27th Feb2020

‘Wingspan’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Already positioned as one of the most popular and sought after board games of the past 18 months, Wingspan benefits both from a superb design by Elizabeth Hargrave and fantastic artwork by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas and Beth Sobel. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Wingspan is published by Stonemaier Games, and as a result, comes with the full weight of Jamey Stegmaier’s marketing machine behind it.

I’m always concerned that games as hyped as Wingspan will struggle to live up to the hype, after all, how could they? Wingspan is a simple game that takes an unusual but extremely relate-able theme (birds) and wraps an engine building, egg laying and point scoring mechanic around it. Each games lasts just an hour or so, with the player who scores the most points across their tableau, their secret objectives and a number of public objectives being declared the winner at the end of four rounds of play.

The real beauty of Wingspan, aside from a very clean design, is in its gorgeous artwork and relaxing theme. There are no take that mechanics or directly confrontational elements within the game, and the only point at which the players will cross paths is if the “competitive scoring” board is being used. In this case, only the players who score each communal objective in first and second place will claim points, whereas in the “friendly scoring” board, then any player who achieves an objective may score it, no matter whether first or last.

Because of the lack of interaction – there isn’t even drafting, or anything remotely close to a competitive mechanic – some players will consider Wingspan to be what is often terms as multiplayer solitaire. A game in which each player is present within the ecosystem of the game, but not necessarily interested in what everyone else is doing. Whilst I agree with this as valid criticism, Wingspan does such a good job of immersing players in building their own engine, and lasts for just the right amount of time, that it’s never been a major problem for me.

With such a focus on engine building, let’s talk about what you’ll actually be doing during the game. In short, there are four actions – play a bird card (from your hand), gain food, lay eggs or draw bird cards. The first of these options is simple enough, with the player simply taking a bird from their hand and placing it onto their personal board. Each bird will occupy a different row on the player board, with the symbol(s) shown indicating where the bird will go – the bottom row for water birds, the middle for grassland, and the top for birds that live in trees.

Whilst playing birds has no specific column (and will therefore only trigger effects listed on other birds, if present) each of the other actions is linked to one of the other rows. For example, when you gain food, all birds from the top row (those that live in trees) will activate, and those that have effects will trigger. Also, the number of food that will be taken is indicated by the first free space on the tree top row. The same is true for the lay eggs and draw birds actions, but they relate to the grassland and water birds respectively.

What this results in is that each action becomes progressively more powerful as the players expand the number of birds in their collection. Both the basic action (collecting food, for example) and the bonus action (the triggers on each bird in the row) become more powerful. As in many engine building games, this means that whilst the first round takes a matter of a few minutes, the final round might be four or five times longer due to the number of triggers that need to be resolved.

Birds come with all kinds of effects – from claiming food or other bird cards (which might be scored later for some thematic reason) or laying bonus eggs, to playing additional bird cards. Most of these effects are similar (and often involve food, which is the in game currency) but the manner in which the effect executes is often different and varied. Dice rolls denote the kinds of food available (and are placed in a very cool dice tower by default) but will also be used in resolving triggers, as will card draws and some cards even benefit all players.

Once a fixed number of actions (8 in the first round, 5 in the last, with each player using up action cubes to score each round) has been performed, the round will end and a scoring will take place. As I mentioned earlier, Wingspan includes a double sided board allowing both more or less competitive scoring models to be used. In the more competitive scoring mode, only the first two players to have achieved an objective (like having a set number of birds, or a certain amount of eggs) will score, whilst on the other side, everyone who achieves an objective will score. Objectives are drawn randomly at the beginning of the game, so there is some variety to be had in that.

To repeat myself, the speed at which Wingspan plays and the rewarding feeling of building out your own tableau is what makes it compelling. The rounds do take longer as the game progresses, but the ever dwindling number of actions prevents this from becoming too much of an issue. Even if it were, players generally enjoy resolving their actions – especially when they feel particularly clever about a specific turn, having drawn maybe two or three food and triggered several birds on the same turn.

Bringing everything together is the truly spectacular artwork and the incredible attention to detail. You really must immerse yourself in the theme to truly enjoy Wingspan, and if you do, you’ll be rewarded with details about the size of a bird and where it lives, as well as a sentence of flavour text explaining its habits or how it hunts for prey. Of course, along with the image, the number of eggs it can hold and what food it costs, players can use their imagination to fill in the blank space and build up a nice understanding of each bird. Whilst the base game includes North American birds only, a European Expansion (which I haven’t played) is already available.

Overall, Wingspan is a really nice, lightweight and attractive game that draws players in quickly thanks to its overwhelmingly good looks and very high quality of components. Aside from the huge deck of bird cards and their associated artwork, there is also the cardboard dice tower, the attractive wooden dice and the gorgeous miniature eggs that are placed on birds. There are the colourful bird boards and the simple manual – which now includes a pre-loaded quick start deck and a guide sheet.)

The mechanical elements of Wingspan, whilst potentially leading to some complex scenarios later in the game, are also simple enough for me to keep referring to the game as lightweight. There are numerous engine building games out there which have similar end results in terms of how they work, but few are breezy and accessible – nor as broadly compelling – as Wingspan. Even if the lack of competitive elements is a factor that might dissuade some from considering it a must have, there’s likely always going to be a time when Wingspan could be produced to delight a non-gamer friend, or to kill an hour before a larger game begins.

**** 4/5

Wingspan is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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