Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Birds on a Wire

If you haven't ever seen the Oscar winning 3 minute short "For the Birds" by Pixar, now might be a good time to do so:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dq2dJcZBJA

It's what inspired the game "Birds on a Wire", as designer Carey Grayson observed in an interview: "In the case for “Birds on a Wire,” my inspiration was the funny Pixar animated short: “For the Birds.” The challenge was to find a way to emulate what was going on in the story in the form of a board game. If you have not seen the short, it is a very funny movie about a big, goony bird with Ausberger Syndrome trying to join the company of some snobbish little birds ending with hilarious results."



He's right: the short is funny, and is well worth watching. It's a brief but hilarious tale about a group of small birds that land on a telephone wire. When a much larger and awkward-looking bird arrives, the smaller birds reject him with taunts and insults. When the big bird moves onto their wire and weighs it down, the small birds slide inwards and are clearly unhappy about crowding together. They resist the large bird's attempts to win their friendship, and decide to shove him from their perch. But the large bird gets the last laugh, because when he is dislodged from the wire, the small birds all end up being flung upward violently, lose their feathers, and are forced to hide behind him for cover.



It's a cute story, and with Birds on a Wire, Carey Grayson has turned it into a game, as #8 in the new Gryphon Games bookshelf series. It's for 2 to 5 players, and comes with two sets of rules: Family and Advanced. That makes it a very versatile little game, which plays very quickly (only 15-20 minutes), and has the potential to cater to a variety of tastes. Let's join the birds, and head for the skies and wires to find out more!





COMPONENTS

Game box

The artwork on the box is clearly inspired by the Pixar short:



The back of the box outlines the basic idea behind gameplay: 1. Draw a tile - lay a tile; 2. Create sets of 3 or more; 3. Watch out for Zaps; 4. Highest score wins.



"On their own power lines, players arrange birds into sets of three, trying to create the best scoring combinations. Your birds need to be of the same color, the same size, all different colors, or all different sizes.
But watch out! In this game of migrating birds and shocking zaps, scores go up and down and you won't know until the very end if you have won!
Birds On A Wire includes two sets of rules: one for families with children 7 and up; and another for more advanced play.
"

Component list

We get our first look inside the box, and see this:



A complete inventory of the components results in the following list:
● 63 Bird Tiles
● 4 Zap Tiles
● 1 Cloth Bag
● 5 Power Line Cards
● 1 Sky Card
● 2 Rule Booklets



I'm not that crazy about the box insert. During game-play, tiles are selected randomly from the cloth bag. But alas, the only way to fit everything inside the box insert is to take all the tiles out the bag and stack them into the two compartments - only to put them back in the bag next time you're playing the game! It would have been much easier if the bag could have fit in the insert when filled with tiles. Aside from this minor annoyance, however, the components are good quality.

Rule book

The game comes with two independent rulebooks: Family Game rules, and Advanced Game rules. According to the designer, "I designed the game around the advanced rules first and in that regard, it is very much like the Pixar short I just mentioned. The family rules are similar in theme, but it is a simpler game with different scoring mechanism to appeal to a wider audience."



Two ways to play the game: that's good value for your money! Most of the rules are the same, and so once you have learned one way to play, it's easy enough to pick up the other version of the game. Rather than just list the differences between them, the publishers have opted to go the route of two separate rulebooks. I suppose this allows you to throw one rulebook out if you really don't like it, and that's exactly what some gamers recommend. Tom Vasel raves about the Family Game rules and recommends throwing out the rulebook for the Advanced Game. Matt Drake has the opposite perspective, and suggests you shouldn't even bother with the Family Game rules because in his view "They seem to be designed for very stupid families", and according to him it's the Advanced Game that is the fun way to play. I share Matt Drake's conclusion and much prefer the Advanced Game, but the good thing is that the publisher lets you try both, so you can make up your own mind about the best way to play. In this review I'll start by explaining the Family Game rules, and explain the differences introduced by the Advanced Game at the end.



It should be admitted that there are several ambiguities in the rules about certain aspects of gameplay. The designer has addressed most of these in this BGG thread, and indicated that corrections would be made if ever there is a reprint. This is no reason not to get the game, because a quick glance at that thread should clarify any questions you might have.

Power Line cards

There are five Power Line cards, one for each player:



These have 12 empty spaces where birds will be placed - three "lines" of four each. Having three actual "power lines" as part of the artwork would have been a simple but obvious improvement to the boards. The boards themselves are otherwise of great quality.

Sky card

Birds that aren't placed on personal power lines can be placed on the single shared Sky card:



Bird tiles

Birds of a feather flock together, so the saying goes! The biggest part of Birds on a Wire are the bird tiles. Here they are, waiting desperately to escape their shrink wrap:



Altogether there are 63 tiles.



Since they need to be selected randomly during gameplay, a simple black cloth bag is provided.



Birds are in one of three colours (green, blue, red), and one of three sizes (large, medium, small):



There are seven identical tiles of each the possible 9 combinations. In keeping with the Family Game idea, feel free to call the three sizes Daddy Bird, Mommy Bird, and Baby Bird! In our family, my children soon adopted rather ridiculous pet names for the different sizes: Hairy Meatballs, Coloured Peanuts, and Little Tuffties. I have to admit that this silliness did improve the game, so have fun coming up with your own names!

The reverse side of the tiles show the same birds, but with only one leg on the wire - this is what your birds are going to look like when they get zapped! For some peculiar reason, the one-legged zapped birds look a lot more cheerful then their two legged unzapped companions! Perhaps this is a secret commentary on shock therapy? My children figured that the two legged birds are sad, and that a good electric shock is what makes them happy!



Zap tiles

There are 4 Zap tiles:



These will be placed on the Sky card at the start of the game, and players can get these when they trigger a Migration, and can use them to "shock" the birds of their opponents, or sometimes even their own. But more on that later!

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

All the Bird tiles are shuffled randomly inside the cloth bag. Each player gets their own Power Line card, while the four Zap tiles are placed on the Sky Card as follows:



The set-up for a four player game should look like this:



Note that the two player game requires using two Power Line cards each, and is generally regarded as being inferior to games with 3, 4 or 5 players.

Scoring

Let's begin by explaining the end-of-game scoring, so that at least you know what you're trying to accomplish during game-play! The aim is to place the bird tiles that you draw in rows or columns to form "sets", where the attributes are all the same or all different. A legal "set" of bird tiles thus can be one of four possibilities:
● all the same colour, and all the same size
● all the same colour, and all three different sizes
● all three different colours, and all the same size
● all three different colours, and all three different sizes
These patterns will be familiar to gamers who have played SET.



When your birds get Zapped, you'll sometimes be left with birds standing on one leg - these score in the same way, but score an extra bonus point each. In the example pictured below, a player would score 14 points.



Drawing & Placing Tiles

The basic flow of play involves players taking turns to draw and place a bird tile (two legged side up) on their Power Line board.



In the Family Game, tiles can be placed anywhere, but you are trying to get sets in a row or column.



If you don't want to place the tile you drew, you can discard it onto the Sky card - this allows you to draw a second bird tile if you wish, but then you must place it.

When placing the tiles, you'll try to create sets of at least 3 birds to score points, in the combinations described under Scoring, i.e. all the same colour or all different colours; and all the same size or all different sizes.



Migrating

If the bird you place on the Sky Card fills a column or row, you trigger a migration - all the birds in that row or column migrate and fly away. If that row or column has a Zap tile, you also get to keep that tile.



As the player who triggered the Migration, you may choose any of the birds that migrated. Then you go around the table and every other player in turn gets a chance to take one of the migrating birds, if they wish.



When the migrating birds have flown around the table, you must take and place on your Power Line board any that are left, if any.

Zapping

Instead of having Big Bird land on the wire, as in the Pixar short, and causing a catapult effect when it leaves, Carey Grayson has introduced the concept of "Zapping". In actual fact, birds can usually sit quite safely on power lines (for the science behind this, see here or here or here or here) as long as they don't touch two lines at once. But the idea of zapping your opponent does add a bit of "take that" nastiness to the game, and prevents it becoming a simple matter of luck of the draw.



How does it work? Instead of drawing and placing a tile, you can play a Zap tile if you have one. You choose a row on any Power Line board (including your own), and Zap it. The Zap tile is discarded, but all the birds on the zapped row fly away around the table (starting with the player on the left of the player who got Zapped), in a manner similar to Migration. As long as there are at least two unzapped birds on the row that was zapped, one bird tile is flipped over to the side with one-leg - this bird does not fly away (and cannot fly away in future turns either), and will score an extra bonus point at the end of the game. The birds that do fly away become available to other players to choose from in turns, also like Migration. Any birds that remain after flying all the way around the table to the Zapped player may not be placed by this player, but are placed back in the bag.



So there may be situations where you decide to Zap yourself as a way of increasing your score or getting rid of unwanted birds!

End of Game

The game ends when a player fills all 12 spaces on his Power Line card (if this happens in the middle of migrating or zapping, the current player's turn is finished), and scoring happens. The player with the highest score wins!

The highest possible score with the Family Game rules would be a theoretical 28 points, scored something as follows:



Three sets of four in each of the three rows: 3 x 4 = 12
Four sets of three in each of the four columns: 4 x 3 = 12
Four bonus points for each of the one-legged birds: 4 x 1 = 4

This would be a very unlikely result, since it's unlikely that you'd be zapped four times, or that another player wouldn't have filled his Power Line card earlier as a result of such Zapping. But it is theoretically possible, and helps illustrate how scoring works at the end of a game.

Two Player Game

The two player variant described in the rules requires each player to manage two boards, combining the scoring in the end. There has been been some some discussion about an improved two player variant. The designer has come up with the following variant, which in his view "seems more balanced and has about the same level of strategy as the multi-player version." Here it is:

1) Remove 2 types of birds (ex: small red, big blue) from the bag. These remain out of the game.
2) Give each player 1 power line.
3) Give each player 2 zaps. Play these according to normal rules.
4) Set up the sky: randomly draw and place 1 bird in the long diagonal row until 4 birds are placed corner - to - corner. NOTE: this is the opposite diagonal as the Zaps, so opposing corners should be blank.
5) Play rest of game according to original rules (each player playing on a single power line).


I haven't tried it personally, but it's worth mentioning.

ADVANCED GAME

Most of the game-play is the same, but the Advanced Game rules change enough things to give the game a different feel, especially because your objectives change. There's a helpful Quick Start for the Advanced Game rules here.

Scoring

The aim is to get sets of exactly the same bird, and when you place tiles, it must be placed adjacent (horizontally or vertically) to other birds that are identical. You win immediately in the unlikely event that you place 6 of the 7 possible birds on your board. Otherwise, when scoring, you check to see what the smallest set of birds that you have (not counting single birds), and score points for each set of this size that you win. In other words, if your smallest set is 3 birds, and you had two sets like this, you'd score 2 x 3 = 6 points. Zapped birds on one leg score an additional bonus point, just like in the Family Game.

It's easiest to illustrate how scoring works with a couple of examples:



This changes the game, because groups of two will usually score points, but a group of three will score points only if you don't have any groups of two - should you take the risk and go for groups of three or four? You could end up with virtually nothing as a result! The decisions about whether to keep or discard a tile, become far more interesting and tense!



Other differences

Placement

As already mentioned, when placing tiles, birds of the same colour and shape must be placed adjacent to one another, in sets.



Migration

Rules for Migration are the same, except that if you can create or increase a set of identical birds on your board with any of the migrating birds, you must take and place these birds on your board (i.e. you could end up getting multiple birds this way!). Remaining birds migrate around the table, but each player must take as many birds as they can that would create or increase sets. This adds an extra dimension of fun, because you can force birds to migrate to another players board, and actually cause them to lose points by increasing the size of one of their point-scoring sets, so that it no longer scores any points!

CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

Birds on a Wire has received mixed reviews, but here are some reasons why you might like the game, or for that matter why you might not like it:

It is part of a series. If you're a completionist and a collector, and already have some of the Gryphon Games bookshelf games series, then you'll just have to get this! Gotta collect 'em all!

It is quick. The game-play is very quick, and this is certainly one of the game's redeeming qualities. When something that can be played in 15-20 minutes, your expectations aren't going to be high, and you're not expecting a deep gaming experience. For the time it takes to play, it feels just right. In our experience, the Advanced Game is particularly fun, and because it's quick, you'll find yourself wanting to play a series of games back-to-back.

It is unusual and innovative. I can't think of any other game quite like this one - it has a very different feel from anything else I have. So you won't quickly get a feeling that this is duplicating a game that you already have. There's definitely some original ideas here.

It has a cute theme. Who doesn't like birds? Let's face it, this was a good idea! And thematically, the ideas behind migrating and zapping work well, and integrate the mechanics nicely with the theme.

It has some take that elements. Being able to Zap your opponent's birds prevents the game from being a simple luck fest. But this kind of confrontational play isn't going to go over well with everyone. Somehow this concept seems more innocuous, more fun, and less mean-spirited, with the Advanced game - in the Family game being Zapped can put you out of the running to win.

It has two different rule sets. This is not a criticism - if anything it just gives the game more scope. Even if you don't like one form of the game, perhaps you'll like the other.

It is best with three or more players. The game does work with two (two Power Line cards each), but most people seem to think it's not the best way to play.

Overall it's probably not the strongest entry in the Gryphon Games series, but it's not the worst either. Getting hit with a Zap tile can be quite brutal, and sometimes it seems that the comes down to tile draw - although this seems to be more of an issue with the Family Game. For this reason the game is probably best enjoyed when played quickly as a light filler, rather than agonizing over your choices. The designer himself describes it this way: "Despite its cute exterior, “Birds on a Wire” is not as easy or as nice as it looks. It is an abstract game at its core with mechanics that are well married to its theme. There is a lot of screwage in the advance rules and you have to be on the alert what other players are doing or they will fly past you scoring-wise (a little bird humor there)."

What do I think about the Advanced Game?

So which is better, the Family Game or the Advanced Game?

The Advanced Game has an easier concept of "sets". Interestingly some people seem to think that the Advanced Game rules are easier than the Family Game rules! In once sense it is easier, because you are going for sets of identical birds, so there's really only one way to make a set: with birds that are the same. As a result, you are focusing more on the size of your sets, rather than the various patterns of sets with birds with different colours and sizes, and that simplifies things somewhat.

The Advanced Game has more interesting decisions, with more risks and tension. The Advanced Game certainly has a very different feel. Often you're going for different birds than your opponents, and this will change your decisions about whether or not to keep a bird or send it to the Sky Card. There's also a new element of risk-taking: most of the time you'll go for sets of two identical birds, but should you go for sets of three identical birds instead, at the risk that you'll end up with one smaller set of two birds, and so only score two points total? Trying to get sets of three birds is harder and more risky. Because birds need to be identical, there's also more chance you'll draw birds that you don't need - whereas with the Family Game, there's nearly always a set into which you can place a bird tile, and so the game often comes down to who has the luckiest tile draw. But with the Advanced Game, you'll often get unwanted birds, and then you have to make an interesting decision: if you discard the tile on the Sky Board, should you take the risk of drawing a second tile, and then be forced to place it on your board - particularly if it makes one of your point scoring sets bigger than you like? This adds a new layer of tension, and it can be very fun, especially if an opponent draws a bird tile that they don't want and they are forced to place it!

The Advanced Game has less obvious placement. With the Family Game, usually there's a very obvious spot to place the tile you draw (usually part of an obvious set), whereas with the Advanced Game the sets are more fluid, and so placement is more fluid.

The Advanced Game changes the feel of Migrations. Migrations work slightly differently, because you are forced to take bird tiles that match your existing sets - conversely you can force opponents to take tiles in this way, so this has a whole new twist and becomes more viable to play!

The Advanced Game changes the feel of Zaps. Because you're more likely to get stuck with unwanted birds, there are even times where you'll want to be Zapped. Zaps in the Advanced Game feel less harsh and painful than they do in the Family Game.

The Advanced Game has a less intuitive scoring system. Children will have a harder time comprehending the scoring, however, which is somewhat unfortunate, because I think the Advanced Game is in fact the better game.

The Advanced Game rewards repeated play in one session. Much like with Matt Drake's experience, we found it very satisfying to play half a dozen Advanced games back to back in one sitting, and had a riotous time, with a great deal of tension and laughter!

All in all, while the concepts of sets is simpler, the decisions feel quite different, and the Advanced Game is far more tense and interesting. But try both, and judge for yourself! This poll will give some indication what others think:

Poll
Which of the two rule-sets is the best way to play Birds on a Wire?
Family Game Rules
Advanced Game Rules
Neither is better than the other
      14 answers
Poll created by EndersGame

For more discussion, check out this thread. I personally recommend learning the game with the Advanced rules, since this is the way the game was originally conceived, and provides the most satisfying game-play. If you're playing with younger children, you might want to use the Family game rules, but if your players are age 10 or up, go straight to the Advanced rules. That's how the game is best enjoyed, and is the most fun way to play. I fear that it might only hurt the game if new players start with the Family rules, thinking they're the easiest way to learn the game, only to be disappointed with the game, and so never get to the Advanced rules (which aren't really more complex to begin with anyway). Perhaps it would have been better to publish the Advanced rules as the "Regular Game", and note the minor differences of the "Family Game" rule-set in an appendix rather than in a separate rulebook.



What do others think?

Some people love the Family Game rules. Other people love the Advanced Game rules. Other people enjoy neither. Here's an overview of some reactions to the game thus far:
"These Gryphon bookshelf games are sure living up to their claim of being simple to learn, fast playing, quality games. Really, really good filler for all ages." - Demian Lord
"The game is short and fun. Makes for a quick, filler type game that is interesting and has just a little bit of strategy to help control the randomness of the draw." - Todd Sweet
"Simple. Can be fun with the right people." - Georg von Lemberg
"Engaging and addictive. Much more to this game than what first meets the eye. Many subtle strategies possible which require a few plays to really discover. Excellent short game worthy of multiple plays per session." - Alf Seegert
"A pretty decent filler. Enjoyable." - Greg Williams
"This tile-laying and set collecting game has a nice theme and a good speed to depth ratio ... The rule variations add some depth, and the game is actually a lot of fun." - Ben Stanley
"Fun!! Doesn't take hours to play." - Kimberly Skach


There are also a few negative comments, the harshest being this:
"A stinker of a game. Mindless tile drawing and retarded lightnings." - Juuso Mattila
But most people seem to enjoy the game, and the lack of enthusiasm on the part of some is not because it's a bad game, but rather because they prefer games that have more fun or more depth. In some cases, people only tried one of the rule sets, so a fair judgment requires giving the game a fair trial, as Matt Drake points out:
"I didn't think I was going to like this game at all. I talked my wife and daughter into trying it - and we loved it ... each game takes about fifteen minutes - which means we played Birds on a Wire six times in a row ... play it at least twice before you decide if you like it. You'll probably need at least three games to figure out all the intricacies and subtleties of the game, and until you do, your first few games may be a little confusing." - Matt Drake



Recommendation

Is Birds on a Wire for you? As always, that will depend on your personal tastes. But if you're looking for a filler that plays very quickly, has a humorous theme, and plays quite differently from anything else that you have, it's worth a look. Just be prepared to give it several tries with both rulesets before coming to any definite conclusions about the game.



------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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Ben Stanley
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Truly exceptional review, Ender. When you say "comprehensive" you aren't kidding. You set the gold standard and then exceed it every time.
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Jesse Hickle
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For the Birds is my favorite Pixar short (obviously) and it's nice to see this review of the game. Kudos!
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Peaceful Gamin'
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You found our Geekbadge Overtext. Congratulations! :-)
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Hej Ender, the video link content has been removed...
 
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Charlie Sundt
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Quote:
Ausberger Syndrome


Thanks for the review. I assume you meant Asperger Syndrome?
 
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Ender Wiggins
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getareaction wrote:
Quote:
Ausberger Syndrome

Thanks for the review. I assume you meant Asperger Syndrome?

That was a direct quote ofy the designer Carey Grayson in this interview. But I think you're right - he must have meant Asperger, not Ausberger.

On a different note, the video of the Pixar short I'd linked to originally has indeed been removed since I first posted this review. I've changed the video link to a another youtube video showing the short, so it should be viewable again.
 
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