Wingspan ★

Wingspan cover

Bird-watching may be a more exciting hobby than it’s given credit for, but Wingspan does little to change that impression. Stonemaier’s latest best-seller is a much duller game than I hoped for and also far from the simple, thematic experience promised by the box.

BIRD PLACEMENT

In Wingspan players have a board with three spaces. The first lets you collect food, the second gives you eggs and the third lets you draw cards with birds in them. You can spend the first two resources to put the latter into play and the more birds you have in a space, the more resources you get for activating it.

The interesting bit is that each bird has a different power and you trigger all of them when you activate a space. So besides the increase in the space’s yield you might also get points or additional resources for each bird. They also provide victory points so getting them on the board is beneficial on its own.

If you have played Lords of Waterdeep, Terraforming Mars or any other game with a drafting or worker placement element, you’ll find Wingspan rather familiar. Like them, it’s a game of using actions to get resources and then trying to convert those into points or cards or even more resources.

What separates Wingspan from the other games in its genre is that the board is not shared. There’s a common food source and a common deck, but your birds are yours alone. You can’t be attacked or interfered with. The only competition is your final score and a couple bonuses at the end of each round.

EXCITEMENT

I can appreciate the quality of Wingspan in the abstract. Small details, like how the number of actions available each round is reduced by putting one of your workers on the scoreboard are well-thought. But it’s not compelling. Every time I play Wingspan, I end up thinking I would have rather not played a game at all.

After all, there’s nothing special about yet another worker placement game, much less one that is even less interactive and more inward-looking than usual. It’s very much a game in which doing well means getting two and a half instead of two and in which the largest source of excitement is drawing a better-than-average card from a randomized deck.

Perhaps the game would be less dull if birds had interesting powers, but they all boil down to the same thing. Get food. Lay an egg. Draw a card. Store one of the above to get a victory point. Raise, rinse, repeat. There’s no depth to it.

It’s a game of efficiency. And on its own, efficiency doesn’t make a game fun. It can be an interesting trade-off, but if all birds and actions are so similar, what difference do your actions make? In Wingspan, it doesn’t matter if I play a duck or an eagle, I’m assured a good score and my tactics will remain the same from beginning to end.

FLAWS

I find Wingspan so bereft of emotion or drama that I don’t even mind some of its flaws. Normally, balance issues such as eggs overshadowing every other source of victory points would weigh heavily on my assessment. But Wingspan wouldn’t be more exciting if it were better balanced.

Being forced to sit while every other player takes his turn despite their existence not impacting my overall experience is a design flaw. And it’s a more important and deeper flaw than the cards being boring or efficiency being assured.

The presence of other players makes Wingspan worse. Since the food and bird pools are both random and shared, you cannot plan ahead with any sort of certainty. The bird or food you need may or may not be there when your turn comes again. There’s a solitaire variant, but then it not only competes with other games but with a wider array of entertainment.

Wingspan boardgame dice tower

There’s also a surprising amount of randomness in the game. Since most birds produce resources, their value during the game changes. If you are lucky enough to get a good bird early you’ll have a much better time than players who got dealt a bad hand. You can try and draw more birds, but the game is so short that you cannot waste actions like that.

FAMILY

One might argue that Wingspan is meant to be a family game and hence should not be held to the same strategic standards as a “gamer’s game”. But being accessible is no excuse for a lack of excitement or depth. Newcomers care about quality as much as anyone else. Ease of play is no substitute for interest in gameplay.

It’s a bit beyond the point because I don’t actually find Wingspan to be specially accessible. At its core, it’s one of those games where you have to read several cards a turn, each with a different cost, power, placement restriction, victory point ratio and set collection implication. Wingspan is not a family game. It’s a gamer’s idea of what a family game looks like.

I believe anyone interested in a simple game would be better served by Catan, Carcassonne or Acquire rather than Wingspan. Not only are they simpler and easier to understand, but they are also more fun and can be had for cheaper. You can probably buy two of those games for the same cost as the above-average price of Wingspan.

Some claim that Wingspan’s theme makes it more appealing or culturally accessible. I’m rather skeptic of that claim, but even then, I don’t think the game delivers. The bird-watching façade is not communicated through gameplay, but tiny flavour text on the bottom of each card. Understanding it is not required to play, nor do well.

A few birds have biologically-accurate abilities, but since all the cards are so similar, it’s not noticeable. I can tell some animals are carnivores because they require a mouse or a worm to be played but I still don’t understand why a bird that lives in the water gives me cards and one that lives in the forest doesn’t.

Like all games by Stonemaier, Wingspan boasts well above-average components. Every single card has been illustrated in watercolor, a plastic box is included to store them and a cardboard tower can be set-up to roll dice in. They are unnecessary but pleasant in a way that Tapestrys maximalism isn’t.

Still, these niceties cannot address the game’s fundamental lacks, which are fun, depth and excitement. It fails to convey a message on its subject matter, it’s inoffensive in a way that only a bland game can be.

WINGSPAN  (2019)
DESIGN Elizabeth Hargrave ART Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, Beth Sobel
PUBLISHER Stonemaier Games LENGTH 60 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 1-4 (Best with any number) SCORE

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