Playing board games, thinking about Excel: Wingspan Edition

18.06, Friday 11 Feb 2022

I’ve been playing pandemic-breakout-hit board game Wingspan recently.

I kinda sorta wanna to see this gorgeous and hand-drawn ecology-fostering approach baked into financial modeling software, such as Microsoft Excel.

Your job in Wingspan to populate your wildlife refuge with birds (each a beautifully illustrated playing card). Birds cost food and an increasing number of eggs. You can gather food and lay eggs, the quantities of which are dependent on your population of birds.

Wingspan is what’s known among serious gamers as an “engine-building game,” which means that as the game goes on, the combination of birds you play becomes more and more efficient at generating points each turn, like an engine running faster and faster. Your cuckoo lays eggs, and the eggs not only give you points but make it possible to play more birds, which also give you more points but have their own powers that generate points in other ways.

An engine builder. As opposed to “roll-and-move” and other mechanics.

And: Activating the cascading effects of these healthy interconnections is the greatest pleasure of playing Wingspan.

The precise goals vary each game, for added fun, and there are a ton of birds, which all bring something different to the table. Like: bird such-and-such wins you 7 points and costs 3 of these particular foods and can fit 4 eggs in its nest and has a special power in that it encourages other birds to lay extra eggs too under whatever particular conditions.

Getting this right is why the game works, and it was hard work: It’s those interconnections that [Elizabeth] Hargrave began mapping out in a ginormous spreadsheet once she decided she really did want to design a board game.

(Here are some good Wingspan strategies.)

What I don’t enjoy about Wingspan is that there are a ton of rules.

The cards and tokens (food, eggs) are merely indexes into the real game board, which exists only virtually, in rulespace.

Hargrave’s fearsome Excel spreadsheet is ever-present, hidden behind the curtain.

Compare with say Chess or Go. There are rules, sure, but they are relatively minimal. The state of the game is told more by the physicality of the pieces on the table.

(Game theorists must have mathematics to describe this different. I would like to know!)

So I would like to play another version of Wingspan in which the rules are somehow implicit in the physical geography of the pieces, instead of being written down on the cards and in the rulebook. I don’t know what that would look like.

You get a sense of acceleration in playing an engine builder!

Here’s a great article from a game design perspective – how to harness the acceleration… but also how to slow it down: Engine Building (2019) on Make Them Play: Learning About Board Game Design.


The challenge is much more in balancing your engine. One major problem with an engine is that it can “run away”: If you can turn resources into more resources then whomever has a minor head start can quickly leave all other players behind without hopes of catching up.

It’s a very 21st century genre, right?

For example: building a startup is never about building the product. It’s about building a machine that knows how to ship product and how to sell it and how to use feedback to iterate it. And that knows how to grow itself as an organisation.

Like, consider the Business Model Canvas (as previously discussed) – as a way of describing a startup on a single sheet of paper, it’s practically already a circuit diagram.

Also think about community development: how do you build a community which goes out and attract more community.

An engine that simply accelerates is entertaining to experience, but the joy is in the meta design – how do you create conditions such that player builds engines that don’t blow up?

How do you create a startup or a community which grows in depth and complexifies, but doesn’t churn out or ossify? Wiring up the feedback loops, balancing the world. How do you make an ecology which expands when appropriate and renews yet remains heterogeneous and manageable?

And ecosystems truly are a 21st century preoccupation. With the climate crisis and its runaway feedback loops, and pandemics with their exponentials, and social media with its virality, this isn’t like the old days of the industrial revolution where the plumbing was steam and electricity – relatively manageable stock and flow. No, we’re trying to manage circuits and networks of lashed-together exponentials; unstable equilibria all round, if you get it wrong then systems explode or die before you blink. Tread either carefully or really, really fast.

Hobbies in this Wingspan world are things like bonsai and terrariums – games of ecopoiesis: a new word which means ‘the making of an abode for life’, said biologist Robert Haynes in 1993.

I wondered before about giving out bonsai trees at business school to see what mindset they impart – and I’m wondering more directly now: what is Microsoft Office but designed on terrarium principles? What would it be like to work in Excel: Wingspan Edition?

I’ve been looking at liquid computing recently, specifically the MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) a.k.a. the Phillips Hydraulic Computer a.k.a. the Financephalograph, invented by Bill Phillips in 1949. They’ve got one in the London Science Museum:

The MONIAC is a model of the British economy built as a two-meter tall machine with a water tank at the top and equations modeled using pipes, valves, tanks and pumps.

Bill Phillips used water to represent money as it flowed around the economic system. Valves could be opened or closed to represent variable effects, such as the rate of interest on savings or investment.

Graphical curves, describing things such as the way interest rates varied over time, could be cut into plastic sheets and physically ‘read’ by the machine as it operated.

(There’s a great video at that link too.)

As a liquid computer, it was an empirical way to solve the equations to arrive at something balanced, i.e. where you don’t end up with an empty or overflowing treasury tank.

And so: When a set of parameters resulted in a viable economy the model would stabilise and the results could be read from scales. (From Wikipedia.)


Isn’t the lesson of MONIAC that it is interesting to build financial models that are seeking balance (or at least, are evolving slowly enough that they can be managed) not necessarily ones that are trying to go perpetually up and to the right?

What would it means to have a version of Excel that was always iterating in the background, always running the engine, giving you a readout of whether your model would blow up over time, or whether you were tuning it towards balance?

So, imagining this: every sheet would automatically come with an infinite stack of sheets of how it evolves over time. Every non-formula cell would default go to zero unless you declared an external conduit, a value which would be added or subtracted per tick of the clock. Constant numbers would be banned: everything has to come from somewhere.

A special function would colour-code a cell according to whether it diverged to infinity, converged to zero, or remained stable over time.

You get to write only onto the t=0 initial conditions top sheet.

Elizabeth Hargrave repurposed Excel to design an engine-builder that doesn’t lead to runaway inequality between players and doesn’t rapaciously consume the game board, yet leads to collaboration and complexity over time. What if we built the ideal version of Excel for her, and gave that to MBAs to build their companies?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.