For four straight days in August, Elizabeth Hargrave did little else but meet and chat with gaggles of board gamers who all wanted to discuss one thing: Wingspan. Hargrave was in Indianapolis for Gen Con, the largest tabletop-gaming convention in North America, where the hit board game—her first as a designer—was a hot topic.
Like a rare warbler passing through during spring migration, Wingspan generated immediate buzz upon its release this past spring. It has sold at a mad pace ever since, and over the summer it won Germany’s Kennerspiel des Jahres, or expert game of the year—arguably the world’s most prestigious award for board games.
But of all the accolades the game has received, it was what Hargrave heard from a quartet of Gen Con visitors that particularly delighted her. They said they were dedicated birders but, before playing Wingspan just a few months earlier, hadn't ventured beyond mainstream games. “And then, by August, here they were at Gen Con with 80,000 people playing board games,” she says. It’s exactly the kind of cross-pollination that Hargrave, an avid gamer and birder, hoped her creation would inspire between hobbies she loves.
Now, after a year of high-profile headlines and soaring acclaim, Hargrave is pushing the game even further. On November 22, publisher Stonemaier Games will release the first of several planned expansions of Wingspan. While the original is all about North America’s avifauna, Wingspan European Expansion takes players across the Atlantic, where Hargrave says fans have been clamoring for the game to feature local species. The expansion features 81 new bird cards to mix in with the base game, along with a few new bonus cards, more end-of-round goals, and other elements.
Ahead of the expansion’s release, Hargrave and Stonemaier Games gave Audubon magazine an exclusive preview of five new cards. These additions lend new richness to the gameplay, and are sure to grow the flock of Wingspan devotees, in Europe and beyond.
Hargrave says she admires the cleverness of corvids, so she made them some of the strongest birds in Wingspan. Continuing that theme, the expansion’s Eurasian Magpie introduces a new mechanic to the game: powers that trigger at the end of each of the game’s four rounds, rather than every turn, as many of the bird cards allow. This approach let Hargrave introduce powerful abilities that would have been too strong if players could trigger them more frequently.
The Red-backed Shrike also adds a new dimension that was absent in the base game: the ability to take something from another player. It can snatch an invertebrate food token that another player has earned, but the targeted player then gets to pick one of the food items available in the birdfeeder. In play testing, Hargrave says, there were many times when the player whose worm was stolen ended up benefitting, as they gained a food they actually wanted. “Usually people don’t feel too bad about being stolen from when this comes up,” she says.
One criticism some players had of the base game was the overwhelming strength of laying eggs. Each egg laid on a bird is worth one point, and near the end of a game, it often made sense to lay eggs over and over rather than draw cards, gain food, or play a new bird. The Eurasian Nutcracker addresses that criticism by giving players a way to score more points at game's end without laying eggs. It allows a player who has saved seed food tokens to place them on birds in their forest, netting one point for each. The ability also reflects the nutcracker's lifestyle; the birds are prolific seed-cachers, Hargrave notes.
In the original Wingspan, some birds have a power that allows a player to tuck other bird cards underneath themselves. Not only is each of these tucked cards worth one point, but the mechanic is a nod to real-life behaviors: Species that join large flocks can often tuck cards in the game, for example, indicating they are part of a large group; raptors that eat smaller birds also have this tucking ability, signifying they just ate a meal. In the expansion, the Mute Swan card extends this ability, allowing players to tuck cards under up to three birds in the wetland habitat of their player board.
While Hargrave does her best to match card abilities to the real-life bird, sometimes she has to let that realism go in favor of keeping the game fun and balanced. That’s why, rather than doing anything notably dipper-like, the White-throated Dipper card lets players refresh the three face-up birds in the draw tray. This gives players a chance to cycle through more bird cards in search of one they want, whether it fits their strategy, or simply because they like that particular bird. It was as good a reason as any to include a bird Hargrave adores. “I love the way that they bob their tails,” she says. “You’ll see people watching them and they’ll kind of physically mimic the birds when they’re watching them, which I love.”