So let's start with a confession. I've always been impressed with the way the Jamey Stegmaier runs Stonemaier games. From his initial success with Kickstarter, to his continual support of the community, his fundraising, his openness to talk about his own life and experiences. Like every endeavour, there's been missteps along the way and not every game that is part of the Stonemaier portfolio can be considered as much of a classic to me as Viticulture or Scythe. However, he continues to be one of these dependable voices trying to do the right thing. When Wingspan became a thing I was one of the first people to interview the designer Elizabeth Hargrave. , we spoke about her game before it literally stormed everywhere like a tidal wave and went on to sell over 1.6 million copies. (You should give it a listen, Elizabeth is a fascinating person to speak with) Now four years later, I finally sat down and try to figure out what the fuss was about. I'm not expecting this review to influence anyone's buying decision, but as one of the most successful games in the last five years, it would almost be rude to not play it and put together my thoughts.
Wingspan is an engine building game based around birds in North America. As you play, you'll add cards to your own area that will allow you to increase resources, expand your collection of birds, eggs and food, and ultimately increase the number of victory points that you'll score at the end of the game. At the beginning your turns will involve a minimum number of actions but by the end of the game, you'll have less turns but more to do in each turn.
Wingspan is all about adding to your tableau in order to increase the number effects that occur when you take a particular action. Primarily you'll be trying to place a bird from your hand (which is better than two in the bush) in the three rows of your tableau which are split into three types of terrain. Play a bird and place it in the matching habitat, paying the food cost. Some of the birds will have activation effects that occur when you take the primary action of that row. The very top row doesn't have any space for playing a card, but it has the playing action, where you'll pay eggs to play cards. The three rows underneath allow you to gather food from the birdfeeder, collect eggs to be added to bird cards, or draw new bird cards from the selection tray or draw pile. you'll place a token in the row of the action you want to play on the most empty left space and then move your token over the cards in that row, activating any actions that the cards offer. Some of the actions might allow extra food, others will allow you to store food on the card, or even add other bird cards under that card for later scoring. Every action that you take is going towards that final point salad goal and it's extremely rare for you to not be taking an action that adds more digits as you go. The round continues until all of your actions tokens have been used, and then a bonus is rewarded based on particular random criteria. In a such a clever mechanic, you then leave one of your action tokens to mark how you performed on the bonus reward, thus leaving you with one less action for the next round. After you've completed all four rounds, then you'll get into final scoring where you'll be awarded points for pretty much everything that you've built up on the board.
Once you reach the final round, you'll total up all the points based on the value of each bird card, stored cards, stored food and the winner is the player with the most points.
Depending on the number of players, you'll probably spend between one to two hours playing through a game, and this increases due to the lack of simultaneous play during rounds. In the final rounds while you'll have less turns, there's a chance the analysis paralysis might kick in and that has a chance of increasing the game length.
Like watching any well renowned TV show, or classic movie, or trying a famous restaurant, or that fresh new album from one of the greats, Wingspan is one of those games you need to experience in order to tick it off the to do list, even if its just to see what the fuss is about. It lands doing a superhero landing, with a set up that doesn't hope you've learned how to play, but insists on taking you by the hand before licking a handkerchief and making sure its wiped that bit of dirt off of your face. The production values are solid, practical and walk that tightrope between overproduction and practical usefulness. Wingspan is very easy to learn and also allows players to become consciously competent within the first couple of rounds. There's touches here that can only come from experience within the game design world. The decrease in the number of actions you can take in a round works so well to balance up the increase in time you are going to be taking as you build your engine. The dice reroll mechanic when you have the same type of food result helps to prevent bottlenecks for that particular action. Has anyone who has reviewed this not mentioned the eggs at least two or three times in their appraisal? I doubt it.
Though I do have some counterweight coconuts to these European praise swallows. While Wingspan has picked up this mantel of being the industry darling as the game you can get new players to play, I'm not convinced it is the game you should be rocking on to the table as soon as your friends mention they wouldn't mind trying 'one of those games you've been asking us to play'. There's a lot to be casting your eye over during the game and as it reaches the point where you've several cards in your tableau, then it can become analysis paralysis central. That might be something that will make less experienced players tap out once the real engine building kicks in. For those who like engine builders and like to be able to plan their strategy, you're often playing a game of damage limitation, with blind card drawing and a lack of planning becoming clearer as the game progresses. Sometimes you'll be playing a card because you need to increase the resources you gain when you play a particular row, even though the card you're laying down is sub optimal. I would have preferred a larger pick of cards rather than the three on offer as the game stands. There's a lack of negative player interaction that certainly made itself felt at higher player numbers. There was never really a way to impede someone from creating a monster machine that would score them big at the end game. In fact, there were a few times in which a player would be offering resources to other players as part of their bird card activation. While there was subtle interaction through the card choice and bird feeder, it was lacking the got you vibe that is present in the likes of Viticulture. You don't really know how well you're doing against everyone else until you've finished the game and that is unlikely to change on both second, fifth and even tenth game. In many ways Wingspan is like four people all reading the same book at the same time and stopping to share their thoughts at the end of a chapter. However, there wasn't anyone around that table that night that said they didn't enjoy it. There wasn't anyone who wouldn't want to play it again and that in itself is pretty special.
Wingspan does that most excellent thing of making you play something with layers that looks complicated, but never makes you feel stupid while you play it. You'll stop and contemplate and mutter and curse yourself when you've played the wrong card or rolled the wrong dice. But there's nothing quite like it when you get to the end game and you're activating one bird after another, laying eggs, chucking out food and tucking away birds and feeling just like your having the best time. Wingspan lives up to its hype with feathers on..
Get your birds down as quickly as you can, and make sure you have enough food to pay for at least two to give you a good start.
Designer - Elizabeth Hargrave
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