Review: Wingspan

One of the first things I learned about Bri when I met her was her consuming, all-encompassing love of all things ornithological. She took ornithology classes in college, and can identify 50 different Arizona birds by sight and sound. She absolutely adores African Grey parrots, and we would love to adopt one someday. She often goes by “Birdie” in online circles, and for a time, self-published music under a bird-related moniker, which I’ve been forbidden to reveal; many of the gifts I gave her in the early days of our relationship were bird-themed in someway, whether it was a vintage owl necklace or a TY stuffed cockatoo; and no matter where we travel to, if there is any type of a bird refuge or sanctuary, you had best believe it’s on our itinerary.

So when we found out that Stonemaier Games, publishers of high quality and well-known titles such as Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe, was coming out with a bird-themed board game, it immediately grabbed our attention. A medium-weight, euro-style game, all about birds? Yes, please!

How we felt awaiting this game!

As the months passed, everything we read, heard, and saw about the game only served to excite us more, and that excitement peaked when the game arrived at our front door in all it’s beautiful glory. We played it for the first time that night, and in the past couple weeks have knocked out more plays of this one title than all the rest of our games combined.

Overview

Wingspan is a pretty classic example of a tableau-building, action selection game. During the course of the game’s 4 rounds, each player spends a turn taking one of four actions–gathering food, laying eggs, drawing cards, or adding birds to their tableau (we refer to ours as our “sanctuaries”). As a player’s tableau begins to fill with birds, these cards cover up weaker action spaces, allowing players to access more powerful actions on their turn. The bird cards themselves offer players additional actions, as well, leading to some exciting engine-building opportunities.

Each round, players are working towards one shared scoring objective while simultaneously trying to maximize points in their tableau. These shared objectives can lead to greater player interaction, by ranking end-of-round points based on most to least, or can contribute to a calmer, more solitary game by merely allowing each player to score what they have, independent of what their opponents may have obtained. A players place on the score track is marked by one action cube, reducing the number of actions they can take in future rounds, and the game ends once the fourth round is complete and players have placed their fourth action cube on the objective board.

Points are scored in six different ways; by totalling end of round goal placements, by scoring victory points on the bird cards themselves, through the eggs, cached food, and flock sizes of the birds in a player’s tableau, and by players’ bonus cards, individual secret scoring objectives distributed at the beginning of the game and sometimes obtained throughout play.

…Oof, that all sounds a bit dry, doesn’t it? I promise, Wingspan is anything but.

Bri, after playing Wingspan nonstop for a week.

First Impressions: 5/5

We both love a pretty game. It’s an opinion we’re sometimes reluctant to share, because so much of the hobby is still sprinkled through with gatekeeping individuals, happy to assume that folks who like games for their aesthetics don’t know anything about gameplay mechanics or design. But when it comes down to it, there are plenty of games with excellent gameplay that we won’t give a second look because it’s awful to look at, and many games we would never have discovered if vibrant, or unique, or masterful art on the box and components hadn’t drawn us in.

So knowing this, allow me to say–Wingspan is really, really pretty. Like…really pretty. It calls to mind the paintings of John James Audubon, and is so obviously and lovingly inspired by his illustrations that it feels as though you’re holding something more than just a game in your hands.

My favourite thing about the box, though, isn’t the bird that graces the watercolour blue sky; it’s the prominent display of the names of the design team behind what is promising to be one of this year’s most well-received titles.

Wingspan boasts an all-female design team; the game itself is designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, and the art and illustration is put together by Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel. Board games are still an overwhelmingly male-dominated hobby; when asked to identify on a binary, play groups tend to report a roughly 50/50 split between male and female, but when you look at a list of the most celebrated designers and artists working in the industry right now…there’s a lot of Erics and Brunos and Richards, and not a lot of Elizabeths, Natalias, and Ana Marias. As a pair of game-playing ladies ourselves, seeing that list of names was awesome, and it’s been vindicating to see Wingspan become something of a critical darling–even among those who might have previously suggested that board games aren’t for girls.

COMPONENTS

Everything in the box is made of materials that feel like art supplies, and the game itself is a work of art. The paper of the rulebook, appendix, and quick-play guide is a heavier stock, with a linen sort of finish that is an actual pleasure to hold and leaf through. It reminds me of watercolour paper (though I’ve been told by Bri that watercolour paper actually feels nothing like that). The cards are of a similar sturdy stock, and despite not being sleeved, they feel resilient and haven’t shown any signs of wear yet despite the number of games we’ve played in the past fortnight.

The player boards are nice and big, easy to see and read. They give the impression of a notebook–the bottom side printed in a rich leather-looking image, and the inside there’s a lovely watercolour scene–as though someone was out birdwatching and plein aire painting. The one drawback is that the nice, heavy cardboard and the orientation of the fold (player board inside, rather than outside) makes it hard to lay the board out 100% flat–admittedly, a teeny, tiny little quibble.

The dice tower is utterly unnecessary, yet lovely, and so, so satisfying; it’s adorable to have it sitting on the table, the wooden dice clattering through and into the tray. It’s taken a bit of work to find the right angle to set it up at so that my wrist doesn’t complain when I tip a handful of dice into it, but it’s absolutely worthwhile just to have that precious little birdhouse sitting on the table.

The wooden dice mentioned are also lovely, light to hold, and the iconography on the faces is clear and colourful; icons are large and easy to distinguish, so regardless of ability to see colour, everyone with sight should be able to distinguish the faces with relative ease. Less easy to distinguish will be the cubes in the five player colours, which, while colourful and pleasing to my eye, don’t lend themselves as well to various sorts of colourblindness. And the wooden eggs in their many pastel shades are a lovely addition, as well, similarity to the delicious year-round Canadian chocolate treat of Cadbury Mini Eggs notwithstanding.

Altogether, the game is just…beautiful. I’ve come to expect this from Stonemaier–production quality is definitely one of the things they’ve become known for–but it doesn’t take my breath away any less. And while there might not be a lovely sleek GameTrayz insert in there to sort everything out, Stonemaier continues the tradition of printing box layouts on the side of the box bottom, so that everything can fit nicely back into the box without any possibility of damage to the lovely, lovely bits.

Gameplay: 4.5/5

The balance of engine-building and luck strikes all the right chords for me, though more strategic players may find there’s just a bit too much luck to really shine. Drawing bird cards can be a detriment if your bonus cards don’t work with anything you have, or if you’re constantly drawing high-cost birds, or birds whose abilities don’t work together in a smooth engine. Generating available food resources similarly relies on luck with the roll of the dice, and repeatedly not getting what you need coming up can be frustrating, especially if you were relying on a cached food strategy to score end-game points.

But there are very few birds with abilities that don’t serve any purpose; just about every single bird in the deck has a use, whether it’s a well-fitting cog in your machine or just a little side project that occasionally spits a couple of points your way. Even those birds without recurring abilities are often worth major points, and the game itself feels inherently very well balanced.

So far, Bri has been partial to the waterbirds, but really any strategy seems to be a good one if followed through on.

Another nice thing about Wingspan’s gameplay is that It’s hard to know who is in the lead. It doesn’t quite tip into Feld levels of point salad, but with the exception of the round objectives and the visual of eggs on player boards it is tough to get a sense for who has the most points at any given time. This means there’s little incentive to gang up on any one player, and there aren’t many ways one can negatively impact another player aside from simply playing better (getting more cards, more eggs, etc).

Gameplay is easy to understand and fairly intuitive; I taught the game three separate times, first to Bri, then to another friend, and then with Bri, said friend, and two others. There is certainly some advantage in teaching the game to people who play games themselves, but even so, once you understand the way the game works, it’s very quick to pick up. The rulebook is very well laid out, with clear examples and a lovely appendix that answers any question anyone might have about any individual card’s abilities, and the game comes with both an extended rulebook and a quick play guide, designed to get your baby birds out of the nest with minimal fuss.

It’s a very satisfying game to play, as well. We’ve heard it compared to Terraforming Mars and Gizmos–two other games we really, really enjoy–and I would definitely agree with that assessment. It has the simplicity of Gizmos, combined with the satisfaction both games can deliver in establishing a well-oiled engine. It doesn’t punish early mistakes, and it carries with it a certain sense of “push the button and see what it does”, a phrase we both use a lot for games where experimentation is encouraged. Play a card and see what happens. In early turns, especially, it can help shape a strategy out of what might look like disparate

There also isn’t a singular clear winning strategy, in our experience at least. The sheer variety of cards in the game – over 150 unique birds and 25+ bonus cards! – offers multiple paths to victory, and there’s no way to hone your strategy down to one particular one with any kind of efficacy. You have to play with the cards you are given, and while you might not always be able to play a favoured strategy based on that, the luck of the draw won’t leave anyone without an equal shot at the win.

SOLO GAMEPLAY: 4/5

I’ve also played a game against the AI, which was a novel experience for me–I haven’t played any of the Stonemaier Automa games prior to this. It was a little more complex to set up, in my opinion–I found myself reviewing the rulebook far more often, due to the unfamiliarity of the setup, and didn’t immediately understand the mechanics of how the AI player worked. But once the game got started, it clicked just as easily as the multi-player game did, and I was able to play through it in just over half an hour. It didn’t quite have the same satisfaction as playing against Bri did–much less trash-talking, for instance–and I found myself even less able to gauge how I was doing in relation to the Automa. It’s also hard to do anything to block the Automa’s strategy (since it doesn’t have one, per se), so it feels like much more of a race than a strategic game.

The design of the Automa game is amazing, though! It’s obvious that a lot of thought and playtesting went into designing the action cards for the AI, and though they were randomized, all of the actions the Automa took made sense. If I squinted and tilted my head, I could see the intelligence behind the actions, and imagine what moves the Automa “player” would have been taking to make those individual actions worthwhile. All in all, I was fairly well obliterated in the normal difficulty, ending the game with a score of 64 to 89–a far greater point differential than in any game I played versus other human beings.

Pros

  • Beautiful high quality components
  • Scientifically sound–we loved the bird facts, the attention to detail, and the completely non-arbitrary way nest types, egg quantities, bird abilities, and the eponymous wingspans of the various species were assigned to each card
  • Gorgeous artwork
  • Expansions forthcoming–according to Jamey Stegmaier, the plan is to design and release expansions for each continent, to match the North American focus of this initial release
  • Designed and illustrated by a team of fantastic, talented women!

Cons

  • Some aspects of the game, like feeding, are more reliant on luck than others, which can be frustrating for more strategically-minded players
  • Low player interaction, even in the more head-to-head variant
  • The eggs look frighteningly close to Cadbury Mini Eggs, potentially causing a choking hazard (or cravings for candy-coated chocolate).

Final Score: 5/5

Minor quibbles notwithstanding, and despite the slightly lower score on solo gameplay which I fully admit might be due to loser’s bias, there really isn’t much overall to complain about with Wingspan–and so very, very much more to celebrate. This game is a work of art from both a design and an artistic perspective, and we are absolutely thrilled to have it in our library. I can certainly see this being a favourite title and a mainstay in our home for years to come.

The second printing of Wingspan should be hitting stores by mid-April, with the third printing coming a month later, and the design work for the first expansion is already underway!

**We were not paid to write this, but the game was supplied to us by the publisher in exchange for a thorough and honest review**

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