Review by: Matthew Lee
Written for The Campaigner
Published at: https://thecampaignermagazine.com/2019/04/wingspan/
From high above our heads, to nestled amongst the grass at our feet, birds can be found. There are many different kinds, but they find ways to work alongside each other. Benefiting from those other species that live around them. When the time comes, when the conditions are right, they spread their wings and soar.
Wingspan is an engine building game where players are tasked with populating an area with a variety of birds. Most birds provide powers, which can be utilised to gain points, eggs or resources. After four rounds players total their points, and whoever has the most is declared the winner.
The play area consists of player mats, the bird card deck, resources and a bird feeder dice tower. Players each have their own area mat, which is divided into three rows: forests, fields and wetlands. Rows have five spaces, and these are where players put their bird card when placed. In addition players will each have their own challenge card which scores points at the end of the game if the criteria are fulfilled.
Each turn players select one of four actions, which they indicate using coloured cubes. Three of the actions correspond with the rows on their player mat. Actions allow players to either place a bird on their mat, gain food, lay eggs or draw bird cards. These actions become more powerful the more birds there are in the row. Certain bird powers also activate when players perform the action of the row they are in, giving players additional resources, points and other benefits.
In order to gain food players utilise the bird feeder dice tower. Each dice has a resource icon on its side, with the currently rolled icons being the available food supply. Once a single dice, or multiples of the same icon, remains the player may roll all the dice before continuing to collect food.
Eggs can be created through the lay eggs action, or from some bird powers. These eggs are placed onto bird cards, with each bird card having an egg capacity. During play eggs are used to play birds to portions of the mat rows, or sometime spent as part of a bird card power. At the culmination of the game eggs become points.
The game is made up of four rounds. Each round has its own randomly determined objective, which grants players additional points. As the round objectives are calculated players place one of their coloured cubes in the round indicator, to show what position they came that round.
Wingspan is a really deceptive game, but in a pleasantly surprising and enjoyable way. Largely because of the way it marries theme and mechanics. From the outset the quaint theme, pastel playing pieces and adorable illustrations put players into a particularly calming mindset. One which underlines the largely non-confrontational quality of the game, while helping to highlight the engine building aspect.
This really is a game where the player’s worst enemy is themself. Other players may occasionally ruffle their feathers by taking a bird they had their eye on, or food they needed. But these instances cause a revaluation of plans, rather than a collapse of them.
The bulk of the game revolves around how the players decide to build their engine of actions and bird powers. Do they place birds that provide food into the gain food row, to create an unstoppable resource engine? Or do they spread powers out so that one action yields a variety of results? It is these decisions, of how to combine powers and actions, that really engage the players.
Of particular interest are the action cubes, and how they factor into the players decision making process. At the start of the game the player has eight cubes, and eight actions. But as rounds progress they lose a cube each round, decreasing their total actions. However this is offset by the engine they have built, so that even while they are performing five actions in the last round players never feel limited or constrained.
Best of all, Wingspan is really easy to learn to play. Most of the action is happening face up in front of the player, with abilities and criteria clearly marked on mats and cards. Even those who aren’t familiar with engine building can find it easy to get to grips with the game, thanks to the smart layout design which sees the cards and mats working together in a visually understandable way.
That being said, there are a couple of little wonky parts to Wingspan which stand out. Primarily because everything else is so well done.
The bird feeder dice tower is a fantastically thematic idea, but the instructions on how to put it together aren’t as clear as they could be. Also, the way dice are inserted into the feeder could be re-examined. It is generally easier to leave the roof off, so that dice can be inserted from any angle, rather than try to navigate the opening in the back when the roof is on.
While I did praise the easy to learn rules, and layout design, there is one aspect which seems to present a pretty consistent hurdle starting out. The play a bird action is a tiny sliver at the top of the mat, which seems to throw a lot of new players in the first round. It seems that this section isn’t as understandable at a glance as the rows below it, possibly because it is squished at the top and so looks more inconsequential than it actually is.
Overall I am extremely impressed with Wingspan. It’s not surprising to see a high quality gameplay and production product come from Stonemaier Games, but even so, Wingspan is at the upper echelon of the company’s catalogue. Fantastic use and manufacture of components, challenging gameplay, easily learnt rules, and all wrapped up in a surprisingly appealing theme.
Wingspan brings a robust engine building experience and makes it palatable to a wide variety of players. Learning it is fun, and upon finishing a game you immediately want to swoop back in and utilise what you have learnt. With the combination of bird powers and random aspects the game provides quite a lot of replayability. Making Wingspan a must add to any collection.
The 'Play a Bird action' is a bit confusing when first starting out, especially when there the other rows are so much larger. Not to mention it's a tiny sliver for your action cubes to congregate on. When teaching new players, I try to emphasize the font similarities between all four actions on the player mat and that tends to help a little.
Thanks for the review!