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Wingspan and Women in Gaming

J Updated
Birds, as the English say

Game Information

Game Name
There Will Be Games

Birds, as the English say.

I confess to being one of the great unwashed that doesn't "get" Wingspan, per se. I owned a copy for a couple months and played it three or four times and, despite it being a decent engine builder and a very nicely illustrated game, it failed to find a permanent place in our household. I traded it for a copy of 878 Vikings. And, yet, it's widely hailed as one of the best releases of the past few years with a legion of devoted fans. What did I miss? Why don't I think I should've counted myself lucky for actually seeing one on a store shelf when it was almost impossible to find last fall? Is it because I've played many games like it before? Is it because my expectations for "playing games with others" are different than most? Or are there actual mechanical concerns or some combination of those and the above?

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First off, let's clarify that just like with movies, music, books, or any other form of entertainment, everyone has their own personal niche. There will always be variations in opinion and even someone who shares your tastes will still like some things more and some things less, even though you both appreciate them. One of my regular 2-player partners shares my taste in most games, both positive and negative. I love Wiz-War. It's one of my all-time favorites. He's lukewarm on it. It simply doesn't sing to him in the way that it does to me. Is it because I played it "back in the day" (the 80s) and still have that nostalgia? Is it because I essentially followed it up with its most notable descendant, Magic: The Gathering, and became a hardcore player, with associated nostalgia, while he never did? Who knows?

Similarly, on the macro scale, the Catan series is massively popular, especially as a "gateway drug" to more complex endeavors. I have never been a fan. Part of that may be because I was already into gaming long before the "German period" of the 90s occurred. Part of it may be because Catan games can often feel very programmed (i.e. they often turn out the same, especially with the same group of players.) But when I look at the Catan series, as with many of that design era (Knizia, et al), I recognize the innovation present for the time and the depth that most of those games still carry. There's a mechanical elegance that many of them have that has given them lasting impact and helped create a pseudo-genre of board game, known as "Euros." Wingspan didn't strike me in that fashion because there's nothing particularly transformative about it.

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But, secondly, let me emphasize the point that this discourse isn't about bashing Wingspan for any presumed mechanical failings or its seeming inability to approach the level of some of the more legendary designs of modern board games. Again: it's a solid game. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with it. I hope that Elizabeth Hargrave continues to make games, not least because of the lack of female designers in the industry, who will often approach games with a much different paradigm in mind than "crush your enemies and see them driven before you", whether that's via swords and magic or a pile of money chits. And that, in fact, may be the key.

Wingspan is a frequent topic of discussion on Reddit and BGG these days, both by devoted fans of the game and those who, like me, don't quite understand the love. What stuck out most to me about the gameplay was... nothing. I've played any number of engine builders. I like the genre, in general, although it's far from my favorite main mechanic. When I played Wingspan, nothing stuck out to me as an element that was new or unusual among engine builders. In other words, it doesn't do anything that many games before it don't already do. You play cards, you try to maximize their abilities and resulting resources (almost always eggs), and you hope to build a more productive and/or efficient machine than your opponents. This is an engine builder. Ask me to play one and I'll choose 51st State every time.

But one of the consistent assertions by fans of Wingspan and one that was stated prominently in a recent discussion was that "Game play is very calm and nice, there's basically no interaction between players, nothing nasty can happen." Every Wiz-War fan in the world just heard the proverbial record scratch.

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"Whuh? No interaction between players?! Calm and nice?!" Yes. That estimation was followed up by another statement that emphasized that the enjoyment of Wingspan came irrespective of winning: "It's not a game where you feel like the score you are making is the only purpose of the game." Now, I can make the same assertion about virtually any game. The joy should be in the playing, not just the winning. I'm a pretty notorious winner in my group, but I've generally passed the phase (tournament Magic player!) where sitting down to play meant winning the game. Full stop. We played a game of Rising Sun this past weekend where I came in second-to-last and didn't have a second thought about it. What was vastly more important to me was that everyone had a good time playing; at least, in part, because two of the players were not real fans of the DoaM genre and those two also happen to be women.

Remember that point where I mentioned that it would be a positive if Hargrave kept producing? It's mostly because she's obviously a solid designer who was willing to work with an unusual theme (one of the real highlights of Wingspan is the theme and accompanying art) that she knows well. But, again, it's also because the presence of women in the industry - as designers, producers, developers, artists, owners and, yes, players -isn't anywhere near what it should be. I remember in a couple interviews that Hargrave had wondered about the consistency in theme of many modern games: outer space and castles. Consequently, she put forth a game with a theme that's nothing like those dominant influences because it was something that she enjoyed. Far be it from me to suggest that a game themed on bird-watching is somehow inherently more appealing to women. There are many female fans of outer space, castles (Game of Thrones!), and Marvel's cinematic output. Similarly, there are female fans of "aggressive" games like DoaMs and Wiz-War.

But it seems irrefutable to me that those themes and that style of game are almost universally targeted toward people that identify as male, since society has often suggested that those behavior patterns are the type that resonate with males, even if only on a cardboard surface. However, it was suggested by one of our regulars at TWBG, who is also a designer, that women might respond more often to a style of game that isn't "non-interactive" and "calm and nice" if other games weren't specifically marketed (illustrated, themed, etc.) toward 14-year-old boys. Would we get more games that are as well-constructed as Wingspan if we encouraged the participation of girls and women and presented them with more options than the conquest of the nearest nebula? But how does one represent an area control game without conforming to typical DoaM thematics? Wait. You mean you've never heard of Root?

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And that Root comparison might be a key element in my disaffection with the game. I wrote last week about Root's accessibility problem, in that dropping that onto a bunch of new or not experienced players doesn't create the best environment for revealing the game's magic. Wingspan, OTOH, has its magic right up front. It's easy to teach, easy to learn, and has a theme that isn't outside the realm of normal "gamerz", as it were (although, given the popularity of things like Game of Thrones, I question the separation of those spheres (That's another article.)) It's easy for me to look at the game and say: "Yeah, this doesn't work for me because of x and y." because I'm doing it from the perspective of 1) an experienced gamer; 2) a White man, with the cultural authority that comes attached with that role in much of Western society; and, 3) someone who prefers direct competition over co-op or "non-confrontational" play. That latter point is important as more than just a style preference, because most games throughout history have been largely direct, from chess to Sorry! to Funkoverse. Those three perspectives may be fueling my indifference to Wingspan because I'm not looking at the gamer sphere as one that I'm trying to gain access to. I'm firmly embedded in it and have been for decades. If you're a new player, who perhaps identifies as a woman, and so is already looking at two barriers to your being accepted in these situations, Wingspan might be the open door with the warm, tavern light streaming forth because it helps create a scenario that makes you feel more welcome; like you already fit in (which you should.)

Of course, there's also little reasonable way to suggest that Wingspan was specifically targeted at women because its game play is supposedly "calm and nice." After all, there are tons of male fans of that same approach to gaming, just as there are tons of male fans of Wingspan. And the reality is that said theme and style might be an access point for them into the gaming world, as well. Gate-keeping comes in any number of forms and doesn't have to only apply to one kind of identity. The fact that I find the attraction to that style of gaming completely mysterious, since part of the appeal to me of gaming with others is the social interaction created by... well, interacting with them, shouldn't make it the dominant atmosphere just because I have those social advantages and my personality is, uh, kind of forward. I may not want to play what I consider to be multiplayer solitaire, but that's me and, as noted above, there's certainly no one, true way to have fun. By that same token, there are some seriously competitive women out there, too, who also enjoy games that involve head-to-head confrontation. My girlfriend was one of those new players of Rising Sun this weekend and it's been a while since I've seen her eyes light up like that as she was looking over the board and plotting (as Lotus) which mandate to take that would further her plans of dominance over mythical Japan. The funny thing about that is, she's really kind of an introvert except when it comes to gaming, where she's pretty aggressive.

So, there's no reasonable blanket statement that says anything like "Wingspan-type games are aimed at women" or "Women don't like competitive games." Neither of those are true. But what may be true is that having more women involved in the process of creating and playing games may, in fact, broaden the scope of the industry to include themes and styles of games that haven't been readily available before. Clearly, it touched a nerve with a very wide audience of players, no matter what their identity, and it's worth examining whether that's because Hargrave was tuned into an audience that needed to be answered or whether she's just a good designer and people just like the game for what it is, if not both.

There Will Be Games

Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #308132 16 Mar 2020 13:52
Good article. There has been a lot of chatter in various corners of the internet about Wingspan that feels a lot like gate-keeping - like the the narrow end of the wedge to broaden the discussion into disparaging women board gamers and designers, and Hargrave specifically. I think it what you have to say here is important, particularly "If you're a new player, who perhaps identifies as a woman, and so is already looking at two barriers to your being accepted in these situations, Wingspan might be the open door with the warm, tavern light streaming forth because it helps create a scenario that makes you feel more welcome; like you already fit in (which you should.)"
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308133 16 Mar 2020 14:06
Thanks! I started it simply as an examination of why Wingspan didn't appeal to me, in contrast to its immense popularity. But I think that, in the same way that Hargrave realized that certain themes weren't being represented in games, there are also people that aren't being represented. We talk about it often and it's something of a meme in the gaming sphere ("Wait... There's a woman in a game group!") but we don't talk about the fact that many women might be reluctant to participate because they're expected to just adapt to whatever is at the table without being made to feel as if they're welcome at the table. That feeling of welcome can just be the attitudes of the other players, but it can also be a sensation that what's happening (the game) puts you on the same level as everyone else.

I've never gotten into Dominion for a number of reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that I learned from two veterans. What they were doing at the table was way beyond what I was doing. I felt like I was clueless and I didn't really enjoy it. Wingspan finds a good level there in that it's so easy to understand and the gameplay is so generally positive (barring a really awful draw) that I think it's difficult to end up in that situation where you feel like you're in over your head and, by default, not in a situation where you feel welcome.

I spend a LOT of my game nights teaching new games to people. I always try to gauge what's on the table to the group's inclination (for as much as I know the people involved.) In my case, Wingspan was so "unchallenging" to me (for lack of a better term) that I felt sure I owned other games that I could introduce to "non-gamers" (whether they actually are or not) that would still be as welcoming as Wingspan and not bore me at the same time.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #308141 16 Mar 2020 15:35
I assume that at least one of the major players in the board game industry has done some market research about female board gamers, but all that I've seen was that brief survey by Stonemeier Games a while back. Aside from a generally safe observation that a majority of board gamers are male, I don't know if anybody has more than anecdotal information about what women board gamers are playing. It seems dismissive to assume that they will only play easy gateway games that eschew direct conflict, but I've never met a female war gamer. (To be fair, I have not met many war gamers in general.)

In the last year and a half, I have been playing board games on a monthly basis with a younger group. The average age is maybe early 30s, and maybe 2/3 are not seriously into board games. Aside from myself and the two hosts, different people show up every month, with some returning from time to time. Typically, we have more female players than male players. Last month, 9 out of 14 players were women. The hosts tend to push party games, fillers, and light games that are low on conflict, even though the husband prefers Ameritrash kickstarter games and the wife prefers puzzle-like abstracts. But people bring other games, so I have observed female non-gamers also enjoying thematic Ameritrash games like Camp Grizzly, Zombicide, and The Gothic Game. Last time, somebody brought 7 Wonders, and it fell flat with with four of the seven players, including two women.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #308146 16 Mar 2020 16:05
I love the setting of Wingspan, my big let down is that the game wasn't more actually thematic! This is an area where Evolution does a great job, even though it isn't to my taste really either.

Opening up to more appealing settings and pairing them with engaging themes would be a big positive if just an appealing, broader setting on a pretty bog standard tableau builder was enough to get people *this* enthused and attract new audiences.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #308153 16 Mar 2020 17:24

Gary Sax wrote: I love the setting of Wingspan, my big let down is that the game wasn't more actually thematic! This is an area where Evolution does a great job, even though it isn't to my taste really either.

Opening up to more appealing settings and pairing them with engaging themes would be a big positive if just an appealing, broader setting on a pretty bog standard tableau builder was enough to get people *this* enthused and attract new audiences.


I'd argue that it isn't "bog standard" to people who are novice gamers. It has a refinement and polish that makes many things that have become second nature to us long time gamers, more transparent. For example, we experienced gamers don't have much difficulty activating items in the proper order in a large messy tableau, and tracking what we have and haven't done, and what we can and can't do. We sequence and "tap" cards without even realizing we are doing it. Wingspan forces players to activate cards in a specific order and clearly tracks their activation. It feels a bit restrictive if you are accustomed to playing something like Argent the Consortium, but for a novice gamer it removes some ambiguity and fiddliness, and makes remembering the rules and what to do on your turn easier.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #308159 16 Mar 2020 18:48

ubarose wrote: For example, we experienced gamers don't have much difficulty activating items in the proper order in a large messy tableau, and tracking what we have and haven't done, and what we can and can't do.


Some of us experienced gamers still suck at this.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308162 16 Mar 2020 19:07
Yeah, it's pretty variable, pending rules/game involved. A perfect example (to keep citing Root) is watching an "experienced gamer" try to get the Decree to function while playing the Eyrie, as soon as it goes past, say, 4 cards. Keeping track of that, plus what everyone else is doing, plus what you wanted to do with your hand of cards, can see turmoil show up right quick.

Uba's point is valid, in that Wingspan is laid out in a very clear manner so you don't have to do a ton of planning for future turns in order to be successful, but you CAN do so to make it work even better.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #308170 16 Mar 2020 23:46
Great exploration of the hobby. More like this please.
Davidjc's Avatar
Davidjc replied the topic: #308174 17 Mar 2020 06:10
Thanks for the interesting article. One of the recent trends that I have noted is an increase in the amount of gaming podcasts featuring women - whether as co-hosts or standalone (e.g. Not playing to win). I am really finding them quite refreshing (and often very humorous) with a different perspective on games. I hope this trend continues and reduces the gatekeeping in the hobby.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308176 17 Mar 2020 09:13
Cool. Can you recommend any? I don't listen to any other than Josh and Al from this here site. Most of the rest of my podcast time is taken up by (Euro) football and history topics.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #308179 17 Mar 2020 10:01
Marc mentions that the theme and art of most board games makes it seem that board games are designed to be marketed to 14 year old boys. I think perhaps the key is not the "boy" part of the equation, but the "14 year old" bit. Wingspan is a card game with lovely illustrations of birds - which has rather more appeal to non-geek grown-ups.

It also requires zero geek-literacy to understand. Someone once said to me, "I like Ticket to Ride because it is about a real thing that I understand. It's not like that outer space game, where everyone calls each other a toaster, that makes no sense at all."
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308181 17 Mar 2020 10:37
Right. I think that was part of the appeal of the German era of the late 90s and early 00s. Most of the themes were based on fairly mundane "real world" topics. To some degree it was a focus on mechanics over theme (the old "Euro vs Ameritrash" argument.) But it was also a measure of what kind of audience those games were aimed at. Boardgaming in Germany and other European cultures wasn't just something you did with bored 8-year-olds on a rainy Sunday (or when waiting out a plague...) It was and is a social activity. I can't say for sure that Knizia and others were aiming at a more "adult" audience, but I think they were aiming at a wider audience, in general, which definitely includes women.

But I also don't want to harp on that "non-geeky" approach too heavily. There are many people who identify as women who also happen to be fans of SF and fantasy themes. There are many women who are Marvel fans. Last I knew, HBO said the audience for Game of Thrones was pretty evenly divided between men and women. There's nothing inherently "less cool" or "less adult" about being into dragons. I think the key aspect of something like Wingspan is that it doesn't imply a foreknowledge of those "geeky" topics in order to be a part of the game. It's about birds. Everybody knows birds! You don't have to know anything about Malcolm Reynolds and the Unification War in order to "get it."

As an interesting codicil, Jamey Stegmaier released a "Favorite combat mechanisms" video the other day. Stegmaier is, of course, the publisher of Wingspan and runs a company that's known far more for Euro-type designs than for its SF thematics (no matter what the box covers of Scythe will claim.) First, off: COMBAT; generally seen as antithetical to female gaming interests (not true, but it's a perception.) His top 10?

In order: Kemet, Cry Havoc, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Dice Throne, Blood Rage, A Few Acres of Snow, Arcadia Quest, King of Tokyo, Flipships, Cosmic Encounter.

I'm counting one (1) non-SF/fantasy game in that list. Does that mean that combat really IS a "14-year-old" realm that many adult women won't be interested in? Or does it mean that, if the publisher and designer of so many games that seem to have strong female appeal enjoys these, perhaps they have wider appeal than first thought? Or does it mean nothing at all (sample size)?
Davidjc's Avatar
Davidjc replied the topic: #308203 17 Mar 2020 14:48
One podcast I find very funny is Not Playing to Win. It will never make it onto the Dice Tower Network over language and occasional adult humour - but they offer an intereting take on games - often three games that have a similar theme like an episode on BOSK, Photosynthesis, and Arboretum.
marcnelsonjr's Avatar
marcnelsonjr replied the topic: #308237 18 Mar 2020 01:25
"I like Ticket to Ride because it is about a real thing that I understand."

This is a big deal.

I'd still enjoy Wingspan if it were about space traders or post-apocalyptic gangs - but it's SO much easier to introduce normals to games with themes that are universal and easy to relate to.
Jeff's Avatar
Jeff replied the topic: #308295 19 Mar 2020 07:17
Good article.

What all hit games have in common is that it’s not entirely clear why they became hits. You can make an educated guess but not much more than that. You can think, for example, of all the reasons why Pandemic became a hit but then you realize that none of those describe Agricola, which also became a hit in the very same year, and you’re back to square one.

What I (gently) disapprove of is Wingspan: the Narrative, which asserts that heretofore all games were about wizards and spaceships and it took Elizabeth to show us the way to something better. And that’s not really true nor is it fair to the many thousands of games that came before Wingspan that are on a wide range of subjects, including games like Piepmatz or Songbirds that are about birds!

The factor that I think no one talks about is the role that confirmation bias plays in shaping our opinions. When a game looks nice, you just hope hope hope that it won’t let you down, that it will be as good as the expectation those visuals built up, and as long as the game is even “pretty good” you will feel those expectations were met. I think Jamey maybe more than any other publisher since Days of Wonder has figured out how to tap into this. As a thought experiment, Wingspan just passed Puerto Rico on the BGG rankings. If we were to mock up both games with handwritten card stock, would they generate similar levels of enthusiasm? PR, yes, I think; the actual game doesn’t look all that much better than a proto! (Although I quite like its look). Wingspan, not sure.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308296 19 Mar 2020 09:05
Thanks. That's a great point. In addition to big names like Agricola, there's the mountain of material about trains (the 18__ series, TTR, etc.), more recent developments like the Brass series or, for that matter, things like Twilight Struggle, Food Chain Magnate, or classics like Power Grid. There have undoubtedly been plenty of topics in the gaming world, even if a casual glance makes it seem like its dominated by swords and lasers (two of the biggest kids on the block being Magic and Dungeons & Dragons probably contributing to this.)

Uba made a good point when we were talking about Stegmaier a few months back when she had noticed that their marketing employed not just different themes, but also softer colors and other seemingly "non-aggressive" approaches, such that it seemed feasible that Jamey was intentionally aiming at women in the market. The perception of his company has certainly followed in that typically assumed direction, given that he was doing one of his "top 10" videos the other day and was apologetic about the fact that the theme was combat mechanisms that he enjoyed ("I know: Me? Talking about 'combat mechanisms'?" was one of the lines employed, IIRC.)

But all of that ignores the fact that Wingspan has been a huge hit, regardless of identity. It certainly may be pointless to try to assign motivators to the phenomenon, at which point my writing this whole thing may have been just an exercise in theorizing about why *I* didn't like it and was kind of useless. And, honestly, that's the way it started. But it also felt like an opportunity to expound upon some larger realities of the gaming world, so I think it was worthwhile in at least that respect.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #308300 19 Mar 2020 10:07

Jeff wrote: The factor that I think no one talks about is the role that confirmation bias plays in shaping our opinions. When a game looks nice, you just hope hope hope that it won’t let you down, that it will be as good as the expectation those visuals built up, and as long as the game is even “pretty good” you will feel those expectations were met. I think Jamey maybe more than any other publisher since Days of Wonder has figured out how to tap into this. As a thought experiment, Wingspan just passed Puerto Rico on the BGG rankings. If we were to mock up both games with handwritten card stock, would they generate similar levels of enthusiasm? PR, yes, I think; the actual game doesn’t look all that much better than a proto! (Although I quite like its look). Wingspan, not sure.


This is a great observation, but I think you can take it farther. I will assert that Scythe is a mediocre game that became extremely popular within the hobby merely because of the distinctive artwork. And I find Through the Desert to be a boring and empty experience, but suspect that the pleasing colors of the camels make the game enjoyable for the players. I am unwilling to even try playing Argent: the Consortium, because it looks a nightmare of open information in the form of clutter sprawling across the table. Aesthetic considerations can make or break a game for some players.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #308307 19 Mar 2020 12:54
As can one or two influential voices that are able to break open a new market that suits a particular title. I'd be curious to find out how new players found out about Wingspan, and if there were one or two particularly strong signals broadcasting the message. I saw this happen in a different subject matter years back, where one guy, not even a particularly influential guy, got a hype market started through no fault of his own.

I haven't tried Wingspan so I can't speak from personal experience. But my new house is in the middle of bird heaven, so the setting for the game would fit very nicely for me. May need to have a copy delivered to my house.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #308308 19 Mar 2020 13:17
My wife and I have been told independently about the game through extremely non-conventional, non-gamer networks in person and in podcasts, other media, etc.

The National Parks game is actually another one that we've heard about through non-traditional "gamer" media and people.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #308312 19 Mar 2020 13:51
Anecdotally I can say that from my time working in the Plaid Hat booth several summers ago that how you represent women in your sword and sorcery game matters. The percentage of women loving the art for Ashes and wanting to play it was higher than you'd typically see for stuff like Magic for sure. Jerry's games like Mice and Mystics were also popular with women.

I still haven't played Wingspan, but I imagine I'd feel like Jackwraith or compare it unfavorably with RftG.