Every once in a while a board game comes along that, while designed by and for enthusiasts, breaks the mold and reaches a wider audience. Wingspan is one of the most phenomenal success stories of this elite brigade. Created by first-time designer and bird enthusiast Elizabeth Hargrave, this game about building wildlife reserves has gone on to sell well over a million copies across multiple printings, making it one of the most successful and best board games of recent years.
What’s in the Box
Wingspan is crammed full of stuff, most of which is delightfully designed to evoke its ornithological theme. There are a lot of cards, most of which represent species of birds, embellished with luminous art and educational factoids alongside their pertinent game information. All the cards can be put away in the supplied plastic storage tray with an embossed bird on the lid.
Food items like grain and mice are printed on wooden dice which, in turn, are rolled and kept in a wonderful dice tower and tray that looks like a birdhouse. There are also matching food tokens for you to keep until spent when you take a die. The game includes four plastic trays in which you can keep these tokens and the huge array of three-dimensional pastel-colored bird eggs.
Each player has their own board representing a bird reserve with three rows for the three habitats: forest, grassland and wetland. The box contents are rounded out with various extras like cubes to track player turns, scoresheets, rules and reference material. It’s a delightful package and a lot of thought has gone into the production and overall design. Even the rulebooks are sturdy, textured paper and everything stacks tightly in the box to minimise the risk of spillage during storage.
Rules and How It Plays
This is a classic example of an old design concept in tabletop games, that of circular dependencies. To play bird cards you need food, eggs, and the cards themselves. However, to increase your access to those three resources you need to have bird cards in your forest, grasslands, and wetlands respectively. It’s all about trying to dovetail the growing ability of your reserve to support birds with the special powers of the birds that live there in order to score points in the most efficient manner.
Birds have favored habitats and particular food requirements. On your turn, you can either play one into a habitat if you have the necessary food or you can “activate” a habitat instead. This gets you some of the matching resources. The forest allows you to select food dice from the birdhouse dice tower and take matching food tokens. Grasslands give you eggs which are needed to play beyond the first slot in any habitat. The wetlands give you new cards, chosen either from a face-up selection or a random face-down card.
Importantly, activating a habitat also activates the special powers of the birds you have played there. These are very varied and combine with the wider game mechanics in all sorts of interesting ways. The Common Grackle, for instance, lets you tuck a card from your hand behind it, making it worth more points and giving you a bonus egg. The Great Crested Flycatcher allows you to take an invertebrate food token if there’s a matching dice in the birdhouse. You can see how powers like these force you to think about the order of your choices and what other resources are available in trying to ensure you get the best effect out of each activation.
Weirdly, this is essentially building a bird reserve as an economic engine. The more birds you have the more resources you’ll get and the more special powers you’ll fire on each activation. It’s really satisfying to watch your reserve grow and thrive and to work out the best combinations of play before seeing them come into full effect. There’s excitement too, not only to see if the random roll of food dice or draw of cards will help or hinder your overall strategy but also the anticipation of watching your plan come together.
What there isn’t is much in the way of interaction. This is very much about how you plan and execute your strategies compared to the success of other players. For the most part, you only need to worry about what they’re doing in terms of them getting food or cards you might want before your turn comes around. A few bird cards rely on other people’s effects: vultures, for instance, gain food when predatory birds in other reserves hunt successfully. But such cards are relatively rare and are still more spectator sport than a direct duel.
Your semi-solitaire dance, however, is incredibly absorbing. There are so many different bird effects — some of which come into effect when played or between turns rather than on activation — that building a cohesive strategy is a tough ask. And that’s before you’ve looked at the competing demands of each habitat supplying better rewards as it grows, all of which you’ll need to obtain in order to play more birds. Finally, for some extra spice, each of the four turns in the game has a fiercely contested mini-goal for bonus points, like having the most birds in the grasslands. Each player also has one or more secret goals, such as collecting a certain number of grain-eating birds, for more points.
The ultimate goal is to take the various resources and convert them into points in an optimal manner. Most of your points will come from the bird cards themselves and it’s quite easy to tie yourself in knots trying to get the prerequisites for an expensive card in the most cost-effective way, only to find out you’ve run out of actions. Every decision you make in Wingspan is so well interwoven with multiple other aspects of the game that it feels like an impossible balancing act to try and get it right. But it’s also fairly transparent when you inevitably go wrong, making each play an addictive learning experience where you’re sure you’ll do better next time.