Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave
Artist: Ana Maria Martinez, Jaramillo Natalia Rojas and Beth Sobel
Publisher: Stonemeier Games
Wingspan has won multiple awards in the years since it was published. It is well known not only in the gaming circles, but also in the broader public. Wingspan has appeared in the popular press a few times which catapult the game into a commercial success. Incredibly, the game is a medium weight Euro with lots of mechanisms lifestyle gamers love and enjoy. Importantly, the game is not stripped down or simplified to appeal to the mass market. Elizabeth Hargrave deserves all the credit for introducing a Euro with a fresh theme and a broad appeal. She has achieved something special: gaining recognition and success in two distinctly different markets. I can only think of a handful of modern games that have crossed that threshold: Blokus, Ticket to Ride and perhaps Azul.
Wingspan, as the name implies, is a game all about birds. I would classify Wingspan as a card-driven engine builder. Players start with nothing and slowly try to build a tableau of birds to score points. Each player has a personal board with 3 empty rows, each row having 5 slots for birds. Each row is associated with a habitat that limits the birds you can play in the row. For example, the habitat for the first row is forest, followed by plains and finally ocean. Placing birds in a specific row and activating the row will earn benefits unique to that habitat and is a necessary component for engine building. For example triggering actions in the forest habitat will yield food, the second row (plains) yield eggs and the third row, allow drafting of more bird cards into your hand. With these three resources: food, cards and eggs, players will have all they need to develop their personal VP engine over four rounds.
One of the key decisions each turn is whether to place a card or activate the birds in one of the habitats. Activating a habitat means getting the resources for a specific row. The more occupied slots in a given row, the more resources you will harvest. So, the more birds you have in the forest, the more food you will get when you activate the forest habitat. The same concept applies to getting eggs from the plains and drawing more bird cards from the ocean habitat. There is certainly a push to advance all the rows and I don’t know if you can win by ignoring a particular habitat, but certainly at the base level, even without any birds when you activate a habitat, you can get some resources. With eggs, food and cards at hand, you can slowly build your tableau.
Fundamentally, harvesting resources by activating a row is a staple Euro action…. a necessary evil for an engine builder. But what’s more important, and perhaps the most unique aspect of the game, is that all birds in the row where the habitat is activated are also triggered. Most bird cards that you play in your tableau come with a unique power. Some of the powers are one-time use while others are ongoing effects that are triggered when a row is activated. Some cards allow tucking of bird cards which counts as end game victory points. There are quite a variety of these powers. Each time a row is activated, one can expect a bonanza of points and rewards. This is the hook for Wingspan and the part which triggers serotonin and dopamine release from the reward center of your brain. The cascading activation of cards from a fully-formed habitat is highly satisfying, if well planned. This aspect of the game encourages player specialization and unique scoring combination. The goal is to get something going that will eventually translate to victory points.
Points are scored in several ways. Each bird card is worth some victory points. I believe they can range from 0 up to 10 points? That gap in huge but the number of points you earn can also be a reflection of the unique powers for that card and the costs of playing that card. Obviously, cards that are more costly will earn more points and cards that have powerful abilities may end up scoring less. So, it’s a trade off. Points can also be had at the end of round. There is a scoring board with a specific scoring criteria. Players who fulfill that criteria will be ranked and score points. The scoring chits are randomly drawn from a bag and placed on the board, providing more variability between each game. End game points are also scored for tucked cards and additional eggs on each bird card. Finally, you also have hidden scoring objectives.
One aspect of scoring that I particularly enjoy is the tie-in to real world information about birds. Each bird card actually contains some information on the birds, including their nesting preferences, the number of eggs they lay, the geographic location of their habitat and……wingspan. Some scoring categories in the hidden objective cards would call for collecting the birds with a particular wingspan or nesting preferences. I enjoy that not only from the educational perspective, and I am one that loves to read historical inserts and references in games, I tend to think they make scoring a little more intuitive. Sure, you can collect all bird cards with a particular symbol or color detached from meaning, but I love it when designers that the extra effort to educate gamers. Thumbs up from me.
The rest of Wingspan is pretty standard and I don’t think worth rehashing. Many of the mechanisms are well worn and time-tested. This being a Stonemeier production, I do think the game is more “deluxified” than is necessary. The game comes with a birdhouse shaped dice tower for the food dice. It also comes with a really nice card holder which doubles as a storage container. I do have to say, this accessory is really well designed as the lid for the card storage container ends up hold the cards for drafting. It’s a nice touch. The multi-colored eggs are also well done and has that soft teflon feel to it. Last but certainly not least, the illustrations are gorgeous. The birds are beautifully drawn and looks really professional. The cards are solid even though the font size is a too small for someone sitting arms length away. I think the price point for the game was just too high when it first came out and I am usually someone that supports lowering the price if it allows more people to purchase the game. But I think now that demand has subsided somewhat, the game can be purchased at a more reasonable price.
Wingspan’s commercial success tells me that a decent game with a fresh theme that appeals to the public can breakout. It makes me glad that a non-trivia game that incorporates real world knowledge can also reach a large audience. If you think about it, there aren’t many games out there that do that. More recently, I noted that games that feature national parks are also getting some attention. Perhaps this trend will continue. At a technical level, there isn’t anything eye popping about the design. It is a solid card-driven engine building Euro, but you can find those every year in Essen. However, I think Stonemeier Games is a master of promoting and marketing their games with a preexisting fanbase. From that sense, Wingspan benefited greatly from the partnership.
At a personal level, I enjoy Wingspan but it doesn’t fall into the great category. I recognize the game’s appeal and can appreciate the design choices. I will probably play it happily if asked. The game also doesn’t really have many flaws apart from the aesthetic choices of font size and repetition of powers among the bird cards. But I am sure that is something that can be fixed with the anticipated expansions. I am however really thrilled that a game about birds, and not about zombies, spaceships, dungeon exploring, selling fruits or giant robots roaming the countryside can have a breakthrough.