Birds...so many pretty birds.
# of Players
Wingspan. If ever a game legitimately needed no introduction, it is Wingspan in 2020. It’s an engine building game with a delightful bird theme and games take about 20 minutes in digital form. It has won every award in the board game industry and whether not you’ve played it, you probably have an opinion on the game. I’ll get mine out of the way: I have been playing and loving the game for over a year.
The fact that I own and love the physical game makes Wingspan a bit of a rarity. Despite all of the apps I’ve played and reviewed, Wingspan represents the first instance of a game I was very actively playing in physical form at the time of the digital release. This puts me in a bit of a bind. I very much enjoy that a digital version exists, but do I actually want to play it? I’ve certainly had digital games “ruin” physical games in the past due to the streamlining and speeding up of gameplay. Where does Wingspan fall? Does it kill the physical game for me? I’ll get to that in a little bit, but first, about the game.
Wingspan is an engine builder which has players recruiting birds into their habitat, which is split up across three distinct zones: forest, grasslands, and wetlands. You will have a hand of bird cards, each of which is unique and can be played into one or more of your three zones, typically at a cost of food resources. Once in your habitat, birds may provide immediate bonuses, bonuses when you take certain actions, bonuses when other players take certain actions, or no bonuses at all. The entire game is in these bird cards and the variations between them make the game shine. Most birds, for example, will provide points at the end of the game simply for being played into your habitat. However, some do not. Why would you play those? Well, maybe that bird was extremely cheap, or even free, to play with a zero food cost. Or perhaps it has a very strong ability to make up for its lack of points. Most birds also have nests which have a type and a capacity. Eggs can be laid and later used to pay to play more birds onces your habitats become inhabited, or they will simply earn you a point per egg at the end of the game.
That’s just the points and eggs, the real meat of the birds are in those abilities. The most popular abilities are “brown” abilities which activate whenever you take the action associated with one of your three habitats. Stepping back, each of the three habitats have their own unique actions: gaining food, laying eggs, and drawing more bird cards. When you take the food action in the forest, for example, you select some food from the dice tray. The next step is where the magic happens. Any birds you have played into the forest get the chance to activate if they have one of those brown abilities. A simple action might be to gain extra food from the supply. If you get that bird down early, each time you take food throughout the entire game you might get an extra piece of food. That’s a very simple, potentially powerful engine.
The abilities cover a wide range of actions. My personal favorite are the predator abilities which allow you to blind draw a bird and if the bird you draw has a wingspan under a certain threshold, your bird eats it, tucking the card underneath for an extra point at the end of the game. There are abilities tied to getting more cards, laying more eggs, and so on.
The Red-Tailed Hawk
Okay, so play birds by getting them into your hand, paying food and eggs, and get some cool abilities and points. What else is there? Well, not much. There are two other scoring mechanisms in the game. Hidden private objectives are exactly what they sound like. Each player gets two to start the game and selects one to keep, others may be acquired through bird abilities. These are things like “two points per predator in your habitat.” The last way to score is through end of round bonuses. There are four rounds and each has a different bonus. These are things like “total number of birds in the wetlands.” At the end of the round, your total is compared to the other players and you get points for having the most, second, third, and so on. These goals are really the only source of conflict in the game outside of the food and bird selection where you might inadvertently steal the worm your opponent desperately wanted.
If Wingspan doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking, it’s because what it offers really isn’t. The genius of the game is how it packages up a medium weight engine builder into an amazingly streamlined experience with a fantastic, appealing visual appeal. In the physical game you use a cube to denote which action you are choosing and you march the cube down the birds you have played in that specific habitat. The game makes sure you don’t miss anything whereas other engine builders have you bouncing between ten different places trying to remember which abilities should trigger at certain times. Wingspan’s genius, in my opinion, is how the game takes that bookkeeping out the hands of the players. This makes this medium weight game significantly more accessible than games with less depth and strategy.
Beyond streamlining everything, the game is a lot of fun. Trying to chain together birds for powerful combinations is a blast. There have been cries about overpowered strategies, I’ll leave those for you to figure out on your own, but I enjoy starting with a blank slate and seeing what kind of game I can play each time. Sometimes I want to chain together as many owls, hawks, and eagles as I can so I can try to score a crazy number of predator points. Other times I will target high point birds and maybe some abilities which make it a bit easier to get food to pay their higher cost. Or maybe I try to utilize the pink bird abilities which allows me to do things when my opponents take a particular action. Maybe I’m gaining one egg every turn in which one of my opponents lays eggs? That’s a lot of free points. There are a lot of different routes to take and they are all fun to try.
Barrier to Entry
Wingspan features a nice tutorial to help new players learn. Wingspan is a medium weight game but the design and, later, the packaging really leaned into making it as accessible as possible to new players. The digital version continues this trend with a really fantastic tutorial that holds your hand for the first two rounds of a game and rolls out the various mechanics in an easily digestible manner. Additionally, the streamlining of the physical game obviously carries over and everything you need to know is right in front of you on your board or cards at all times. The digital version even includes the player aid cards. A helpful “?” button sitting in the corner will describe the available actions in case you forget.
This is one I was very familiar with going in, so it is tough to say exactly how well the digital version teachers new players, but from the great tutorial to the streamlining of the game and the excellent, helpful interface options provided, I am comfortable saying this one will do a great job teaching new players in short order.
Look and Feel
The presentation in this game is unparalleled in the digital board game space. One of the most impressive aesthetics of the physical game is that every bird has unique art. The beautiful artwork jumps off of the cards and draws you on. How do you translate that to digital where artwork can be a bit overlooked? You animate every bird! That’s right, every card has a tiny animation that keeps your habitats looking active throughout the game. Adding to the spice, each bird has an interesting fact that is read aloud when you play them. Elsewhere, the background graphics are impressive as are the small details throughout. Simply put, the game looks amazing.
Functionally, it is mostly a success. I would like the option to play the game from a view where you can see your entire habitat (all three zones). The game offers that view, but only as a separate look, you can glance at it for context but must go back to the single-habitat view to play.
Controls are all handled well, mixing drag-and-drop and click-and-confirm. There is a “next” button which acts as an “I’m done” or “pass” depending on the situation. The game includes an undo button and makes sure you let you know when you are about to perform an action which can’t be undone.
Overall, the presentation is fantastic. It looks less like a board game ported to digital form and more like something original. That is a high, rarely earned complement in this space.
Online games are either played real-time or asynchronously. Real-time games give players five minutes per turn while async provides 24 hours. You can choose either of these options and the game will pair you with available players to start a game. Another way to start games is to create a custom game which allows you to add any combination of friends and/or AI.
The only real complaint here is lack of options for turn timeout lengths. 24 hours is typically fine, but why not allow the players to choose something with a 48 hour, 7 day, or unlimited timeout if they aren’t in any hurry to finish? Outside of that, I’ve had no issues with online play, it works well.
The game does feature local human versus human play, with turns being separated by a “it’s your turn” screen so that hidden information is not revealed to opposing players. This mode will likely shine when the Nintendo Switch version of the game releases.
Single player can be played against a selected number of AI opponents or by using the Automa system included in the physical game. The AI difficulty levels are currently limited to Easy and Medium. The developers have stated that adding a Hard AI is in their plans. The medium AI is, well, decidedly medium. I’ve played a bit of this coming in so I’m not a total beginner here, but I was able to compete with the medium AI from the beginning and pick up wins when my plans go well. It might take a hard AI to keep many players busy in AI games for the long haul.
Thankfully, Automa is here. You can set up a game with the Automa and also any desired number of human and/or AI opponents. This is a nice feature to see, if you enjoy the challenge the Automa provides but also want to go up against other players. The Automa system from the physical game is widely praised. The gist of it is that the Automa player will devour cards over the course of the game to provide points. You play a normal game and compare your total to the Automa at the end. It’s a good system if you want to challenge yourself to score a lot of points which is a slightly different aim than outscoring AI opponents.
The game features a Bird section which allows you a closer look at the birds in the game, but only after you have played the bird in a game. This is a fun option that some might use as an achievement system. The game also allows you to save end-game states for any game you wish, these are placed in the Preserve Archive section.
The physical game had a popular European Expansion released. I don’t think that is included in the digital game, but I do believe some of the round scoring goals have been borrowed. The lack of variety found there in the base game was a bit of a weak point, so it is nice that the digital version has changed that a bit.
The Wrap Up
Wingspan the digital experience rightfully takes most of its cues from the physical game. It is a gorgeous game which goes out of its way to make a medium weight engine builder accessible. The focus here is clearly on visuals and ease of play, with each step of the experience spelled out in front of the player, making it nearly impossible to leave the player confused.
This focus is great and makes a lot of sense in the context of seeing what Stonemaier Games did to attempt to streamline the game beyond the brilliantly streamlined game designer Elizabeth Hargrave put together. It doesn’t, however, come without a cost in the digital version. There is almost nothing in the way of extra features. No achievements or stat keeping, which are the simplest form extras might take, let alone any sort of unique play modes. Even the modes that are present feel a bit incomplete. No Hard AI? No variable timeout options in online games?
The theme running through any complaints I have about this game is that it’s all about what isn’t here rather than what is. I have no qualms with what is presented here, it’s a fantastic digital implementation. This is just a case where it’s so good that it makes me want more.
So, will the digital version ruin my physical game experience? I can safely, albeit somewhat bittersweetly, say ‘no.’ There isn’t enough here to force me to come back. I love the game and am happy to have the option to hop online and play whenever I want, but there isn’t any extra feature here that is strong enough to pull my time away from other digital games, I’ll be quite happy to break out the physical game every few weeks.
At the end of the day, if you want to try Wingspan and want an incredibly easy to learn and use digital version to do so, this is a perfect fit for you. The game also works incredibly well for Automa play and real-time online games. If you’re looking for anything outside of those cases, you might end up a bit let down.