Released earlier this year Wingspan has taken the board game industry by storm. In just one year the game has already risen to the top 50 board games of all time and currently sits as the best family game of all time. This was topped off by Wingspan winning the 2019 Kennerspiel Des Jahres. With so much hype I wanted to try out Wingspan. I was a little hesitant though because games that climb the rankings so quickly can usually attribute it to recency bias and generally come back down after a while. While I am not much of a birdwatcher myself I thought the theme was really interesting as I have never seen a board game that has utilized a bird watching theme before. Wingspan may be a little overrated but it takes a bunch of interesting mechanics and combines them with a surprisingly good theme to somehow make a great board game about bird watching.
How to Play Wingspan
- Shuffle each type of card separately and sort the tokens by their types.
- Insert the dice into the back of the birdfeeder so that they are rolled into the tray.
- Choose whether you are going to use the green or blue side of the goal board.
- Shuffle the goal tiles and randomly place one tile with a random side face up on each of the four round spaces.
- Each player will take the following components:
- 1 player mat
- 8 action cubes of one color
- 2 random bonus cards
- 5 random bird cards
- 5 food tokens (one of each type)
- The remaining cards are set aside and form draw piles. The top three cards from the bird draw pile are placed face up on the bird tray.
- Each player will look at the five bird cards that they were dealt. They choose which cards they would like to keep and which they would like to discard. For each bird card you keep you will have to discard one of your food tokens.
- Each player will look at their two bonus cards and choose one to keep. The bonus card you keep can score you bonus points at the end of the game if you complete the objective listed on the card.
- Randomly select which player will be the first player and give them the first player token.
Anatomy of a Bird Card
Each bird card in the game has various pieces of information that will be used throughout the game.
Habitat: In the top left corner of the card there will be one or more symbols. These symbols represent the different habitats on the player boards. A bird can only be placed in one of the habitats shown in this area.
Food: The symbol(s) below the habitat are the food requirements for the bird. In order to play a bird card to your player mat you must pay food tokens equal to the symbols displayed here. A wheel displaying five different colors is a wild food which can be fulfilled by any type of food. A crossed off symbol indicates that the bird requires no food.
Points: The number next to the feather on the left side of the card indicates how many points the bird will be worth at the end of the game.
Nest Type: The nest type indicates what type of nest the bird uses. This is referenced by bird cards, end of round goals, and bonus cards. A star nest will act as a wild for all of the types of nests.
Egg Limit: The number of eggs shown indicates how many eggs can be placed on a bird card.
Ability: The bird’s ability will be displayed along the bottom of the card. There are three different types of abilities which are handled differently. See the Bird Powers section for more information.
Wingspan: Along the right side of the card is the bird’s wingspan. This number is referenced by some of the bird abilities in the game.
Wingspan consists of a total of four rounds. In each round the players will take turns performing an action.
For each turn you can choose one of four different actions.
- Play a bird card from your hand.
- Gain food from the bird feeder and activate forest bird powers.
- Lay eggs and activate grassland bird powers.
- Draw bird cards and activate wetland bird powers.
Play will then pass to the next player clockwise. Players will continue taking turns until all of the players have used all of their action cubes. When you reach the end of the round you will take the following actions:
- Take off all of the action cubes from your mat.
- Score the current end of round goal.
- Discard all of the bird cards from the bird tray and restock them with cards from the draw pile.
- The first player marker moves one space clockwise. This player will start the next round.
To score the end of round goals you will compare the bird cards and eggs on your mat to the tile for the current round. If you have chosen to use the blue side of the goal board players will score one point for each instance that meets the goal. They will place one of their action cubes on the corresponding space.
If the green side was chosen the players will compare how many instances of the goal they have. To be available to score points you need to have at least one instance of the goal. The player who has the most will place their action cube on the first position. The player with the second most will place their token on second place and so on. If there is a tie the tied players will put their token on the higher position and place no tokens on the next position.
Playing A Bird Card
The first action that a player can perform on their turn is to add one of the bird cards from their hand to their player mat. To begin you will place one of your action cubes on the top column of your player mat to indicate that you are taking this action. You will then choose which bird card that you want to play and in which habitat you want to play them. A bird can only be played in one of the habitats shown in the habitat section of the card.
To play the card a player has to potentially pay two different costs. The first cost that you will have to pay is the bird’s food cost. In order to play the bird card you will have to discard food tokens equal to the food shown in the food section of the card. If there is a food token that you need but don’t have you can exchange two food tokens for the type of food you are missing.
After you have paid the food cost you will place the bird in the leftmost unoccupied space in the habitat that you plan on placing the bird. You will then look at the top of the column that you placed the bird card in to see if there is a cost to place a bird in that column. If the column has a cost you will have to take the corresponding eggs from your other bird cards and return them to the supply.
Finally if the bird card that you have played has a power that says “when played” you will immediately take that action if you want to use it.
Gain Food and Activate Forest Bird Powers
When you take this action place an action cube on the furthest space to the left that is unoccupied in the forest habitat. Depending on the symbol on the space that you place your action cube you will get to take one or more of the dice from the birdfeeder.
For each die symbol on the space you will get to take one die. If the space also shows a card with an arrow pointing to a die, you can discard one card to take another die. You cannot take advantage of this more than once in the current action.
When you have chosen which food you want you will take the die out of the birdfeeder and take a food token of the same type from the supply. If you pick a die that shows two symbols you will get to choose which of the two you would like to take.
The dice in the birdfeeder will remain on their current faces and will not be re-rolled at the end of the player’s turn. The dice will only be re-rolled in two situations. If all of the dice have been removed from the birdfeeder all of the dice will be re-rolled. If all of the dice/die have the same symbol face up the player can also choose to re-roll all of the dice. This only occurs when a player will gain food for any reason.
After gathering food you will activate bird powers from the birds in the forest habitat from right to left (see below).
Laying Eggs and Activate Grassland Bird Powers
When you want to take this action you will place an action cube on the furthest left space that is unoccupied in the grasslands habitat.
The number of eggs you will be able to lay depends on the number of eggs shown on the space that you placed your action cube on. The player will take one egg from the supply for each egg shown on the space. If the space also shows the multi-color circle with an arrow pointing to an egg the player can discard one of their food tokens in order to take an additional egg.
Once you have gathered up the eggs you will place them on the bird cards on your play mat. You can place eggs on multiple different birds. The only rule with placing eggs is that you can never place more eggs on a bird card than the bird’s egg limit. These eggs will remain on the bird card unless they are discarded for another action. If you can place more eggs than you have room left on your bird cards, the extra eggs will be returned to the supply.
After placing the eggs you will activate the bird powers from the grassland habitat from the right to the left (see below).
Draw Bird Cards and Activate Wetland Bird Powers
When a player wants to take this action they will place an action cube on the leftmost unoccupied space in the wetlands habitat. On this space it will display a number of cards that you will draw. If the space also includes an egg with an arrow pointing to a card you can also discard an egg from one of your bird cards so you can draw another card. There is no limit to the amount of cards you can have in your hand.
When drawing cards players will have two options. They can either take one of the face up cards on the bird tray or they can take the top card from the draw pile. If a player takes one of the face up cards from the bird tray the card will not be replaced until the player has finished drawing cards.
After drawing cards you will activate the bird powers from the wetlands habitat from the right to the left (see below).
In total there are three different types of bird powers. These different types of abilities will be activated at different times in the game. When an ability is activated the player has the choice to not to use the ability.
When Played (no background color): This ability is activated when the bird is added to a player’s mat. This ability can only be used this one time.
Once Between Turns (pink background): These abilities can be activated on another player’s turn when certain conditions are met. They can only be activated once between each of your turns though.
When Activated (brown background): These abilities are activated when a player chooses to use the ability associated with their habitat. These abilities will be activated each time the associated action is taken. Players will move their action cube from right to left stopping at each card along the path. Each bird that has a “when activated” ability can be used if the player wants to use it. After the ability is used the action cube is moved one space to the left.
There are two unique types of when activated abilities.
- Cache: When an ability says that a bird card can cache food, the player can take a food token and place it on the card. This food token will stay on the bird card for the rest of the game. The food will score a point at the end of the game. The food token can never be used to pay the food cost of playing a bird card.
- Tucking: When a card’s ability mentions tucking you can place another bird card behind it. Tucked cards will stay behind the bird for the rest of the game. Tucked cards will be worth one point at the end of the game.
End of Game
At the end of four rounds the players will count up how many points they scored during the game. Players will score points as follows:
- Players will tally up the points they scored for each bird they played to their mat.
- You will look at your bonus card(s) and see if you meet the requirements to score the bonus points.
- Points earned from the end of round goals are totaled and added to your score.
- Players will also score one point for each of the following that are on/under one of the bird cards on their mat:
- Food tokens
- Bird cards tucked under another bird card
The player who has scored the most points will win the game. If there is a tie the player with the most food tokens that weren’t used will break the tie. If there is still a tie the tied players will share the win.
My Thoughts on Wingspan
With how much hype that Wingspan has been receiving I had pretty high expectations going into the game meaning it had a lot to live up to. It doesn’t quite reach the level of hype that it has received as I wouldn’t say that it is the best family game of all time which is where it currently sits. Thus Wingspan is a little overrated. That said Wingspan is still a great game that I had a lot of fun playing. Wingspan succeeds for a variety of reasons.
I think the thing that I liked the most about Wingspan is that it gives players plenty of options. While the final objective is to score the most points how you get to that point is totally up to you. You can play a bunch of bird cards that are worth a lot of points. You could try to fulfill the end of round goals as well as your own bonus cards. You could also play cards that allow you to stash a bunch of eggs, food, and other bird cards in order to score a lot of points at the end of the game. You ultimately can’t rely on just one of these strategies as you have to mix and match them to maximize your score. You have to always be willing to change up your strategy as things will change based on the cards and food available to the players. This opens up the game to a lot of strategy as you can play the game however you want.
One of the best things that a game can give its players is options. There is a fine line that you have to balance as too many options can be just as bad as too few. Giving players options allows them to craft the game into whatever they want. In Wingspan players are going to have to choose which strategies to prioritize in order to maximize their points. There doesn’t seem to be any bad strategies in Wingspan as the different ways of scoring points seem to be balanced pretty well. Players have to always be willing to change their strategy on the fly though in order to maximize their points. With the number of options available to you in Wingspan it will take a long time before you get into a rut and keep utilizing the same strategy every game.
The reason Wingspan can provide so many different ways to play the game is due to the bird cards. Each bird card in the game features a different bird. The cards do repeat abilities, but there is a lot of variety in the type of abilities that are available to the players. Some birds give you a big advantage as soon as they are played but provide little else for the rest of the game. Other birds give you an ability to take an action based on what the other players do. The most interesting cards are those that get activated every time you perform the corresponding action in the game. While some bird abilities are kind of rigged, for the most part they seem to be balanced pretty well due to the cost to play them. With the number of different abilities there was no way to completely balance all of them.
By far the most interesting mechanic in Wingspan involves the bird card abilities that are activated each time the player utilizes the corresponding action. This mechanic is solely responsible for Wingspan being an engine building game. At the beginning of the game you will have no birds to utilize. Therefore each time you take an action the only ability you will be able to use is the action you specifically chose. As you progress through the game you will start placing birds into habitats. This is where the game gets really interesting. A lot of these birds will utilize abilities that will be activated every time you use the corresponding action. This leads to the possibility of setting up chains of abilities that feed off one another. To succeed in Wingspan you need to figure out how to combine different abilities together. Towards the mid to late game you can start to build really powerful combinations that can provide you with a lot of cards/resources or provide you with quite a few points with just one action. If you continue to build up these chains and regularly use the corresponding ability you can gain a lot of points quickly. I have always been a big fan of games that allow you to chain abilities together and this works really well in Wingspan.
Having to handle all of these different abilities at a time could have been chaotic, but the game comes up with a clever way of making sure you know which abilities you can use each turn. At first glance it seems kind of strange that you place your action cube to the right of all of the cards in the chosen habitat. This is done though so you can move the token one space left after you deal with each ability. This might not seem like much, but it is really clever. I mostly bring this up because it illustrates that Wingspan is a really elegant game. The game does a good job streamlining mechanics to the point where they are easy to follow without unnecessary hassle.
For the most part I would say that Wingspan is a light to moderately difficult game to play. The game has quite a few different mechanics to get used to which presents a learning curve. I would guess that it would take 10-15 minutes to teach Wingspan to most players. For your first couple of turns you won’t know exactly what you should do as you are acclimating to the game. After a couple turns though the game starts to click. At this point the game is quite easy to play. Figuring out how to best utilize your bird cards presents most of the challenge but it is manageable. I don’t really see Wingspan as a good gateway game as it could scare off some players that aren’t familiar with games other than mainstream board games. The game is easy enough though that you don’t have to be a diehard board gamer in order to enjoy yourself.
I think one of the reasons why the gameplay in Wingspan works so well is that the designer (Elizabeth Hargrave) did a fantastic job intertwining the various game mechanics. Ultimately Wingspan is a game of balancing four different resources. The four resources in the game are food, eggs, bird cards in your hand, and bird cards played to your mat. In order to succeed you need to find the right balance between these resources as they feed off one another. For example to be able to play a bird card you need to acquire food and eggs. To increase the amount of food and eggs you acquire on a turn though you need to acquire and play more bird cards. This leads to an interesting cycle where you acquire resources that help you acquire other resources. The balance you choose between these different resources ultimately creates your strategy for the game.
The ultimate sign that illustrates that the gameplay works is that you are always going to wish that you could perform more actions. There is always more you want to do, but the game limits the number of actions that you can take. This adds to the experience as you have to pick and choose what you want to do. You can’t do everything that you want to do so you need to prioritize what is most important. In the first round you get eight actions which allows you to form the framework of your strategy for the rest of the game. You will then lose one of your action cubes each consecutive round. I found this to be pretty clever as each action becomes more and more valuable as the game progresses as you are able to do less each round. As you never have enough actions to do everything that you want in a game, this makes you want to come back and try to improve on your strategy in the next game.
Component quality is one aspect of board games that people have conflicting opinions about. Some people care deeply about a game’s components while others only care that the components are good enough that they can play the game. While great components will always improve a game, I rarely think a game’s components make or break it. With that said the components in Wingspan are amazing. I honestly don’t think you could have asked for more from the components. The game’s artwork is fantastic with each bird card featuring its own picture of the specific bird that the card is meant to represent. The cards even feature a small snippet of information about the featured bird so you might even learn something about birds while playing the game. All of the components are really well designed where you can easily find whatever you need. The little egg meeples are great. The bird feeder dice tower may be the coolest/cutest component I have ever seen in a board game, and it works really well. Honestly the only complaint I may have with the components is that they might be a little overdone. If the components were a little more basic the game could have been sold for a cheaper. The components are otherwise fantastic though.
While I really enjoyed my time with Wingspan the game is not perfect and thus I think it is slightly overrated.
This wasn’t a huge issue for me but most people’s biggest issue with Wingspan is going to the lack of player interaction. Simply put Wingspan has very little player interaction. In fact there are only two or three areas where there is any player interaction. Most of the player interaction in the game will come from players stealing food dice or face up bird cards that another player wants. This adds a first come first served element to the game where one player could miss out on something they want because another player took it first. The other area that adds some player interaction is the goal board. If the players choose to use the blue side of the board there is no additional interaction. If the green side is chosen though there is some competition as players fight to take a higher position on the goal card.
Outside of these three instances there really is no interaction between the players outside of table talk as there is no bidding, trading, or other mechanics where players are forced to interact with one another. Most of the game’s competition comes from comparing scores at the end of the game. Other than the mechanics I mentioned earlier you could have each player play the game by themselves and compare scores at the end of the game to determine the winner. While I wish the game had a little more interaction, I didn’t find it to be that big of issue as Wingspan is a pretty zen game where you don’t have to really worry about other players messing with you. If you like competitiveness in your board games though you will probably be disappointed by this aspect of the game.
As there is very little player interaction in the game the player count in Wingspan is very flexible. Having more or less players is not going to make a big difference in the game. More players may make the game a little more competitive, but it will also add quite a bit more time to the game as each player adds quite a few turns to the game. In a lot of ways I would honestly say that the game may be better with less people as you don’t have to wait around as long for the other players. I played the game with just two players and it played perfectly fine. Wingspan even has a single player mode where you face off against a simulated player. I haven’t checked out the single player mode, but people seem to like it. The simulated player wasn’t even needed as you could just play Wingspan where you try to score as many points as possible. I could see Wingspan working really well as a single player game.
Other than the lack of player interaction the other main issue with Wingspan is that the game does rely on some luck at times. For the most part your choices and strategy are going to determine how well you do in the game. Players that implement a good strategy have a good chance of winning while bad strategies will rarely if ever win. There are some things that are out of your control though. I don’t mind some luck as it is needed to keep a game from becoming dull. I think Wingspan goes slightly too far though. Most of the luck comes from having the right food available in the birdfeeder as well as drawing the right bird cards for your strategy. You could have a good strategy lined up but might not be able to implement it because the right food is not available or you don’t draw the right bird cards. You can also be given an advantage right off the bat if your bonus card aligns with one or more of the end of round goals as building your strategy around that goal can score you double points.
Should You Buy Wingspan?
Wingspan has quickly become one of the most popular board games in the industry. While I was excited to try it out I was a little cautious as recency bias can be pretty potent in board games. While it is slightly overrated Wingspan for the most part lives up to the hype. Wingspan is such an elegant game from the amazing component quality to how the mechanics are designed and streamlined. The game gives players plenty of strategic options as there are several different ways of scoring points in the game. No two games will be the same as you can always try to find a way to score more points as well as having to adapt to what cards and food you have available to you. Wingspan may take a little while to get the hang of, but afterwards the game is quite easy to play. There is just something so satisfying about building out your habitats as you combine the birds’ special abilities to make each habitat more powerful. Wingspan is a great game but there isn’t much player interaction as it feels like each player is playing their own game and then comparing their scores at the end. The game does rely on some luck from time to time as well.
I really enjoyed my time with Wingspan and would recommend it to most people. If you mostly like games with a lot of player interaction Wingspan probably won’t be for you. If you hate the bird theme or are looking for a simpler game Wingspan might also not be for you. For everyone else though I would highly recommend picking up Wingspan as it is a great game.