Wingspan (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave

Publisher: Stonemaier Games

Artists: Anna Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, Beth Sobel

Players: 1-5 (While Wingspan does have a solo mode, as most Stonemaier games do, I will be focusing on the multi-player experience)

Time: 40-70 Minutes

Times Played: 5

Every day, more and more games are released into the wild, both in idea and physical form. In order for one to stand out from the rest of the pack, more and more publishers are leaning on fantastic production and special values to their devoted fans for that bump, for that something extra to stand out from the rest.

One publisher that does this better than most is Stonemaier Games. Jamey Stegmaier has built a devoted following from his days of running Kickstarters to now selling via his own website directly. He even has a “Champion Program” that grants those who pay the yearly $12 fee, early free delivery of the newest Stonemaier titles as they become available. He produces beautiful games and supports his community of fans. So everytime there is a Stonemaier release, it will be the topic du jour for the weeks leading up to and after release. This cycle’s topic du jour is Wingspan, a competitive engine building, card game of bird watching and collecting.

Wingspan comes to us from designer Elizabeth Hargrave, whose only other design credit is for a small PnP game which won the 2018 Button Shy “Gen Can’t” design contest, Tussie-Mussie. Whereas that title was minimalist with only 18 cards, Wingspan is a lot more than that. It’s over 170 unique cards full of birds, the box is full of some cardboard, and then even more cardboard and even some wooden bird eggs to top it all off. Wingspan is definitely a big box production. If you want, you can even turn some of that cardboard into wood via a Meeple Source upgrade pack.

In the game, every player has a player board, and that player board has three rows for cards that are five columns wide, meaning each row can house five cards. These rows represent different habitats for your birds — forest, grassland and wetlands. Each of those habitats will hold birds, but they also will work as your action spaces as well. There are four actions that you can take in the game (the first action plays a bit differently than  the second to fourth actions):

  1. Play a bird card from your hand: It’s as simple as it sounds. If you have bird in hand that you would like to play out to your player board, you pay the food required to attract that bird and place it in the appropriate habitat. The spots furthest to the left are of no extra cost, but as you work your way to the right, there is an Egg cost to playing bird cards as well.
  2. Gain food: Food is represented by dice, there are five of them in the game that are rolled to start and will be re-rolled when the food supply runs out. To gain food, you place one of your action cubes on the left-most empty space on your player board and you do what it tells you. Far left you take one die worth of food from the supply and remove that die from the pool, the further right, your options increase.
  3. Lay eggs: Same as above, you place your action cube on the left most available space and gain that many eggs to place on birds on your player board. Two eggs at the far left, up to four at the far right.
  4. Draw bird cards: Also surprisingly the same as above, place your action cube on the left most available space and gain as many cards as shown, increasing in number the further right the space is.

The catch of this game is when doing actions 2-4, you also move your action cube left one space at a time after completing an action, you stop at any birds that are already on your board in the row you have chosen and you may activate any special actions on the cards that are in brown. Some birds don’t have any, they are usually high value cards points wise, some have pink actions, those are triggered when others take a specific action and some actions are taken when the bird is played and have no actions thereafter.

After everyone has completed all of their actions in a round, eight in that first round, there is a quick reset and a scoring. Each game has four random scoring opportunities that are revealed at the beginning of the game, one is scored at the end of each round. One side of the round scoring board allows for competitive scoring, where first is going to get more than second and on down the line. The other side of the board is for less competitive games, where how you do is in your control. To score these, each round you place an action cube where you score that round. This means that the next round, you will have fewer actions to take. The first round the players will have eight actions, second round seven, and then six in the third and five in the final round.

At the end of the game you are going to score several things — first off, the birds on your player board, then any bonus scoring cards you have (everyone gets one to keep at the beginning of the game) are scored, along with points for your end-of-round bonuses. After those, the players will gain one point each for any eggs still on their player board, any birds tucked under other birds on their player board, and any food that is stored on a bird card on their player board. Surprise! The player with the most points wins!

Wingspan is a game that does everything that it purports to do, it works smoothly and apart from about a dozen or so errors on the cards it’s a well put together production. The rulebook, while it seems to be organized to not be user friendly, has all the information present and it is spelled out clearly, I really don’t recall anything we questioned that wasn’t answered in the rule book or the Appendix. It even comes complete with a Quick Reference Guide to get you into the game and running even faster, but do yourself a favor and read the rule book as well, it will all make more sense.

The art is subjectively beautiful, if maybe a bit disjointed, as the cards don’t really match the player boards and it can be someone jarring to cover up part of your player board with a card that stands out quite a bit, but maybe that’s the point, you don’t want the cards to blend in with the player board environment, since in theory you are going to want to remember the cards are there when you activate a row, but aesthetically it can be a bit jarring. The production throughout is fantastic, the rule books are linen finish, the cards surprisingly aren’t though. The dice are nice wooden dice with distinctive graphic design on them to easily tell what they grant. The extras are nice as well, some custom Stonemaier bit trays, only four when five would have been nice, but I get it. There is a nice plastic tray for all of the cards to rest safely in while being stored and that tray also doubles as a display for the cards during the game, There is a nice cardboard dice tower that looks like a bird feeder. All of this really makes the game stand out on the table.

So why is it that gameplay doesn’t stand out as much as physical production? Most of the actions of the birds are going to just be different variations of other cards, so while there are 170 distinct and unique cards, after a bit they will seem only unique in art and bird type. Sure they grant different things, one may grant seeds or one may grant rodents, but they start to feel a bit same-y after a couple plays. There is very little interaction here among the players. The pink powers that can be activated once in between your turns are about the only things that can affect anyone else, other than possibly hate drafting a bird or two if you figure out a goal card or what a player is trying to do, or taking the food dice that are either/or options to leave fewer choices. Everything seems to be a positive reinforcement here, who knew competitive bird collectors were so friendly. The rule book even tells you that “Players should help each other notice when a bird with a pink power should be activated”. So really, there is no sense of urgency, no way to thwart your opponents whose Chickadees and Nuthatches are gathering four seed each time they take the gather food action. So while Wingspan is indeed a “competitive” game, it’s strictly you, maximizing your score on your player board. This will definitely appeal to some people in the gaming sphere, but for me in a game like this, it’s a negative. I want to be able to force you to adapt and change your plans through actions I take.

Those pink action birds are also kind of a gamble, your opponents don’t have to trigger any cards, it’s optional to do so, so there have been games where we’ve played a couple of those birds and then no one triggers them. Now, most of the time it would give a benefit to both players to trigger, but they don’t have to, so you’ve played what is usually a low scoring bird that offers very little benefit to you in hopes of certain cards coming out, or your opponents even triggering them. 170 cards may not seem like a lot, but you only see a fraction of them each game, even with 4-5 players.

Speaking of player counts, Wingspan plays and feels exactly the same at two player, as it does at three, four or five. There is nothing different about how they play other than in the higher player counts, you are going to have more downtime between your turns. Your Pink Bird actions will still only activate one time in between your turns, no matter how many players may trigger them in between.  

Wingspan can really suffer from “card digging”. You have certain goals to attain, both public and private, but with only three cards showing in the offer, you more than likely will have to top deck, or keep drawing cards until you find ones that work for what you are going for. There are reasons to have a lot of cards in hand, and there is no hand limit, but still, card digging is one of my biggest pet peeves in these types of games. The wetlands are made for this action and lots of Water type birds will grant you more cards as you go. But if you are looking for that specific type to fulfill something and they never come out for you, it can be awfully frustrating. I understand that’s the nature of these engine building games that use cards, you can’t just always get what you want and you have to adapt at times, but when a game has specific goals for scoring at the end of each round and points are always tight, it can make for very unsatisfying situations in game.  

In our game group, we throw the word “fine” out to describe a lot of games, sometimes in jest and other times as kind of one of those damning words. Wingspan is really just “fine,” there is nothing inherently wrong with it. I almost wish there was some kind of glaring mistake in design, that would at least give it some uniqueness. But what you end up getting from Wingspan in that hour or so of playing is a lighter “engine-builder” than Terraforming Mars and a heavier “engine-builder” than Gizmos, but that’s where the comparisons stop as those two games have managed to make themselves stand out in their weight class. Wingspan almost seems to revel in its middle of the roadness, its lack of anything that makes it distinct from anything else, other than the fact that it’s a grand production for a game about collecting birds.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Alan H: I have played about 6 times now with different groups, as it is the game in demand. Part of this the publisher – it’s the new Stonemaier- while the gameplay is easy to teach and pickup, so new players absorb the rules and options quickly. Finally, there’s the bird and the images, which are a great selling point for the game. It’s not the best game of 2019, even published to date, but it is an easy game to introduce and people who like lightweight games will enjoy it.

In my groups in England, the birdie puns have been flying (oops, another one) around. This enlivens the interaction and so far the game has been enjoyed but not loved in my groups. Even better would be a British birds set, but perhaps there are other areas of the world that may be explored next.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I Love It!
  • I Like it. Alan H
  • Neutral. Brandon K
  • Not for me…
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9 Responses to Wingspan (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. @mangozoid says:

    That mechanism of having to carry out the special abilities of each card as you move across them sounds similar to a reversal of the Raxxon ‘push-your-luck’ mechanic whereby players have to undergo the consequences of their previous actions in a turn before they can perform a new action… I can see how it could be frustrating if other players have a better engine than you if there’s no way to influence or close that engine down, but arguably that’s a pretty standard thing in many other games, I believe…? Probably more importantly, “Was it fun?” is probably the key question.

    • The first play at two players was fairly fun, in fact we set it up and played it again immediately after. In theory you can have more of an impact with what to do at two player, do you activate pink abilities or no, but ultimately after a couple more plays you see that things are going the same way they went before because everything is kind of the same, and it loses a lot of luster. All I wanted was a way to slow down certain things that others are doing, throw a monkey wrench into their plans and make them think on their feet, but that doesn’t exist here. So if someone built a better “engine”, you just hope that you build a better one, but you can’t rely on your own wits here as you can be very reliant on a blind card draw.

  2. A quality measured review as always Brandon. Good work!

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  5. frankhamrick says:

    For our group of gaming veterans (take that in more ways than one), Wingspan is THE game. We love it’s weight (not too involved, not too simple), it’s length of play, the puzzle-like feel (struggle to build the best scoring engine), its bits and overall appearance, its ratio of luck-to-strategy, and its intuitive & simple flow of game-play. While we love Scythe, Istanbul, Terraforming Mars, Root, Brass:Birmingham, Terra Mystica, war-games of all types, Great Western Trail, and other heavy-weight strategy games, Wingspan has ‘flown’ (couldn’t resist) to the top of our gaming cache. This, after some 7-12 games by our group members. Verdict: Love it.

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