Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave
Artist: Beth Sobel, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas
Release date: 2019
30 – 60 mins
Favouritefoe score: 9/10
*Set Collection * Tableau * Hand Management * High Production Value * Solo Mode * Puzzle*
Birds of a flock together…….or do they?
As you all know, I am a out and proud board gamer, and have been addicted for well over a year now. Early into my obsession, however, almost every account I browsed on social media was buying, playing, and raving over a Stonemaier game all about birds.
Elizabeth Hargrave was the designer. Beth Sobel was one of the illustrators. The components looked gorgeous. Everyone was diving in. It would have made complete sense for me to have bought a copy a long time ago.
But, I didn’t bite…..or, should I say, peck.
Back then, Wingspan sounded a little too “nice” for my green ears. Something very lovely with lots of “bits”, but not quite mean enough for my husband. Not enough juicy bones for us to squabble over. A feast for the eye and ear, but not quite satisfying our hunger for conflict and sharp game play.
Like a mockingbird, however, noise can be deceptive. And behind those glossy cards, gently coloured player boards, and wooden dice, sings a Scissor-Tailed strategic puzzle capable of scratching its prey, one talon at a time.
“I’m sorry” Stonemaier!
Always ready with an apology when I am wrong, I owe Jamey Stegmaeier and his team an Ostrich sized sorry (not to mention my epic pal who really sung these birdies’ case!). And I am truly sorry. Because, whilst Wingspan can be a lovely, peaceful, almost mellow, jaunt across a board, it is also sharp and clever.
My initial presumption of feathers over function was very wrong. Wingspan is as enjoyable to play as it is beautiful to behold.
And not to excuse my tardiness, but I am secretly quite pleased that I waited to flock to Wingspan. Because, although that means months of wasted potential play time, it also proves that my purchase wasn’t a hyped up, panicked FOMO reaction. It was considered, and it was as a result of one of the best gaming recommendations I have received to date.
At its heart, Wingspan isn’t tricky to learn. New gamers will be able to navigate the turns with relative ease, and hit their stride after only a few games (and not just because of the handy initial guide). You see, what you can actually do each turn is limited. As such, familiarity develops quickly.
Stripped down, you have just two choices each turn; (1) lay a bird card into one of 3 habitats, or (2) gain food, eggs, or more bird cards into your hand.
And these options are carried out just as clearly; pay collected eggs to lay a bird card into a habitat – this will enable you to bank end game points, carry out any immediate action stated on the card, and line up more powers for triggering on later turns (if applicable); or take the amount of food, eggs, or more bird cards as shown on next empty space in the chosen habitat in your tableau, and trigger any ongoing actions stated on the preceding cards nestled down that line.
Soft and Hard Boiled Eggies!
But, and this is a big BUT; both options are heavily loaded with possibilities, consequences, and trade-offs. SO much so that, if you are an analysis paralysis suffering extrapolator like me, it can feel like a flock of starlings have taken roost inside your head – in the best possible way, of course.
Now, you don’t have to play at that level. Players can tread lightly, pick and mixing their way to a beautifully finished tableau, collecting a few eggs and points along the way. And for that reason, I would recommend Wingspan as a gorgeous and enjoyable entry point to more complex games. However, for those with a little more experience, you can unleash your inner bird of prey.
I hesitate to call it a “gateway game” though, as that suggests it is one to be left behind once you are sitting in front of Scythe or tussling in Terraforming Mars. Having gained the confidence to add weight to our own board gaming choices sometimes, however, we can’t see a time when we will grow out of or beyond this game.
And this is the true beauty of this engine building, set collecting, tableau creating, hand management game. From something mechanically straightforward rises a strategic and versatile showstopper.
In reality, it isn’t just one engine builder; there are food, eggs, and cards all cranking up the bird power capable of being utilised each turn. (Luckily you have little cubes to help you keep track of what you are doing on the turns each round). And aside from the first few precious decisions where you are feathering your nest with something, every action is consequential. In reality, even those initial test flights will most likely help set your course for the remainder of the game. After all, an engine without fuel goes nowhere!
Chicken and Egg Situation!
Go hard-boiled for eggs, pad your flock to mitigate against turdy-birdy cards, or stockpile food to boost future purchasing power, the choice is yours. But with choice comes responsibility. And with only 22 turns in total spread over 4 rounds (8 decreasing to 5 on the final one), you aren’t going to have a lot of wriggle room. In fact, you are never going to have enough of anything to do everything you want. This is particularly true when you factor in personal scoring condition(s), and end of round bonuses.
You need food to lay bird cards, and you need birds to safely nestle your eggs. But if you focus too much on resource or card collecting, you’ll run out of turns to put those bird powers to any use. The age-old question of which came first; the chicken or the egg, has never been more relevant!
Which then throws the spotlight on the importance of combo moves. Build up smart habitats, and the pay-off when you trigger the line will be sweeter than nectar. Because, whilst most birds have a basic end-game point value, many also have ongoing powers (some of which even get triggered on other player’s turn!). As such, when you next go for food, cards, or eggs, you could find a cascading bonus effect that makes both your head and heart soar. Being able to take something straightaway and then benefitting from a nest egg of profitable cards that reward you every time you plump for an egg, card, or cherry is exquisitely satisfying and often victorious.
Honestly, Wingspan is one of those games that has changed me as a gamer, particularly when it comes to playing against my husband. When it is on the table, I truly don’t care whether I win or lose. Working out my plan of action, and seeing if it comes to fruition (or not) through a tableau of beautiful birds is the best part.
Something that surprised me even more is how enjoyable Wingspan is at two player count. I was expecting tension to be dependent on more players picking the best cards, and putting the pressure on. But a two player game plays quick and plays perfectly. For us, it is a husband v wife challenge with much reduced downtime. We don’t get as many bonus bits from cards that reward all players, but playing against one other person usually means we don’t need that added birdie ballast.
Birds in the hand…….
Connected to that point, having played as 2, 3 and 4 player counts now, I can’t think of a situation where my tableau or plan of action is going to look or play out the same as last time. The main reason for this is the sheer volume of bird cards in the base game. SO. MANY. CARDS. Cycling through all 170 in a single game at lower counts is impossible, and even when more players are round our table we haven’t seen the bottom of the deck in a single session.
And, although that means we are subject to the luck factor intrinsic in card drafting, this is gold standard for replayability. Not knowing which birds are going to rise to the top on a given game makes each experience different and exciting.
I have had games where I have quickly been able to build a hand of brilliant birdies, simply down to the randomness of the draw. Conversely, in other games, I have had a flock of birdies that have been as much use to me as a chocolate teapot. But this has of course meant that I have to mitigate against my cards not offering the combo powers I need, as well as the cards also rewarding other players. Having to adapt your strategy on the hop in Wingspan is brain burn of the best calibre.
Two (or more) in the Bush!
I would say that we have found that quite a few of the bird powers are repeated or simply variants on the same power (e.g. gain a worm from the bird feeder/gain a wheat from the bird feeder). And, because cards are drawn at random, we have sometimes found a run of almost identical birds coming out of the deck in a single game.
Whilst a tad frustrating (especially when we know there are far juicier ones hibernating further down somewhere), it does shift responsibility for turning the situation around back on us and our skills.
Switching the focus to end of round bonuses and personal scoring objectives, maximising on eggs……whatever we think we have to do to avoid ending up in a scramble!. I often go hard on laying point scoring eggs in the last few turns, usually because I haven’t optimised my hand or card order allowing me any last ditch killer combos. This might leave a slight sour taste for some, but, to me, a point is a point, no matter how it comes about.
I haven’t played any of the expansions (European and Oceania) yet, but the samey-ness of some of the bird cards may be something that is resolved by adding additional birds and powers into the deck. I don’t think the game play itself needs changing (always a risk when an expansion is added), but I would like to see more variety in powers now that I am getting very familiar with them. On this basis, I am very tempted by both of them, and would very much like to try them to see their effect.
Another lovely thing about Wingspan is that, even if your game is tanking faster than a kingfisher diving for its dinner, you can still enjoy the ride. Each card includes little titbits and facts about each species, some of which (wingspan – obviously – and others) actually forming part of the game play, which pushes the thematic strength of this game sky high!
All the cards are undeniably gorgeous, glossy affairs, and don’t seem to be wearing even with repeat plays. Being able to store them inside the included plastic card display console is definitely assisting with their longevity. The wooden dice are also lovely to hold, and roll well when pushed through the included cardboard bird feeder dice tower.
Sadly, our bird feeder dice tower broke quite early on when an over enthusiastic player tried to dismantle it at the end of the game, and ripped one of the cardboard joints. But a little sticky tape and careful handling in and out of the box has preserved it thus far. Being able to store it in just two pieces, and having little token pots already included, as well as handy instructions on how to pack away all the components is a testament to the immense thought that has gone into the design and production of Wingspan.
In truth, everything about Wingspan has been done to the highest standard, which comes as no surprise to anybody familiar with Stonemaier games’ production values. The linen textured rule books, player boards, and little eggs already feel like they have been upgraded (although the speckled eggs do look good!).
Our circular cardboard food tokens are probably the only things that look a little “lived in” now, but a quick look online offers ample choice when it comes to enhancements (and indeed I bought a set of wooden food tokens myself last week from TheGameKnight!).
One for Sorrow?
Wingspan is definitely a game where your focus is on what you are doing to your build your best tableau. I wouldn’t say it is pure multiplayer solitaire, however, as some of the cards do directly affect your opponents, and vice versa.
And, rather unusually, the gentle ways in which you can meddle with your fellow ornithologists or capitalise upon their successes in Wingspan, are all positive; giving rather than taking away. And this is clever. Because having to give somebody something you know could help them get that resource, bird card, or egg they need, is bitter-sweet. Likewise, being able to get something when a competitor makes their move is glorious! It is generosity spiked with a little sharp edge. Care-bears can play safely here, but tension is never far from the park.
True to Stonemaier form, Wingspan has an integrated and well thought out automa for solo play. As I am really getting into solo gaming, I am going to save this aspect for a special review focussing on the operation and feel of the single player mode. Safe to say, however, it is fast becoming one of my favourite go-to solos for when I have a little more time and table space to spare.
I can safely say that Wingspan and I have fast become great friends. Like Five Tribes, there was an instant connection that is only strengthening with each play.
It is a strategic puzzle that makes me feel warm inside, but still has that competitive edge that I crave. It has also unleashed a rather surprising interest in the birds around me. As the US species are unlikely to make a visit to my garden any time soon, it is not like I am spotting Gray Catbirds or Northern Flickers on the lawn. But, its effect does mean that find myself trying to identify more home-grown species when I see them up close and personal. I am also now getting quite adept at throwing very birdie orientated vocabulary phrase around, whether we are playing Wingspan or not!
Wingspan has also surprised me because it is game with multiple paths to victory. And, in general, I am a straight-shooter type of player. Give me the goal and it is head down until I hit it. But here, the options and dilemmas regarding what best to do in order to win is all part of the beautiful game.
In summary, Wingspan has revealed a side of me that I never knew existed; a bird-brained, peacefully competitive gamer with an added appreciation for gorgeous components. It is a bright, smart, beautiful engine building game that I would not hesitate to recommend or play. It was the first Stonemaier game in my collection, and I can unequivocally say that it will not be my last.
Thanks to Wingspan, I am now officially bird-brained! Haha