Soar to New Heights in Wingspan | Casual Game Revolution

Soar to New Heights in Wingspan


Work to create a sustainable, functional aviary in Stonemaier’s latest game, Wingspan.

Wingspan flies into the new year with a tailwind of momentum. The first big buzzed-about title for 2019 has already been called a year-end favorite, but does a game that asks players to build a copacetic aviary of North American birds appeal to players who are heavy into theme (and perhaps do not fancy themselves as bird enthusiasts)?

The short answer is yes. Wingspan is the first published design from Elizabeth Hargrave and stamped with the approving brand of Stonemaier. For fans of birds and Stonemaier’s brand of games, Wingspan was an immediate no-brainer. But it’s really the gameplay itself that will win over even the most hardened skeptics.

Wingspan components


Wingspan is played over the course of four rounds, with each round consisting of one less turn/action than the previous (the first round has 8 actions, the last round 5). Players begin with an individual aviary playing board, with 15 spaces to fill with birds (five for forest-dwelling birds, five for plains/fields, and five for water-loving birds) from their starting hand of five. Players also begin with five food (one of each type) and two objective cards. Players decide which birds they will want to add to their aviary, discarding the other birds along with some food as well as one of their objective cards (for example, if a player keeps 3 birds, they must discard the other two birds from their hand as well as three food tokens, leaving them with two food tokens to use as the cost to place one of the birds from their hand with a future action).

Players begin with the first player, each taking turns in the first round with one of four actions: gaining food, laying eggs, drawing birds, or placing a bird. These actions are done via each player’s board. With no birds placed in the aviary, these actions yield little return, but as more birds are played in each row, gaining food, laying eggs and drawing birds will yield larger returns. Playing a bird means being able to pay its food cost and sometimes an additional building cost as a row begins to fill up with more birds.

Many birds also contain actions that will have continued benefits as players gain food, lay eggs, and gain more birds. As players begin to fill out a row and decide to do an action associated with that row, these actions will resolve. For example, if a player has three birds in the forest row of their aviary and wish to take the action gaining food, they will begin at the fourth space, gaining two food of their choice from the dice. Then they will move their cube to the third spot, resolving the action of that bird (if it is not a one-time or between turns power). Then onto the second spot to resolve the action of that spot’s bird, and finally to the first spot to resolve that bird’s action.

This is the beauty of Wingspan: though it seems like a complicated game upon set up, it’s a very streamlined engine builder with some set collection and hand management involved. Between the actions your played birds can provide, the objective card each player has will guide players to making some choices about what type of birds to play and where. Likewise, there are four shared objectives (one for each round) that players will be chasing for end-of-game scoring. And some birds will offer no actions, but may hold many eggs, be worth a lot of points, or may provide a one-time bonus that allows players to play more than one bird during a turn.

Wingspan gameplay


These are but a few of the many beautiful aspects of Wingspan. The game, like some heavier Euros, offers many paths to earning points. Unlike heavier games, Wingspan plays quickly and the different paths to victory do not favor one or two specific strategies. With 170 bird cards in the base game, no game is the same from play to play. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting to craft an engine that has you laying a lot of eggs in a particular type of nest, others will find you chasing predators that allow you to tuck cards for extra points. At the same time, you may be also trying to play as many birds with larger wingspans or birds that allow you to cache food on their card…

Yet all these choices are not paralyzing. The first game of Wingspan may take 75-90 minutes as players learn the setup, feel out the game’s flow, and figure out potential strategies and card actions. By the third game, a playthrough of Wingspan will take no more than 30-40 minutes and it leaves you feeling like you just needed one more turn to really do something special – that’s the hook to get you to come back for more. And you will.

For those who are sucked in by theme, building an aviary may not be an immediate draw. But the cards and pieces of Wingspan are amazing, and the themes themselves (how many points is this bird worth, what type of nest does it have, how many eggs does it hold, is it a predator that eats other birds, what is the wingspan, etc.) are familiar to any board gamer. The bird illustrations leap off the cards, the components are top quality, and Stonemaier was wise enough to include trays to hold the eggs and food pieces that can simply be opened and closed to hasten set-up time for future playthroughs.

As great as Wingspan is, it does suffer from one noticeable trend: the luck of the draw. With 170 bird cards and 26 objective cards, this discrepancy can be painful. Some birds offer an action that allows players to draw more objective cards. However, these cards might never end up in your hands – and if another player ends up monopolizing these cards, they have more opportunities to gain end-of-game points via private objectives than other players. These instances have decided the winner of games from time to time, but in my experiences the final scores of every Wingspan game I’ve played have been very close.

This is true for the automata of Wingspan as well. It is a difficult one-player experience, but it’s just challenging enough that it keeps you coming back to outwit the cleverly named Audumabon.

The best means of summing up the Wingspan experience is balance. With any game that involves dice rolling and card drawing, there are elements of luck that may affect the game’s outcome, but the myriad paths to building an engine and earning points negates much of this chance. If you find yourself worried about the game’s weight or the theme, don’t be. Wingspan is a gateway to explore heavier gaming mechanics without worrying about lengthy play times, timely set-up, and crippling analysis paralysis.

Pros: Easy to learn, variable successful strategies, beautiful and sturdy components

Cons: Luck of the draw could decide the winner