, having too much fun with it, I’m like a kid in a candy shop, except it’s the worst candy ever.

Fruit is very tasty, but if you sell it as candy, the consumers will inevitably be disappointed.

EH: We have a persimmon tree.

At this point, Elizabeth showed off a gorgeous orange persimmon. Check out the picture at the start of the post.

DTD: That’s awesome! And that is a cooking persimmon.

EH: No…

Fuyu persimmons are round and squat, and they can be eaten crunchy. Hachiya persimmons have a pointed or elongated shape, and are usually used for baking. They can be eaten raw, but only when really squishy.

DTD: That’s the eating persimmon?

EH: We eat them straight, yeah. Actually, this is our friend’s persimmon. This one is from a tree that is astringent until it’s very, very ripe.

DTD: Yes, cooking persimmons have the pointy bottom.

EH: Yeah, our tree actually is not… Our tree you can eat them crunchy. I still like them mushy.

DTD: I am… I have a Persimmon tree. They’re kind of a decorative tree in California, and not a lot of people eat them. But I love them.

EH: Really?

DTD: I think they’re great. The little squat guys, yeah.

EH: How do people not eat them?

DTD: I don’t know. I call it a giveaway fruit. You know you always have that one neighbor who comes and tries to give you 100 rubarb.

EH: There’s too many of them.

DTD: Yeah!

EH: There’s just too many. It’s like zucchini in the height of zucchini season.

DTD: Oh, zucchini is the worst. That was me. We have bags and bags of frozen shredded zucchini in our freezer. That will probably be there until I move.

A word of advice – if you plant zucchini, don’t do more than 2 plants unless you plan on eating the green devil veg every single day.

Also, my cat Mo is the size of a large zucchini. Just thought you should know.

EH: And what do you do with frozen shredded zucchini? Zucchini bread?

DTD: Zucchini bread, or some variant thereof.

EH: Sneak it into your smoothies or something?

DTD: We could do that, we’ve tried that. The problem I had this year was habanero peppers. I had hundreds and hundreds of habanero peppers.

EH: Wow.

DTD: And I ran out of… “What do I do with these?”

EH: Dry them?

This is actually a very good idea.

DTD: I have not tried drying them, but the prospect scares me. They can be dangerous. I mean, maybe I could get us a Pepper Flake, a seasoning. I should try that.

EH: That’s what I’m thinking, Yeah.

DTD: But, I mean, cooking them or messing with them too much, you have to kind of ventilate the house.

EH: Oh my gosh.

DTD: I went as far as Jamaican pickled bananas and that was a mistake. That one was very bad.

I cannot express how very bad this recipe was. And yet, it tasted exactly as you would predict; Bananas plus vinegar plus habanero. I’m not sure what culinary witchcraft I was expecting, but it was very, very bad.

EH: Really?

DTD: Did not go well, no. No. Jellies jams.

EH: Pretty much.

DTD: Yeah, the city, New Jersey boy has turned into a jelly and jam maker. I’m turning very Martha Stewart.

I say this because the habanero jam was just delightful. No comment on implied jail time.

EH: Nice.

Have a rest, take a bite, take a drink. Come back next time when Elizabeth talks about underrepresentation in board games and social activism. Plus we take a brief foray into “what games are you playing now”.

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