Review – Wingspan

Bird-watching AND board-gaming? Two birds, one stone!

Faith-Wingspan-Featured-

 

Designer Elizabeth Hargrave

Artist Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, Greg May, Beth Sobel

Publisher Stonemaier Games

Category Engine Builder

Length 45-90min

Release Date 2019

Player Count 1-6

The multi-award-winning Wingspan continues to deliver excellent gameplay five years after its release with its exciting engine-building, streamlined action-selection, and educational theme. Bird-lovers and board-gamers have been united thanks to Wingspan, so let’s check out why.  

While it’s potentially embarrassing that we haven’t had a review of Wingspan on our site until now, Derek Thompson did cover the digital version of the game back in 2020 here

Review

In Wingspan, players compete to cultivate the best bird habitat. Play cards, grab food from the birdfeeder, exploit combos, and lay eggs to have the most points after four rounds. 

To set up, each player gets five bird cards and one of each of the five types of food; however, players must choose a total of five of those to discard, so each player will start with some combination of five bird cards and food. Each player will also pick one (of two) game-end scoring bonuses. Players also receive a beautiful player board that has helpful reminders of the four actions a player can take as well as the three habitats they can place their birds in (forest, grassland, and wetland).

On your turn, you’ll take one of four actions: play a bird by paying its cost (food), gain food from the birdfeeder, lay eggs on your played birds, or draw cards. Actions are as simple as they sound at the beginning of the game, but as you add more birds to each habitat, they can get more scrumptious because when you take an action, you place your cube on the farthest empty right-space on a habitat, take that action, and move your cube back to the left, one space at a time. Bird cards often have abilities you can activate as you move your cube back down the row. 

For example, say you want to grab food from the birdfeeder, and you already have two birds in the forest habitat. You’ll place your cube on the third area, which allows you to collect two food from the birdfeeder. Once you’ve done that, you’ll move your cube onto your next bird, American Redstart, which allows you to gain any food from the birdfeeder. You’ll move your cube again onto Pygmy Nuthatch, which lets you tuck a card from your hand behind the bird, and, if you do, gain a grub or a grain from the supply (not the birdfeeder). Finally, you’ll put your cube back on the forest action space. 

Each action takes place in a habitat, except when you play a bird. As you play birds in each habitat, that habitat’s action will become stronger. This is brilliant game design because there are already multiple strategy options: do you go big in one habitat, knowing you’ll use that action the most? Or do you spread your birds out, allowing you to be versatile throughout the game? There are many winning strategies for Wingspan, but you’ll have to adjust your strategy based on what bird cards you draw each game because they are the backbone of your operation. 

End-of-game scoring is similar to a fast-food point-salad, and I like that because there’s not too many things to score, but there are enough to justify all those different strategies I mentioned. Each player will get points for their bird cards, eggs, cached food, tucked cards, and end-game bonuses. What’s nice about this is that just about everything you do in the game will end up getting you points, unless you have leftover food or bird cards (but even then, some end-game bonuses award points for those). 

In addition to excellent gameplay, Wingspan has an exciting educational element, as each bird card includes the bird’s scientific name, where the bird lives geographically, as well as an interesting sentence that could be scientific, biological, or just fun. These educational tidbits come in handy particularly when you’re waiting for your turn to play, which you will likely be doing more than you’d prefer at higher player counts. 

The components are fantastic: chunky eggs, colorful food tokens, thick player mats, quality cardstock, plastic card box that doubles as a holder for the available birds, player scoring sheets, oversized wooden dice, and the fan-favorite birdfeeder dice tower that has held up well after three years of use. Oh, and there’s a helpful guide on the side of the box on how to store everything neatly. The beautiful art represents the game perfectly: elegant, detail-oriented, and calming. The rulebook is clear and thoughtful, and while I wouldn’t recommend Wingspan as a gateway game to everyone, I would recommend it as a gateway game if the new players are into the theme. 

There’s also a solo mode that’s pretty good, as solo modes go. It’s playable in around 30 minutes, and pits the solo player against an Automa. The Automa’s turns are short, so once you read the solo rules, things run smoothly. 

Many games of Wingspan can feel like multiplayer solitaire, with every player doing their own thing. A few interactive birds here and there will help that, as they offer bonuses to everyone, and some birds even allow you to gain additional bonuses on someone else’s turn, provided they do a certain thing (like successfully eat a bird or lay eggs). However, the latter type of birds are severely nerfed in a two-player game. This isn’t a huge problem gameplay-wise because not all birds are equal anyways, but it does cut down on the already limited player interaction and makes players less likely to play those birds in a two-player game. 

The length of Wingspan increases with more players, and because it’s such a multiplayer-solitaire game anyways, the downtime for players increases. This is the biggest drawback of the game for me. I try not to play Wingspan with more than four players, and if I do, I’m usually sitting there waiting for my turn wondering why we weren’t playing a game better suited to our player count like Tiny Towns or 7 Wonders. If everyone is experienced, this can severely limit the downtime, but I still struggle to recommend a five-six player game of Wingspan to anyone. 

I’ve played well over 20 games of Wingspan, and it’s still one of my favorite games. Tight gameplay, a little bit of surprise/randomness in the birdfeeder and what cards you draw, strong educational elements, and plenty of winning strategies make this one a longtime favorite of mine. It does have its negatives, and many won’t like the multiplayer-solitaire feel (like our dear friend Derek), but it’s an excellent engine-building game with a theme that appeals to non-gamers and gameplay that appeals to board game snobs. 

The Bottom Line

While it lags at higher player counts, Wingspan continues to be one of my favorites due to its tight gameplay and beautiful, educational theme.

 

9

spencer
Author: Spencer Patterson

I'm a resident director, writer, and board game reviewer. My wife is my favorite gaming partner, and our daughters are my favorite reading partners. X: @unstuffedwhale