When Bird Collecting Meets Engine Building, The Results Are Very Good

Wingspan game

What Is Wingspan?

Wingspan is a competitive bird-collection, engine-building game for 1-5 players. The game, the newest from Stonemaier Games, is intended for players aged 10 years and up and plays in 40-70 minutes, depending on your player count.

Wingspan Components

In the box, you’ll find:

  • A rulebook
  • An appendix
  • A second rulebook and sixteen cards to govern Automa play
  • 1 goal board
  • 1 bird tray
  • 5 player mats
  • A birdfeeder dice tower
  • A scorepad
  • 170 bird cards
  • 26 bonus cards
  • 75 egg tokens
  • 5 custom wooden dice
  • 40 player action cubes (8 each in five colors)
  • 103 food tokens (21 grain, 21 mice, 21 fish, 21 worm, 19 berries)
  • 8 double-sided goal tiles
  • A first player token

Wingspan action cubes

Before beginning on the components, you will recognize that this is a gorgeous game, easily the most attractive of all of the Stonemaier Games to date. Every single bird card is different, with a unique illustration for every bird. Additionally, each card includes its genus and species, habitat, food requirement, wingspan length, nest type, egg capacity — all fairly true to life — and VP the bird is worth, any special powers, as well as some trivial type of information. (While some of the birds can be found elsewhere around the globe, those in this game are primarily North American birds. It makes sense, thematically, but Stonemaier has already said they may collect birds from other regions in future expansions.)

There is a lot of information on each card, but it is presented in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming at all. They are a pleasure to look at and, in a way, it feels like perusing an Audubon field guide. If there is any complaint, it’s that the backs are symmetrical in their design so that there’s no easy way to tell which end is the top of a card.

Wingspan is GeekDad Approved!

The player mats present a lovely tableau for players. Each folds in half and is printed with a leather-looking texture, which creates a sensation of a portfolio you might take with you into the field, to take notes while bird watching. Open the mat up and place it in front of you and there is a beautiful, almost pastoral setting: a small body of water at the front, receding to grasslands, with forests and hills in the distance. These represent the three habitats of Wingspan. Printed over this landscape are icons and a grid, which help with play. More on that in the next section.

The bird tray is perfect. When the game is not in use, it is home for the bird and bonus cards. During play, it allows presentation for the cards, which can be drawn. Its top is decorated with a bird in flight and inside, in three wells, are abbreviated representations of the card backs, so you know where to store your cards.

The goal board, goal tiles, and bonus cards all provide end of game scoring. The goal board has two sides, one for easier play and another for advanced play. The tiles are also double-sided, so that each game will feel very different. The goal cards are simply text with some icons. They have very clever titles.

Wingspan cards

The wooden, six-sided dice will be similar to those of you who played Charterstone (read our review). These five, identical dice, each face a type of food, are a bit lighter in wood color and a tiny bit smaller than the die in Charterstone. Otherwise, they are quite similar. If you were paying attention earlier, you’d know that there are five food types to go on this D6. The open face is filled with an either/or icon for worms or grain, the most common food types on bird cards.

These dice will be tossed into a cardboard dice tower, fashioned to look like a combination bird house and feeder. It’s cute and certainly adds to the theme and performs as well as you’d expect from a cardboard dice tower, which is, to say, a little bit awkwardly. No matter, bonus points for staying on theme and adding an “extra” to the game.

When a player takes a die from the birdfeeder, they set the die aside and take a representative cardboard token instead. They are small, dime-sized, and double-sided. They work fine, but I’m sure someone will come up with some 3D tokens to take their place. That might present some problems since Wingspan ships without an insert. On the side of the bottom half of the box is a schematic showing how to repack the game — and everything fits quite neatly, with food tokens finding a home in a couple of plastic bins, which come with the game.

Wingspan

Also in plastic bins are the game’s egg tokens. These 3D, pastel colored tokens are fun and sure to get attention when the game is on the table — they are little eggs, after all! They come in five colors, which is irrelevant to gameplay, as they are interchangeable. However, I do look forward to seeing someone artistic paint them to appear even more lifelike.

It’s worth mentioning that the rulebooks and appendix are also pretty to look at and absolutely luxurious to hold, printed on some seemingly magical linen paper that Stonemaier has discovered; it’s the same paper as was used in Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (read our review). The first player token features the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher that’s on the cover of the box. Lastly, the action cubes are simply wooden cubes. All in all, it’s very top-notch, the same high quality you will find in all Stonemaier games.

How to Play Wingspan

Setup

Bird cards should be shuffled and placed face down by the bird tray, where three cards are placed face up. Food tokens and eggs are placed in the center of the table, along with the dice tower. Toss the dice and shuffle the bonus cards and you’re almost there. Choose a side of the goal board (one side is more competitive)and place tiles for each of the four goals.

Everyone gets a player mat, five random bird cards, two bonus cards, action cubes in their chosen color, and one food token of each type. Players must now look at the end of game goals, their own bonus cards, and the bird cards they’ve ben dealt. Now is the time to begin formulating a strategy. Think quickly, because you must discard one of the bonus cards before play begins. You can keep as many of your birds cards as you’d like, but you must discard a food token for each one you keep.

Choose a first player and you’re ready to begin.

Wingspan board game
Setup for a three player game

Gameplay

Wingspan is played over four rounds with a decreasing number of actions each round. There are four different actions a player can take on their turn and an action can be repeated during each round. You can learn the game here or in the rulebook or on page 2 of the appendix is a family friendly, step-by-step walkthrough. It’s a neat option.

The player mat is divided into three main rows for the actions of gaining food, laying eggs, and drawing cards, and a fourth, narrow row for playing birds. The rows also represent the habitats, with food in the forest, eggs in the grassland and cards in the water. That’s really the game: playing a bird from your hand to your player mat, gaining food, laying eggs, and drawing bird cards. Simple, right? Well, it’s actually a good deal more involved than those actions make seem.

Wingspan birdhouse

Playing a bird works a little differently than the other actions, so it will be addressed first. A player should review the bird card they wish to play. Consider the habitat the bird is fit for, in the upper left of the bird card. Some birds can be placed in multiple habitats, so the player must decide. Next, the player has to make sure they have enough food tokens to cover the bird’s food requirement, which is just below the habitat on the bird card. These considered, the player should place an action cube on the “play a bird” row at the very top. Cards must always be placed in the leftmost open spot of a habitat. As spots fill up in the rows below, players must also pay an egg cost to fill in spots along the further columns.

There are three other actions a player may take and they work a bit differently than placing a bird. To take food, lay eggs, or draw cards, a player places an action cube on the leftmost open spot on that row. As players play birds and push that leftmost open spot further out, the benefits become greater. Additionally, after taking the action on the open spot, the player then moves the action cube left, stopping on any bird cards with a brown band listing a benefit. Players optionally take the benefit before moving the action cube to other birds, taking their actions, before leaving the cube on the far left of their boards.

Wingspan bird cards
Some bird cards.

It’s worth noting that not all bird cards have a brown action. Some cards have a white background with text that grants a benefit when the card is first played and others have a pink band that gives a benefit when another player’s action triggers the pink band.

While players must always place their action cubes on the leftmost space, at the beginning of the game, this is where the poorest payoffs reside. To get the good rewards, you must play bird cards to cover the simple actions. But the bird cards have habitat and food requirements, which aren’t always easy to fill. Food is scarce and the dice faces don’t always cooperate with your needs. (Any two food tokens may be spent as a wild food token, thankfully.) Bird cards in your hand may not match up with your end of game bonus cards or the goals in the center of the table. Too often, you may find yourself thinking “I really need one more turn.”

Wingspan board game
Easier end game goals …

At the end of each round, after everyone has played all of their cubes, the goal card is consulted and results tallied. Goals include things like total birds in a certain habitat or eggs in a certain type of nest or habitat. An action cube is taken from each player to score that round’s goal and so each round, players have one less action to take.

The revealed bird cards on the tray are discarded and replaced, the first player token is rotated and the next round begins.

At the end of the game, points are scored for VP on bird cards that have been played to each player’s mat, any bonus card scoring, and points on the goal board. Additionally, players earn a single point for eggs on their player boards, food cached on cards, and cards tucked under other cards … which brings up one of the best parts of Wingspan, the bird powers.

Wingspan board game
… and a more competitive version.

As mentioned, when the brown bands activate, certain birds exercise certain powers. These vary between gaining extra food in the form of tokens or, true to nature, other birds. Other birds have egg, flocking, fishing, or card-drawing powers. Many of these powers are representative of birds’ real behaviors. For instance, consider brood parasitic birds like cowbirds and some cuckoos. In real life, they will lay their eggs in another species’ nest and that bird will hatch and raise the bird. In the game, the bird cards for the cuckoo and cowbird allow players to lay an egg on another bird’s nest. Another example is that of ravens and crows, who are opportunistic feeders, stealing from other birds. In the game, when activated, a player can discard an egg from another bird’s nest on their mat to gain 2 food from the supply. (As a caveat, cards meant to be tucked can wreak havoc on your player mat, knocking over eggs and moving cards. We home-ruled this by tucking beneath the player mat instead.)

There are many, many other examples, but these are emblematic. The powers are the best part of the game, giving you extra options as you build your engine, but they are also brilliantly executed in being representative of real bird behavior. Some real thought and hard work went into making Wingspan not only fun to play but accurate.

Wingspan board game
A possible endgame board.

Why You Should Play Wingspan

Here’s the one thing I want to say about Wingspan: It is my favorite game I’ve played in the past year. Maybe longer. Since my second or third play of Wingspan, I haven’t really wanted to play much else. It’s gorgeous and fun and every play leaves me wanting more. There are so many cards with different abilities and powers, it’s always challenging to try to build up different habitats for different benefits, to meet personal and universal goals.

I love that opening rounds have weaker actions, before you start adding birds to your mat, but players are allowed to take more actions. And, as the game draws to a close and actions are more powerful, players are held up by having fewer actions available to take. It presents some real challenges and, as I mentioned before, games often end with an exclamation of needing “one more turn!”

The components are excellent and the cards, especially, are very enjoyable to read and admire and the bird powers are accurate to many of the birds. A lot of work went into the game, which is even more impressive when you consider this is designer Elizabeth Hargrave’s first published game. She is definitely a designer to keep your eye on. It’s probably also worth pointing out that in this male-dominated hobby, Hargrave’s illustrators for Wingspan are Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel, making Wingspan an all-female design team.

Wingspan player mats
The player mats.

I asked Jamey Stegmaier at Stonemaier Games about what drew him to Wingspan and to take a chance on a first-time designer. He said “In my relatively short time as a professional designer and publisher, I’ve learned that it isn’t easy to create dozens and dozens of unique cards. And it’s even more difficult for those cards to have mechanisms that match the theme of each individual card. So when I saw that Elizabeth had accomplished that with over 100 bird cards (170 in the final version), I knew there was something special about the game and about the designer.”

When prompted further, Stegmaier added, “It just felt good to look at the birds I had collected during the game—there was something satisfying and pleasant about it. Last, it was clear that Elizabeth had playtested the game a ton and was open to constructive feedback so the game could fully reach its potential.”

That dedication is clear in the finished product, which is fantastic. I think Wingspan bears some resemblance to another of my favorite games of the last few years, Terraforming Mars. In fact, Stonemaier draws the same parallels in their lead-up marketing. I’ve played that game a lot. While both games involve a lot of cards, engine building to work toward personal and group goals, and buying cards during setup, I can say that they are entirely different affairs. Wingspan is maybe just a tiny bit lighter in game weight. It has more complex goals but simpler actions — which is actually refreshing. Especially when playing with expansions like Colonies and Venus Rising, Terraforming Mars is starting to feel like there’s too much tacked on. Wingspan doesn’t suffer from that “complexity for complexity’s sake” and it’s 100 times prettier to look at. Plus, Wingspan almost always plays in under an hour, so I can get more people interested in playing it. (I still love Terraforming Mars, though!)

Wingspan board game
Pick a color.

Wingspan has one more thing going for it, its theme. There aren’t many bird games out there and none done as well as this one. What’s more, thanks to its mechanics, it’s very family friendly — competitive but not combative — and there’s an excellent chance players will learn something while playing. What more could you ask for?

I have nearly two dozen plays under my belt already and haven’t lost any interest in Wingspan. I anticipate playing this beautiful, uniquely-themed, fun-to-play game for a long time to come. I suspect you may like it, too.

Wingspan will be available through retailers in March for $55. Stonemaier Champions can receive the game this month (shipping begins today!) and for a discount ($49) if you order through January 8.

Wingspan board game
A man named Algernon in Saint Denis will pay you handsomely for these.

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Disclosure: This game came is part of my personal collection.

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