Game at a Glance
- Stonemaier Games
- Players: 1-5
- Time: 40-70 minutes
- Ages: 10+
- Availability: retail and online
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher; however, my opinions are my own
Please don’t tell my husband I’m admitting this, but sometimes I am wrong. One of my biggest blunders happened after Wingspan was announced back in 2019. I chuckled at the birding theme and assumed that game would not sell well. I could not envision this field guide to birds disguised as a board game turning into a hit.
After staggering sales, several prestigious “Game of the Year” awards (including the Kennerspiel des Jahres award), and taking perch on the shelves of Target – it’s safe to say I could not have been more wrong with my Wingspan prediction. I am still eating crow.
I wish this was the only time I misjudged a game based on its theme. I have fallen in love with an ugly game about bean farming, and a strategy game set during the Industrial Revolution (I almost fell asleep typing that). On the other end of the spectrum, one of my most disappointing games of 2022 was inspired by one of my favorite classic tales. I am slowly learning my lesson: gameplay trumps theme every time.
Despite completely miscalculating the public’s reaction to it, I was never resistant to Wingspan. I like birds. After playing it with friends I recognized that it was quite good. But it was released at a time when we were exploring Everdell and very invested in Terraforming Mars. Tim and I decided that we probably didn’t need another engine-building game on the shelf at the time, and in a rare moment of restraint we decided not to add Wingspan to our personal collection.
Recently we have been rethinking that call. Wingspan fills a hole on the shelf that our other engine builders don’t cover (more on that later). I had a chance to get a review copy and decided to take it – and now, four whole years later, I am taking steps to fix my error.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s talk about Wingspan:
Skip to Review; Skip to Final Thoughts
In Wingspan, you play as a bird enthusiast attempting to attract birds to a wildlife preserve. This is a card-driven, engine-building game – every bird added to your habitat will help you accumulate food, eggs, additional bird cards, and most importantly, victory points.
The game takes place over four rounds where players spend action cubes on their sanctuary – a player mat divided into four regions that designate a different action type. The actions allow you to play a bird from your hand, gain food, lay eggs, or draw bird cards. All actions are crucial in attracting new birds to your habitat. The action cubes are placed in the leftmost exposed slot in that row, the benefit is taken, then the action cube moves from right to left, potentially triggering birds in the sanctuary. By building up a row with birds, players can take powerful actions and activate a chain of combinations.
You will score points for the birds in your habitat, bonus cards, end-of-round goals, eggs, and food and cards stashed away on and under your bird cards. The winner is the player with the most points after four rounds.
The engine-building in the game is multifaceted – you can receive active and passive rewards from your (and your opponent’s) bird cards, but at the same time adding birds to a row directly increases the strength of that action. The puzzle lies in determining which rows and birds to invest in, and in what order. Executing combos from a well-planned action row feels incredibly satisfying (and can be a lot of fun).
There are three categories of bird cards in Wingspan. The cards with brown “When Activated” abilities perform their bonus actions when that row’s action is taken. For example, a bird in the forest will activate when the player takes the “Gain Food” action. These actions may involve caching food on or tucking cards behind the bird for end-game victory points. They also may allow resource and card gathering, or grant bonuses to the entire table. Pink “Once Between Turns” actions are triggered on opponents’ turns when certain conditions are met. Finally, the white “When Played” actions grant a one-time bonus that occurs immediately after being played. They might allow you to play another bird that turn, or to take bonus cards.
The games I tend to do the best in are ones where I can snag a bird that can live in a habitat and give me a bonus from another habitat. For example, the Killdeer allows players to draw bird cards. When placed in the grasslands habitat it allows a “Draw Bird Cards” action each time you take the “Lay Eggs” action, essentially tacking on a wetlands action to the grasslands. This type of efficiency is extremely useful in a game with limited actions.
This is a card game with 170 unique birds, so a certain amount of randomness is built in. On occasion, I’ve struggled to get my engine running due to poor luck of the draw (expensive or non-synergistic birds). It’s not an insurmountable problem for experienced players, but some will find that off-putting. On the other hand, randomness helps to level the playing field just enough that inexperienced players can remain competitive. Although there’s an element of luck, it will be tough to win if you aren’t making sound tactical decisions throughout the game, and I feel there is a fair balance between luck and strategic gameplay.
The player board in Wingspan provides the structure for the engine-building. It is laid out visually on the board, which makes understanding the available actions and visualizing the strategy easy for most players. The game is a breeze to learn and teach – it has a fantastic rulebook and simple ruleset, it sets up incredibly quickly, and the turns move fast once players get the hang of the four available actions.
Wingspan has a lot of replay value due in part to the 170 unique bird cards in the game. A max of 15 birds can be played to your habitat each game, so the chances of you re-creating an action row similarly every time you play would be difficult. Yes, some of the birds are similar – hummingbirds all function the same, as do most raptors. But the timing and habitat in which they are played will impact the outcome in different ways.
The available bird cards will form a lot of your strategy game-to-game, but the setup of the goal board and (to a lesser extent) the end-game bonus cards will help to form new pathways each time. With 26 bonus cards, a double-sided goal board, and 8 double-sided goals to mix and match, no two games should feel identical.
The almost-inevitable egg-laying rush in the final round can be a bit predictable but moves quickly and I don’t find it bothersome. Other than that, I have played Wingspan several times over the past few years, with different strategies each time – it has yet to grow stale.
Theme / Aesthetics
Wingspan’s striking, signature box art is the first indication that this is going to be a visually-appealing game. The production quality of Wingspan is outstanding. The game components are nice, with thick, beautifully-illustrated cards and player mats, unique wooden dice, plastic egg miniatures, and even a dice tower that looks like a birdhouse. The game comes with removable inserts that are functional for gameplay and storage. The added functionality and attention to detail make the game stand out from its peers.
The graphic design and symbology in the game are generally pretty good. There seems to be one area I notice new players struggle with that relates to the player board layout – specifically the “Play a Bird” action and the egg costs. Occasionally new players struggle to divorce the egg cost from the actions below them (egg costs are only for playing bird cards). By end of the second round, most new players understand the layout and this issue resolves itself.
The theme doesn’t necessarily come through strongly with the mechanics for me, but there are a few clever ways it has been integrated into the design. One of my favorite examples of this is the predators, who often have a luck-based hunt mechanic that triggers when activated. The theme may not have universal appeal (which theme does?), but Wingspan is bound to catch the interest of players who enjoy bird watching or nature games in general.
Interaction / Fun
Wingspan is more of a personal engine-building puzzle than an interactive experience – but that is not to say this is a solitaire experience (unless when playing it solo, of course). There is potential for some competition for bird feeder resources, but players can usually get what they need, even if they have to spend an extra resource or two in order to get it. The most tension comes from the end-of-round goal scoring. That board is double-sided and can be used on the more competitive green side, where players are contending with each other for these goals. You won’t be able to do much to derail another player’s attempts to score well here, but you can focus heavily on your own board in an attempt to outshine your rivals. Keeping tabs on how your opponents are doing working towards these goals is wise.
You should also be paying attention to what your opponents are doing to ensure you aren’t missing out on passive bonuses. There are several birds in the game that allow for positive interactions between players. For example, activated hummingbirds allow every player to choose a resource from the dice tray. And some cards will trigger bonuses for you when another player performs a specific action, such as laying eggs or adding a bird to a specific habitat. This interaction interests me because rather than dealing out punishments (I’m looking at you, Terraforming Mars asteroid-slingers!), your actions often make your opponents happy. It’s a nice change of pace and works well with the peaceful bird-watching theme and in my experience, is enjoyed pretty universally.
There are four possible actions to take every turn which seems to help the turns move quickly, so downtime is minimal. Additionally, turns in the game rarely feel empty. I have taken plenty of inefficient actions while trying to build my engine but I rarely feel like a turn didn’t advance me somehow. The choices made within the game feel meaningful – the order in which actions are taken can make a significant impact on your final score. And when players are able to pull things off just right and run their engine, it feels good.
Wingspan entered the board gaming hobby hot and has become something of a new modern classic. Four years after making its debut, that Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher spreading its wings against a blue sky has become an iconic visual in the board gaming hobby. It has a dedicated fanbase and has no doubt inspired the creation of several nature-themed games that have flooded the market since. It also boasts three expansions and countless fan-made game upgrades.
Why has this one gained such popularity? I do think the visuals of the game and its unique (at the time) theme were hard to ignore. As with most Stonemaier games, the production quality gives the game an ultra-premium feel from the moment the shrink wrap is removed. Visuals and components are important to draw an audience in, but if there is no substance the audience will not stick around.
There are several engine-building games to choose from, and more are hitting the market each year. It’s one of my favorite board game mechanics. Although Wingspan is not my favorite game in the category, it’s one I want to keep around because it pulls off the mechanic in such a clean, structured way. One of my favorites, Terraforming Mars, can feel very unstructured at times, and that lack of direction can make players feel a bit untethered and lost – it can be overwhelming if you aren’t familiar with it. Another engine builder I enjoy, Everdell, has extremely limited opportunities to run your engine, assuming you managed to build one in the first place. In contrast, your Wingspan engine is easy to build and satisfying to run – even when losing. There are so many positive interactions in the game, and with only four possible actions to take each turn, it’s accessible. It has an approachability that is missing from some of my favorite games in the category and is a better choice for families and new gamers than many others in the hobby.
I asked my children to elaborate on what they liked about the game. My son (10 years old) enjoyed running the engine, and compared the game to “building an efficient car and test driving it.” My daughter (8 years old) was more focused on the theme than the gameplay, and loved the “birdwatching”. She kept asking her competitors what their favorite birds were, and she was so excited to add her favorite (a hummingbird) to her sanctuary. They both are very different gamers, and both enjoyed it for different reasons.
Wingspan is a medium-weight game that is suitable for a wide range of players. I know several seasoned heavy-game lovers that still pull Wingspan off the shelf for a quick weeknight game. It is a game I enjoy playing with my children, with friends, and as a two-player game with my husband. I appreciate that versatility.
Love it or hate it, I think it’s hard to argue that Wingspan isn’t a great game. It strikes a difficult balance between medium-weight strategy and accessible gameplay and does so with elegance. Experienced gamers have enough to chew on, while newer players can game a level or two heavier than what they have tried in the past and feel like they’re keeping up. It’s not overly complicated, and the engine-building structure is arranged in a visual way that makes it easy for even an older child to grasp. It’s just a fantastic design, and it’s one that I can share with my family and friends, old and new. For that reason, I’ll be keeping Wingspan on the shelf, and might even look at adding an expansion or two.