Wingspan: how birds colonized board games

Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave

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Wingspan is a game entirely about birds and it has been a wonderful surprise, being considered one of the hottest titles for 2019[1]. This is the first game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave, published by Stonemaier Games, and will be available in March this year.

In this game, the players take the role of bird enthusiasts (researchers, birdwatchers, and ornithologists) and must discover and attract birds to their wildlife preserves. In board game terms, Wingspan is an engine-building game, that is, a game in which you have to establish an effective system to generate and accumulate points. There are 170 unique bird cards in the game and, as you add them to your nature preserve, they help you do more and more on each subsequent turn. In general, forest birds make you better at getting food, wetland birds help you get more cards, and grassland birds make you better at laying eggs.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Elizabeth Hargrave to understand how ornithology and ecology made their way into a board game. You can read the full interview below.

Interview

Q: To come up with a game based on birds, you must be a birdwatcher or an ornithologist, is that right?

A: Yes, I’m an amateur birder.

Q: When did your interest in birds began?

A: I’ve always been a nature lover and appreciated birds in general when I saw them, the same way I appreciated any other wildlife. I’ve always had a bird field guide and a pair of binoculars around. But I didn’t really start intentionally birding – like, going out with birds as my primary purpose – until maybe 6 or 7 years ago.

Q: What gave you the idea for a bird ecology game?

A: I felt like there were too many games about castles and space, and not enough games about things I’m interested in. So I decided to make a game about something I cared about.

Q: Did you bring into Wingspan some of your experience with birds? Your favorite species, maybe?

A: I tried to get a diverse set of birds from North America into the game, and a lot of the common ones. But some species definitely got a push just because I like them. Roseate spoonbills[2] are only in a tiny corner of North America, but it’s the corner of North America that I grew up in, and I love them, so they’re in. There’s a lot of room with 170 cards – but it’s still only a fraction of all of the species that live in North America[3].

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Wingspan? How does one win in a bird game?

A: You win by having the most points. A lot of your points will come from playing the birds themselves, but you can also get points by laying eggs or by using certain bird powers. And then there are specific goals and bonuses that change from game to game. You might have the “photographer” card that will give you bonus points for birds with colors in their name, or the “falconer” that gives points for predator birds. And then there are shared goals that you can compete for, like having the preserve with the most eggs in it at the end of a round.

To win, you usually have to choose to focus on some of those things over others. And you need to think about how the different powers on the bird cards could help you get there.

Q: The game’s strategy is spun around a lot of ecology. What sort of information have you brought from the real world into Wingspan? Or, better put, how much scientific data have you included in the game?

A: There is a ton of real-world information on each card. Birds get played into certain habitats on your player mat, based on their real-world habitat. And each card’s cost is food, based on some very simplified categories of the food that the birds actually eat. And each bird’s nest type could play into the end-of-round goals.

When I could, I tried to work in real-life bird behavior for the powers on each bird. For example, predator birds go hunting by looking at the top card in the deck: if the bird has a small enough wingspan that the predator could eat it, you get to keep that card and score a point for it. Nest parasites like brown-headed cowbirds get to a lay an egg on another bird’s nest when another player lays eggs. That kind of thing.

And finally, each card has a little factoid on it about the bird, and a very simplified map of which continents it is native to. Those don’t actually come into play on the game, but sometimes they might explain why a bird’s power is what it is.

Q: Do you hope the players will learn something about the birds by playing Wingspan?

A: I hope that it’s a game that you can play primarily as a game, without feeling like you’re supposed to be learning anything… and then maybe accidentally pick some things up along the way. A lot of educational games feel very preachy to me, and that’s not my intention. But I do hope that as players interact with the birds in the game, some of the real-world information that’s there is interesting to them.

Q: Suppose a player is inspired by Wingspan to do some birdwatching of their own. Would you have some tips to offer to this fledgling birder?

A: Find a list of common birds for your area, and look for them right around where you live. Once you have a few birds that you can reliably identify, things get easier.

A pair of binoculars makes a huge difference. You don’t have to spring for a super-expensive pair right away – there are decent starter pairs for the cost of a board game. But it’s incredibly frustrating to try to ID birds without being able to see all their markings.

Find a local birding club, or hit up a birder friend – most people are happy to share their knowledge, and to have you along as an extra pair of eyes. I once caused a major freak-out in a group of more-knowledgeable birders by saying “hey, what’s that one?” – it turned out to be a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful bird that very rarely visits our area.

Download the eBird[4] app and keep lists of the birds you see. If you’re anything like me, growing your personal list will be addictive – but you’ll also be contributing to a worldwide database that ornithologists use to track trends in bird populations.

Q: Do you think ultimately Wingspan can help with bird conservation efforts?

A: As much as the industry is growing, board games are still a pretty niche hobby. But every little bit helps! I have definitely heard from gamers who have started paying attention to birds in real life because of Wingspan.

Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from Wingspan?

A: I always set out to make it a fun game first, about something that I love. If you have fun playing Wingspan, my mission is accomplished. If you can see why people love birds – or get interested in them yourself – after playing, even better.


ABOUT THE TEAM

This is the first published game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Bird art is by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, while art for the player mats and birdhouse dice tower is by Beth Sobel. Christine Santana did the graphic design. David Studley designed the solo version of the game, with help from the Automa team. Jamey Stegmaier managed the whole team, and worked with Elizabeth to develop the gameplay.


[1] McLaughlin, S. 2019. Birds star in one of this year’s hottest board games. National Audubon Society. Available from: https://www.audubon.org/news/birds-star-one-years-hottest-board-games (Date of access: 19/Feb/2019).

[2] Platalea ajaja Linnaeus, 1758 (family Threskiornithidae).

[3] There are circa 760 bird species that breed in the USA and Canada, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/home).

[4] eBird (https://ebird.org/home) is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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Over(bird)watch

Barbara M. Tomotani1 & Rodrigo B. Salvador2

1 Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Wageningen, The Netherlands. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; Groningen, The Netherlands. Email: babi.mt (at) gmail (dot) com

2 Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany. Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany. Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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The video game Overwatch is Blizzard Entertainment’s new hit, released on May 2016 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the game, the so-called “heroes” spend most of their time trying to kill each other to secure a payload. While the morals of these self-proclaimed heroes are rather open to debate, one of them at least has some redeeming personality traits. The hero Bastion is a nature-loving animal-friend robot. Actually, the single animal to appear in the whole game (besides the hominids, of course) is Bastion’s pet bird, called Ganymede (Fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Left: Bastion with Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. Right: Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from “Bastion Reference Kit” (official Overwatch website).

Ganymede’s design is an original creation of Blizzard’s artists, although it resembles in shape and size a northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Linnaeus, 1758), a common species in Canada and the USA. Cardinals usually have a red plumage (Fig. 2A), but there are rare naturally occurring yellow mutants, called xanthochroic cardinals (Fig. 2B). Ganymede also has a white area around its eyes, a trait not seen in cardinals, but well-known from species of the genus Zosterops (commonly known as “white-eyes”; Fig. 2C), which live in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and Australasia.

bastion-fig-2Figure 2. Left: A male northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis. Photo by Stephen Wolfe (2011); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. Center: A xanthochroic northern cardinal. Photo by Jim McCormac (2013), extracted from “Ohio Birds and Biodiversity”. Right: A Japanese white-eye, Zosterops japonicas (Temminck & Schlegel, 1847). Photo by Laitche (2016); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Despite being based in an American species, Ganymede seems to be native to European forests. The bird appears on its home forest in the animated short The Last Bastion (from August 2016), which takes place in the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. There is no bird here in Stuttgart that looks like Ganymede (one of us lives here, by the way). Actually, in the whole European bird fauna, only the golden oriole, Oriolus oriolus (Linnaeus, 1758), comes close to it, with its yellow color and dark horizontal stripe across the eyes (Fig. 3). However, its slenderer body shape, thinner beak and lack of crest are all very different from Ganymede.

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Figure 3. A male golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus). Photo by Pawel Ryszawa (2008); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, in the Eichenwalde stage (which, in the game’s lore, is located nearby Stuttgart), there is a painting resting above the hunting lodge’s fireplace (Fig. 4). This painting shows four local bird species; one of them is the “Ganymede species”, while the others seem to be actual species: the Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus (Linnaeus, 1758)) and two titmice. The latter are American species and seem to represent the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor (Linnaeus, 1766)), even though one of them is more bluish in color.

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Figure 4. Fireplace of the hunting lodge in the Eichenwalde stage, with close-up of the painting. Screenshots from the game.

As we pointed out before, Ganymede’s design is an original creation and does not represent an actual species, although some of its features might be traced to the cardinal. Despite the problems with Ganymede’s identification, Bastion’s bird friend can also appear in the guise of actual real-life bird species. To do so, the player must simply equip a “skin” for Bastion (”skin” is basically the gaming jargon for “outfit”). By changing Bastion’s “skin”, Ganymede’s appearance may also change.

The common and rare skins (alongside the legendary Overgrown skin) do not change Ganymede’s appearance, but the epic and legendary skins do. Here we identify all the bird species that most resembles Ganymede’s look and tell a little bit about their biology.

GANYMEDE’S MANY GUISES

Let’s start with the “proper” red northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Fig. 5A). This species belongs to the family Cardinalidae and is also commonly known as redbird, being easy to identify due to its color, black “mask” and crest. Ganymede appears as a male cardinal (females are light brown). These birds eat mainly seeds, grains and fruits, but feed their young with insects. They are found from Belize and Guatemala, through Mexico and eastern USA, all the way to Canada. The species was introduced by humans in other American states, like California and Hawaii. Cardinals are common in residential areas and visit bird feeders. They were prized as pets due to their bright plumage and song, but thankfully now have full legal protection.

Next, we have Ganymede appearing as a blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (Linnaeus, 1758) (Fig. 5B). This species belongs to the family Corvidae (ravens, crows, jays and magpies) and has a distinct color pattern. As a matter of fact, the color pattern of Ganymede’s wings is a little bit simplified when compared to the actual bird’s complicated gradation of colors. Blue jays can be found in central and eastern USA and Canada; they eat nuts, grains and small invertebrates. These birds are typically monogamous, pairing for life; genders are similar in plumage and size. Blue jays are very intelligent, with complex social systems.

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Figure 5. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Omnic Crisis skin. Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (photo by Stephen Wolfe, 2011; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s Defense Matrix skin. Blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (photo by Mdf, 2005; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).

Bastion’s two “wooden” skins are fittingly accompanied by a Ganymede looking like two species of woodpeckers (family Picidae): the red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis Baird, 1858 (Fig. 6A; although it is also reminiscent of the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus (Linnaeus, 1758), and the downy woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens (Linnaeus, 1766)) and the Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (Hargitt, 1886) (Fig. 6B). The sapsucker, as its name implies, drills hole in trees to feed on the plant’s sap, also eating insects that are attracted to the sap. These birds can be found throughout the Great Basin region and the Rocky Mountains, in North America. The Arizona woodpecker has a more restricted range, occurring in the southern parts of Arizona (obviously) and New Mexico, USA, and in western Mexico. This species feed mainly on insects (especially beetle larvae), but may also eat fruits and acorns. Similar to the case of the blue jay above, the color pattern on Ganymede’s head, chest and wings are very simplified in relation to the real animals. Also, there is some divergence in color: while the male Arizona woodpecker has a red crest, Ganymede has a yellow one, which makes him more similar to female woodpeckers.

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Figure 6. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Antique skin. Red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis (photo by Glenn Bartley, 2011; extracted from Glenn Bartley Nature Photography, used with permission). B. Bastion’s Woodbot skin. Female (left) and male (right) Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (photos respectively by Alan Wilson, 2007, and Nature’s Pics Online, 2007; images extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).

The last two of Bastion’s skins are based on steampunk designs. Therefore, they needed a more city-dwelling bird to accompany him. Ganymede thus appears as a rock pigeon, Columba livia Gmelin, 1789 (family Columbidae), the common pigeon we have in large cities. The Gearbot skin has a common rock pigeon (Fig. 7A), while the Steambot skin is accompanied by an albinistic pigeon (Fig. 7B). We judge it is an albinistic (instead of a leucistic; see Box 1 below) bird, because the beak also does not have the usual black pigmentation (it is pinkish yellow). We could not check if the same is true for Ganymede’s legs, though, as we have yet to unlock this very expensive skin in the game.

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Figure 7. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Gearbot skin. Rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Diego Delso, 2012; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s Steambot skin. Albinistic rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Maria Corcacas; image extracted from Project FeederWatch, a partner organization of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, used with permission).

Unsurprisingly, all the birds above are American (Blizzard’s headquarters is in California). As explained above, the depictions are not completely true-to-life, but simplified in some instances. This is to be expected, we guess, since the game’s developers would not need focusing too much on a scientifically accurate depiction of a bird. They would rather be more worried about making all the shooting fun. Nevertheless, it seems the team at Blizzard clearly put a lot of effort in making Ganymede, as not only his appearance but also his movements in the game are all very realistic (the model for Ganymede in the animated short The Last Bastion was done based on the pet parrot of a Blizzard employee). The two pigeon “skins” for Ganymede even change his body shape to make him look like a pigeon.


Box 1. Albinism and leucism

Both albinism and leucism are genetic variations, meaning they are conditions defined by the genes the animal inherits from its parents. Albino animals show a complete (or partial) absence of the pigment called melanin in their skin, hair, feathers, scales, cuticles and irises. Melanin is responsible for brown and black colors. Thus, albinos are very light-skinned, with white hairs and red eyes (the lack of pigment in the eyes means that the light is reflected by the blood vessels). This failure to produce melanin is usually caused by the absence or malformation of an enzyme involved in its production. Common albino animals include white lab rats and mice and rabbits. People with albinism are also rather common.

In leucism, however, there is only partial loss of pigmentation. This means paler hairs (or feathers, etc.), often “creamy” in color, but with no changes to the eyes. It is also different from albinism in another regard: leucism is a reduction in several types of pigment, not only melanin. Leucistic peacocks are very commonly bred in captivity and leucistic lions are a fan-favorite in zoos.

On the opposite side of albinism, there is a condition called melanism. The over-deposition of the black pigment melanin in hairs (or feathers, etc.) results in very dark animals, like the black jaguar.


MALE OR FEMALE?

Nevertheless, despite all the care in making Ganymede, there are some major inconsistencies (besides the whole “American-bird-in-German-forest” issue discussed above). Until Gamescom (in August 2016, when the animated short The Last Bastion was premiered), we supposed that Ganymede was a male. This was based on: (1) the name, which is a male one (originally from Greek mythology); (2) it is crested and colorful, which is common of male birds, while females often have a plainer look; and (3) it sings a lot, which is also a typical male activity in birds (usually used for defending territory or courtship).However, in the aforementioned animated short, Ganymede is building a nest, which is typical female behavior. It is very rare for male birds to do the nest building (this is only seen, for instance, in species of weavers and megapodes). Moreover, Bastion’s Overgrown skin, which relates to the short, has a nest with eggs place on the robot’s shoulder (Fig. 8). Needless to say, only females can lay eggs. Moreover, the incubation and hatching is usually also done by females; male birds only rarely incubate eggs. Of course, the eggs from the Overgrown skin are way too large (Fig. 8) to belong to Ganymede anyway.

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Figure 8. Bastion’s Overgrown skin (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Ganymede’s sex is never directly alluded to in the game or official material, although sometimes we could find the pronouns “he” and “his” referring to it on Blizzard’s websites. Curiously, the same is true for Bastion, who is almost always referred to by the pronoun “it”, but sometimes by “he”.

BIRDWATCH

The player can also customize Bastion’s victory pose, which is shown after the match if he/she was part of the winning team. One of Bastion’s poses is called Birdwatching, because, well, he is watching his bird (Fig. 9).

It might sound surprising to some that birdwatching is not only an actual pastime but a very popular one at that. But what exactly is it?

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Figure 9. Bastion’s Birdwatching victory pose (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Birdwatching, also called birding, is basically an activity of wildlife observation, where you go out to observe, of course, birds. You can do this, of course, with the naked eye, but it is better done with a good pair of binoculars (or sometimes a telescope). It’s a hobby that actually attracts a huge lot of people (Fig. 10), especially when a rare bird is involved. There are, of course, guides for beginners explaining everything about how to start birding, like Birding for Beginners: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Art of Birdwatching (by S. Buff, 2010), and websites like All About Birds (by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

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Figure 10. Birdwatchers (often called simply “birders”) at Caerlaverock, UK, watching a rare (in Europe) White-tailed Lapwing, Vanellus leucurus (Lichtenstein, 1823). Photo by MPF (2007); Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

After you’ve started your birding campaigns, you will want to know the names of the birds you’re seeing. To identify the bird species, you can use one of the several field guides and handbooks in existence. These books have drawings and/or photos of the birds, with guidelines to identify them. These guides are usually restricted to a single country (or sometimes just part of it, if the country is too large, like Brazil or the USA) or continent (like Europe). It’s very easy to find one at your bookstore or online store, since they are often called “Birds of Somewhere” (Fig. 11). Of course, there are now also websites that act as these guides, such as the RSPB’s Bird Identifier (see References below).

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Figure 11. Examples of “bird books”, with the covers of Birds of Australia (by K. Simpson & N. Day, 2010, 8th ed.), Birds of Venezuela (by S.L. Hilty, 2003, 2nd ed.) and Collins Bird Guide (by L. Svensson et al., 2010, 2nd ed.).

Moreover, birdwatching actually involves a lot of hearing, because you will most often hear the bird before seeing it (if you see it at all). Thus, it is also good to know what each species’ vocalization sounds likes. There are several websites to identify birds’ calls, such as the Smithsonian’s Guide (see References below). Of course, both for image and song identification, there are now lots of apps, such as eBird Mobile, BirdsEye, Collins Field Guide and Bird Song Id, among several others. Unfortunately, these websites and apps are still largely restricted to the USA and Europe, while the greatest (and some would say most splendorous) bird diversity is found in Australasia and tropical America.

Birdwatching is all about enjoying nature and having fun, but birders worldwide abide by a “code of conduct” of sorts (see, for example, the code of the American Birding Association). Nowadays, our more ecological-prone society is concerned about the impact that our activities have on the animals and their environment. Thus, birdwatching etiquette usually includes promoting the welfare of birds and their habitats, limiting the birders’ impact (photographing, using playback devices, keeping your distance from nests etc.) and thus mitigating the stress caused to the animals. Basically, have fun, but let the birds live their life – that’s what Bastion does anyway.

REFERENCES

American Birding Association. (2016) ABA Code of Ethics. Principles of Birding Ethics. Available from: http://www.aba.org/about/ethics.html (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).

BirdLife International. (2012) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available from: http:// www.iucnredlist.org/ (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The. (2016a) All About Birds. Available from: https://www.allabout birds.org/ (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The. (2016b) Project FeederWatch. Available from: http://feeder watch.org/ (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Gamepedia. (2016) Overwatch. Available from: http://overwatch.gamepedia.com/Overwatch_Wiki (Date of access: 30/Aug/2016).

Glenn Bartley Nature Photography. (2016) Bird Photography from Canada and around the World. Available from: www.glennbartley.com (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

McCormac, J. (2016) Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. Available from: http://jimmccormac.blogspot. nl/ (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Mcgraw, K.J.; Hill, G.E.; Parker, R.S. (2003) Carotenoid pigments in a mutant cardinal:  implications for the genetic and enzymatic control mechanisms of carotenoid metabolism in birds. The Condor 105: 587–592.

Overwatch. (2016) Bastion Reference Kit. Available from: https://playoverwatch.com (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Overwatch Wiki. (2016) Overwatch Wiki. Available from: https://blzgdapipro-a.akamaihd.net/med ia/reference/bastion_reference.pdf (Date of access: 26/Jun/2016).

RSBP. (2016) Bird Identifier. Available from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdidentifier/ (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (2016) Guide to North American Bird Songs and Sounds. Available from: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratory birds/education/nasongkey.pl (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We are very grateful to Anne Marie Johnson (Project FeederWatch) and Glenn Bartley for granting us permission to use their photos here.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Barbara Tomotani is a birdwatcher bird-scientist and was a marked presence at Blizzard’s store booth during Gamescom, hoping to find a Ganymede plush.

Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist, but now is found mostly escorting payloads as either D.Va or Lúcio. He has his fair share of Plays of the Game as Bastion, though.


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