The board games turning science into playtime

By Dan Jolin for theguardian.com

When Elizabeth Hargrave created a board game inspired by her love of birdwatching, she had no expectation it would become a tabletop phenomenon. Yet Wingspan sold out within a week of its release in January, earned glowing reviews and was the subject of a New York Times article.

“It’s just so far beyond what you could ever hope for, right?” says Hargrave, a health policy researcher in Washington DC. Given that most modern board games have geek-friendly fantasy, science fiction or historical themes, she admits she was uncertain as to “how it would go with a theme so far outside the mainstream”. But that theme “got people really excited”, as it turned out.

It’s one that is rooted in solid science, too. Self-confessed “spreadsheet geek” Hargrave dived deep into her research to make sure each of the game’s bird cards bore close relation to its real-world counterpart, from the acorn woodpecker to the yellow-rumped warbler. You don’t need to be into birds to enjoy it, but you’ll come away from a game of Wingspan knowing far more about them. “I want it to be accidentally educational,” says Hargrave. “I wasn’t trying to make a game that’s teaching actively, but more drawing on the fact that people connect to these things because they’re real things in the world around them.”

Wingspan is part of a new wave of Stem-inspired (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)board and card games that has been building over the past five or six years, with themes including cell biology, evolution, epidemics and the colonisation of Mars. While the connection between science and gaming isn’t new, it has become far more innovative and elegant.

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