Valerie Matthews: Review of Wingspan

By Valerie Matthews

Hey, strangers!  Ok, realistically, most of you are strangers.  My name is Valerie Matthews.  From 2005 to 2011 I wrote a weekly board gaming column (primarily for BoardgameNews, before it joined BGG).  One of my regular features was Prose on Cons—reviews of game conventions instead of the games themselves.  (One year I went to 19 game conventions!)  When Dale started Opinionated Gamers I was already pretty burnt out on writing a blog, but I posted a couple of game reviews before I disappeared completely.  At the time, I was writing under the name Valerie Putman.  Oh, hey!  A few of you aren’t strangers!  Where have I been?  Divorced (great guy, and a gamer, but we grew apart), pursuing other hobbies (avid hiker and backpacker—did 16 National Parks the summer of 16), and got married again (great guy, *not* a gamer).  I bore you with all of this before getting to the game review because that last bit—husband not a gamer—is the reason I am reviewing Wingspan.

First, let’s give hubby some credit.  He *wasn’t* a gamer.  But I’ve introduced him to dozens of games now and he has some favorites, including Agricola and Tichu.  Luring a non-gamer to the cult of the new can be tricky.  I’ve made some mistakes along the way and I’m figuring out which kinds of games draw him in.  Rule #1:  Gamer first, cult of the new may come later, or not at all.  I overwhelmed him with too many games too soon.  He likes to learn a game and then play the same game enough times that he feels like he has really learned it (i.e. he likes to play a new game until he can beat me at it).  Rule #2:  He’s more likely to enjoy a game when the decisions make sense.  In other words—theme matters.  (Gasp!!!!  I’m a Knizia fan girl.  I mean, total fan girl.  Stalker?  Fan girl.)  He loves Agricola because of course you have to plant seeds before you can harvest and of course you need to build fences before you can collect more animals and of course your people need to eat.  Power Grid was another favorite.  The theme drives the decisions.  If he isn’t sure what to do in Age of Steam, he can ask himself, What Would Vanderbilt Do?  He’s perfectly happy with an abstract game if it is light and easy—Cartagena is one of our most played games—but I like the meaty stuff and he is far more likely to “get it” if it’s got a meaningful theme.  So, what’s the last thing you need to know before I dive into my review of Wingspan?  Hubby is a birder.  Hardcore.

With a collection of hundreds of games to choose from to introduce to hubby, my shopping for new games has been dramatically reduced.  (Another reason I haven’t been writing reviews—I’m not playing the new stuff.)  I’ve slacked off on pre-Essen research and I had no idea Wingspan was a thing until Essen was over and it was nearly impossible to get a copy.  I found an online store that would let me pre-order it, but it wasn’t going to ship until March, April, never.  Then the New York Times article came out.  Then it was nominated for the SdJ.  Actually, that helped—2nd print run.

pictures from setup

So, I finally have my copy and have played the game 6 times now.  Hubby and I have played it 5 times as a 2-player game and we had a couple over for a game night and played a 4-player game.  If you’ve read this far, you deserve an opinion already—I love it.  Hubby liked it after the first play and after the 2nd play, he was already asking for a third play (all in the same day!).  While we were hiking the next day, he started talking strategy, so we played again when we got home.

What’s to love?  Hubby rates the difficulty of the game at about a 3 or 4 on a 0 – 10 scale (with 10 being the hardest).  I was surprised!  It’s meaty.  Soooo many strategies left to try.  But it is quick to teach–you do one of 4 actions over and over again (26 times to be exact).  So it is easy to learn.  But it is hard to master.  (Hubby has won 3 of our 6 games and has the high score by a large margin.)  The theme doesn’t really help with the big decisions (you’re not playing the roll of an ornithologist or a birder or mother nature), but it is pervasive and immersive.  The art is gorgeous and there is enough factual information on the bird cards to have high educational value.  The theme does help players remember special abilities and such.  For example, cowbirds (parasitic egg layers in the real world) don’t have their own nests in the game—they lay eggs in the nests of other birds when another player lays eggs.

How do you play?  Over the course of 4 rounds you take turns doing one of 4 things:  collect bird cards, collect food (which is required to pay for the bird cards), play bird cards (which are worth points at the end of the game), or lay eggs (also worth points).  Three of those 4 actions (collecting cards, collecting food, and laying eggs) also trigger special abilities on the birds you have already played.  Those abilities can chain together to create efficient card/food/egg producing machines (often the winning strategy).  Or you can end up with a random hodge podge of birds that don’t really work well together (often the losing strategy).  But there are end of round and end of game bonuses that can make your opponent’s seemingly chaotic choices (“are you sure you understand the game, dear?”) blow away your highest score by… a lot.  It feels like the game isn’t solvable—every time it is a new puzzle.  Man, I want to play again.  Now. 

Like Agricola, the game has a “beginner” version (think Family Game in Agricola) and an “interactive” version.  I actually like the Family Game better in Agricola and I certainly start there when I teach the game.  It should be of no surprise, then, that I started with the beginner version of Wingspan.  In fact, we only switched to the interactive version for our 6th play.  The two versions are far more similar than the two versions of Agricola.  In the beginner version of Wingspan, all players score all potential end-of-round bonus points.  If the bonus is for birds that lay eggs in tree cavities and I have 4 and you have 3, I would score 4 points and you would score 3 points (with 5 being the max bonus points per round).  In the interactive version, my 4 birds would get me the 1st place bonus and your 3 birds would get you the 2nd place bonus (a difference of 3 points).  If we are close, the person with the last play in the round might have the advantage—able to do just enough to edge out the other player (hence, more interactive—sort of).  But interestingly, unlike the beginner version, 3 points is the maximum difference between 1st and 2nd place—even if you have 5 of the bonus things and I have 1.  That would have been a 4-point swing in the beginner version.  So I actually think the “interactive” version is more forgiving—at least in a 2-player game.  I’m not sure which version we’ll settle on in the long run.

Was there anything about the game I don’t care for?  A minor quibble—the eggs come in 5 colors, which as a seasoned gamer, I assumed had some importance.  After scouring the rule book a dozen times I had to concede that they are just for looks and you can dump all the eggs in one pile (must. resist. sorting).  A more important complaint—the game is not so “old eyes” friendly.  Make sure you have good light, a magnifying glass, and be prepared to ask other players repeatedly about their birds (necessary sometimes when special abilities are triggered).

I don’t know how much we’ll be playing the game 6 months from now.  I’m not saying this game will be a long-term game collection classic.  But I’m already getting a better plays/cost out of this game than other new acquisitions and the bird theme makes it essential if you happen to have a birding gamer (or gaming birder) in your life.

I’d rather be gaming,

Valerie (Staton) Matthews (f.k.a. Putman)… whatever.

PS…  Wow, I really can’t call hubby a non-gamer any more.  While I was away for a week, he taught himself the solo game and he has played it 5 times now!  I watched him play that last one.  It looks like it plays very well.  Your own turns are identical to turns in the regular game.  There is an “automa” that generates points for a virtual opponent on each turn.  That automa will also trigger some of the interactive elements—removing available cards from the display, taking and rerolling dice from the bird feeder, and competing with you for the round bonuses.  Out of his 5 plays, hubby lost twice, tied twice, and won once.  I asked him for one thing he liked better about the solo play and one thing he preferred in the normal game and he said…

                Pro (of solo game):  It’s easy to keep track of turns—sometimes in the regular game you can forget to move a cube and you might skip or take an extra turn.

                Con (of solo game):  I like people!  Also, there is more to keep track of, so it is a little more complex.

PPS…  The game also won the SdJ since I wrote my initial review.  Congratulations to designer, Elizabeth Hargrave, to the illustrators—Natlalia Rajas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sabel (the art is incredible), and to the publisher, Stonemaier games.  I will admit, that while I love the game, I was surprised it was nominated.  1) It is focused on North American birds.  While this might not matter to gamers, I can tell you that for my birding husband, the game would have been a different experience with European birds.  Actually, I’m sure he’d love to have a European bird expansion.  If players are looking for other games with an educational, animal theme, I highly recommend Fauna, which was an SdJ nominee in 2009.  2) It was really hard to get my hands on a copy.  I am sure they had to reassure the jury that a large print run was possible to even be a contender.  I’m so glad I did finally get to add the game to my collection and I am thrilled that it has gotten widespread recognition. 

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:

Jeff Lingwall:  To me, Wingspan failed to … stretch its wings all the way? It is gorgeous and well-designed, but slow to build up, and I didn’t feel there were too many interesting things going on with the bird powers. (There are some interesting powers, but most of the birds are variations on a few themes.) I ended up selling my copy. I was glad to try it, but also didn’t feel too bad about it leaving the collection. An expansion bringing in some variety and helping the game get moving faster would be welcome. Overall, a good game but I much prefer something like Race for the Galaxy for tableau building. I know a lot of people are in love with Wingspan, and I enjoyed it, but was fine with this one leaving the nest. 

Patrick Brennan:  In many ways this is just another engine building game where your approach to points gathering and your outcome is largely reliant on what cards (aka engine powers) are available to you on your turns and the decisions you make around them. But this does it really well and I love the card power decision space, forcing you to continually assess the best approach when faced with what’s available. I’m also comfortable with the luck of the cards and in the means of gaining bonus points which, if you embrace the luck, adds to the thematic enjoyment of the game. I suffered a little trying to read dark text on a brown background but otherwise it’s a neat system with lots of little rule approaches I liked (like reducing the number of actions each round by 1). It offers lots of strategic approaches to try. In the end it’s probably a max-your-eggs game, but many roads lead to Rome. It’s clean and classic and I can see it being a standard go-to for a light engine building game if it were in my collection.

Erik Arneson:  I respect Race for the Galaxy; I recognize its greatness and believe it belongs in the BoardGameGeek overall top 50 (where, as I type this, it sits at #50). However, it didn’t become a long-term favorite for me. It’s easy for me to envision Wingspan (currently #42) doing just that. It’s elegant and smart, clever and beautiful to look at. Wingspan is fantastic.

Brandon Kempf:  Welcome back Valerie! I took a look at Wingspan back at the end of January, I was one of the “lucky” ones to get their pre-order done and delivered. It was sold off by Mid-February at cost, I just didn’t think it needed a space on our shelves. I’ve since played it one more time at a convention because others wanted to play it and I wanted to play games with them. That right there, pretty much sums up my feelings towards Wingspan, I’d play it if the company was good, and I had nothing more pressing to do with my time. I get what it is trying to do, it’s trying to bridge that gap, it’s trying to be a game that can cross into non-gamer territory and still maybe be interesting enough for gamers, but in doing so it just felt boring to me. It does devolve in that final round to a game of tuck every bird you can, or gather every egg possible and that’s a huge let down.  It sure is pretty though, much like any production from Stonemaier. I’d honestly rather sit down to two or three games of Gizmos rather than one game of Wingspan. 

Simon Neale:  Despite the lovely production quality, Wingspan does not appeal that much to me. I find the theme attractive but the game plays as though it is trying to appeal to both gamers and non-gamers by having the engine building aspect on top of very light game mechanics. This results in a game that struggles to hold the interest of gamers and feels too complex for non-gamers. 

Tery Noseworthy:  I have a slight fear of birds that may or may not be irrational (I mean, they’re small, but there are horror movies about them. . . . ), so maybe that colors my opinion of the game, but I just don’ t get the gamer love for it. The components are nice, there are interesting facts about the birds on the cards, and I can see how it would appeal to non-gamers, but it just feels dry and fell flat for me. I’d definitely join Brandon for a game of Gizmos over Wingspan.

Joe Huber (2 plays):  Erik’s opinion is almost precisely the opposite of mine.  I love Race for the Galaxy – I played it over 1,000 times in 2008, and still enjoy the game just as much today.  Whereas Wingspan, to me, feels less well developed, not well balanced, too wordy – but, to be fair, with a good theme and great visual appeal.  On the whole, it’s not a game I expect to ever play 10 times, not to mention 1,000 – but it is a game I’m willing to play if others wish to. 

Larry (1 play):  First of all, welcome back, Valerie!  Your enthusiastic writing style reminds me of how much I used to enjoy your articles.  I’m so happy that you’re reviewing again and getting back into the hobby!

As for Wingspan, it’s a perfectly cromulent game.  Solid design, decisions to be made, excellent components, attractive theme to many.  I was routinely screwed by the way the food dice came out, but I suppose the lesson there is to try to get birds that have more varied requirements (and maybe focus more on the top row habitat).  There’s nothing wrong with the title, but I didn’t see a thing to distinguish it from a hundred other games (keeping in mind that I’m a mechanisms-first, theme/components far second kind of gamer).  In short, it just didn’t grab me. I’d have no problem playing again, but would also be perfectly happy if I never did.

Fraser (2 plays): Welcome back Valerie! Wingspan is cute and strangely was actually available in Australia reasonably quickly, maybe a container got lost on its way to the US. I find it to be a nice, light to medium weight engine builder with interesting things going on.  The diminishing number of actions is a nice touch. It’s not the best thing since sliced bread, but it is good. It will be interesting to see if other regional decks are released. Most Australians surveyed are of the opinion that birds such as the Bush Tit should be included in the scoring for birds with body parts.

Dan Blum (2 plays): I agree with Joe although I think I like the game a touch less than he does. (I suppose I’d play it again if asked, but I’d complain about it.) As in Race for the Galaxy (and other games) you’re trying to leverage the cards you get to best effect. Fine. I often like that sort of thing. However, in Wingspan it’s difficult to see a lot of cards, which means you are much more at the mercy of the draw than in RftG. Add to that the dice-rolling for food and you have a lot of randomness – too much for a game of this length. It’s not very long in absolute terms but it’s a lot longer than RftG or other engine-building games that are less random.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Patrick Brennan, Erik Arneson
  • I like it.  Jeff Lingwall, Fraser
  • Neutral. Brandon Kempf, Simon Neale, Tery Noseworthy, Joe H., Larry, Dan Blum
  • Not for me… 

About Valerie Putman

I'm a prof. I'm a gamer. I'm an animal behaviorist. I'm a girl. But the one word used to describe me most often? "Enthusiastic."
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4 Responses to Valerie Matthews: Review of Wingspan

  1. Pingback: Valerie Matthews: Review of Wingspan – Herman Watts

  2. Chris McGowan says:

    Welcome back Valerie! Look forward to hearing how you’ve done keeping up with the Dominion expansions ;) One thing that has changed is the there is SdJ winner and KdJ (Connoisseur) winner. 2019 SdJ = Just One. KdJ = Wingspan.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    It was great to play a few games with you recently, Valerie, and very appropriate that you taught me Wingspan. It was a very solid design, beautifully made, with an original theme, and I’d be happy to play anytime. I probably won’t be buying a copy, unless the theme would draw someone I know into boardgaming more than the other light engine-builders in my collection. But I can now see this as a good Kennerspiel des Jahres selection.

  4. James says:

    Sigh, this is probably the most overrated game of 2018/19, a rather formulaic engine builder that is shored up by great components and a pleasant theme.

    Race for the Galaxy has a high barrier to entry and so will never be a mainstream game, but it’s sad to see another 45 minute tableau builder, like Res Arcana (which is easy to pick up, with excellent iconography and good player aids) not garner even half as much attention as the latest Stonemaier game.

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