Wingspan, published by the ever-consistent Stonemaier Games in 2019, feels like a must-own for a budding board game hobbyist.
Once a shelf-space reserved for ‘introductory’ games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Dominion, that slot is now populated with the likes of Wingspan. Truth be told, it’s a big step up. Not only in quality of components compared to Ticket to Ride’s charming, yet lacking plastic trains or Settlers’ wooden roads and cities, but in difficulty level and number of mechanics. But, at its core, Wingspan is a game that deftly bridges the gap between ‘consumer’ board games like Monopoly, and true boutique board games that can, for new and budding hobbyists, offer inscrutable rules and an overwhelming buffet of mechanical complexity.
One of the first things you notice about Wingspan, and part of the reason I feel Wingspan has such widespread popularity among board gaming groups of all skill levels, is the components and design of the game. The cardboard player mats are vibrant and beg you to drop bird cards into their spots, there’s a wooden birdhouse and chunky wooden dice that help dictate which resources (see: bird food) you get. There are pastel colored eggs galore that feel good in your hand as you put them onto your birds, and the bird cards have a great texture and are full of color and ornithological facts. Shuffling through the components of this game evokes a feeling that you’re outside on a trail, watching all kinds of birds soar by. Showing this game to someone who has only experienced Monopoly or Clue will stun them with the possibilities of board game visuals alone. We’ve come to expect this from Stonemaier games. While their early success of Viticulture (2013) was mediocre in component quality (the building meeples and roosters were notable components included), recent additions such as Scythe and Tapestry have shown that Stonemaier are masters of presentation and pizzaz.
While many games cordoned off as ‘introductory’ have a fairly straightforward yet well-married theme, Wingspan’s theme is a little divorced from the mechanics. You run a bird sanctuary and collect birds (cards) of different species, sizes and biomes. As you collect these birds onto your tableau throughout the game, they offer you benefits, points, and can help you achieve hidden goals that will award you victory points at the end of the game. There’s no real lacquer on this aspect of things – I’m not really sure what exactly I’m doing with birds, eggs, and victory points. As such, despite beautiful artwork and well researched facts and figures for each species, it’s hard to describe exactly what each player is doing as they play Wingspan. In complex board games, a dissociation between theme and mechanics can hamper understanding and buy-in from new players. However, I don’t feel like this miss on Wingspan’s part impacts a player’s enjoyment of the game in a critical way.
So I’ve gushed about the visuals of the game – this is clearly an important factor for new players as it’s going to draw them in and keep their interest as they are challenged with new concepts and mechanics in board games. Let’s talk about the game play: as you gain bird cards, you build a tableau of birds on your player mat that provide you bonuses. These bonuses range from helping you draw more birds, “tucking” cards behind themselves to provide you victory points at the end of the game, laying eggs that let you add more birds to your tableau and provide you victory points, and more. These bonuses often turn into ‘engines’, combinations of cards that build on each other granting you resources to spend later in your turn, which turn into more bird cards that you can turn into instant victory points, etc.
This engine-building aspect of Wingspan can be magical – when you get it right, your birds seem to give everything you need to grow your board. However, when you get it wrong, the game seems to drag and your choices every turn thin out as your opponents complete a feathery juggernaut. Unfortunately, getting it wrong can just mean you got unlucky, too. You start the game with a choice of five bird cards and five resources (one of each type of food each bird eats), and you must choose five total cards and resources to keep. This usually results in three birds/two resources, or two birds/three resources. From there, you can draw one bird, lay one egg, or gain one resource per turn until you develop your tableau further by playing bird cards. If you get unlucky with your initial bird cards, you can be on the back foot well into the middle phase of the game. Furthermore, for a game all about bird collection, unless you prioritize drawing bird cards, you may not see more than ten to twenty birds in one playthrough. While this can add to further discovery in future games, this lack of variety seems to betray the sense of theme it’s trying to invoke.
At the end of four rounds of play, all of these bonuses you’ve accumulated add up in the form of victory points, including points printed on birds, the results of your progress achieving hidden goals that each player selected at the beginning of the game, and more. It can be overwhelming the first time you go through the handy points grid included in the game box to score your group’s game. The second time you break out Wingspan, you’ll have this urge to refer back to the points grid to help guide your strategy, but there are truly too many ways to score points to prioritize them all. Many other reviewers of this game have noted that this ‘point salad’ can be confusing, might force you into focusing on the wrong goals, or feel arbitrary. They aren’t wrong – and you’ll feel it too every time you play and somehow someone racks up 15 points of tucked cards because they drew the right combination of birds to build their engine.
After playing Wingspan over ten times with different configurations of people, I found that the game can drag with five players, even four players is a slog if there are multiple new players at the table. There are enough components for five total players, but because there is almost no interaction with your opponents (the Wingspan expansions try to ameliorate this), you end up sitting around for longer waiting for your turn the more players you add. Set up can be arduous, too. There are a lot of components to Wingspan, all of which need to see the table at the beginning of the game. If you have to get your fill of Wingspan but don’t want to set up the game every time, the digital version of Wingspan is available for most current-gen platforms and PC. My wife and I have resorted to this when we’re particularly lazy, but love getting the physical copy of the game onto the table with friends when we have the chance.
If you like engine building games that reward seeing and acting on combinations of cards and mechanics, and unique and interesting components that feel great when you play and touch them, Wingspan is a good choice. Likewise, if you’re looking for a game that can indoctrinate new players into your gaming group or even challenge your family while on vacation, feel confident bringing Wingspan to your table at your next game night. If you dislike ‘point salad’ scoring systems, games with a low recommended player count, or a clear disconnect between mechanics and theme, there are other introductory games out there that can get a new player hooked on the hobby (or at least coming back for the next game night).
Is Wingspan a perfect paragon of cardboard hobbydom? No. Does it deserve the hype it got a few years back when it sold out everywhere upon release? You could make a strong case for it. Most importantly, does Wingspan deserve a space in your collection? Absolutely. Unless you’re a hardcore wargamer who couldn’t think twice about cardboard bits, Wingspan’s base edition is one to own that will see the table at least when you’re bringing a new member of your gaming group up to speed, or relaxing with family after a long vacation day in the sun.