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Board Game Review: Wingspan

It might be mildly offensive to the scores of board game designers out there, but until just recently, I’ve never played a board game that was so unique it made me want to learn more about the designer and why they designed the game. A lot of games are exceedingly wonderful, and they push me to stay tuned for what the designer might release next, but that's altogether different from wanting to understand what motivates the designer and makes them tick.

And then along came Wingspan, designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, and released by Stonemaier Games. We have close to a thousand in our collection, and I’ve never seen anything like Wingspan before. It’s a game centered on birds. Beautiful, fascinating birds of all sizes, habitats, colors, and species. One hundred and seventy birds to be exact, in this first release of the the base game. It’s so richly and specifically themed; even with Jamey Stegmaier’s signature stamp of influence (goal oriented worker-placement game with win-win actions and well implemented solo mode), the designer’s innovative, well researched, and creative output takes center stage. I wanted to know more about her.  It took me just a few minutes online to find this interview of Ms. Hargrave that Punchboard Media released earlier this year and when I read it I was astonished to discover that she is not, in fact, an ornithologist who had that one great idea, but a board game designer by trade who takes inspiration from across her many interests. Her idea for Wingspan grew out of the charts she created to track birds she’s spotted in nature.

In Wingspan, players compete with one another (or against the automa during solo play) to build the most attractive aviary. The winning aviary will prove itself in victory points from the birds it hosts (birds are worth varying amounts of victory points as printed on their cards and birds tucked under other birds are worth 1 point each), their eggs and cached food (1 point each), and the goals met (detailed on bonus cards and round tracker; goals are usually oriented toward collecting birds with a certain quality [such as name includes a color or having a certain type of nest], toward numbers of birds in certain habitats, or toward having eggs in certain habitats or nests).

Components include plastic coated cards; cardboard player aviary mats, food tokens, goal tiles, first player token, and goal board; custom wooden dice, action cubes, and eggs; a scorepad; a bird tray to hold bird cards during the active game; a custom dice tower; and all components needed for playing against the automa in solo mode. All of these components are well made and the eggs are some of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. Likewise, the artwork is phenomenal, with illustrations by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel.

My review copy of Wingspan arrived at my door back in late July, when I was still on vacation in Europe. As soon as we got home, I tore into it, excited to see what all the buzz was about (the game has been on the lips of every board game enthusiast for months; I first spotted a copy back in December when it was still under hush hush review copy only distribution in the hands of a fellow reviewer). We invited our friend David over to play our first game and he fell for these birds so hard that he ordered his own copy the very next day from Stonemaier’s website.  My husband and I were hooked after just one game as well and we’ve gone on to play several games since then, across all player counts, including solo against the automa.

As I mentioned above, Wingspan is a worker placement game, where you use wooden action cubes to execute one of the four basic actions each turn:

  • Play a bird to your aviary
  • Gain food used to attract new birds
  • Have your birds lay eggs
  • Draw new birds

Each action, save for playing a bird, is tied to a specific row (i.e. habitat) on a player’s aviary card. Gain food is associated to the forest habitat, lay eggs is tied to the grassland habitat, and draw cards is paired with the wetland habitat. To complete the action, a player references the first empty space (reading from left to right) in the action’s habitat, and follows the visual instructions. In the picture below, I’ve circled in red the 4 action types on the player board. The habitat type for each action is indicated by the icon to the left of the action.

One of the genius mechanisms deployed in Wingspan is the reduction of actions available over each successive round. When the game begins, everyone has eight wooden action cubes they may exhaust to complete eight different actions. At the end of the first round, players give up one of their cubes to mark their first round results on the goal board. Each follow on round sees players doing the same thing, so that by the time the last round rolls in, there are only five actions available for a player to execute. Brilliant! Luckily, Wingspan provides plenty of opportunity to build a strong engine and so the pain of only having a handful of actions during the final round isn’t too severe. It does so by assigning powers to bird cards (these powers often include the ability to take one of the four actions in a specific limited way such as “gain a cherry”; such action powers are color coded brown) and having players re-execute the brown powers of all the birds in a given habitat, from right to left, anytime a player chooses to use that habitat action during a turn.

Wingspan is not subject to much analysis paralysis. There’s usually a bit of hesitation when deciding which bonus and bird cards to select during the game setup as well as when drawing or playing bird cards during the game but it was rare that I ever sat waiting for someone to decide which action to take overall.

Both the competitive and solo modes of Wingspan are challenging and engaging. I’ve averaged 80 points across my competitive games and my solo games have seen me come in just slightly higher at about 85 points a game. I found the solo mode to be very relaxing.

Lessons learned:

  • First and foremost, prioritize adding birds to your aviary with star type nests. These are wildcard nests, which will count for every type of nests with regard to achieving goals. Every winner I’ve witnessed included an assortment of wildcard nest bird cards in their aviary.
  • Follow the advice printed in the rule book; in the beginning of the game focus on adding birds to your aviary that give resources when activated (in my first few games I focused more on high point birds instead and lost).
  • Work hard to win end round bonuses – their point differentials can swing the game in your favor.
  • Build a better engine over focusing on bonus completion if you have to choose between birds that will do one or the other.

I love that every game of Wingspan comes with a free biology lesson on birds. This bird lives in this habitat and that  bird eats that prey and that other bird has a wingspan of x number of meters. Fascinating, and it makes the game great to play with kids as a learning experience. My favorite type of bird encountered in the game so far is the Yellow Breasted Chat. It’s power allows it to move around from habitat to habitat, allowing you to use its characteristics to meet goals across any habitat from round to round.

I can only offer one complaint against Wingspan and it’s quite minor – the round goals are two sided tokens but their shape indicates a front versus a back side; they should be perfectly flat if no side is to take precedence.

Stop what you’re doing right now and make and take a step toward building your love for Wingspan. If you don’t own it yet, drop by your local game store to pick up a copy or check availability on Stonemaier’s website. Seriously, like right now. If you do own it and you haven’t gotten to the table yet or in awhile, commit to playing it at least once this week. Text your friends (up to 4 others) to come play with you, or set it up for solo mode. The important thing is to get it on the table, because as soon as you do you are going fall a little more in love with it.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

~Mary Oliver

-------------------------------------------------

Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Players: 1-5
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 90 minutes per game
Game type: worker placement

Rating:

review-OUIOUIOUI

Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

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