Board Game for Bird-Brains

How Elizabeth Hargrave turned a passion for ornithology and spreadsheets into a popular game about birds.

After playing too many games that didn’t match her interests, Elizabeth Hargrave, the creator of Wingspan, decided to make one: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had Race for the Galaxy but with birds?”

From The New York Times

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The roseate spoonbill is roughly the size of a great blue heron, with the pink plumage of a flamingo and a giant spoon-shaped bill — “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close,” according to the Audubon Guide to North American birds. It is Elizabeth Hargrave’s favorite bird.

“Crazy bills get me,” she said on a recent sunny Saturday. Ms. Hargrave, a health-policy consultant in Silver Spring, Md., is an avid birder, and her favorite local winter birding spot is the Lake Artemesia Natural Area. Fringed with woods, the lake is artificial, excavated during the construction of Washington’s Green Line in the 1970s; in those days, the area was known as Lake Metro.

Setting out on a trail around the lake, bird guide close at hand, Ms. Hargrave had barely set up her scope when she spotted another species of her beloved crazy-billed birds: “Oh, fun!” She’d caught two northern shovelers, their beaks submerged, trawling for invertebrates. “There are diving ducks and dabbling ducks,” she said. “The northern shovelers are dabblers.”

Ms. Hargrave is more diver than dabbler. A spreadsheet geek with a master’s degree in public affairs, she spent more than a decade as a policy analyst with NORC at the University of Chicago. There, she studied, among other things, prescription drug trends for the report to Congress by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. She is now self-employed.

“I came for the social policy, wanting to help people,” she said. “But then, working in the field, I realized how much I also enjoy the crunchy analytics.”

And in her spare time, she’s been crossbreeding her analytics skills and her birding hobby to hatch something new: a board game, her first ever, about … birds. In “Wingspan,” published Friday by Stonemaier Games, players assign birds with various powers — represented by 170 illustrated cards, hand-drawn by two artists, Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo — to wetland, grassland and forest habitats.

Aiming to design a game with scientific integrity, Ms. Hargrave pulled data on North American birds from eBird, a citizen-science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She also made use of the lab’s All About Birdswebsite, as well as Audubon’s online guide.

Then she built a spreadsheet. At its most extreme, it ran five hundred and ninety six rows by nearly one hundred columns — sorting, for instance, by order, class, genus, habitat, wingspan, nest type, eggs, food and red-list status. (Endangered birds confer special powers.)

Within the spreadsheet tool, Ms. Hargrave embedded formulas calibrating the score for each bird as the sum of various assets, such as the value of its eggs. What hooked Jamey Stegmaier, president of Stonemaier Games, was Ms. Hargrave’s wonkish ability to strike a fine balance, using so many cards, between the two driving components of game design: mathematics and psychology, with the latter taking precedence. “The key for me wasn’t the birds, but the satisfying feeling of collecting beautiful things,”

 

 

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