This Featherbrained Game Is For the Birds

Welcome to Space-Biff! in 2019, in which I can overlay that bird's wing over a layer that's layered over the bird! THE FUTURE IS NOW.

I’ll say this right up front: there aren’t many games as pleasant as Wingspan.

It isn’t just the setting, though the idea that you’re establishing a bird sanctuary is certainly pleasant. Nor is it only the gently expressive artwork of Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. Nor the components, though that birdfeeder has elicited a chuckle of delight from nearly everyone I’ve introduced it to.

Rather, that pleasantness rests on the tenor of Elizabeth Hargrave’s design, from the birds themselves to the way the rounds are structured. This is good stuff. I can’t wait to show you.

When shredded into fine strips, it might literally be for those birds who use tidbits of garbage in their nests. First one to make a Wingspan nest for an actual bird earns fifty space pennies.

This game is for the birds.

There’s a lot to think about when establishing an aviary. You need a wide variety of birds, but also a complementing variety. Do you want birds who’ll dig up extra worms to share around? Predatory birds and scavenger birds? Birds who lay eggs in other birds’ nests? Before long you’ll be weighing your birds’ fecundity, their proper feeding, the long-term goals they’ll help you meet. It’s a lot to consider.

Wingspan gives you plenty to think about, then narrows everything to four distinct actions. They all operate the same way. Well, three of them are the same; the other option is even simpler.

Here’s the idea. You place a cube in one of your sanctuary’s habitats and take whatever it provides. The more birds you have in that habitat, the farther to the right you’ll place the cube, and the more stuff it provides. The number of birds in a habitat is the difference between two eggs and three eggs and four eggs, or one card and two cards and three cards. Tiny amounts that are actually huge amounts. Taking resources means plucking dice from the birdfeeder, insects and berries and nuts and other nice things that birds eat, and potentially clattering the dice back into the birdfeeder when they run out. The more birds you have in the forest, the more dice you get. Acquiring a new bird, on the other hand, is the opposite. The more birds you have in a habitat, the more the next one costs.

It’s terrifically uncomplicated, and I haven’t even told you the best part. Once you’ve taken whatever is provided by your chosen habitat, you move your cube to the left, landing atop each bird in that row. The birds with brown abilities, which is most of them, give you even more stuff. Some hunt, whether by rolling feed dice or drawing from the deck. Others lay eggs. Some provide resources to everybody at the table, because they’re pleasant little sharing birds. Other, meaner birds will chow down on smaller birds, snatching them out of your hand.

Never mind that last part. There are no mean birds in Wingspan. Only very good birds.

To play Wingspan is to appreciate the proper nature of "offer." These birds offer themselves to you. For you cannot truly own a bird. You can only associate with one. As equals.

The bird offer.

That’s the thing about Wingspan. While its actions are moments of joyous acquisition, grabbing cards or laying eggs or nibbling resources from the birdfeeder, the birds are always the real star of the show.

Each is worth “points,” if such a crass abstraction could be applied to these ineffably dignified creatures. More importantly, every bird is gifted with its own ability. As I intimated above, most birds provide their benefits during the course of an action. Others sing when compelled by a specific trigger. For example, a Red-Tailed Hawk hunts by drawing a card from the deck. If that card’s wingspan is shorter than 75cm — every bird’s wingspan is included on its card — then it’s chow time. Dinner is tucked beneath the Hawk, worth a “point” at the end of the game. But elsewhere, a Black Vulture is circling. Thanks to that Red-Tailed Hawk’s successful meal, the Black Vulture is now permitted to take a resource from the birdfeeder. The circle of life, baby.

And every bird is appealing in its own way. The Osprey dumps fish all over the place. The Hermit Thrush feeds anyone who hasn’t overpopulated their forest. A Barrow’s Goldeneye hides eggs in some other sucker’s nest. California Condors are ugly enough to prompt you to reevaluate your career in ornithology by drawing extra goal cards, while Blue-Winged Warblers are so gorgeous that they don’t even need an ability. Their presence is its own reward.

A surprising quantity even sport unintentionally sexual names. American Woodcock. Tufted Titmouse. Bobolink. Okay, that one shouldn’t make anybody uncomfortable. But there are enough that one of the goal cards could have been “Birds with Unintentionally Sexual Names.” Wingspan has something for everyone, even chortling teenagers.

Something for everyone. That’s very much the case. Despite the simplicity of the actions themselves, skilled play is a must. It takes a combination of patience, watchfulness, luck, and raw evaluation to put together a functioning menagerie. Within the same breath you’re chasing hidden goals, competing for public goals, and trying to secure birds that riff upon each other and what you’re trying to accomplish.

I love those little % evaluations at the bottom of each card.

Some featherbrained ideas.

From a design standpoint alone, Wingspan is smart in some very subtle ways.

I’ll give you an example. Each round has a public goal. These are randomized; sometimes you’re competing for a bunch of eggs in the grassland habitat, or for platform-nesting birds to have eggs, or to pack the forest with birds. But when you reach the end of that round and mark your performance on that goal, you take one of your cubes — the same ones that count your actions — and put it on the goal tracker. On the next round, you now have one fewer cube, and therefore one fewer action.

But this is the perfect balancing agent. Early on, you have a bunch of actions, but each action only provides marginal benefits. One resource, or a pair of eggs, or a card. So you take the same action fairly often, amassing the stuff you need to form a coherent tableau. The most expensive birds only cost three resources, but that can still feel prohibitively expensive when it takes three actions to gather them all. And that’s if the birdfeeder has the right dice.

Later, once you have a few birds in each habitat, each action is like striking a jackpot. Take four eggs! And another if you spend a resource! And all these bird actions, one after another! With some foresight and careful arrangement of birds, you’re practically drowning in new stuff. But because you also receive fewer actions each round, individual cubes grow in importance. As actions become more rewarding, they become more limited.

Meanwhile, you actually have time to watch your engine churn out all those little benefits. It’s the cardinal sin of too many engine-builders that they slam on the brakes right as your cards are starting to pay off. Not so in Wingspan. Here the early rounds are about setting up your pieces. The last round is always about the payoff. Wingspan lets you knock down your dominoes after you’ve painstakingly laid them in rows.

Again: how pleasant.

Not as fecund as they should be, though.

My birds are very happy.

The one thing that drives the occasional grouse from the bush is the role luck plays in formulating a coherent strategy. There’s always an offer of three birds, but you’ll often peel cards off the top of the deck instead. The resources in the birdfeeder are sometimes everything other than what you desperately need, and certain birds require you to roll more dice or pull another card to determine whether they earn a bonus point. Between those and your random goal cards, there are plenty of opportunities for a bad roll or pull to set you back.

Frankly, that’s part of the charm. Just as bird-watching isn’t a sure thing — I mean, I doubt it is, I wouldn’t actually know — Wingspan asks you to manage the uncertainty of any number of factors. Sometimes it’s about hedging your bets. Should you claim a card that’s a perfect addition to your current menagerie but that requires yet another fish? Or is it maybe time to diversify in case the right resources never show up?

Order out of chaos. In Hargrave’s capable hands, that’s just one more way to say, “From one type of beauty, another.”

You caught me. This pic is to show off the trays.

Wingspan is nothing if not handsome.

Wingspan’s marketing mentions a proximity to Terraforming Mars. The critic in me yearns to quibble — clearly it’s closer to pure tableau-builders like 51st State or Imperial Settlers. It’s about assembling cards at the right time and for the best benefits, with nary a map or adjacency bonuses in sight.

But quibbling misses the point, I think. Instead, the main thing to say about Wingspan is that it’s one of those rare games that stretches for “broad appeal” without even a hint of pandering. It’s undoubtedly pretty, but that doesn’t prevent you from building a killer combo or leaving your opponents in the dust. The difference is that it’s profoundly mellow, maintaining that pleasant tempo whether your aviary is world-class or the setting of a lesser-known R.L. Stine novel.

There’s that word again. Pleasant. Wingspan is that, many times over. No better way to say it.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. Every year a family of robins builds a nest in a wreath on my front porch; which means, in a way, that supporting me also supports those baby birds. How wonderful!)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 2, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Not sure why you picked a title that makes it seem like you hate the game.

  2. Always love reading your reviews, even for games that don’t fly for me.

    I love most of the Stonemaier catalog, but alas, the theme for me falls as flat as wet feathers. I would also be cautious with comparisons to TM, as I must be one of the few people on the planet that doesn’t really like that title either. No doubt many players will enjoy this game, with amazing art, trays and that luxurious birdhouse dice tower.

    Component quality is what you’d expect from SG- so if they blinged this game with lots of colorful eggs, why are the birds bland cubes?

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