Board Game Review – Wingspan

As a member of the Stonemaier Ambassador program, the Ambassadors have the opportunity to fill out a survey if we are interested in playtesting games for the company.  I was fortunate enough to be chosen as playtester for an upcoming, yet unreleased Wingspan expansion.  At the time of playtesting, Wingspan had not yet been released, so we were sent a copy of the base game so that we could properly test the expansion.  While we cannot discuss the details of the expansion, we are excited to share our thoughts on this upcoming game.  Join us below to learn more!

Overview

You check the sky for your feathered friends. Have you put out enough food for them to eat? Are your trees shady enough? Are your fields habitable? Is there enough space for the water-dwelling birds? As a player in Wingspan, you are working to attract the best birds to your aviary based on personal and common goals. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins! How will you come out the best birder at the table? Check out the game play section to find out how!

Game Play

While we have provided a game play description below to give readers context for our reviews, this is not a complete rules breakdown. If you’d like a more complete learning experience, we suggest you check out Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played video for the game.

There are multiple ways to become the best birder and your path begins with your opening hand. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt five bird cards, two end game bonus cards, and one of each of the five food tokens. Before play begins, each player chooses one of the end game bonus cards to keep and chooses how many of the bird cards they would like to keep. For each bird card kept, players must also turn in one of their food tokens. After these important beginning decisions have been made, choose your starting player and you’re ready to begin! Game play takes place over four rounds; in round one, players start with eight actions which are taken one per turn. On your turn, you can choose to do one of the following actions: play a bird card, gain food, lay eggs, or draw bird cards.

Playing a bird card allows you to play a bird card from your hand to one of its allowed habitats (forest, field, or wetlands) by paying its requisite food cost (and one or two eggs if it isn’t the first bird in that habitat). Gaining food allows you to remove one or more dice from the bird feeder dice tray and gain the corresponding food token(s). If all of the dice remaining in the tray show the same symbol (even if there’s only one die left), you may choose to reroll all 5 dice before making your selection. Laying eggs allows you to play egg tokens onto your bird cards. Eggs are used as a cost to play bird cards, are needed for many of the round-end goals, and are each worth a point at the end of the game. Finally, drawing bird cards lets you draw new cards to your hand, either from the three face up cards on offer or blindly from the top of the deck.

With the latter three actions (gaining food, laying eggs, and drawing bird cards), after performing the action, you move the action cube from right to left in that habitat, activating any of your bird cards with a brown “when activated” action. Other birds have an action that is only triggered when they’re played, and yet other birds have actions that may trigger “once between turns” – in other words, in response to an action taken by one of the other players. After everyone has played all of their actions for the round, players will evaluate the round end goals. There are two ways to play: friendly or competitive. In friendly play, players earn a point for each match they have for the goal, to a maximum of 5 (for instance, bowl nests containing at least one egg). In competitive play, however, the player with the most of the goal criteria gets the most points, second most gets second place, and so on. Players use one of their action cubes to indicate their points from the round end goals. In doing this, they will have one fewer action in the next round, to a minimum of 5 actions in the fourth and final round.

At the end of the game, players tally up the points from their bird cards, points from round end goals and game end bonus cards, as well a point per egg, food cached on bird cards, and cards tucked under bird cards (the latter two coming from bird card actions).

Components and Art Work

We can take the time to explain the components, or we can let the components speak for themselves! Below are a few of the components included in the base game of Wingspan.

Amber’s Review

This game is more than just a pretty face.  Beyond its colorful box, cheerful components and wonderful avian illustrations lies a fun card-placement, engine-building game.  One of the most difficult decisions in the game starts at the very beginning, I mean, who would want to give up any of those feathered beauties?! I found that my strategy for keeping birds strongly depended first and most importantly on my chosen end game goal. I did consider the common goals when choosing bird cards as well, but it took a strong second to what was hiding behind the curtain. Game play for me leaned into this strategy; I found myself referring often to my hidden objective to make sure I was on the right track, only to remember that there were in fact other goals to concentrate on during the game. So far we’ve always played with the “friendly” side of the goal tracker, so this hasn’t been a huge issue yet, but if I had been slacking on the round goals with the competitive side of the track I think I may have been in trouble during each of our games.

Differing from many other games we’ve played, the action economy in this game really forces you to try to build your engine early and well. When you’re losing an action each round, the decisions you make with your cubes really matter; it’s difficult to “waste” an action to gain a small amount of food or cards when you really need to lay eggs, for example. It was nice to experiment with these differing engines and to see how other players’ engines can affect you as well. If you have cards with the “once between turns” keyword, you can play off of your opponents’ moves to put yourself in a good position for your next action. I was able to do this multiple games and allowed myself to focus on other things that needed to be done. I also appreciate mechanics that direct a players focus to other players’ actions; I can get pretty distracted between turns and giving me a benefit to paying attention to my opponents definitely helps me focus on the game.

With such wonderfully though out mechanics, this game really hit a lot of high notes for me. But to me, a lot of draw to board games are the themes and this one definitely hits home. From the birdhouse dice tower, to the candy-like eggs, and the wooden dice (I know some people won’t like them, but they’re thematic!), the designer and illustrators have really taken care to produce a cohesive theme in the game. Speaking of those wonderful people, I was super impressed to find that this game was designed and illustrated by all women! While the producer of the game is male, it’s nice to see that a team of women have created such a delightful, wonderfully crafted game. On a lot of game forums, I hear women cry out that they’re often put into the category of “casual gamer,” being suggested lighter games or party games. While this game has a casual, light-hearted theme, the game play itself has a bit of weight to it, making it more than just its theme. I hope that games like this give these scorned women an opportunity to show all gamers that women fit a wider spectrum of the gaming world than their adversaries thought.

  • Pros:
    • Easy to teach to new players (I think even I could do it!)
    • It’s been said before, but this game really is nice to look at
    • Approachable
  • Cons
    • Theme is casual and light-hearted, which may deter some gamers.
    • Opening hands can put players at a disadvantage based on luck

Ethan’s Review

To me, the first thing I noticed about Wingspan was how incredibly thematic it is, and how much it must appeal to bird enthusiasts. I am not really one myself, but I know a few — my brother and sister-in-law are ornithophiles, and my dad always had a book of North American birds (and other wildlife) and binoculars handy around the house. All of the bird cards in Wingspan are unique, and while some have the same or similar powers, all of the powers make sense for the given types of birds. The included appendix to the rule book (as well as the flavor text on the cards) explains why each bird has the special power it does, which I find very cool. For example, some kinds of birds that form mixed-species flocks enable the player to play another bird card to their habitat when played, while some large predators that in real life eat other birds allow you to potentially score top card of the deck if it’s under a certain wingspan (thus being “eaten”). While at its core it’s a medium-weight set collection and engine-building Euro game, the theme really shines through and you can tell that the game is a labor of love for the birds.

In terms of game play, as I said this is a set collection and engine-building game, and you will really need to focus on the engine building aspect if you hope to do well. Because more bird cards make each of your habitats’ action more powerful, you’ll want to play some birds out before you take too many of those actions. And because each time you perform one of the habitat actions you’ll also get to activate all the birds in that habitat, playing powerful birds cards early is key because then you’ll get to take advantage of their power at least half a dozen times over the course of the game. This game definitely had a lot of strategic depth I was surprised by (in a good way). And with end-game bonus cards and round end goals, you will have some long term strategizing to do over the course of the game. The diminishing actions each round is a pretty cool concept that I can’t recall seeing in other games. In a lot of games, you’ll get more actions as the game goes on, oftentimes by increasing your pool of workers, but in Wingspan, you start with 8 actions in the first round and lose a cube each round until you only have 5 in the final round. This adds even more weight to the importance of having a good game plan at the beginning of the game and building up your engine early.

The components are top notch, as we’ve come to expect from Stonemeier games. The most striking piece is the birdhouse dice tower, which is a lot more fun to use than just rolling dice onto the table (and mechanically makes it easier to see what dice are still available to be claimed). Besides that, the little wooden eggs are beautiful and vibrant, and fun to add to your bird cards. Speaking of the bird cards, the illustrations are gorgeous, showing off all of the included birds in vibrant colors. A final note on the components: most of the end-game bonus cards tell you how many of the cards in the game fit that criteria, which is a nice touch, and can make selecting a goal from the two you’re given easier. Very cool!

Ultimately, I like this game a lot, even though I’m not very good at it yet (after our first 4 plays). So far we’ve only played it 2 player, but it works pretty well at that player count. Some bird powers have an activation “once between turns”, meaning that if any of your opponents trigger the criteria before your next turn, you can take that bird’s action. When I initially read the rules, I thought that these actions would favor 2-player games because with more players you still could only activate the card once even if all of your opponents take the triggering action. But after our limited few 2-player games, I think these cards would be better with more players since there are more chances for them to trigger. In addition, while more players would mean more competition over the food dice, with only 5 dice available, they would be getting refreshed a lot more frequently. I’m looking forward to trying this game with more players to see how differently it plays compared to playing with two.

I think Wingspan is pretty fun, though in our first few plays, there were some times I would get frustrated by not having the right cards or food at the right time, or by not being able to get the full effects of some of the habitat actions, but that really just solidified how important it is in this game to have a good foundation to build your engine on. While I don’t think it’s necessarily as unforgiving as, say, Food Chain Magnate, it is very important to have a solid strategy and engine, which might be a bit discouraging for newer gamers (which the theme might otherwise attract). In the end, though, Wingspan is not just for the birds — if you like medium-weight strategy games with fantastic components and gorgeous artwork, give it a try. It’s a hoot!

  • Pros:
    • Highly thematic, any bird lover should enjoy the theme
    • Components and artwork are fantastic
  • Cons:
    • Very heavily relies on strong early engine-building, which may discourage some players.

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