Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Category: Engine building
Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 45-75 mins.
Wingspan took the boardgame world by storm in 2019. Elizabeth Hargrave’s second published game exploded in popularity immediately after its release. Gamers quickly took to its delightful theme, well-oiled mechanics, and high-quality components. Stonemaier’s original print run quickly sold out and secondary market sellers raised their prices to triple the MSRP. Fortunately the game has been reprinted and prices have stabilized online, but it is still hard to find in retail.
So why am I writing about this game now? Well, partially it’s because this blog didn’t exist during all the Wingspan drama. And partially it’s because I’ve only recently had a chance to try out the game and see what all the fuss is about. Without further ado, let’s dive in!
In Wingspan, you endeavor to attract birds to your play area in order to score victory points. The game centers on a giant deck of cards, each depicting a different species of bird. You attract birds to your tableau by spending the food tokens that match the type of food the bird eats, as shown on the bird card. Then you can place the bird card onto your tableau in the ecosystem shown on the bird card: forest, grassland, or wetland.
On your turn, you must spend one of your action cubes on one of four actions: get food, lay eggs, draw cards, or play a bird. What’s interesting is that three of the actions (get food, lay eggs, and draw cards) are each associated with the three ecosystems. The more birds you have in that ecosystem, the stronger that action becomes. So with 0 birds in the forest, you can get 1 food token from the birdfeeder (more on this later). But with 4 birds in the forest, you get 3 food tokens. And that’s not all! After you complete that action, you get to go down your line of birds in that ecosystem and activate any that have “when activated” powers. Not all birds have these powers, but most of them do, and they’ll let you do things like draw more cards, lay extra eggs, collect extra food, or even hunt other birds! Don’t worry, you can’t eat birds that are in other players’ tableaus. But the ones still in the deck are fair game!
At the beginning of the game, each player has 8 action cubes, and once they have all been spent, the round ends. Then players figure out how they all finished for that round’s bonus and use one of their action cubes to mark if they got 1st, 3rd, etc. This means in the second round, they’ll only have 7 action cubes. The game ends after 4 rounds. I really like this system. As players develop their bird engines and gain access to more powerful actions, the number of actions they take per round decreases. At the same time, this means you really have to prioritize birds that give you additional abilities beyond mere victory points if you don’t want to fall behind later in the game.
Since Wingspan has such an enormous deck of bird cards, you’re unlikely to see all of them in any given game. This is not a game where you can hope to draw a specific bird at some point to tie your strategy together. Instead, you have to improvise with whatever birds you are lucky enough to find during the game. That, combined with a different lineup of round goals and an entire deck of private objectives, means you will always find yourself building different engines to accomplish your goals.
That being said there are plenty of other games that share these mechanisms. Terraforming Mars comes to mind as another card-based engine-building game with a variety of ways to earn points and multiple resources to juggle. Where Wingspan really stands out is in its production values. Each bird card comes with a gorgeous illustration of that bird and a small map of the world that highlights where that bird can be found in the wild. The “bird feeder” is a small dice tower that you build while unpacking the game. The game comes with plastic containers to not only hold the cards inside so they don't spill inside of the box, but also function as card holders to display available bird cards on the lid . And I can’t forget to mention the game’s 75 egg miniatures! They come in a variety of muted pastel tones that look like real eggshells, and they’re made with a special material that gives them a smooth texture unlike most molded plastic miniatures.
I had a great time playing Wingspan. Its mechanics are solid, the graphic design is fantastic, and figuring out ways to optimize my limited selection of birds had my brain humming along the entire time. My main criticism is that it can feel a bit point-salad-y with the variety of ways you score points, but that’s true of a variety of Euro games. Also, some of the text and iconography on the cards is rather small. If the round-end goal is looking how many nests of a certain type of eggs and you’re looking at other players’ tableaus to see how you stack up, it can be hard to differentiate the tiny nest symbol on the side of the card. But that’s a tiny nitpick in an otherwise clean and elegant game. If you have the opportunity, you should play this game.