Wingspan: Art in Board Games #44

Wingspan: Art in Board Games #44

EDITORS NOTE: Of course when Wingspan flew onto all our radars I very much wanted to know more. Initially this was an interview with just Jamey and Natalia but Elizabeth kindly jumped in at the last minute with some extra insight. I’ve included a few links to the Wingspan print shop but there’s no affiliate links or money changing hands, I just figured you’d all be interested. Enjoy the interview!

Today I'm being joined by Jamey Stegmaier (Publisher/Developer), Elizabeth Hargrave (Designer) and Natalia Rojas (Artist), who will be telling us more about the gorgeous new release Wingspan. Thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Jamey: I’m Jamey Stegmaier, and for the last 6 years I’ve run a board game publishing company called Stonemaier Games. I run this company full time from my home-office in St. Louis, Missouri, which is a fairly large midwestern city. In addition to designing games, playing games, and doing a lot of business-related stuff, I love to cook and try new food (and old favorites) at local restaurants, watch movies, read fiction, and play/watch soccer. I have 2 cats that demand quite a bit of time and attention as well.

Natalia: Thank you for having me. I am a 33-year old artist from Medellin, Colombia, currently living St. Louis, MO. I’ve been married for 13 years and we have two daughters (ages 7 and 4) and a cute puppy named Pinto. I’m a dedicated mother and work around their schedules as I don’t want to miss out in their childhood.
I have a curious mind and like to learn about everything, so I read a lot and jump from one hobby to another. I do jewelry, watercolor painting, yoga, gym, and of course color pencil drawing. My family and my art are the most important things in my life. I do commission art work and Wingspan is my first big gig as a freelancer illustrator.

Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth Hargrave, and I live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. I moved here to work for the federal government, but now I'm a freelance consultant, which gives me some flexibility to do game design work and also to travel. In addition to birding I'm an all around nature geek: I'm on the board of the local mushroom club and I help my spouse with his landscape design work.

Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames

Natalia, as a self-taught illustrator, when did you start drawing and why did you start?

N: Drawing has always been something so natural to me that I never saw it as something special. I’ve always done it, but the first time someone mentioned how good I was at it was my kindergarten teacher. Drawing was something I did just to pass the time or to take my mind away from places. I’m an avid reader and I used to get in trouble during my scholar years for drawing and/or reading instead of doing classwork. I wasn’t very academic and used to get in trouble because my mind was always busy with drawing stuff or reading books (I love Stephen King, Ken Follett, and other authors who write historic novels).

Natalia’s art studio

I never really set my mind to learn how to draw, I would just try to copy an image I liked such as book covers or Dragon ball notebooks, people from magazines, or anything I could find. After graduating from high school I didn’t consider art as a career, I guess because my passion for books was bigger than my passion for art. So, I wanted to study philology but was discouraged by my parents because, like with art, it’s hard to make a living out of books. I tried three different careers including business administration and journalism and dropped them all. I’ve also had normal jobs, too; I’ve done customer support, finance, procurement, etc. However, some years ago I finally came to the realization that I’m a natural artist and that’s what brings me joy. It took me many years and several jobs to take art seriously but when I did, I found my calling. It’s a funny to think how art was always there and I kept ignoring it.

Natalia’s art studio

After my epiphany I decided to try to get better at drawing and I just knew I needed to take my time and work slow to get the level of detail I like. I started to follow some great artists like Jay Depalma and Ileana Hunter on social media. Sometimes they’d share tools and materials that I would get and use on my next little project. After moving to United States in 2012 I started going to an amazing art studio for painting nights and got more involved in the artistic community.

Even though I say I’m self-taught I’m thankful to have received great advice from other artists like Ana Martinez with whom I partnered to create the illustrations for Wingspan, and my husband who is always a tough critic, in a good way. He helps me see where I need to improve. I like to do research, and I use every available tool like books and videos but what has really worked for me is the practice and the patience to take my time in every piece.

I don’t really know how to explain it other than there’s a great connection between what I see and my ability to transfer it on paper.

Bird illustration by Natalia Rojas

The board game industry is dominated by popular themes and Wingspan is quite different to your average release. What inspired you to make a game about bird enthusiasts and what stage of the creation process was the theme introduced?

E: It was definitely theme first, and in direct reaction to the fact that I'm not particularly excited about any of the themes that show up most frequently on board games.

J: When she (Elizabeth) pitched it to me, I was entranced by the idea of collecting different combinations of beautiful birds that each had different mechanical impacts on my strategy. So the theme itself was never a question—it was birds from start to finish. As much as I loved the theme and thought it would capture peoples’ attention after they played it, I wasn’t sure how quickly it would catch on. So I went with a fairly conservative number of games for our first print run (10,000 is conservative for us), which has turned out to be far too low.

Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames

So, can you describe Wingspan to us and what makes it interesting?

J: Wingspan is a bird-collection, card-driven, engine-building game for 1-5 players. It features 170 unique bird cards, each with its own art and unique abilities. You’ll use these bird cards to enhance the core abilities of your habitats while also continually comboing the abilities of cards you’ve played in each of those habitats.

What makes Wingspan interesting to me is the wide variety of birds, which leads to every game feeling different. I like that there are a number of paths to victory, but even if I don’t win, I have a strong sense of satisfaction from my birds and what they’ve done over the course of the game.

With a game so closely focused on birds, how did you look to bring that to the forefront in the production?

J: This is where the artwork and components came into play. I wanted an Audubon look to the game, as I thought that would best trigger that “collectors” aspect that originally drew me to the theme. Fortunately, Natalia’s style and attention to detail was a perfect match for this style.

N: From the very beginning I knew they were looking for realism art and Jamey mentioned Audubon so I started to research him, and I offered Jamey a colored pencil drawing of a bird so they could decide if I was a good fit for the project (I was competing with other artists I think).

J: As for the components, I like to publish products that have a special, tactile, and attractive table presence. I want component hooks, basically. Elizabeth thought of the birdfeeder dice tower, and I pursued the egg miniatures, the fancy insert, chunky wooden dice, and large, journal-like player mats.

Image of Wingspan board game - image cred Kim Euker (supplied by Jamey Stegmaier)

Natalia, what inspires you when illustrating birds and what are you looking for in each drawing of them?

N: Accuracy is key when doing scientific illustration. I do my research of the bird and the differences according to genre, season, location, age, etc. Ana and I always look for the image that best represents the bird’s characteristics. However, we also wanted to include images that would present a challenge so we can continue to learn and grow artistically.
Elizabeth was a great coach and helped us learn about birds for this project. To be able to accurately illustrate birds we got in touch with wonderful wildlife photographers and we got permissions to draw from their pictures. Nevertheless, when we couldn’t find the perfect image we had to use several pictures and a lot of imagination to guarantee an unique illustration that would represent the bird as if it was alive.
Birds are the perfect subject to learn how to draw and to practice. There are so many species, different looking, so many colors, textures, etc and that’s why I enjoy it. Every bird illustration offers new challenges and more learning opportunities.

Illustrations by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, featured in the board game – Wingspan are available to purchase via Natalia’s shop

Playtesting is the real litmus test for how close a game is to being ready. How long did Wingspan spend in this phase and how did it change both visually and mechanically during its development?

E: I worked on the game for a couple of years before pitching it to Jamey, and then back and forth with him on development for another year or so before sending it out for blind playtests. It got heavier over that time, but kept the  streamlined feel of those simple base actions at its core.
I tweaked the layout of my prototype cards a lot over that whole process, to make them as clear and user friendly as possible, based on what people had trouble with in playtests. That definitely helped from a UI perspective -- and Christine (the graphic designer) left a lot of things in the same positions they were in on my prototype after all those iterations. But then she made everything prettier and gave it a more cohesive feel.

Image of Wingspan board game - courtesy of Instagram @ellalovesboardgames

J: I’ll speak specifically to the blind playtesting part of the process, as local playtesting (mostly by Elizabeth, some by me) is very different than having a bunch of people around the world playing the game all at once. The blind playtest process for Wingspan actually only took about 3 months (1 month per wave), as the game was in good shape by that point. It was really all about fine-tuning it, testing different paths to victory, and making sure the rules and the text on the birds and bonus cards was as clear as possible.
Natalia was working on the bird illustrations throughout the design and playtest process—we knew which birds were going to be in the game, so playtesting had no impact on the art (and vice versa). Even the player mat, which Beth Sobel illustrated, was firmly established before blind playtesting began, though we tweaked some of the graphic design elements of it as the result of blind playtesting.

N: I learned that creating a board game is a creative and complex process that requires great attention to detail and coordination in many different areas. When I started working on the illustrations I knew this project was a big jump in my career and I gave my best to make sure the art in Wingspan was a good representation of my work.
In all honesty, I knew very little about board games from my childhood but it was a big surprise to learn how big the gamer community is. I just learned how to play wingspan a few days ago and it makes me very happy that not only I did part of the art but that is the first board game I ever played. It makes it extra special.
Working with Stonemaier has taught me great lessons about managing my time in a more efficient manner and to keep clear communication with my clients to set timelines and expectations.

Wingspan illustrations - Natalia Rojas

Do you have any other projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?

J: Natalia is currently working on the art for a Wingspan expansion (for which we have not announced details), and spring/summer Stonemaier Games releases include an expansion for Euphoria and a modular board for Scythe.

N: I’m currently working on the first expansion for Wingspan and already have a waiting list for a few portraits. People, dogs and more birds are on my list. I’m super excited because I’m having great exposure thanks to Wingspan and I’m making a living out of art which is not easy.

E: I'm working on a Wingspan expansion. I have an 18-card game called Tussie-Mussie that will come out around May from Button Shy, which is based on the Victorian fad of flower language. I have high hopes that it will also be beautiful, just in a much smaller package!

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

J: I find thematic inspiration in the variety of forms of fiction I consume; right now I’m reading the Broken Earth trilogy. I find mechanical inspiration in the games I’m playing (recent plays include Dice Throne, Aeon’s End Legacy, and AuZtralia). And I find business inspiration in certain podcasts and YouTube videos, like a recent Daniel Pink talk I listened to and the Masters of Scale podcast.

E: I try to keep taking in a lot of information about the world, and I use that to keep a running list of things that might make good board games. I love the podcasts Radiolab, Curiosity Daily, and Outside/In. When I worked on Capitol Hill, a speechwriter once told me the Washington Post obituary page was a source of great stories, and it's true -- there are many fascinating things that have happened in the world, and a lot of them end up there.

N: I’m studying a book about birds but can’t say the title without spoiling the expansion. I’m following a lot of artists and photographers in Instagram because I’m constantly looking for images to use as references for the drawings, but the main source of inspiration these days is my bird feeders and daily walks around the neighborhood. Wingspan not only gave me an opportunity to grow as an artist, but it gave me the love for birds and nature. Before starting working on this project I didn’t know anything about birds and never cared but now I’m full into bird watching and the whole family loves it to the point that my daughters dressed up as a Quail and a Blue Jay for Halloween. Is great to sit by the window with a coffee to watch all the different birds that visit the backyard.

Illustrations by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, featured in the board game – Wingspan are available to purchase via Natalia’s shop

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?

J: The hub for all things Stonemaier is

N: My websites is or you can find me on Facebook and Instagram.

E: I'm active on Twitter as @elizhargrave

Thanks to Ella Loves Boardgames for sharing some images of Wingspan with me. You can find her on Instagram over here!

(All other images are courtesy of Natalia, Jamey and if no note given, myself)

If this is your first time visiting the site then why not stick around a while! I’d really recommend checking out the communities Top 10 Best Art of 2018 to see some absolutely gorgeous games and then head to my interview archive for a wealth of wonderful stories.

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