WINGSPAN - GOLDEN GOOSE OR UGLY DUCKLING?
When Stonemaier Games announced its newest release would be an engine building, tableau assembling, cube pusher about birdwatching, egg laying, and worm eating, many people in the board gaming hobby gave a sly smile and wondered just who this game was for. After all, any time you gather around the game table, you can be taken any number of places: battling for land and honor in feudal Japan, engaging in intergalactic space conflict to emerge the superior race, or even engaging in a 2 player battle of wits in a completely themeless abstract game. But transporting me to the local aviary to watch, feed, and collect hundreds of unique birds? I’m sure the hobby has its following, but this theme did nothing for me personally.
But leave it to Stonemaier Games, publisher of beautifully produced blockbuster hits like Viticulture and Scythe, to make the production, components, and art of this game so beautiful that it just couldn’t stay off my radar. While the game comes from Stonemaier, it is not designed by Jamey Stegmaier, but instead comes from the all female team of first time designer Elizabeth Hargrave and artists Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel. While the production is certainly a feather in Wingspan’s cap, can the gameplay stack up or are we looking at a dead duck?
THE BIRDS AND THE BEES
In Wingspan you'll be collecting bird cards, gathering food, laying eggs, and completing public and private goals to gain VPs as you strive to build the best aviary at the table. The game plays 1-5 players in an advertised time of 40-70 minutes and is a fairly straight forward engine builder, that sees you choosing from 4 main actions on each turn. You’ll play 4 rounds, getting one less action in each subsequent round (8, 7, 6, and 5) before tallying the final score and seeing who emerges victorious, soaring above the rest of your group like a bald eagle.
Firstly, you can play a bird card to your aviary. You’ll start with a few bird cards in hand, and will acquire many more during the game. Each bird card is a unique species of bird, with spectacular art. On each card you’ll see the bird’s habitat (Forests, Grasslands, or Wetlands,) its food requirements, victory point value, nest type, how many eggs it can lay/hold, and a special ability at the bottom. Special abilities come in a few different styles: instant effects, effects that trigger on other players’ turns, and effects that trigger on your turn. To play a bird, you’ll have to pay it’s food cost, play it in a valid habitat (sometimes requiring an egg cost as well) and use up one of your actions for the round.
The other action choice you’re given is to trigger one of your habitat rows, and all birds that are played in that row. Forests will help you gather new food from the birdfeeder, Grasslands will give you the ability to lay eggs, and Wetlands will draw new cards to your hand. When you choose this action, you’ll place your action cube in the row, trigger the effect, and move right to left, triggering all birds in that row with powers that trigger on your turn as well.
When you gather food, you’ll gain it from a birdfeeder dicetower, which comes in the box! You can choose any one food from the birdfeeder, with the option of re-rolling all of the dice should they show the same face. When laying eggs, you can lay them on any bird that has the capacity to hold them. And when acquiring cards, you can simply top deck, or choose one of 3 available bird cards on display. Bird powers range from providing you with new private goals, giving you food, drawing more cards to your hand, laying additional eggs, or a mechanic that lets you tuck cards behind your birds or cache food on your birds for end game points.
The end of round goals will see you competing in variable challenges to have the most eggs laid in a certain nest or most birds in a particular habitat for example. Your private goals will have you searching throughout the game for birds with certain characteristics, providing you a focus from the beginning of the game should you choose to follow it.
AS PROUD AS A PEACOCK
The production in Wingspan, as with most Stonemaier offerings, is stellar. The art alone really is tremendous, and truly encaptures what I assume is the peaceful world of bird watching. The eggs are an adorable little resource, with flattened bottoms to help them stand and not tumble around the table. You’ve also got Stonemaier custom game trays for both storage and play to hold the eggs and food chits. The included dice tower is the kind of component that makes you just stop and realize that most publishers simply choose to provide subpar components, while Stonemaier continues to push the envelope by providing not only top tier components, but extra surprises like this. And the dice tower is so functional and important for the game! Not only do you roll the lovely wooden dice often in this game, but there are several things on your player mat that would be problematic if disturbed by an errant dice throw. Also the food gathering mechanic and whether are dice in the feeder versus out of the feeder is an important distinction.
You’ve also got a plastic card display, making the cards not only easier to see and grab, but it also doubles as card storage for the over 200 cards in the game. The player mats and cardboard chits are of nice quality as well. And the rulebooks! The pages feel like freshly laundered linens and you almost want to lay your head down on it for a quick nap after reading through. The only production detriment I’d mention on Wingspan is of self inflicted comparison. Everything else is so beautiful in this game, that moving plain wooden cubes as your action marker feels lackluster. But overall, the production is terrific, at times breathtaking, and a wonderful value at $55 MSRP.
A WISE OLD OWL?
So Wingspan’s production is stellar, but how is the gameplay? I went in with reservations. Recently, I was burned a few times by a game looking the part, but not stacking up when it came to the table. Stonemaier’s own Charterstone was a pretty box and lovely package, but it was just a complete miss for me when it came to gameplay. 2018’s Everdell is perhaps Wingspan’s best comparison and competition—another tableau builder with beautiful art and next level components—but Everdell was boring and paint by numbers for me as well, with very few interesting decisions to be made in the game.
Wingspan certainly does many things right. Like a duck taking to water, the game is a breeze to pick up, play, and teach. The action selection system is clear, concise, and gives you a direct line of contact between your choices and their rewards. The cube moving system is well designed in order to keep gameplay steps in the proper order, as often times a single bird card can trigger an action that affects all players at the table. While bird cards may have duplicate powers, I do really enjoy that each bird card is truly unique both in name and art. The private goals, while secondary in most of my plays, give you a chance to chase certain birds, which can be a valid strategy and can help newcomers with a focus at the beginning of the game. The public goals come in a friendly or competitive variant, and will often lead to heavy competition for points, or denying your opponent those points. We did have to look up card effects in the rulebook more often than I’d like to—it’d be nice to see less ambiguity both in the card text and rulebook.
The decision space is satisfying as well. While you’ll have to play birds in order to score points and unlock better actions, your hand will lead you in a direction. With 160 birds in the deck, it would be foolish and a struggle to hunt for particular birds or effects. After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Wingspan is a game that tasks you to deal with the hand you’re dealt, and move your strategy around based on those cards. It is satisfying and fulfilling to set up a nice combo in one of your habitat rows and crank out some resources and points. Most tableau builders, in my opinion, are best at a brisk play time, and Wingspan keeps the play time low and the actions moving swiftly around the table like a hummingbird buzzing around a feeder. It never overstays its welcome, but may have benefited from a race element, as the 4th round of the game is often unfulfilling and your choices become obvious and even forced, should you care to win in the game.
The game whittles you down to only 5 action cubes in the final round, but in almost every one of my plays, those action cubes were used for almost the exact same action every turn: lay eggs. At the conclusion of the game you receive points for the following: Bird cards (often 1-6 VP, as high as 9 VP), tucked cards and cached food (1 VP each), and public and private goals (usually 3-6 VP per card on average). And finally 1 VP per egg in the final round assuming you’ve played well, got a large player board of birds, and hopefully hold many birds in the middle Grasslands section. By triggering this section you can lay up to 5 eggs for 1 VP each and trigger all birds in that row (often times laying another egg, or tucking a card, etc.) getting as many as 7 or 8 VP with one action cube. Even if you wanted to play a bird in the final round, you’d be playing at best a 9 VP bird, minus egg costs to play him (likely 1 or 2 near the end game), and the actions you’d taken to acquire his food costs. It just doesn’t add up. You want to find your points as the crow flies, and the straightest line to receiving points is obvious and simple: eggs.
When a game takes the decision out of your head and hands, and instead makes it obvious and even mandatory, it just isn’t fun. I’m not sure what the designers may have tried in terms of variable end game timers or race elements, but Wingspan feels like it would have benefited from a slightly different end game. When I teach the game to newcomers, I’ve got to tell them about the round 4 egg situation, and that just isn’t fun. In a recent 4 player game, one player built the pictured egg laying engine in round 2, and never looked back, steamrolling his way to an easy win.
Wingspan has a solo mode in the box from Automa Factory, who have consistently produced some of my favorite solo gaming modes. Wingspan absolutely nails the solo mode. The game is quick to set up and tear down, which is a great draw for a solo gamer, and the solo mode is competitive, variable, and crystal clear. The automa will compete with you for bird cards, flushing the offer often. It will compete with you on public goal cards, forcing you to stop working on your solitaire puzzle and get back into the race. And you’ll even have the opportunity to hate draft against the automa as it claims high value cards that fit it’s private goal. A simple card system will pick the automa’s actions each round, and the game moves fast and is very satisfying. I can setup, play, and tear down a solo game of Wingspan in 30 minutes, which is tremendous. While the round 4 egg laying strategy is still fairly obvious in the solo mode, the automa does lay a lot of eggs as well, making it a great head to head battle and providing a tightly contested final score.
THE S.T.R.E.A.M. SYSTEM
Board games are subjective, as anyone will tell you after reading this review or numerous others, and there are a few things that are important to me personally as a gamer when it comes to just how I feel about a particular game. Enter the S.T.R.E.A.M. grading system. This is a simple grade of A-F that targets my most important qualities in a board game: Strategy, Theme, Replayability, Entertainment Value, Accessibility, and Materials & Design. It is not meant to be a system for determining if it is the best game ever, but simply for pointing out where a game excels, and where it could improve within these categories.
Strategy - C: While Wingspan asks you to work with what’s in your hand rather than go hunting for cards that fit your predetermined strategy, you can create satisfying synergies and combos. Points can be acquired in numerous ways, but the obvious egg heavy game ending hurts the decision space overall.
Theme - C: Wingspan’s theme is of no interest to me, yet it inspires a calm and peaceful feeling that I can only assume is found in the bird watching hobby. But at the end of the day, these birds could’ve been anything else, and the gameplay would remain unchanged. It is a pasted on, yet well explored theme.
Replayability - C: While bird cards are plentiful, bird actions tend to lump into a few key categories. The thick deck of cards does mean that from game to game you’re unlikely to find or focus in on a previous strategy, which I appreciate. The public goal scoring could have more variability included, as each tends to be some combination of birds in a habitat or eggs on a style of bird or nest. The private goal cards are plentiful. The solo mode sports 3 levels of difficulty.
Entertainment - B: Wingspan is a fast and fun tableau builder that moves swiftly around the table and evokes a calming and transformative feeling. Actions are satisfying, as you’re almost always gaining something as you work your way towards VPs. The 4th round should be a fun final chapter, but instead feels automatic.
Accessibility - A: Easy to teach and scaling wonderfully at all player counts from 1-5, Wingspan is a step up from a gateway game, and I think it would be accessible with a careful teach to non gamers. The top notch components give it a table presence that is sure to draw others in, and it’s play time will make it an easy weekday game or filler game to end the evening.
Materials and Design - A: The production quality cannot be overstated, it is a beautiful game. With bonus extras in component trays, card displays, and the dice tower, Wingspan sells itself wonderfully. The all female artist team knocked it out of the park and will likely compete for some end of year awards.
Wingspan is a fresh and pleasant entry into the busy world of tableau and engine builders. It nicely differentiates itself thanks to a unique theme, wonderful production and art, and accessible and fast gameplay. The solo mode is terrific. As a next step gateway game, it succeeds. But for a more veteran game group, Wingspan will likely be just another blip on the radar, and if you’re like me, you’d just rather play fellow tableau builder Race for the Galaxy for a more satisfying strategic experience.