Designing Women: Elizabeth Hargrave

Birds are big this year. If you’ve been hibernating since before the New Year you might have missed it, but Elizabeth Hargrave’s Wingspan is currently taking the game world by storm (actually, by feather and egg.) With Gen Can’t Design Contest winning Tussie-Mussie also slated for release this year by Button Shy, 2019 is shaping up to be a good one for the DC Metro native.

What got you started playing board games?

As a kid I played a lot of Scrabble and classic card games like Rummy and Hearts, along with all the classic kids’ boardgames. In college I lived in a 15-person group house where we’d play Spades or Scrabble almost every night while waiting for dinner to be ready. We had a housemate that knew Bridge but waited until summer to teach it, because he knew we’d be obsessed with it during the school year. And sure enough, we spent the summer of 1994 playing Bridge in every spare moment. So I was pretty well primed to fall in love when I showed up at a church ski weekend several years later and people were playing things like Catan, Carcassone, and Blokus.

Whats your favorite game?

That’s a really hard question. I’d say the game I’ve probably played more than any other is Race for the Galaxy. It’s just a great, tight little engine builder and it plays great at 2 players so I’ve played it a ton with my spouse. It has a really unfortunate learning curve because of the iconography, but once we were in, we were hooked. It’s had huge staying power in my household.

You mention playing a lot in college – what do you think gaming adds to our culture?

Well for one thing, it’s just a nice way to spend time with other people. There are plenty of games that are just fun and get people laughing together, which is always a good thing. But there’s another aspect of it that’s harder to articulate — for a lot of us, heavier games are mentally engaging in a way that is relaxing and challenging at the same time. If you’re familiar with the psychological concept of flow, I think a lot of people achieve flow in a good game. And there aren’t that many other activities that give people an opportunity to have that experience with other people — becoming immersed together, scratching that mental itch together. I think it has the potential to create a shared experience that bonds people to each other.

What are you working on right now?

I’ll be traveling for most of January and taking a complete break from design. When I come back I’m actually not sure what I’ll work on! There’s definitely a Wingspan expansion in the works — I’m trying to tackle birds from other continents, because the base game is just North American birds. ‘ve got a gateway-level game that’s ready to pitch to publishers about migrating monarch butterflies. Then I’ve got a couple games that have been on the back burner that I’ll probably pick back up. One’s a genetics game about an experiment in Russia that bred foxes into domesticated dogs. And I’ve got something about mushrooms in that super-rough chicken-scratch stage!

I’ve got a list a mile long of other ideas, but I find it difficult to work on more than one or two things at a time.

How do you feel about about the design and playtesting process?

I’ve always loved logic puzzles, and my day job involves a lot of qualitative work, doing interviews and focus groups. I feel like game design in a lot of ways is the synergy between those two things. I sort of puzzle things out as far as I can get them, and then I turn it over to some playtesters to see how it feels to actually play it. I really enjoy both parts.

The physical prototyping process is kind of a love/hate thing with me. I enjoy being crafty, but for a larger game, it can take a lot of time! I just spent an hour cutting out hex-based shapes, which are particularly annoying because of the weird angles. I just have to put on some podcasts and power through.

But the most frustrating part is just getting stuck on mechanics — when you know something isn’t great, but have no idea how to make it better. Sometimes the answer is more playtesting, but sometimes the answer is just setting it aside for a while. Or playing published games can help trigger thoughts about how to solve something. But another downside of designing is that it can significantly cut into the time you have to play published games.

Do you find the community supportive?

Yes, absolutely. It always kind of amazes me that people are willing to donate their time to play terrible, half-baked games and help find the path to making them good. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much time goes into that development process. Hobby games as we know them would not exist without countless hours of playtesting, and I am eternally grateful to all the people who have played my unfinished games. Hopefully with each one I’ll get a little more efficient about making the games better more quickly!

Any challenges as a woman game designer?

I know some female content creators who’ve gotten some pretty nasty online abuse, so I’m sort of bracing myself as games come out year. I’ll be the first woman to be published both by Button Shy and Stonemaier. Then again, when I won the Button Shy contest this year, there wasn’t a peep about my gender. So who knows.

I would say the hardest thing so far has been just repeatedly having to walk into spaces that are so heavily skewed male. Now that I know everyone in our local playtesting community I barely notice it, because I’m just walking into a room full of my friends. But wow, it’s pretty daunting those first few times to walk into a room of strangers and put something you made on the table. And when you’re noticeably different it just adds another level of discomfort.

I always wonder what the world of boardgames is missing out by having most designers fitting within such a limited demographic profile. I would love to help figure out how to get more women, genderqueer folks, and people of color over that initial hurdle of entering the design space. I don’t want to be too existentialist about it, but are we stuck in a chicken-and-egg cycle where there are fewer women designers because there are fewer women gamers, and there are fewer women gamers because a lot of the games designed by men don’t interest a lot of women? Maybe having some more games in the world with a woman’s name on the box will be one small contribution I can make.

What are your hobbies outside of games? How do they tie into your design?

I’m an all-around nature geek. I go hiking a lot, but as I have learned more about what’s out there, my hiking has slowed down to what a friend of mine calls the “naturalist shuffle” — we’re always stopping to look at stuff. It sometimes results in temporary pets: right now on my kitchen table there’s a monarch butterfly chrysalis. We brought a caterpillar inside and raised it, and we’ll release it when the butterfly emerges.

I recent went hiking in West Virginia with the friends who inspired my first game design. In this group of friends outdoors stuff often comes first, and gaming fits in around the edges, in the evenings and on rainy days. Years ago we had a conversation wondering about why there weren’t more games about things we were interested in. And I started thinking about how so many things in nature are economic systems. Which led to my bird game, where the resources are things like berries and bugs instead of wood and ore. If there were never another game whose economy was based on wood and ore, I’d probably be ok with that.

Do you design with theme or mechanic in mind first?

Definitely theme. I keep a running list of ideas on my phone as I come across things that spark my fancy. It’s all themes. And then the next step is, what interests me about that theme? What’s the story, and how can you get players to tell that story through playing a game?

What advice would you give new designers?

My number one piece of advice, because I’m still guilty of needing to hear it sometimes, is to get the game out of your head and onto the table as soon as possible. Make some minimal chicken-scratch version that you can play against yourself and see how it actually works. Don’t spend too long thinking about it, or even making it, before you do that first run-through. There’s almost always something I’ll see in practice that I didn’t see in my head, and it saves a lot of time to just do it before investing too much.

That first version might be terrible. It’s okay. From there, it’s a process of playtesting and iterating over and over. And don’t just play with your friends. At a bare minimum, find strangers at a game store or local con. Best though is to team up with other designers in your local area and playtest each others’ games, or make it to a bigger Protospiel or Unpub event. Many non-designers are just impressed that you made a game, and your friends may not have very helpful input unless they happen to be super-analytical about how games work. Other designers are more likely to actually identify problems and have ideas for how to fix them. And they won’t judge you for all the problems in your half-finished game, because they know the process.

Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier wrote a great series called Inspiration to Publication that I found incredibly helpful when I was starting out:

I had a lot of days early in the Wingspan process that I lost a lot of sleep just waking up and thinking about it. Work on an idea you’re excited about, because you might end up playing it a hundred times or more before it’s done. But if you pick the right idea for you, you might not be able to put it down.

Keep up with Elizabeth’s latest adventures on Twitter!