Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Elizabeth Hargrave, the designer of Wingspan and the upcoming Tussie-Mussie. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Elizabeth! Before we talk about your designs, let's talk about what kind of games you like to play. What would you say are your favorite board games to play? Do you have any favorite designers or mechanisms?
It’s so hard to pick favorites. I often say that I’m happy to play almost anything, but it’s not entirely true: I can’t stand social deduction games and games with a lot of take-that or aggressive area control. Over the years the two games that probably have hit my table the most are Race for the Galaxy and Castles of Burgundy.
Lately I’ve been working to get my friends’ kids gaming, so I’ve been playing a lot of things like Kingdomino, Splendor, Jaipur, and Jamaica. My sweet spot is heavier than that, but I’m happy to be getting these girls hooked on board games.
What catalyzed your transition from playing board games to designing them?
I can trace it back to a single conversation with some friends. I think it was after a game of Carcassonne, which does absolutely zero for me theme-wise. We were all asking, “why are there no games about things we’re actually interested in?” So I decided to make one.
Can you tell me what your playtesting process is like? What feedback are you looking for? How does it help shape your designs?
I’m really fortunate that there’s a critical mass of designers here in the Washington DC area, with some people who have really put energy into making regular playtesting events happen. I have a standing Wednesday afternoon playtesting date with Matthew O’Malley and whoever else we can rope in on a weekday afternoon. Then I’m part of a couple of larger groups that meet monthly. Being on a regular schedule is so helpful to keep moving forward.
For me, half of playtesting is feeling out the big picture: are the mechanics and the theme working together to create something that clicks, at a weight that makes sense for what it is? Is there a feeling of progression? Could it be more streamlined? And the other half is much more in the weeds: are there individual things that don’t make sense, that feel unbalanced, that are tedious?
What feedback I’m looking for can really depend on what stage a game is at. A lot of times most of the feedback I need comes from watching the game be played: you often just can tell what’s working and what’s not. If I’m working on one piece of the gameplay, I might ask very specific questions. Sometimes I just ask people what I should definitely keep and what feels like it needs more work, and see where the conversation goes from there.
Your first two published game designs -- Tussie-Mussie and Wingspan -- both have very nature-focused themes, being about flowers and birds, respectively. Do you design with theme in mind first? What about these nature themes speaks to you?
Oh definitely theme first. I’m a huge nature nerd, so those are just the themes that occur to me.
Tell us a bit about Tussie-Mussie and how it plays. (Editor’s Note: Button Shy Games will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for Tussie-Mussie in May.)
Tussie-Mussie is an 18-card game that I built around the Victorian fad of flower language – people assigned meaning to different flowers. The main mechanic in the game is a variation on I-split-you-choose: you offer the person next to you two flowers, but one is face-up and one is face-down. They have to decide which one to keep and which one to give back to you. The two flowers also might have very different values for you and the person you’re offering to, because a lot of the scoring is dependent on the other flowers you collect. So there can be a lot of interesting, tough decisions just around that little two-card interaction.
Tussie-Mussie won the 2018 Button Shy - GenCan't Design contest. How long did you work on it before submitting it? What made you decide to enter the contest?
The Gen Can’t contest was announced not long after I had gotten all worked up about the contest that Gabe Barrett ran for Board Game Design Lab. If I recall correctly there were fifty games in the second round, and only one was by a female designer. It turns out that this was roughly proportionate to the entries, so I’m not accusing that particular contest of any bias. But it’s a low enough number that I think people in this industry should be thinking much harder about why there are so few women designing board games, and what could be done to change that.
So I decided to enter the Button Shy contest fueled almost entirely by my annoyance over the BGDL statistics. I literally did not start thinking about Tussie-Mussie until the GenCan't contest was announced. Entries were due about a month later so I knew I had to keep it super simple. It clicked pretty quickly.
For anyone unfamiliar with Wingspan, give us the pitch right now. Who do you think will enjoy it? How heavy is it? What's the ideal player count?
Wingspan is a card-based engine-building game about bringing birds into a nature preserve. Each bird that you bring into your preserve makes your future turns more powerful.
It’s been fun to see people who are skeptical about the theme be won over by the gameplay. But I’ve also heard from several people whose partners are reluctant gamers, but loving Wingspan because of the theme. It’s ultimately heavier than a gateway game, but because your first several turns are extremely simple before your engine gets going, it’s quite teachable to people who don’t have a lot of experience with board games.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend learning the game with 5 players, just because your first game will probably be a little longer than you’d like. But once everyone’s up to speed it really does work well at the full range from 2-5 players.
In Wingspan, the theme really comes through in how the birds work. How much of the attention to detail in regards to the bird types was there from the beginning, and how much evolved through development?
Yes, the whole inspiration was thinking about how there are economic systems in the natural world just as much as the human world. So there were always specific birds that needed specific food and habitats, from my very first hand-written cards. The powers came much later.
The game has 170 unique bird cards. Were they always unique? Was it hard to make that many unique cards?
They were always unique but there weren’t always so many cards. Jamey definitely pushed me to make the deck bigger after he signed the game, and it really gives Wingspan an amazing feeling. Even with a 5-player game, you’re not going to go through all 170 cards.
Making such a big deck was difficult in the obvious ways, like researching and thinking of the powers, but also in some less obvious ways. Because I was trying to stick to the actual characteristics of actual birds, it took quite a bit of work to keep the deck distributed evenly across habitats and nests and to keep the food needs reasonably distributed. A lot of birds in the world just eat bugs, but a game where most of the birds just eat bugs would be a lot less interesting.
Physically prototyping 170 cards is no joke either. Just printing and cutting that many cards is a chore. For smaller games I usually recommend people just use printer paper in sleeves, but at some point I stopped sleeving and just printed on card stock. Even when only a few cards changed in a revision, it was hard just to find those cards and swap them out in a deck this big!
What is your favorite real life bird?
The Roseate Spoonbill. I mean, look at that thing.
Wingspan was published by Stonemaier Games. Were they the first publisher you pitched it to? How did you connect with them?
I spent a lot of time researching publishers and trying to think about who would be a good fit to take a chance on this theme. I pitched to three different publishers at GenCon 2016. At the time, Stonemaier had a set of GenCon events for pitches: you could just go online and get a ticket for a half-hour meeting without telling them what your game was up-front. With the other publishers it was a more direct interaction of emailing them, explaining the game, and asking for a meeting, which I think is more normal.
In the first print run of Wingspan, there are two misprinted cards that can affect gameplay. How significant are the misprints, and would you take those cards out or play with them as is? (Editor’s Note: Stonemaier Games addresses the issue here, stating they will print an update pack at their expense.)
The rodentologist card is super easy to fix: it’s printed as birds that ONLY eat rodents, but should be birds that EVER eat rodents. I wouldn’t play with that card as printed, it would be extremely frustrating. I crossed “only” out on my copy but I know that makes some people crazy. There are enough bonus cards that you could just leave it out of the game for now.
There’s one bird that’s off by a point. I don’t think it really affects gameplay that much, out of that many birds. As I said I find it really annoying to find a single card in the deck, so I’ll probably just leave mine in for now.
Are you currently working on any other designs? If so, are there any details you can give us about them?
I have a game that I’m currently pitching about migrating monarch butterflies. I have another that's not done yet, based on a Russian experiment that bred foxes into domesticated dogs. I have some others that are more in a brainstorming phase. And I’m working on Wingspan expansions!
You were recently traveling in Belize. What were some of the highlights of your trip?
I spent the first week volunteering with some scientists who are tracking stingray and shark populations. We were living on a tiny island on the coral reef there and going out in a boat every day catching sharks and stingrays, taking measurements, and tagging them.
And we crossed the border to Guatemala to go to some of the Mayan ruins. They're amazing not just as remnants of other civilizations, but also a fantastic place to see wildlife. We spent three days camping at Yaxha, watching the sunset from the top of a pyramid every night, with howler monkeys screaming all around us. And lots and lots of birds.