It’s not just a pretty game, it’s pretty perfect
So you’ve played Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan and Pandemic and it’s got you hooked on board gaming. Suddenly there’s a whole world of tabletop games available to you and you want to take it up a notch, but aren’t sure what to go for. You’re a fan of visually striking games with a strong theme, but also like to think and strategise. There are so many games out there that fit that description! Well, if this is you, or even if you’re a hardened gamer, I think Wingspan is as perfect a game as you’re going to get and I’m going to really struggle to find anything bad to say about it…
In Wingspan, players take on the role of bird enthusiasts (researchers, collectors, bird watchers etc.) who wish to attract the best birds into their wildlife reserves. Each bird comes with a unique ability which can be triggered throughout the game, so the more birds you have the more abilities you can use and ultimately the more points you can gain. Birds themselves are worth a varying number of points (between 0 and 9 -someone correct me if there’s a 10 in there!), but you also score points from public objectives at the end of each round, private objectives at the end of the game, and through stashing things like food and eggs on your birds during the game.
How the game works
Each player has their own beautifully illustrated and superb quality player board (they really put other games to shame!), with forest, grassland and wetland habitats to play birds into. The game takes place over four rounds, you have a decreasing number of turns per round. The first round you get 8 turns each, then 7, 6 and 5 in the last round. The great simplicity of Wingspan is that on your turn you can only do one of four things:
1. Play a bird – You can play a bird from your hand into a matching habitat, paying the cost indicated, almost always you paying with specific types of food, and most of the time there is an egg cost too.
2. Gain food – You select food from the birdfeeder. These allow you to play birds. The adorable birdfeeder dice tower provides you with a choice of food to take, and how much food you take will increase throughout the game.
3. Lay eggs – You lay (not literally) the indicated number of eggs onto birds in your display. Be careful some objectives require certain nest types to have eggs laid in them so choose wisely!
4. Draw bird cards – There are always three bird cards on display which you can pick from or if you’re feeling brave draw blind!
Sometimes you can “upgrade” the latter three actions by paying an egg, a bird card or some food, so it’s good to bear in mind that if you have spare stuff you can use it to upgrade actions.
As I mentioned earlier, most birds have abilities which activate throughout the game. The most common are brown powers which activate each time you take the action in their habitat, giving you powerful combos! For example, each time I take food from the birdfeeder, I also activate all the brown powers on birds in my forest habitat, and each time I lay eggs I activate the brown powers in my grassland habitat. This means the more birds you have in a particular habitat the more “stuff” you can do when you take the related action. Towards the end of the game your Gain Food action could get you 4 food dice, plus five other brown action abilities such as laying extra eggs, taking extra food, stashing bird cards and more.
This is engine-building at its finest – buying things that not only score you points but help you later by improving the habitat’s action, and providing a bonus action.
While most of the birds have brown powers, some have pink powers (activated on other players’ turns), white powers (one-off powers that you gain when you first play the bird), and some have no powers (usually these are the really high point scoring birds).
At the end of each round you score the end of round objective- these are randomised each game and can be things like whoever has the most birds in a particular habitat, the most birds that make a certain type of nest, or whoever has the most eggs laid at that point. I really like the end of round goals as they mix up every game and give you things to aim towards, adding in a little player interaction as there isn’t loads of it in Wingspan.
After four rounds you add up all your scores on the very handy scoresheet (why doesn’t every game that has multiple point-scoring methods have one of these?!). At this point you reveal the private objective(s) you were working towards and any points you got from them. You start the game with one but some birds allow you to pick up more, these can be a really great way of adding points to your total! I love the private objectives, they often relate to things like the name of the birds in your display (for example, birds with colours in their name, or birds with bodyparts in their name).
It’s such a delightful game. The production value is second to none – all the components are so well made, I already mentioned the player boards which are very solid, the amazing birdfeeder dice tower and wooden dice. The little eggs are really cute too but what really elevates this game is the bird cards. There are 170 unique, incredibly illustrated birds included in the base game (which goes up to nearly 400 with expansions!), you could spend hours looking through and admiring them, reading the little facts about each bird.
The engine-building in this game is so good, you really feel like you have so many decisions to make and possible strategies to explore. I tend to focus on trying to win all the public objectives while building up my forest habitat, whilst Jess tends to be more focused on getting as many birds as possible into all her habitats. Of course, the more birds you get the better your actions are so she usually wins! But that kind of underlines what I most love about this game, I don’t really mind if I lose because I’ve had so much fun playing it!
It’s really easy to learn too, the rulebook is very well explained with a seperate appendix detailing all the bird abilities, clarifying end of round goals and explaining the private objectives. Don’t get me wrong there’s more to it than the “gateway” games I mentioned in the opening paragraph, but it is so rewarding I think it’s well worth it. And for a game with so little player interaction (with the exception of the pink “between turns” cards and competing for end of round goals), there is very little down time, gameplay is smooth and usually players will have an idea of their next two or three moves, so gameplay is smooth. Except of course someone over analysing the situation (the dreaded analysis paralysis!), you should be finishing the game in just over an hour, even with four or five players, so it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
One possible negative for me is that sometimes you get a bit unlucky with the birds you draw at the start of the game. If you get five duds which are expensive and don’t provide decent brown powers to start up your engine, it can be a struggle to get going, seeing as at the start you can only draw one bird card at a time. I try and get a bird into my forest habitat on my first turn so that I can take more food right away, but sometimes I haven’t got any birds that fit that habitat! It’s a small gripe as you’re pretty likely to have a mix of cheap and expensive birds from the five you draw at the start.
The other thing I’ve found is that the final round is usually just a case of laying eggs as this tends to bring in the most points (one point per egg!). Playing birds in the final round will often cost you two eggs, so if you’re playing a bird worth 5 points using two eggs to do so the net benefit is still only 3 points (unless it helps your objectives), whereas laying eggs can get you 4 points plus all the brown powers that come with it. That can take away from the decision making at the end, but I don’t think it impacts the experience in a major way. The two expansions (European and Oceania birds – reviews to come soon!) address this by adding other ways of scoring points to provide you with more dilemmas.
The game has a very high replay value too. There are a tonne of public and private objectives which change each game, and with 170 bird cards you are going to get different combos every time.
Does it matter how many players you have? No. Wingspan is always a game I recommend to people who are asking for two-player games (as well as all the great two-player games of course). A lot of games say they are 2-4 players but actually aren’t great as just a pair, whilst Wingspan is just as good at 2 as at 4 or 5. The automa is fantastic as always too, Stonemaier Games always go the extra mile to ensure the solo game isn’t just an afterthought, it’s just as much a board gaming experience as playing with others. It caters for different levels of difficulty too, so even if you’re just starting out you can get a feel of how it works at an easy level, soon you’ll be taking on the hardest difficulty!
Overall I cannot recommend Wingspan enough to you, whatever small faults it has are very very small, I guarantee you’ll have an absolute blast playing it. If you win, you’ll want to explore other strategies to improve and if you lose, you’ll want to play again straight away so that you can get revenge!
All that’s left for me to say is keep an eye out for my reviews of the European and Oceania expansions, which add more birds, more types of bird powers, new resources and even new player boards!
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