Beautiful components, straightforward gameplay, and various ways to score points make Wingspan one of our current favorites.
From the moment we saw this game announced, we knew that Wingspan would be a must-have for our collection. First of all, it’s a bird-themed game, and we have long enjoyed identifying and watching the birds that visit our back-yard feeders. But even if we were indifferent toward our avian friends, the gorgeous components caught our attention immediately, and the simple yet interesting game decisions intrigued us. We were thrilled to snag a pre-order copy and have thoroughly enjoyed our plays so far.
Wingspan, a 2019 release from Stonemaier Games, was designed by Elizabeth Hargrave and illustrated by a talented team of women: Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. It accommodates 1-5 players age 10 and up, and plays in about 40-70 minutes.
In Wingspan, players fill their avian reserves with a variety of birds and take advantage of card actions to outscore their opponents. The player who manages to build the best array of birds and accumulate the most points wins the game.
Players begin the game with a hand of bird cards, some food tokens, a private bonus card, a player board, and eight action cubes.
On a player’s turn, they will place an action cube into one of the four rows of their player board in order to choose one of four base actions to take:
- Play/place a bird from their hand onto their player board, into one of 3 habitats/rows (forest, grasslands, or wetlands)
- Collect food (food serves as the primary payment needed in order to play/place birds in habitats)
- Lay eggs (place eggs on birds already in their habitats)
- Draw new cards into their hand
While these actions are fairly straightforward, each one changes as the player’s board fills with birds. In order to take an action, the player places their action cube in the first available empty slot in the row and completes the action as indicated in that slot.
So, for example, when the grasslands habitat is empty and a player chooses the Lay Eggs action, they’ll place their action cube in the very first slot and then place two eggs on a bird(or birds) already on their player board.
Later in the game however, that player may have three birds already in the grasslands habitat. Now when they choose the Lay Eggs action, they can place three eggs on their birds, with the option to trade any one food token for an additional egg.
In the same way, each base action gets better and more powerful as the players’ boards fill with birds.
In addition to the base actions, any action cube placed will then be moved left across the board, activating special abilities of each bird that has previously been placed in that row/habitat. Some examples of these special abilities are:
- Gain a grain token from the food supply and cache it on that bird (each cached food token will be worth one point at game-end).
- Draw a card from the supply deck. If its wingspan is less than 75 feet, tuck it under this bird (again, this tucked card will be worth a point at game-end).
- Discard one egg to draw two cards into your hand.
There’s a wide variety of these special abilities and having the right combination of birds in a given row can lead to an exciting, point-building little engine.
Players take turns spending action cubes to take actions and trigger bird abilities until their cubes are gone. This marks the end of Round 1.
Wingspan is played over a series of four rounds, with each round having one fewer turn than the one before. Over the course of the game, points are earned in the following ways:
- Playing birds onto one’s personal board (most birds on your board at game end are worth a specific number of points).
- Fulfilling end-of-round objectives that can change each game. These objectives might include things such as the number of birds in the wetlands habitat or the number of eggs on birds that build platform nests. All players compete to fulfill or excel at these objectives.
- Fulfilling secret objectives on personal bonus cards. Players may have bonus cards that reward points for playing birds that eat a specific food or for birds with colors in their names. There are 26 bonus cards, so your secret objectives can change every game.
- Having eggs on played birds at game end (each egg is worth 1 point).
- Caching food tokens on birds with this ability (each token is worth 1 point).
- Tucking cards under birds with this ability (each tucked card is worth 1 point).
Points are totaled after the four rounds and the player with the most points is declared the winner.
Components and Art
Wingspan is, without a doubt, a visually striking game. The 170 unique bird cards are beautifully illustrated, and full of interesting facts about the individual birds. The miniature eggs are adorable (and remind me more than a little of those yummy Cadbury Mini Eggs that hit stores every spring). Food is obtained by choosing from wooden dice that are rolled through a super-cute birdhouse dice tower.
Even the rulebook is something special — the linen finish on it officially makes this the most luxurious-feeling rulebook I own. Does that sound weird? I know! But the first time I picked up the Wingspan rulebook, I was blown away.
Every component in Wingspan adds something to the overall experience. Would it still be a good game if the eggs were little cardboard tokens and the dice tower didn’t exist? Absolutely. But the art and components make the overall experience that much better.
The Game Experience
Wingspan is fairly easy to learn, and once players have played through a round or so, they’ll have a very good sense of the game. Building up habitats in order to strengthen base actions and trigger a series of special actions can be very satisfying. There’s something extra fun about saying, “And then I’ll trigger this bird which allows me to place an egg…and then I’ll trigger this bird and cache a rodent token…and then I’ll trigger this bird and draw another card…”
We also found it exciting to see our bird reserve grow and change as we played birds to the various habitats. The gorgeous bird cards are simply delightful and we all found ourselves lingering over the illustrations, trying to pronounce the scientific names of the birds, or recalling times when we have seen the various birds in real life.
There’s some tension in the game of course, as you know exactly how many actions you’ll have in each round, and will have to determine just how to utilize them. Each player will have 26 total turns over the course of the game, so choosing which actions to take and which strategy to focus on adds just enough challenge to keep things really interesting.
There is not a lot of player interaction, but the interaction that does exist is generally positive in nature. For example, there is a special action that, when triggered, allows all players to place an egg if they have a certain type of bird. There are also other actions that a player can activate during someone else’s turn, if that person does a specific thing. While some gamers might hope for more direct or aggressive interaction, this is actually the kind of game interaction that our family loves.
Some have complained that Wingspan is heavily luck-based, and that if the birds you need don’t show up, you will have a hard time competing. In our plays, we’ve found that players absolutely need to tailor their strategy to the birds available. If I have a bonus card that rewards me for predator birds, but I have none in my hand, and none are available in the supply, I probably need to focus on a different strategy for earning points.
I will say that we played one game where everything came together just right for me. My bonus card aligned perfectly with the birds I was initially dealt, and playing those birds early in the game created a point-earning engine that proved impossible to beat. So while we feel that luck can create a situation where a player can almost run away with the game, that’s a rare occurrence. Most of the time, all players will be able to work with what is before them to play competitively.
What We Love Most About Wingspan
The components and art. They are simply stunning! We’re also very excited about planned future expansions that will introduce us to new birds with more gorgeous illustrations.
The straightforward gameplay. This isn’t a game where you have to keep checking the rules to see if you’re forgetting something. Once you’ve played through it, the actions are intuitive and its all about scrambling for those points and building your bird engine.
Building our “bird engines.” We all love setting up a habitat that allows us to trigger a string of actions. It’s satisfying and rewarding in a way that individual actions just can’t be.
I see Wingspan enjoying a long shelf-life in our family. It plays fairly quickly (our first game — a learning game — took over an hour, but the rest have been under an hour), it is beautiful to look at, and it’s just plain fun. Wingspan is easy to teach and would be perfect to pull out for other family and friends. In fact, I think it would be a great game to use in introducing others to the board game hobby.
We have played Wingspan at 2-player and 3-player. I should mention that there is also a solo option that I hope to try very soon. I’ve heard only good things about it!
In this house, we know we love a game if that game has a hard time making it back to the shelf because we know we want to play it again before long. Let’s just say Wingspan has remained close to our dining room table and will likely hit it again before you know it.
If you’d like to give Wingspan a try, it will be available in retail stores soon! It has won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, so it’s a little hard to come by right now, but I’ll update this space with links once it is available!
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