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‘I see interesting things in the world and the game that goes with them’: Wingspan creator Elizabeth Hargrave and designer Jeff Fraser on The Fox Experiment

Themes are the future.

“The history of the experiment had always fascinated me,” explains Elizabeth Hargrave, talking about The Fox Experiment, the upcoming board game she co-designed with Jeff Fraser. “The brother of the guy who started it was killed by the government for treason.”

Hargrave is best known for creating Wingspan, the board game about birds that has appeared everywhere from an episode of the British soap opera Coronation Street to a tweet from The Princess Bride actor Mandy Patinkin. “That was a very strange experience, to see words you’ve written coming out of Mandy Patinkin’s mouth,” says Hargrave.

Wingspan has seemingly managed to bridge the gap between devoted tabletop players and a more mainstream audience, despite – and if anything, because of – its unusual theme. Both Hargrave and Fraser agree that Wingspan has proven that the perceived divide between dedicated board gamers and casual audiences aren’t so impassable as the tabletop industry might believe.

“Wingspan has definitely crossed over,” comments Hargrave. “It really makes me wonder how much the industry has been limiting itself by imagining that their market is smaller than they need to imagine. Huge portions of the population shouldn’t be written off because they haven’t stumbled across hobby games yet.”

The theme is what makes mechanics make sense.

The Fox Experiment, inspired by a real-life experiment performed by Soviet scientists, is the next in a line of titles that follow Hargrave’s design philosophy of putting a unique theme before gameplay mechanics. Regarding her design process, Hargrave explains: “I don’t really start brainstorming mechanics because I need to work on a theme […] I see interesting things in the world and then the game mechanics that go with them.”

An image of the board, components and box for The Fox Experiment.
In The Fox Experiment, players will be trying to breed the friendliest foxes possible.

Though Fraser has gone through stages of putting both theme and gameplay mechanics first in his career, he agrees with Hargrave that theme is an undeniably important factor to the appeal of board games. “The theme is what makes mechanics make sense. If you don’t have a theme and mechanics that are tied together, then you either feel like you’re just pushing cubes around or that you’re trying to tell a story but don’t have the tools to do that.”

As with many of Hargrave’s previous releases, The Fox Experiment is inspired by real-life science that teaches players something about the natural world. In this case, The Fox Experiment is based on a programme started by a scientist who was interested in discovering the secrets behind animal genetics. However, due to the strict anti-Western censorship touted by the Soviet Government during the 1950s, the scientist was forced to provide a suitable front for his experiments.

“At the time, you were not allowed to talk as if you believed in traits being passed down through generations,” Hargrave explains. “They started this experiment in secret, claiming that they were just farming foxes for pelts.”

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Though none of the intrigue and government evasion remains in the final design of The Fox Experiment, the two co-designers did consider finding ways to put those elements in at one point. “We were thinking of ways to bring in a government that was trying to work against you, but it didn’t feel right for the game,” Fraser comments. The suggestion of putting these aspects in an expansion is met with chuckles and wry looks from Hargrave and Fraser.

It really called out for a mechanic where you’re rolling dice to represent the unknown of how genetics play out.

Hargrave’s interest in the experiment, its purpose and its findings - which formed most of what we understand about animal domestication now - were enough to trigger her desire to translate this instance of scientific discovery into a board game. “They were breeding foxes and choosing each pair from the friendliest foxes – that is the core of what the original experiment was – but what does that say about what we should do mechanically speaking?”

Whether certain desirable elements would be successfully passed down between generations was completely random, inspiring Hargrave to implement a dice-rolling system into the game. “To me, it really called out for a mechanic where you’re rolling dice to represent the unknown of how genetics play out. It just seemed to be the best way to implement that vision.”

An image of the cards for The Fox Experiment
Players are able to draft fox cards by writing on the film layer over the top.

Initially, the plan was to have players use tokens to represent the pups of the foxes players chose to breed. However, the number of pup tokens needed and the gameplay mechanics they were attached to became too much of a hassle. Fraser, who was initially brought on to develop the title but eventually became co-designer, explains that the tokens “just moved around too much – you’d put them back in the middle and then people would have to take them again – so it was decided that we should find a way for players to write on the game cards instead”.

The roll-and-write aspects of Fox Experiment are just one part of a much larger whole, with Fraser advising players “not to expect to sit down, have no interaction and draw on your own personal board”. Instead, players write their pups on the fox cards that everyone has access to via a shared market. The cards have a transparent film layer designed to allow ink to be written and rubbed off. This makes The Fox Experiment more of a hybrid board game, as it takes elements of a roll-and-write and mixes them with other mechanics such as card drafting.

“The physical components and concept for roll-and-write games have been around for long enough that people are mixing and matching it with other things,” notes Hargrave. “It became a big trend that’s being pushed as a smaller part of larger games and series – like the new Twilight Imperium roll-and-write style game [Twilight Inscription].”

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Another tread that Hargrave and Fraser have both taken notice of is the increase in designers and publishers using nature as a theme in their games. “Nature and naturalist games are having a moment right now,” says Fraser. Hargrave adds that “games that are based in nature are a much easier entry point because everyone has access to nature, somewhere”. Besides The Fox Experiment, Hargrave is set to add to this trend with her next board game, inspired by the concept of mycorrhizal fungi - mushrooms that form root networks with plants and trees.

If you’re making games with the idea that they’re for the existing market of gamers, you’re going to make a lot of games aimed at middle-aged white men.

Asked whether she has a name for this upcoming game, Hargrave replies: “The word mycorrhizal doesn’t really roll off the tongue.” When pushed, she says, “There’s this great book called Finding the Mother Tree, so it might be called Mother Tree?” The designer then describes the game, explaining that players will be playing as Mother Trees – or trees that have formed root networks with surrounding plants and fungi – who are trying to spread their saplings through the forest.

Pre-Wingspan, the idea of a board game based on the relationship between fungi and trees being published might have seemed unbelievable, but the industry and its audience are changing. “If you’re making games with the idea that they’re for the existing market of gamers, you’re going to make a lot of games aimed at middle-aged white men,” states Hargrave. Recalling the process of publishing Wingspan, the designer highlights the fact that Stonemaier Games – the studio behind the title – was advised not to order too many copies because it was deemed a risk, before the company spent all of 2019 “playing catch-up” after Wingspan was featured in the New York Times.

An image of dice being rolled for The Fox Experiment.
Relying on genetic elements being passed down through generations is quite the gamble.

“If you’re going to an established publisher, one that’s been around for 20 or 30 years, they’re going to be filled with the old guard,” Fraser says. For both designers, it’s about time that studios realised that they can reach all kinds of players if they actually make games with them in mind, taking a chance on unique concepts and diverse designers who haven’t yet been given the opportunity to prove themselves.

“We’re near the tipping point of where we might see a shift in terms of who is gaming and who is designing games,” Hargrave comments. “You have to broaden the market of gamers to grow a new generation of designers who have been playing games that appeal to who the general population actually are.”

The Kickstarter campaign for The Fox Experiment is live until September 30th.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.
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