Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Sometimes a game comes along that turns out to be an instant hit. Sometimes it's down to the game mechanics, sometimes it's the art and production values; often it's the serendipitous combination of the two. Wingspan is just such a game. So much so that in our pre-review playtesting of the game, everyone who played it immediately went on to order themselves a copy. That's more than a half dozen sales to the Board's Eye View review team alone!
So what's so special about the game? Essentially, Wingspan is a card-driven engine-building game. Players each have a tableau representing three different habitat types with spaces for five bird cards on each habitat. On a player's turn they choose to take just one of four possible actions: they can play a bird card to the appropriate habitat on payment of its individually specified food cost (and, as more are laid out, at the cost of one or more eggs); they can take food from those indicated by the custom dice in the 'bird feeder'; they can lay eggs (worth victory points and used to meet the cost of laying out cards); or they can draw more bird cards. The value of these actions (ie: number of cards, eggs or food tokens) increases as birds are laid out in the three habitats. Taking a food, egg or card action also activates any special effects indicated on bird cards already laid in the corresponding habitat, so part of the joy of playing this game is seeing your special activation reward triggered multiple times over successive turns.
Like Jamey Stegmaier's Scythe (Stonemaier's previous big hit game), Wingspan also comes with its own 'Automa' to facilitate solitaire play. The Wingspan 'Automa' is designed by David J Studley and it offers four levels of difficulty.
The rules for Wingspan are straightforward enough for the game to be quickly grasped and played by players who have previously tackled nothing more complex than, say, Ticket to Ride. That's no small achievement!The activation special abilities of the birds are varied enough to facilitate a range of points scoring strategies, and players will also have an eye to the points they can score from their bonus cards (everyone starts off with one but certain birds allow you to add further bonus cards) and from the bonuses available for the players who score best against the randomised targets set for each of the four rounds.
So, play is straightforward yet satisfying. The game takes up to five players but, even with five, Wingspan plays quickly because players can plan their next action while others are taking their turns. There is competition, of course, for the bonus points on offer each round, and another player may take the food you were hoping to get from the bird feeder or might take the displayed card you had your eye on. Otherwise, however, there is very little 'take that' element in the game. There will be some who bemoan this as little player interaction but we much prefer engine builders that allow players to get on with building their own points scoring engine without having to worry about other players throwing a spanner in the works (or, more appropriately in this case, putting a cat among the pigeons).
But fast and satisfying game play is just one element of Wingspan. A key part of this game's appeal is the loving attention that has gone into its production. The birds represent species that can all be found in North America and every one of the 170 bird cards is unique, and not merely cut and pasted from Audubon's Birds of America but beautifully drawn and painted by the several illustrators who have contributed to this game (Natalia Rojas, Ana Martinez Jaramillo and Beth Sobel). Each card contains information about the species in addition to the characteristics (points value, habitat, food, size, egg-laying capacity and nest type) that could be relevant to game play. If you have even a passing interest in ornithology, this game will be an instant 'must buy'. And that's before we get on to the charm of the bird feeder (a custom-designed dice tower and tray) and the eggs. Aside from their flattened bottoms, designed to stop them rolling off the cards on which they are laid, these look so similar to Cadbury's Mini-Eggs that you'd better hide this game away from the kids at Easter :-)
Designer Elizabeth Hargrave and publishers Stonemaier Games have really excelled themselves with Wingspan. It's surely inevitable that we'll see alternative or expansion card sets, including, we hope, a set of European birds.
As we publish this review, the first printing of Wingspan has sold out pretty much everywhere. There's no need to pay inflated scalper prices on eBay, however. Stonemaier Games have already ordered second and third printruns, so if your retailer is currently out of stock, then place a pre-order with them for the next printing.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)