Uses This

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A picture of Elizabeth Hargrave
Image by Judy Thomas.

Elizabeth Hargrave

Board game designer

in designer, game, windows

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Elizabeth Hargrave, and I design board games. My game Wingspan has been a big hit since it came out at the beginning of last year. In board game lingo, it's a card-driven engine-building game about birds. As you play bird cards in front of you, they make you better and better at doing the basic actions of the game, so that by the end you've built up this wonderful little system. In July 2019, Wingspan won one of the biggest board game awards, the Kennerspiel des Jahres, and right now it's #27 on the Board Game Geek rankings of all board games ever. It was quite a whirlwind of a year.

I also have a much, much smaller card game called Tussie Mussie that came out last summer, which is a game about giving people flowers that was inspired by Victorian flower language. And I've got more games in various stages of development.

What hardware do you use?

A plain-jane Lenovo laptop. That's literally all I can tell you about it. And a color inkjet printer.

And what software?

I probably use Excel the most. For example, Wingspan has 170 different bird cards, and each one is a row in a spreadsheet, with all of its information: the cost of the card, the power it has, the habitat you can play it into, how many eggs the card can hold, so on. And there's a formula behind it all that calculates how many points each card is worth, so there's some consistency and balance across the deck. All of the information in the game is based on reality. So I import a lot of data from other sources like eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Handbook of Birds of the World. VLOOKUP is my friend.

I use Google Docs to keep track of ideas, because I can access it on my phone from wherever. But I haven't made the shift to Google Sheets from Excel. Last I checked there were still some features I was using in Excel, like pivot tables, that weren't quite there in Sheets. And I've found accessing a spreadsheet on my phone is usually more trouble than it's worth. I just make a note for later.

I often merge my Excel data into a program called nanDECK. It's like a complicated Mail Merge for playing cards, but really it can make tiles or things of any size you want. I can make changes across my entire spreadsheet, and nanDECK will spit out a whole new deck for me with the push of a button. The whole process of making a game is playtesting and changing things, iterating over and over. Between Excel formulas and nanDECK merges, I think I've made the iteration as painless as possible. You can do similar things with paid programs like InDesign or Component Studio, but I went into game design with a lot of warnings that it's really hard to make money at it, so I went for the free option whenever possible.

In that spirit, when I need to make graphics, either to feed into nanDECK or to make a board or whatever, I mostly use GIMP. I can trust that an actual artist and graphic designer will come along behind me and make things beautiful. But a prototype does need to be clear and functional, and a little bit of art for flavor doesn't hurt get people into the spirit of the game. I want my playtests to find problems with the mechanics of the game, not to get tripped up by UI issues.

I use a website called KanbanFlow for my to-do list. I think it was designed for team use but for some reason it works really well for my personal modified GTD setup. I've tried other programs every once in a while but nothing sticks like this for me.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm still trying to figure that out. I got a big monitor to plug my laptop into in my tiny home office, but I don't use it that often -- usually I'm just on the laptop on my living room sofa. My living room is the coolest room in the house in the summer, and it's super cozy in the winter because we have a wood-burning stove. So my office is really more of a place to store all the physical stuff that comes with game design: lots of wooden bits, cardboard, sticker paper, xacto knives, things like that.

So dream setup? A laser cutter to help with prototyping. A desk setup for my laptop that's more ergonomic and inviting than the one I have now. While we're at it, a large-format laser printer, and some more RAM in my computer, because occasionally I'll do something in a giant spreadsheet and it takes longer than it seems like it should. All in a big office with a sunny view and cozy seating by a woodstove, with a good game table for playtesting. Throw in an unlimited supply of thoughtful human playtesters and I'd be in heaven. There are some things tech still can't do for us.