Not So Angry Birds: The Ornithology-Inspired Board Game 'Wingspan'

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 9, 2020 8:27 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With families around the country staying at home, one go-to way to pass the time - play a board game. And there's a game that came out last year that won praise for being fun and for its lessons about the natural world. It's called Wingspan. And as Emily Kwong from NPR's Short Wave podcast reports, it's part of a growing trend in science-inspired board games.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: OK. So here's the basic premise of Wingspan. You are playing a bird enthusiast, trying to attract birds to your network of wildlife preserves. And in the game, the birds are represented through 170 beautifully illustrated cards, packed with science-backed bird data - diet, nest type, habitat - and you use this information to play the game, which is exactly what bird watcher Elizabeth Hargrave had in mind when she made it.

Hi.

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Hi. Come in.

KWONG: How are you, Elizabeth? Nice to meet you.

HARGRAVE: Good. How are you?

KWONG: I'm Emily Kwong.

I went to visit her a few months ago at her home in Maryland, a place festooned by nature inside and out. There's blueberry bushes out front and a birdbath outback. Elizabeth is a career health policy consultant. She and her husband Matt Cohen got seriously into bird-watching after a trip to Costa Rica.

HARGRAVE: I love all the water birds. I grew up in Florida, so I like the big wading birds, and they're easy to see (laughter).

KWONG: Their other hobby is playing board games. And in 2014, Elizabeth's game group had a conversation that changed her life. They were talking about how much they loved the mechanics of board games - dice rolling, collecting items - but the themes were kind of repetitive.

HARGRAVE: There's a lot of games about castles and about trains and about space, and I'm just, like, not excited about those things. So...

KWONG: And Matt said, you know, there should be a board game about birds.

HARGRAVE: And my brain just sort of latched onto that and started thinking about it. And I was like, I could make that game.

KWONG: So Elizabeth broke out her trusted Sibley field guides and started making bird cards, trying to represent the rules of ecology as board game mechanics in the same way, let's say, you build settlements in Catan.

HARGRAVE: Most board games have resources in them that are, like, wood and ore and stone. And I was like, what would the resources be if this wasn't a game about humans, if it was, like, a game about birds instead? And so the resources are the things that the birds eat.

KWONG: In the past five or six years, there's been a boom in STEM-powered board games. We now have Evolution, Terraforming Mars, Cytosis and Tesla Versus Edison - both published by the science-y (ph) game company Genius Games. And for Elizabeth, this signals a growing appetite for board games exploring a greater diversity of themes from a greater diversity of designers.

HARGRAVE: And I think that's happening more and more as publishers realize that it's not as risky as they may have thought it was.

KWONG: And while Elizabeth is not a scientist, her game is kind of a quiet lesson in ecology, at least that was Angela Chuang's impression. She's a lecturer at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville and, while reviewing the game for Science magazine, noticed something about how the bird cards complemented one another.

ANGELA CHUANG: You kind of start off with a completely blank nature preserve, and you're trying to attract these birds into your preserve one at a time. So, like, you know, the order actually really matters, and you might get a different community depending on who gets there first.

KWONG: So in Wingspan, the first bird cards you place in your nature preserve impacts other bird cards in the future, and that is a real concept in ecology known as the priority effect.

CHUANG: That states, like, you know, the order in which species arrive to a new habitat can actually dictate the way that community structures itself.

KWONG: So Elizabeth Hargrave, while not an ornithologist, by sticking to the facts when it came to bird behavior, ended up modeling some of the inner workings of ecosystems. When Wingspan came out last year, her hope was simply to get birders into board gaming and board gamers into birding.

HARGRAVE: But what I hadn't really thought about is that there's this set of people who are already birders and board gamers, and they lost it (laughter).

KWONG: They're not the only ones. To date, Wingspan has sold over 300,000 copies.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Kwong.

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