WE BEGIN BY ANGLING a lamp toward the wall, allowing just the perfect amount of warm light to fall on the table. Windows are flung open, inviting the night air inside. Then, the careful act of removing each bag, box, and card. We fill clear, shallow bowls with small pastel eggs—easily mistaken for Cadburys at first glance. Other bowls brim with cardboard tokens. And as I neatly unfold each player’s board, the kitchen table fills with forests, fields, and streams. The night dissolves into swirls of pastel feathers spread across the tabletop as we deal the first round of cards.
After more than a year of playing Wingspan, this bird-themed board game is still as enchanting as ever. The objective is for players to create their own wildlife preserves by placing a series of bird cards on a board consisting of three different habitats: forest, prairie, and wetland. Birds are placed based in the habitats where they are most likely to frequent in real life. Players must acquire the necessary combination of fish, berries, mice, wheat, or worm tokens to feed each of their birds. These actions are simple, almost meditative. Charming, even. On any given turn, a player has four options: play a new bird, gain food, lay eggs, or draw new cards. The endless combinations of these actions allow the game to feel both familiar and novel even after several rounds. Wingspan isn’t just about scoring points. With its intricate hand-painted illustrations, the game feels like an exercise in aesthetic value. I quickly discovered that curating a visually pleasing board full of unique bird cards is as rewarding as totaling their point value. Since its release in 2019, Wingspan has gained unusual levels of popularity in the gaming world. As one of the many players drawn in by the concept, I was curious about how the inclusion of nature in a popular board game might foster a greater connection to the natural world. So, I called up Elizabeth Hargrave, the game’s creator.
An avid birder, Hargrave has always had an appreciation for time spent outdoors. Her wooded childhood home hosted an array of bird-feeders, and from the beginning, her life was intertwined with the lives of those many feathered visitors. But it wasn’t until a trip to Costa Rica that she truly embraced the idea of being a birder. “You know, there are all these milestones. You get some binoculars that you share with your spouse and then you reach the point of, no, you each really both need your own binoculars,” she laughed, describing her transition from casual nature hobbies to the strong passion she feels today.
She said her initial inspiration for Wingspan came from both a love for board games and a frustration over their typical topics and themes. From battling enemies to settling lands, the trends of popular games have long focused on economic and colonialist ideas, and a quick review of ranking sites reveals descriptions filled with terms like “grow industries,” “vanquish monsters,” and “build empires.” Hargrave found herself growing tired of these topics. She wanted to create a game that matched her interests, particularly in bird-watching.
Today, Wingspan sits at the 25th spot on BoardGameGeek’s ratings—a surprisingly high ranking for a game whose description—Attract a beautiful and diverse collection of birds to your wildlife preserve—decidedly lacks any terms of conquest. Wingspan’s enduring popularity seems to affirm something board game producers have long been missing: a widespread interest in games that portray natural processes and decenter human impacts. Indeed, games that center nature have seen a surge in the last few years. “I don’t think I can take credit for all these new games.” Hargrave said. “Considering the timing, I think people were probably working on them even before Wingspan came out. But I do think that Wingspan may have made some publishers more open to signing games with themes about nature.”
She acknowledges that it has long been assumed that the typical board game crowd—folks who may spend more time indoors at summer game conventions than, say, camping—don’t much resonate with games centered on nature. “Of course, that’s fine, but I think it may have led people to sort of underestimate the level of interest in this set of themes.” Hargrave expressed her surprise at her success. “I remember when Wingspan was about to come out, and I heard an interview with the publisher where he said their minimum print run is 10,000 games, which seemed high to me. And now we’re approaching 2 million.”
Hargrave credits Wingspan’s casual scientific focus as a major contributor to its success. The cards feature factual tidbits about the different species that can be absorbed without being central to the gameplay. “The intention was always to design a game where you don’t have to actually remember any of the information about the birds to play well,” Hargrave explained. “But you might pick it up anyway as you go along.” She’s incorporated this method into her other games as well, when looking at mushrooms, monarchs, and even genetics. (Her game The Fox Experiment was inspired by geneticists in Siberia who decided to try to replicate the domestication of dogs—but with foxes.) Through this subtle mode of education, Wingspan is shaping how some people connect with the world around them. “It’s amazing to me. I’ve heard over and over from people that they have seen birds in the wild and they actually knew what they were because they played enough Wingspan to remember.”
Hargrave also noted how Wingspan has spurred a push toward greater sustainability in the actual construction of some board games, as manufacturers are increasingly focused on making the physical product more sustainable. Wingspan’s publisher, Stonemaier Games, has made some thoughtful changes to the game’s physicality in newer editions—replacing plastic eggs and holding trays with wood or other natural fibers. Hargrave hopes this shift away from plastic will spread throughout the gaming industry.
At the end of a summer filled with many nights of playing Wingspan, I’m sitting on a park bench watching a parade of people walking their dogs or biking along the path. A rustle in a nearby tree brings my attention to a blur of black and red feathers. That’s a red-winged blackbird, like from Wingspan! I realize the irony of my statement as soon as I say it. But I never would have known the name so quickly if it wasn’t one of my favorite bird cards, with its special ability to gain an extra egg and tuck cards for more points. I picture the painting on the card—the handsome bird perched on a cattail—as I watch the actual bird hop between branches. I stay that way, eyes locked on the vibrant red patch of feathers, until it flies off overhead.