Wingspan Review (Physical Game)

By Chris / August 9, 2019
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This is Picklemoose's Blog.  A small section of Pixelated Cardboard dedicated to topics outside of digital board game ports.  Posts here will be less formal & cover a range of topics.

Wingspan! Birds! Eggs! Components! Hype! Wingspan!  If you pay any attention to the board game world, you’ve heard of Wingspan.  It is the adorably-theme engine builder from Stonemaier games. It comes with ridiculously nice components, including linen rulebooks, because why not?  It was released early this year and received a bunch of hype. That hype led to the inevitable “overhyped” backlash, but then it won the Kennerspiel des Jahres award (given to the “hobbyist game of the year”), ensuring that it will live on for a long time. Or not, if you look at the history, but do any games live on for a long time anymore in our overly consumerist culture?  That’s another topic. 

So, Wingspan!  What is it? You collect from a pile of 170 unique bird cards and use food resources to lure them into your wildlife reserve.  Once there, birds provide one of four different abilities: an ability each time you activate it, an ability that can activate when an opponent does something, an ability that activates when you play it, or nothing at all.  Birds also provide points and most provide nice, comfortable nests on which you can lay beautiful pastel eggs on to receive a point at the end of the game. Or use them to pay for more birds, because theme?

The game plays over four rounds with points being scored based on birds played, eggs gained, secret goals earned, open goals achieved, and eating giant piles of smaller prey.  Wait, what? Yes, predators are in the game and there are one of the most fun aspects.  Get a giant hawk and, when activates, you will be able to draw a card from the deck and if the bird drawn is small enough, you successfully found your bird's lunch and you get to tuck the card under said bird for a point at the end of the game.  Circle of life!  Those open goals are the most direct conflict the game contains, as you can play where the player who does the best at some goal gets the most points.  There is a flip side to that sheet which is less conflict-heavy.  Some other birds let you tuck cards in different ways or gather food onto them for end game points.  The important takeaway from this paragraph is that you can hunt birds, the second, far less important, takeaway is that the game has a bunch of avenues to points which is always a great sign for replayability.

It’s an engine builder.  You start stacking those powerful “when activated” abilities in rows next to each other and suddenly you are laying seven eggs per turn, or hunting with three predators, or gathering five pieces of food.  The possibilities are endless with 170 unique cards! (Well, not exactly, but we’ll get to that later). It is an incredibly streamlined engine builder with a theme that is completely innocuous at first glance, but by the end of the game everybody involved will be looking up local ornithologist clubs.  Seriously, almost every review says the same thing: “I couldn't care less about birds, but then I started playing and now I think the theme is genius.” It is a really impressive feat the designer Elizabeth Hargrave pulled off, getting people to like birds. The nerve…

wingspan - game

Eagle-Eyed Focus

Sorry, I’ve been rambling, back to the game.  It’s great. It’s great because it streamlines engine building.  One of the tricks of the game is that you use cubes to announce what action you will take, and you march your cube from right-to-left down a row when you take one of the three main actions (get food, get eggs, get cards).  When I was teaching the game to my wife, she thought that marching the cube down these rows was pretty dumb. By the end of the game she was grateful for such a simple mechanical trick to allow her to easily track what she needed to do on a given turn.  Compare this to some other, more unruly, engine builders where you have cards scattered all around your tableau and can easily lose track of things. Streamlining is a powerful tool, and when it is pulled off as well as Wingspan does, it deserves a heap of praise, even if the underlying mechanics of the game aren’t breaking any new ground.

Pretty as a Peacock

That’s a thing people say, right?  The components are top notch and the artwork is great.  Oh, the artwork. Each card has a unique, intricate drawing of the bird.  It’s just so much fun to grab a new card and check out the amazing artwork.  The thing I didn’t expect was how appealing the game would be to, well, everyone.  After posting a picture on social media, I had people who don’t play games asking about it.  A couple of people followed up with me later asking for the name of the game. People see a beautiful game of birds and they want a piece of that action, apparently.  This has no bearing on how good this game is or isn’t, but it definitely affects the ability to get the game to the table. Any person who sees this game and doesn't want to let out their inner ornithologist at least once, well that is no friend of mine. 

Easy as a Lark

This game teaches quite well.  I highly recommend using this video as a guide.  It eases players into the game, making it much more approachable than it would be with a big rule dump to begin.  It is firmly a medium weight game, so experienced gamers will be fine, but teaching less experienced players can be pulled off rather easily compared to other games of similar weights.

The game also sails by in a very tidy amount of time.  As advertised, two player games have consistently been right at, or a few minutes below, 40 minutes.  With players who know the game, you can play probably up to four players in an hour or less, which is a great achievement.  This is, relatively, a lot of game for that amount of time. My shelf is full of lighter games with longer play times.

Flying Solo

I have not tried it, but the game features an extensive solo mode from the fine folks at Automa Factory.  The game has you, essentially, playing against a dummy player who doesn’t actually build a board, but rather grabs cards for points.  You can scale the difficulty as your skill increases. That’s an oversimplification, but go watch some video impressions of the solo mode, it appears to be a well thought out and engaging mode.

Clipped Wings

I’m going for bird puns on these headers and it fell apart a long time ago, but here is where I talk about the not-so-great aspects of the game.  First, there are 170 unique bird cards which sounds bonkers upon first glance. It is technically true that there are 170 unique birds in this game and each is given beautiful artwork, nice factoids, realistic sizes, and thematically appropriate abilities.  The gotcha here is that there are far, far less than 170 unique abilities. One bird will lay an extra egg in the nest type A, another will do so in nest type B, and so on. Some will even do the exact same thing, but have a different habitat, nest, or point value.  There is still a lot of variety in the game, but the true variety falls well short of the headline of “170 unique birds!”

Another big issue people seem to have are those eggs.  This is a popular “OP strategy” that detractors of the game are quick to bring up.  Essentially, if you build an egg-production machine, the entire last round of the game (there are only four rounds) will be best spent simply turning the crank on that egg engine.  First, this is a powerful strategy, but it isn’t an impossible one to beat. I’ve beaten it before, and also lost to it. The problem (if there actually is a legitimate problem here, which is certainly debatable) is that if you spend the game building up this egg machine, then producing those eggs in the final round will clearly be the obvious play which can take some fun out of your last handful of turns.  It’s naturally more fun to get food to recruit a cool new bird which will earn you big points, but it’s an engine builder, you have spent the majority of the game building something, now you must turn that crank to reap the rewards. I feel like the egg machine is more like a B+ strategy. If you get the cards to pull it off, it is probably going to be your best bet and you will probably do well and have a good shot at winning.  In that way, it feels sort of restrictive. The counterpoint to this is that there are plenty of other viable strategies and if you are hell bent on winning above all else, maybe Wingspan isn’t for you?

I also feel like both of these issues are entirely fixable via expansions.  A game this popular which is primarily card based is certain to be expanded, so hooray for new abilities and maybe some egg machine balancing. 

This One's For the Birds

You, the reader, are a bird in this bad section title scenario.  Because this game is for you.  Because it's good.  Get it?  I feel like it is pretty difficult to dislike Wingspan.  It’s just such an incredibly streamlined, pleasant experience that I have a hard time imagining too many people playing this game and coming away disappointed.  Engine builder fans might not be blown away because Wingspan isn’t doing anything groundbreaking for the mechanic, but again, it streamlines things in such a way that I suspect many experience engine building players will be able to appreciate it on that level.  People who get too wrapped up in hype might come away disappointed that this didn’t reinvent board games as we know it. People who enjoy stoking the hype backlash will probably have no problems picking out things to use to put down the game. In actual warning flags, the game is low on player interaction, with almost no negative interaction, so be warned if that is a turn off for you.

For the rest of us, Wingspan offers an incredibly pleasant engine building experience and everything about the game is a joy to look at and touch.  If you are looking to break your group into engine building, or introduce some eager new players to an incredibly appealing game, Wingspan will fit the bill. 

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