Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Speaking of Science: This bird board game soars

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

The board game Wingspan includes 170 different bird species. (Kim Euker via Stonemaier Games)

The new board game Wingspan boasts an unusual commitment, certainly among tabletop games, to ornithological accuracy.

In Wingspan, by designer Elizabeth Hargrave, a birdwatcher who the New York Times described as a "spreadsheet geek," players compete to create the best wildlife preserve for birds. She harvested facts from the Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Sibley Guide to Birds, and distilled them into an ecosystem of cards, dice and chits.

Wingspan knows that birds are specialized critters. Players must feed their birds the right diet, abstracted as tokens for mice or caterpillars or seeds. The birds are happy only in certain habitats, and they will tend only a realistic number of eggs. "There's always a certain amount of abstraction in game design, but we wanted each bird to feel at least a little different from all the other birds," said Jamey Stegmaier, a board game designer and co-founder of Stonemaier Games, the company that produces Wingspan.

Its rules are a touch more complex than those of, say, Settlers of Catan — it's thinky, like a Sudoku puzzle — but Wingspan sings to life as birds begin to populate the players' forests and fields. Once you get the hang of it, a game of Wingspan, which can be played in an hour, goes by as fleet as a falcon. (The game is also quite nice to look at, so rich in pastel colors that, as one board game reviewer put it, it's "like Easter Sunday threw up on your table and you couldn't be happier".)

The game is not designed to be educational, not in the grade-school sense, but its enthusiasm and sprinkles of trivia are infectious. (Did you know that cormorant colonies grow so large their guano kills trees?) Hargrave, per the Times, made a massive spreadsheet, nearly 600 rows by 100 columns, to sort birds by "order, class, genus, habitat, wingspan, nest type, eggs, food and red-list status." Its huge stack of cards showcases 170 North American species, many with special rules that reflect their bird behaviors.

"One of my favorite examples of this in Wingspan is the Brown-Headed Cowbird, which is a type of bird that doesn't make nests. Rather, it lays eggs in other birds' nests," Stegmaier said. "So that's exactly how Elizabeth designed the bird: It doesn't have the nest or egg icons like other birds, and its ability is literally to lay eggs in other nests." Avian brood parasitism at the kitchen table? Count me in.


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