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Health, Science, Environment

Bird-Themed Game Hatched In St. Louis Soars In Popularity

Wingspan designer and avid birder Elizabeth Hargrave created the game after realizing most of the boardgames she was playing were about subjects she didn't care about, like castles and trains.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Wingspan designer and avid birder Elizabeth Hargrave created the game after realizing most of the board games she was playing were about subjects she didn't care about, like castles and trains.

Board games have come a long way since Monopoly.

Players can spend hours immersed in sophisticated, story-driven games — building civilizations on Mars or battling dungeon monsters.

But one of the most popular games of the year isn’t focused on war or domination; it’s about birds.

In Wingspan, a scientifically accurate game from St. Louis-based publisher Stonemaier Games, players create their own personal aviary. The game has become wildly successful with both hardcore gamers and birders — groups whose interests don’t always overlap.

Kelly Smith has been “obsessed” with birding since 2016 and has played the game several times with her husband, Jake. The Wentzville resident even added a few rules of her own.

“Last weekend, we went birding and played the game in the same day,” Smith said. “We added an extra rule that if you picked up a card of a bird that we’d seen that day, you got an extra point.”

St. Louis-based publisher Stonemaier Games released Wingspan in March. In the game, players attract birds to their wildlife preserve using food, including mice, berries and seeds.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Each of the 170 playing cards features a different North American bird species, along with dozens of bird facts. The card for the petal-pink roseate spoonbill, for instance, explains the bird's "unusually shaped bill helps it feel prey in the water."  

The idea for Wingspan grew from a conversation with friends, said game designer Elizabeth Hargrave, a health-policy consultant and avid birder who lives in Maryland.  

“A lot of the board games we were playing were about subjects we don't care about: castles, trains, trading goods in medieval Europe,” Hargrave said in an email. “I decided to make a game about something I actually want to spend time thinking about.”

Unexpected demand

More than 200,000 copies of Wingspan will be in circulation worldwide by the end of 2019. In July, the game received the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres award for the best strategy game of the year — fueling additional demand.

Wingspan illustrator Natalia Rojas holds an original drawing she created for the game.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

The fervor surrounding Wingspan has surprised many in the gaming community, even those responsible for its production.

Stonemaier Games co-founder and President Jamey Stegmaier said he was immediately attracted to the idea of creating his own “unique flock.” But he wasn’t sure hobby gamers accustomed to sci-fi and fantasy would give a bird-themed game a chance.

“I went into it with very low expectations, hoping we would sell a few thousand games,” Stegmaier said. “Right away, the reception was way higher than I thought it would be.”

The company started with an initial print run of 10,000 games — about half the number it normally produces — and sold half during a one-week pre-order period. 

Visitors to the Audubon Center at Riverlands on the opening night of their Wingspan art exhibition. The exhibit runs through the end of the month.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

On the game’s official release day Stegmaier posted a public apology, because the company hadn’t printed enough copies to fulfill pre-orders. 

“If you were eagerly expecting Wingspan today, there’s really no way that I can make you feel better. I wish I could,” Stegmaier wrote.

Tiny pieces of art

The original artwork, now on display at an exhibition at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton, is a major part of the appeal for Wingspan enthusiasts.

On one card, an Atlantic puffin balances on a lichen-covered rock, while on another, an osprey clutches a gasping fish in its talons. 

“It’s accurate and detailed,” said Tara Hohman, a conservation science associate at the center in West Alton. “It could be on par with field guide illustrations.” 

Behind those illustrations is a team of artists: Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas and Beth Sobel. In an industry that remains largely male-dominated, the fact that a team of four women — including two women of color — was behind Wingspan is noteworthy.

More than 200,000 copies of Wingspan will be in circulation worldwide by the end of the year. Stonemaier Games initially printed only 10,000 copies, expecting limited interest in the game.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Martinez Jaramillo, who is based in Medellin, Colombia, said working on the project has felt like “winning the lottery.”


“Latin people, specifically Colombians, are not seen as professional or competitive compared to other figures from countries like the U.S.,” Martinez Jaramillo said.

Illustrating 170 birds took serious dedication, especially to meet the standards of sharp-eyed birders.

On a recent afternoon, Rojas, who lives in St. Louis, fanned out a half-dozen illustrations on her coffee table, including the wild turkey. 

“It has all these different textures and different patterns,” Rojas said. “The neck is all wrinkled, and the feathers are fluffy in some parts. You need to create volume, not something that just looks flat on the paper; something that looks like it’s almost alive.”

Rojas spent upward of 25 hours perfecting the wild turkey illustration. To finish the dozens of drawings on time, she hunkered down in her basement studio — often long after the rest of her family was asleep.

“I would just come down here and draw until 2 or 3 a.m. and then go to bed, sleep a few hours,” Rojas said. “It was crazy.”

St. Louis illustrator Natalia Rojas flips through a binder of original illustrations she helped create for Wingspan on November 21, 2019.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Although she wasn’t interested in birds before working on Wingspan, Rojas now feels like she has been “possessed by a birder.”

“Before I’d see a bird and just think, ‘Oh, cute,’” she explained. “Once I started drawing them, I would start looking for the birds.”

Her two young daughters, who have also developed an interest in birdwatching, like to sit at the window and point out the species at their bird feeder. Last Halloween, they dressed up as their favorites: a California quail and a blue jay.

“Because of Wingspan, my whole family is into birding,” Rojas said. “It’s so nice to have a 4-year-old saying, ‘That’s a cool finch.’”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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If you go:

Wingspan art exhibit

Where: Audubon Center at Riverlands, 301 Riverlands Way, West Alton, MO

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, through Nov. 28 

Cost: Free

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