Elizabeth Hargrave – Designers Diary #2

According to my computer files, my first draft of Mariposas was in 2014. I remember that the inspiration first struck while I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior – which is about monarch butterflies and climate change. I played several versions of an early Mariposas against myself, but just wasn’t happy with how it was working. So I set it aside and dove much harder into the bird game that I was working on, instead.

I didn’t bring Mariposas off the shelf again until the summer of 2018, when I was done with Wingspan and waiting for it to be released. AEG had put out a call specifically looking for women designers to submit games by the end of November, which would put them on track to be part of AEG’s Big Game Night at Gen Con in 2020.

I was feeling vastly outnumbered in the game design world. I attended monthly playtesting events where I was often the only woman. That spring, two popular design contests had picked long lists of finalists – and each included just one woman. (For the next design contest I saw, I created Tussie Mussie in a bit of a fury over this.) To say that I appreciated a publisher trying to do something to shift the balance would be a vast understatement. It meant a lot.

So I got to work. My vision for Mariposas was that it would be a gateway-weight game, because kids and newcomers will be attracted to a butterfly theme. I wanted it to tell the story of the monarch migration and lifecycles, with:

  • Butterflies moving on a map in a way that mimics actual migration patterns,
  • The ability to make more butterflies with milkweed
  • Flowers as some sort of currency.

Moving around the map

It was clear Mariposas should include an element of moving butterflies on a map, but it took a while to settle on the right mechanism for movement. I had started with a system that included flowers as a payment, and a whole system for getting the flowers, but it was too complicated. Eventually I came up with a deck of movement cards. The cards trade off between distance and flower collection: some let you move fewer spaces and get more flowers, while the longest moves give you just one flower at the end.

Simplifying even further, I realized I could give each player just 2 cards at a time. More cards overwhelmed players as they tried to see all the permutations of how they could move multiple butterflies on a hex-based map, without necessarily giving them better choices. The interesting decisions are all in the paths you can find on the board to do as much as possible.

Making more butterflies with flowers and milkweed

From early on, I had butterfly pieces labelled for the 4 generations of butterflies that hatch each year, because I think the fact that no single butterfly ever makes the round trip from Mexico to the north and back again is one of the most fascinating parts of the monarch story. Working out exactly how those different generations should come on and off the board took some work.

Any butterfly on the board can pay flowers to hatch a butterfly from the next generation, but only if it lands next to a milkweed symbol. The placement of those milkweed symbols was an important breakthrough in the design: I originally had them on single spaces, just like a flower, which made it much more challenging to get to them, and meant you didn’t collect a flower from that space when you went to hatch a butterfly. My playtesting buddy Matthew O’Malley had the insight that putting the milkweed in between the hexes would give players a lot more flexibility.

To echo the annual cycle of monarchs, one generation of butterflies comes off the board at the end of each round. To make sure this doesn’t result in someone getting wiped out of the game entirely, I let players have a free butterfly from the next generation at the same time. This became an unexpectedly interesting decision point in the game: should you pay to put that butterfly out before scoring happens, or to wait to get it for free?

Mimicking migration patterns

My first draft of Mariposas had encouraged players to move their butterflies based on latitude lines and tagging locations — based on projects like Monarch Watch that put tiny sticker tags on monarchs’ wings. There were monthly rewards and requirements. When I picked it back up, I quickly distilled this down into three seasons. I went through a brief phase of trying modular pieces on the board before settling on fixed regions, with varied goals.

I really like games that have intermediate scoring rounds, to give you some short-term focus. In Mariposas, each round has a distinctly different feel. The goals in spring reward you for going north and starting to reproduce; in the summer you’ll probably want to get as many butterflies on the board as you can, and location goals may encourage players to spread out on the board. Then, in the fall, there’s always a big reward for getting as many butterflies as possible from your fourth generation back to Mexico, along with some other bonuses you can pick up with butterflies that don’t make it back.

The result is that your player pieces on the board will often look remarkably like actual maps of the monarch migration.

Pitching to AEG

At the end of November 2018, I sent a video pitch to AEG with the game as I had it. I knew it needed some more work, but I also was pretty confident that what I was sending was already a really solid game. I heard back from them in January while I was in Guatemala, and sent a prototype off to California as soon as I got back. Soon I heard back that they had played Mariposas and wanted to sign it. They assigned Mark Wootton to be the developer – he’s not just an accomplished designer and developer, but a former park ranger. It was a match made in heaven!

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