The most delightful, engaging, and joyful game about our fine feathered friends.
Players: 1 – 5 Best with: 1 – 5
Age: 10+ GN Age: Pre-Teen
Game Type: Board Time: 40 – 70 minutes
Publisher/Year: Stonemaier / 2019
Game Play: Card Collecting, Engine Building,
Available from: Hobby Stores, Online Retail
Score: out of 12
I am not, by nature, a bird lover. But this game makes me want to grab a pair of binoculars, buy a copy of James Bond’s Birds of the West Indies (a real thing), join my local Audubon Society, and spend hours huddled in a cold, muddy blind hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive yellow-bellied sapsucker (also a real thing). I don’t know how they did it, but the awesome ornithologists over at Stonemaier managed to turn those flying poop factories into something fascinating and fun. All those squawking, screeching scavengers of the skies have somehow become the most soothing and cool game of the century.
You play as the budding owner of a delightful bird sanctuary. You have a large parcel of land with ample forestation, vast fields of grassland, and thicket filled marshes. The only thing you don’t have is any birds. So how does one go about creating your own avian paradise?
This is going to be the only negative thing I have to say about this glorious game. It is absurdly difficult to learn how to play this game from scratch. Fortunately, once you know how to play it is absurdly easy to teach it to someone else. Sadly, we did not have a teacher. There are so many pieces, (chits, eggs, cubes, decks of cards that look like a set, but they’re not, 2 other decks that have nothing to do with the first), that you don’t know where to start. And there are 4 rulebooks! FOUR!
The Beginner’s Guide says to set up the game normally with no instructions on what that is. The Quick Reference Guide hidden in the Appendix gives you directions with no context, such as, “Lay out the goal board, desired side up.” But which is the “desired” side up? The Main Rule Book tells you to start with the Quick Reference Guide; it’s a viscous circle. And what the heck is the Automa Guide?
What the game really needs is an Overview of the game, but you won’t find that until page 4 of the 3rd rulebook. This is a shame because this needless complication will turn off many potential players of one of the best games of the decade if not the century! To save you time and aggravation, here is my overview/review of this incredible game.
In Wingspan, your game board represents your bird sanctuary. You play birds into one of three habitats, Forest, Grasslands, and Wetlands. But there is a fourth area on the game board. The very top line is used when playing a bird card onto your board and indicates the cost in bird eggs to place a bird. Each habitat controls how much of a particular resource you can claim. Forest controls the amount of food, Grasslands earn eggs, and Wetlands give you new cards. All three are required to place additional birds into your habitat.
The object of the game is to earn the most points by the end of four rounds. Points are indicated by a feather symbol. The beauty of the game is the number of different ways to achieve points, providing multiple paths to victory and endless variety of play. To start, each bird added to your habitat has a point value.
You can also earn points by completing End of Round Goals that are available to all players; and by completing Bonus Objectives that are held in your hand and only revealed at the end of the game. In addition, some birds can cache food or extra cards to that bird and every bird can have eggs in its nest, all of which earn extra points.
But the main allure of the game is all those beautiful birds. To play a bird, pay the food cost and any eggs, if needed, and place the bird in the habitat indicated on its card. Some birds can live in more than one habitat and you chose the one which is best for your game.
Once a bird is in your habitat you can access its special powers, and there are a plethora of them. Some powers give an immediate one-time bonus, others occur during another player’s turn, but most are activated each and every time you take an action in that bird’s habitat. One of the many genius elements of the game is that despite the variety and breadth of available powers, the game always maintains a delicate balance of ecology and economy. As such, no one player runs away with the game and every player has an equal chance of winning right up until the final tally.
Wingspan has a perfect symbiosis of natural selection, immediate gain vs. delayed gratification, risk vs. reward; and this is evident right from the start. You begin the game with 5 bird cards and 5 food tokens, but you can only keep 5 in total. Do you keep the powerful bird with the high food cost, or several birds with the hope that you can get the food to pay for them? Don’t forget the bonus card and the evolving end of round goals; they will be your field guide to identify the best birds (in your hand.)
As the game progresses, you will continue to manage the ecosystem playing out on your game board, balancing food supply, egg production, and available bird cards, all while marveling at the beautiful tableau spread out before you. This is another brilliant design feature of the game. It is gorgeous. I love just looking at it. The board is pretty, the bird feeder, dice and food chits are cute, and the pastel eggs are adorable (although they look so much like Cadbury Eggs that I’m surprised they survived Easter.) And the birds in all their natural beauty are just stunning, even the American Condor, arguably the ugliest bird in the world, looks good.
For a full overview of the rules including a complete Round 1 playthrough, please click on the link. Wingspan Rules Overview.
I could go on about all the cool bits in Wingspan, about how intricate and yet accessible it is, about how it is a great game for all ages and skill levels, or how the solo player Automa rules are awesome, or how perfectly it packs back into the box like a jigsaw puzzle, but I want to talk about an element that I haven’t felt in a board game in a long while; Joy.
This game fills me with happiness. I am a very competitive player, always aware of my standing in the game, always looking to min/max my options. But when I have my habitat half-filled with all my beautiful birds, it is so peaceful and serene that all the stress and greed of winning fades away. I am just sitting a table surrounded by the ones I love. I am sitting in a field surrounded by love. I am surrounded by love. I am love. I am one with the universe. Wingspan is my zen. Yes, the game is this good.
It is my hope that everyone on the planet can experience this phenomenal game at least once in their lifetime. Wingspan is truly a masterpiece, fully deserving a spot in everyone’s roost, burrow, aerie, or nest.
As always, a bird in the hand is worth two in the deck, and Game On!
I’m youth. I’m joy. I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg. – J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan
Or if that is too literary how about:
A well a everybody’s heard about the bird / B-b-b-bird, bird, bird, b-bird is the word / A well a bird, bird, bird, the bird is a word… – The Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird”