Table of Contents
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [2.43]|
|BGG Rank||21 [8.11]|
|Player Count (recommended)||1-5 (1-4)|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Wingspan has been something of a phenomenon, generating sales and attentions that far outstrip the expectations of people that work and comment in this industry. It’s a beautifully presented game with the typical Stonemaier attention to detail, but in my experience it falls awkwardly between the conceptual accessibility of its framing and the mechanistical weight of its systems. Much of what characterises Wingspan is a kind of plumage – it impresses and inspires but its puffed up display is obscuring some bones that are hollower than I might like. It’s certainly a good game though – that’s why we gave it three and a half stars in our review.
Now though we move from its thematic accessibility into the harder criterion that we use in our teardowns. Let’s take a long, hard look at what’s in the box and see whether there are barriers other than the BGG weight that we need to address.
Colour blindness isn’t a problem that manifests itself particularly in Wingspan. The individual egg tokens used to show the accumulation in nests upon individual bird cards have a somewhat awkward palette, but their colour carries no meaning other than the aesthetic. Every egg is the same as every other egg.
The dice that are rolled in the bird feeder use colour to indicate faces, but that colour is matched up to a clear icon that indicates the type of food that is available.
Food tokens similarly have clear icons on them that can be used to differentiate.
And mostly, card powers are indicated in either brown, unadorned white, or pink and the text accompanying each bird clearly states what the power is supposed to do. The convention of the game is to place an action cube in the farthest clear space and move it down to execute each power in turn, so even the structure of play enforces time to read and execute upon text.
We’ll strongly recommend Wingspan in this category.
There are some issues here. Let’s begin by looking closely at the information presented on each card.
The first thing here is that the cards are quite information dense. That’s offset to an extent by the fact they’re reasonably well structured. That in itself gets an offset in that contrast is relatively poor for some of the symbols. Than then is coupled to text that’s quite small – particularly the wingspan value and the flavour text along the bottom. The text of each power associated with a bird is more effectively letterboxed than other parts of the card state, but the problem there is that icons are often interleaved into the description and they may not be entirely obvious because they can be quite tiny and hidden in the density of the wording.
Consider the Eastern Kingbird on the right in the picture above. It requires the reading of an environment icon and also reading a food icon. However, those food icons occasionally lack visual distinctiveness. It’s easy to mistake a rodent for a fish, or an invertebrate for grain. When shown against the background of the card text, associated coding colour information isn’t always well contrasted either. There is a somewhat similar issue with regards to the randomly generated scoring round tokens since they may be far away and difficult to see at a distance if a visual impairment is present.
More problematic still are the powers that require particular things to happen on nests, because these can be difficult to tell apart at times and may also involve triggering actions for other players. In those circumstances it can be difficult to even communicate what kind of nest you’re referencing. ‘It’s the one that has a circle with a dot in the middle and two semi-circles at the edges’ versus ‘It’s the one that looks like a bowl’. To be fair, there are only four of the nest types and they are named in the manual. Familiarity will ease this issue but it would have been great if some kind of reference card was provided to help communicate between players.
The egg tokens give a tactile cue as to which are present on which bird, and that’s great. More problematic though is that there’s often a close relationship there between cards, scoring conditions and terrains. That’s information that can be difficult to summarise or strategize around if it can’t be easily visually inspected. For example, some scoring conditions depend on having the largest number of eggs in a particular kind of nest (only possible to tell visually) or across a particular terrain (possible to tell by touch). Players will often be playing with future scoring opportunities in mind, as well as with their own personal scoring cards that may give them additional, and visually awkward, individual opportunities.
The dice used are d6s, but of non-standard faces and a lookup table wouldn’t really work because of the often very strategic nature of selecting food from the feeder. You could play without the use of the dice tower, but trying to cross-reference accessible die-faces against a corresponding chart would add a lot of cognitive cost to play.
A missed opportunity here is that the food tokens that players acquire are all individual and non-differentiated discs. Scythe, also from Stonemaier games, had individually shaped tokens for each resource and I would have very much liked to have seen something similar in effect here. They wouldn’t need to be wood, but simply having a different tactile profile for each kind of food would have been a nice, accessible touch. It’s made more jarring by the fact that this was an issue already solved in Scythe.
The largest problem though is simply the nature of gameplay which involves tightly co-ordinating actions between cards in hand (which may not be easy to inspect given their importance will vary based on the tableau each player has), scoring context and the progress being made by other players. The specific way in which some powers should be invoked will depend on configuration of cards and eggs not only on your own board but also on those of other players. Many of the scoring rounds focus on ‘the most’ of particular kinds of birds, eggs, and presence in habitats. Lining everything up in the way you might like involves a level of visual processing that cannot easily be substituted for verbalisation given the specifics involved. The difference between two eggs in a nest and one egg in two nests can be the difference between getting points and getting nothing. For a visually impaired player this would be tricky. For a totally blind player, a large portion of the game would have to reside in a mental model of a game state that has an aggressive amount of churn. For example, it may be necessary to spend eggs from particular cards in preference to others to ensure conformance with scoring conditions. Knowing ‘Someone spent an egg’ doesn’t convey the same information as ‘Someone spent an egg from a platform nest which has the following implications for scoring…’
It’s not that it would be impossible to meaningfully verbalise the game state – just that I think it would be an unreasonable amount of information for someone to be expected to track. As a result, all we can offer is a very tentative recommendation.
The rule-set and range of powers available in Wingspan is considerably tighter than in many games of this nature. That means that there are no massively complex chains or synergies to be navigated, but also there’s correspondingly little ‘give’ in how the systems fit together. There are a fewer number of tools to be managed, but each tool has more weight. As time goes by, each action on the board becomes more powerful (hopefully) and fewer actions become available. This is a nice balancing element but it does mean that the consequences of actions increase as the game goes on. It’s possible to get hung up on local optima of the engine without actually aligning it to how the scoring for the game works.
Given the game has multiple paths for scoring too (bonus cards in particular layering on increasingly complex requirements on an individual) it can be tricky to balance all the competing needs in a way that doesn’t result in everything being lost. Much of the scoring in Wingspan is competitive, and in those circumstances a broad strategy of gathering and spending resources can result in nothing much being achieved. There are points available for being second and third but the lion’s share of points, of course, are for the first player. Getting first in round one gives four points to the winner one point to the runner up as an example of the divergence.
One of the really nice features of how Wingspan is designed here is that it has an explicitly low competition side of the board where scoring is less cut-throat. I’m a little less enthused about the fact it’s pitched as being ‘good for new players’ rather than just ‘a non-competitive variant’ because the former implies it’s the kind of thing from which someone should eventually graduate. Nonetheless, it does alleviate a lot of these scoring pressures and makes for a less cognitively taxing game.
A considerable reading level is required of players, and this is compounded with the need to navigate an occasionally awkward symbolic language. We’ve already spoken about some of the issues associated with nesting graphics, but some scoring cards too also have iconography that isn’t immediately obvious. Numeracy too is important for play, although it’s usually simplified by the fact that you spend physical tokens for a currency. However, knowing whether you’re going to meet scoring goals or bonus cards is an explicitly numerate proposition. It requires seriation, comparison, and also a degree of arithmetic to work out whether it’s worth investing energy in achieving the goal in the first place.
The complexity of the game state increases as time goes by, because every action gains new powers as a result of birds being played out to the board. Sometimes this has an impact on game flow too, because there are reaction powers that trigger on the turn of opponents. This requires players to be on guard for when the activation criteria is met, and also to explicitly track which powers have been triggered. It’s relatively rare that they’ll be triggered twice within a turn, but the rules specifically state they can only be activated once. The kind of scenarios likely to subvert that are also the kind of scenarios that are most likely to be stressing cognition in the first place – for example, when a player plays a card that permits them to chain together a second card with all the concomitant effects on the game state.
Wingspan I think benefits immensely from people knowing about birds – the theme is so lovingly threaded through everything that a real chunk of the charm is reserved for those that can appreciate it. It’s not necessary though, and in many respects it actually teaches people a bit about birds as it goes along. While things like the figures for eggs are not strictly speaking accurate (as noted in the manual) they are true in a proportionate sense. You get a little snippet about each bird on the card too, so this is an interesting example of a game that actually teaches as you play, but also is far more appealing if you’re already in some way a fan of birds.
We can tentatively recommend Wingspan in both of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
A nice feature of the design of Wingspan is that no power removes progress from another player and several of them enable you to piggyback on what others do. There’s often tight competition over scoring, but it’s all handled indirectly through your board and never through anything explicitly adversarial. There’s no real ability for players to gang up on each other, although it’s possible I suppose that someone might be locked out of picking up birds of a particular kind when they appear in the supply. There are so many birds though and they’re all useful so it seems futile to try and prevent anyone’s progress. In any case, a random draw from the deck is always possible if nothing on offer appeals.
Score disparities can be reasonably high given the nature of the scoring mechanism, but it’s rare that it’s down to any particular systemic issues in the game. There’s no mechanism for example whereby the rich get richer – mostly score differences come in people simply not making good use of their time to the rhythm of the scoring. In those circumstances a cause for failure is both predictable and correctible. That said, there is still a fair amount of luck that goes into play – getting the right birds at the right time to get the right kinds of capacity built up. As with all luck-driven systems in games though it can go well or poorly for someone and it offers a face-saving shield in the event of especially poor performance.
One issue though is that as the game goes on actions become more powerful but the ability to enact changes to your board become fewer. Every round of the game, you sacrifice an action cube. This has the effect that you gain ‘throughput’ but lose agility and that’s an important part of balancing your various responsibilities in the game. Falling foul of this makes it difficult to keep pace with the game and undo early systemic mistakes. Planting lots of birds with lots of eggs early on for example might be something you can do easily but if you don’t notice the need for it until the third round you’ll find it much harder to set yourself up because you have fewer options.
All of this said though, we’ll recommend Wingspan in this category.
The board you get is reasonably frictive, and the cards when laid down are part of the public state information of the game. There’s some manipulation of food tokens and eggs that’s needed, but that can all be handled in a range of straightforward ways. Players will have a hidden hand of bird cards, but it rarely consists of more than four or five. A pair of standard card holders will be appropriate here, although for the most part each card will need to be fully visible so its effect can be seen. That’s a bit of a shame because otherwise the presence of all the key information on the left hand side of the card would permit them to be stacked for additional efficiency.
Verbalisation can be a little trickier than it should be when communicating some of the nest types, but there are only four and familiarity will make that easier to do as time goes by. It’s a shame though that players don’t get a reference card to explicitly support the building of the vocabulary of play. Occasionally players will also be required to draw hidden cards and check them against certain trigger conditions on the board, although this can be done easily enough with support from another player.
Rolling the dice through the dice tower is an enjoyably tactile part of the game experience, and the nature of the game means that digital rollers will not be an appropriate compensation if that is going to be an issue. As with most of the game though this can be handled cleanly with support from another player. Indeed, the person closest to the dice tower will almost always be doing the lion’s share of that because putting dice through at an awkward angle is an easy way to lose them on the floor.
Other than this, actually performing actions in the game is entirely verbalizable. Birds go in their next space in the tableau, and the row and column style of the board makes it straightforward to give references, as do the explicit names of the birds. ‘Take an egg from my Mountain Bluebird’ or ‘Take an egg from the bird in the wetlands, first column’. There’s a redundancy of referencing that’s very appealing.
We’ll recommend Wingspan in this category.
Our main review of the game is largely an essay in this, so I won’t rehash those themes here too heavily. Suffice to say that this is the kind of game that opens up the hobby to new people and as such I think it deserves a lot of praise in this category. I have no idea if there’s a gender bias in the birds represented, but if there is I think you’d need to want to be annoyed for it to be an issue. The manual is in the second person perspective, and all the art in the game is made up of either environmental details or lovely birds. There’s nothing (for me) to complain about here.
Cost wise, Wingspan has an RRP of approximately £60 and that’s very much in ‘ouch’ territory. As with any Stonemaier game though you are buying an explicitly luxury product. Much of what’s in the box simply doesn’t need to be there. There’s no need for the bird feeder dice tower, or the chunky eggs (a cardboard counter would be sufficient). The holder for the cards and all the clamshell boxes likewise. You’re paying a premium for the production value. It’s interesting here in that there’s a tension between that and the otherwise inclusive theming. A game that was less polished probably, sad to say, wouldn’t have gained the same kind of widespread mainstream attention that Wingspan has gathered up. On the other hand, £60 for a game to a non-gamer audience is an eye-watering price-tag and one with lower production quality could almost certainly have been produced for a price less likely to make people wince. My birder friend, discussed in the review, would almost certainly not be inclined to pay £60 for Wingspan even if he does love the theme. You don’t wonder where your money went, but I think you can fairly ask whether it went places that you actually wanted. However, Wingspan also comes with a comprehensive and effective solo mode driven by an automata, and it goes up to five players. There are worse value propositions out there but it seems like the prominence of the game is somewhat undercut by the price point. That said, it’s clear that it’s not struggling to sell so maybe I should just shut my damn mouth.
We’ll recommend Wingspan in this category.
Wingspan requires literacy to play, given how most of the cards come with explicit instructions as to how they are to be activated. There is otherwise no formal need for communication.
We’ll recommend it in this category.
If someone has both colour blindness and a visual impairment I’d be inclined to say that the difficulty in telling some icons apart might be enough to rescind our recommendations. If someone has an intersecting cognitive impairment, of any kind, along with a visual impairment then it would absolutely, without question, rescind our tentative recommendations. Too much of the game, for a visually impaired player, requires holding parts of the game state in mind and manipulating them mentally. Even a slight issue with regards to that would be enough to make the game too difficult to recommend.
A player with a visual impairment and a physical impairment is also likely to have particular intersectional issues, given how a visual impairment would imply the need for increased close inspection and a physical impairment may limit the degree to which that is possible.
Wingspan quotes a playtime of up to seventy minutes and I think for a lot of groups that is going to be laughably optimistic. The first game I played of it was about two and a half hours, although in a two player setting you can easily get through a game in the lower-end estimate of forty minutes if both players know what they’re doing. We have here though the issue we discussed in the review which is that it’s a game that’s likely to be played disproportionately often by novices and you should expect that has an impact on how long the game takes to play.
If it’s taking too long to play though, it’s possible for players to drop out without any particular impact. It’s a low interaction game and there are no specific adjustments needed when moving from one player count (at least, two players plus) to another. Someone can just stop taking their turn and the game can go on. Dropping to a single player invokes the need for the automata though so it’s not completely clean as far as that goes.
Well, this is actually a piece of good news. While there are some issues on the cognitive and visual sections of the teardown, overall Wingspan is actually a pretty accessible game. A lot more accessible than many games in this BGG weight class tends to be. It has recommendations, albeit sometimes tentative, for every category and even some of the criticisms could be address with some alterations to the design in a second edition.
Wingspan is an important game because it has become a massively influential ambassador for this hobby. It has spread its wings wide enough to gain mainstream attention and sales figures to match. I’ve made an argument in the past with regards to the Spiel des Jahres that there is a burden on games that achieve widespread attention that they earn it through acts of accessibility. The more prominent a game is, the more careful it has to be to avoid excluding people. The performance here isn’t flawless, but it’s still impressive.
We gave Wingspan three and a half stars in our review. Our audience (which is you folks) is made up primarily of people that are interested in hobbyist games and our review has to be interpreted in that light. However, if this is the first brush people have with this hobby I’m pleased that Wingspan is such an agreeable entry point. A large number of people know about it, and a large number of people can play it, albeit occasionally with some caveats and compensations. That’s my favourite conclusion to reach in these teardowns, and I don’t get to say it often enough.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.