- Core Mechanics
- Additional Mechanics & Balancing
- Art & Theme
- Graphic Design
- Key Takeaway
- My Recommendations
In Wingspan, players are invited to engineer a synergetic flock of birds to reside in their network of wildlife reserves. With a myriad of interesting abilities, the beautifully illustrated birds are the main draw of the game. In addition, the powers of each bird reflect their real life traits, making the game both thematic and educational.
Wingspan is a competitive medium-weight game targeted towards newer gamers. With a level of complexity above entry level games, it is the perfect “Level 2 Game” for players without any experience with heavier games but have had their interest piqued by lighter games. Regardless, whether you are a casual player or serious gamer, you will still enjoy Wingspan due to its elegant balance of competitive and thematic elements.
In essence, the core of the game is playing bird cards and activating their abilities.
Getting food, laying eggs and drawing cards provide you with the resources required to play bird cards. These basic actions are then enhanced with various powers – abilities that allow you to get food, lay eggs and draw cards more easily – from the birds that you have played into the 3 habitats of your tableau.
This creates a cycle of playing birds and getting resources, and the players’ task is to build the most efficient engine in order to optimise this cycle. The entire engine-building process is thus regarded as the core mechanics of Wingspan.
Additional Mechanics & Balancing
If the game only had engine-building as its only mechanic, it would seem more like a solitaire race instead of a competitive one. The abundance of resources and lack of take-that mechanics allows players to play Wingspan without regard for other players, while having limited turns in a single round further emphasises the race aspect of the game.
Thus, the introduction of public objectives is an essential element in the creation of competition and increased player interaction. They also serve to induce urgency as players lose 1 action cube per round to the scoring board. In order to stay ahead of their opponents, players are now motivated to perform efficient actions that could both destroy their opponents’ plans and further their own cause, hence killi- capturing two birds with one worm. 😏
Obtaining food tokens may seem simple on the surface, but actually requires some planning ahead. At some point in time, you may actually need to convince the player before to gain food, just so you can re-roll the dice on your turn, or intentionally leave different food types in the bird feeder just so that the next player will not be able to re-roll. This complication adds a layer of player interaction in which hate drafting is quite prevalent.
Having the top 3 bird cards revealed not only reduces randomness, but also creates contention for powerful birds. Birds with potent abilities cost more resources, while the few birds without powers often offer high base points and can hold more eggs. Players are always looking for specific birds to fulfil the private and public objectives, thus this simple rule adds value to the basic action of drawing cards by providing players more control over their fate.
The set-up in Wingspan is a great contributor to replayability. With a large deck of 170 unique bird cards, it goes without saying that your starting hand of birds will always be different. This gives players a challenge right from the very start to choose between both quality and quantity of bird cards and also amount and type of food tokens.
These decisions are also influenced by the private objectives. Knowing what to work towards will give you a head start on what strategy you may want to adopt for the game. Your choice of private objective is in turn influenced by the public scoring objectives for each round. Players are encouraged to plan ahead for the later public objectives in round 3 and 4 since they offer more points. Having an overlap between private and public objectives will definitely make both objectives more achievable and increase your chances of winning.
Even with similar powers, no two birds are exactly the same due to multitude of combinations possible with the the 6 categories of attributes – habitat, food requirement, victory point awarded, nest type, egg limit and wingspan. Added on to the randomness ever-present with the use of cards, the engine of birds that you build will never turn out exactly the same in any 2 games. Players will have to adapt and try different tactics in order to optimise their point scoring engine every game.
Art & Theme
Wingspan is a gorgeous looking game with detailed and realistic illustrations that could possibly get players into the hobby of birdwatching. But what makes the game amazing to me is the fact that the entire game is immersed within the theme of creating a bird sanctuary. In boardgame design, designers usually choose between working with a theme first, or creating the mechanics first. The best games blur the lines by melding real life influences into the gameplay. In Wingspan, this is most apparent in the core action of playing a bird card. Players pay food token to play a bird card in their tableau. Thematically, this is equivalent to attracting birds with food in real life.
In fact, each bird’s food requirements in terms of both type and quantity also reflect their dietary habits in the wild. Take the Peregrine Falcon and Barred Owl for instance. Both cards have the same effects, but have different requirements. The Peregrine Falcon only requires its prey to be smaller than 100 cm, while the Barred Owl requires its prey to be smaller than 75 cm. Taking into consideration that birds smaller than 100 cm consists of 78% of the entire deck, while birds smaller than 75 cm consists of 70% of the deck, the Peregrine Falcon provides more value than the Barred Owl. However, the Peregrine Falcon also eats a whole lot more than the Barred Owl. This is emulated by the extra rodent token required to play the Peregrine Falcon.
Players also have to pay eggs in order to play more birds beyond the first bird in each habitat. The cost of eggs could be a referenced to them hatching into new birds. At the same time, the different colours of the eggs are accurate depictions of wild bird eggs.
The bird cards themselves are the most thematically influenced components of the game. Apart from listing the attributes of the birds, the printed abilities usually reflect the most interesting detail of each bird. Birds of prey either hunt for smaller birds, represented by a random card from the deck, or other small animals, presented by rodent food tokens. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo lays eggs in other birds’ nests when food is abundant, and is emulated perfectly in the game by allowing it to lay eggs in another bird’s nest when another player takes the lay egg action.
Within the 3 habitat tracks on the board, players also have the choice to exchange resources to get another type of resource. Bird cards become food, which could be a reflection of the birds becoming prey. Food tokens can be exchanged for an extra egg, which makes sense when you consider that abundance of food leads to higher fertility. As mentioned above, eggs naturally hatch into birds, explaining the payment of an egg to draw an extra bird card.
I am incredibly impressed with the iconography in Wingspan, condensing the 6 attributes of every single bird into easily recognisable symbols. Although it might take a little time to be completely familiar with the iconography, players can process a lot of information comfortably after a couple of rounds of play. This is especially important since obtaining and playing bird cards are imperative in deciding between victory and defeat. Players will never feel the frustration of making bad decisions from missing out on essential information.
The player board which supports the engine building is also succinctly presented. Benefits for playing birds in each habitat are clearly shown, allowing even first time players to prepare the required resources ahead of time. Having the block of brown align with the bird cards to remind players to activate their abilities is also a nice touch that helps to enhance user experience. While it may seem a little lacking to leave the background of the bird cards plain white, the absence of colour not only creates contrast with the vibrant player board, it also allows the abilities in the blocks of brown and pink to stand out.
I would also like to mention the thoughtfulness that comes through by providing an illustration on how players could arrange the game components in the box. It definitely shows how much the publisher values the entire user experience of the gaming process, down to how the game is packed.
Speaking of the publisher, Stonemaier Games really pulled out all the stops for Wingspan. From the linen finish for the rulebook to the incredible bird feeder dice tower, the game dazzles with its production value. The extra effort put into the quality of the components definitely translates into an upgraded user experience.
While looking cute and instagram-worthy, the multicoloured eggs also provide a tactile experience that far exceeds what you could feel with cardboard tokens. From a practical perspective, the eggs take up less surface area than cardboard tokens as their flat bottoms allow them to be placed in a standing position. Using the eggs gives the player a very clear view of how many eggs each bird has in its nest, preventing any calculation mistakes that stacked tokens could lead to. It does not hurt that they also allow an unobstructed view to the illustration of the bird.
The card tray for the 3 revealed bird cards is a pleasant touch that differentiates them from the discard pile and the deck. The tray elevates the cards so that they are easier to pick up, as compared to when they are simply placed on the table. It further acts as a reminder to always reveal up to 3 cards after each player’s turn.
The bird feeder is both thematic – you are literally getting food from a structure that feeds birds – and indispensable due to gameplay requirements. As there is a need to differentiate the dice within and outside of the birdfeeder, you definitely need to use a third-party dice tray at the very least. But why do that when you could have fun tossing dice down such a beautiful birdfeeder?
Wingspan is an excellent example of how designers could add more player interaction within a mostly solitaire game by creating competition for both resources and points through supplementary mechanics. It provides a good balance between competitive and casual gaming by curbing the randomness from the vast number of cards with the stability of repetition provided by the core engine-building mechanics.
The game is simply oozing with value, and has something to offer for any kind of player. Serious gamers can focus on milling strategies that further reduces randomness and focus on optimising their engine. Casual players can enjoy the entire thematic experience, reading the flavour text of each bird and shaping stories of how their wildlife reserve came to be.
Wingspan is ideal for gamers that have just conquered entry level games and would like to explore something that is slightly more challenging. The beautiful artwork and colourful components will definitely draw in non-gamers too. Although it will require a little time and effort to pick up the game, it is easy enough to become proficient in after a single game. Since each match only takes up to 70 mins to play, new players will be able to properly enjoy the full experience of Wingspan within a single game session during the second playthrough.
My advice to the game master is to allow new players to start the game with a forest-dwelling bird that only requires 1 food token in their hands. Food is an extremely important resource to play birds, and starting off with a boost in the “gain food” row would ensure that new players do not get stuck with only a single high cost bird from the very start.
P.S. Using a whacky bird figurine to stand-in as the first player token could add some personal flavour to your copy of the game!
Can’t get enough of Wingspan? Read my First Impressions post, or watch this full playthrough by JonGetsGames! If you would like me to do a study for Wingspan’s Automa solitaire gameplay, let me know in the comments section below!