Wingspan (2019)

Game Details
NameWingspan (2019)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.46]
BGG Rank25 [8.06]
Player Count (recommended)1-5 (1-4)
Designer(s)Elizabeth Hargrave
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's good! You should consider trying it if you have a chance.

Let me take a slightly different tack with this review of Wingspan than I would normally. Let me do it as a story of first impressions and an extended meditation on the nature and value of theme.

We all know theme is an important element of a game – a good theme supports learnability, creates applicable context that makes strategy easier to grasp, and just generally tends to elevate a game above its mechanistic trappings. We do though tend to see a lot of the same themes worn thin and threadbare through repetition. Zombies. Cthulhu. Vaguely Mediterranean fol-de-rol. In such circumstances the sheer ubiquity of the theme can be powerfully soporific. We should celebrate then games like Wingspan that are brave enough to explore flightier, less established conceits.

Wingspan box

It’s invigorating, and not just because it’s refreshing for those deep in the cardboard trenches to find our eyes drawn upwards. A game like Wingspan brings new blood into the hobby. When pirates; dungeons; dragons; and an endless parade of epidemics don’t inspire your friends, well – you can accomplish a lot by finding a link between your obsessions and theirs. Fittingly, I know few people as passionate as bird-lovers. A friend of mine is a hardcore birder, and one day I woke up to a mention from him on my Facebook page. He was pointing out an article in a journal about a new, exciting and apparently scientifically valid game about birds. Mrs Meeple and I have played games with him several times before, but I always got the impression he was more interested in the company than its accompaniment. This was the first time he’d ever expressed any particular interest in a game. That’s noteworthy. As often tiresome and tedious proselytes for this hobby, people like us should always take notice of circumstances like that.

Wingspan Dice Tower

I made sure then that the first time I played Wingspan was in his company. More than anything else, I was interested to see the impact that his enthusiasm for the theme had on my experience. And it turns out – Wingspan does a lot well in this regard. He built up the little bird-feeder dice-tower that’s part of the game. He oohed and aahed over the art, although remarking a little bit sadly that the game seemed only to show off birds of North America. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to know that a European expansion is on the horizon. He read happily through the various bird statistics and trivia notes on each card, nodding sagely to himself as he found it to be all in order. He examined all the little eggs as they were slipped out of their typically Stonemaieresque clam-shell containers. I think he was a little bit in love that he was being presented with a game that seemed to be designed for people like him, as opposed to people like me.

It was very endearing.

Cards in Wingspan

And that more than anything else is a compelling argument for why a wide plurality of enthusiasms should be supported through creative themes, lovingly applied. They say to people ‘This is a hobby for you’, and they actually follow through by treating those themes seriously. A respect for the subject matter shines through in every part of this game.

It’s no surprise really that Wingspan has become a highly visible darling of the non-hobbyist press. It’s being discussed in academic journals, in popular newspapers, and on radio. It’s been featured on the BBC and on NPR. It flits and flutters, being found in places that you’d never expect to see a Concordia or an Imperial Settlers. It finds itself at home in more mainstream company because people are willing to make a space in their minds for it. It’s entirely possible that Wingspan, by itself, will have done more good for The Hobby than the entire combined output of this hobby’s media space. It’s been remarkable, and heartening, to watch.

The downside of this though is that Wingspan is also something of a cuckoo, planting its egg in a stolen nest. It gives off a pretty bird song that camouflages the real meaning of its chirps and cheeps. We are lured in by the music, but birds aren’t inviting us to play. They’re telling us that the call of the wild sometimes comes in pleasing packages.

The first impressions of my friend were exceptionally positive – he’d clearly been looking forward to playing it the whole of the Saturday. I’d left it as the evening activity because the earlier part of the day had been taken up with a larger group of people than could be supported with a session of Wingspan. Instead we’d played things like Joking Hazard, When I Dream, Funemployed and similar straightforward fare. When we’d finished up with dinner the box came out, still sheathed in its shrinkwrap. His eyes lit up and he said ‘Ah, now we’re talking!’.

Food tokens in Wingspan

It only took about fifteen minutes of play though before some of that enthusiasm started to melt away. Wingspan isn’t an especially complicated game by the standards of ‘gamers’, but for someone that hasn’t really immersed themselves in the hobby it’s a surprisingly tough egg to crack. In comparison to other easy ‘gateway’ (urgh) games it is actually quite obtuse and resistant to easy comprehension.

At its core, Wingspan is a stripped back engine-builder – a bit like Terraforming Mars if NASA were obsessed with ornithology. You draw birds into your hand, and spend food and egg tokens to place them in their natural habitats. Each bird comes with some kind of power, linked to their environment. Sometimes there are one off actions you get when you place them and nothing else. Some actions respond to the things other players do. Others are based on the roll of the dice that handle the ecology of the food supply.

Wingspan board

Each turn a player gets to take a single action – pay to place a bird; draw food from the bird feeder; lay eggs on birds on their tableau; or draw cards into their hand. When you take an action that isn’t placing a bird, you activate all the powers resident in the associated environment. In this way you super-charge your options as you go along, one action triggering off half a dozen others. You upgrade your board with the capabilities of cormorants. Megacharge your actions with a flock of Martingales. Prevent regrets with egrets. Win it all with an oriole. And so on.

A limited pool of actions that gets more limited as time goes by regulates the pacing of this, and once that pool is used up there’s an intermediate scoring phase. At the start of the game some bonus tiles are selected and set the goals players will be working towards within each of the game’s four rounds. Some birds though have powers that result in them eating other birds, or stockpiling food, for additional points at the end of the game. Each bird has its own victory point value too that comes from placing it.

It’s in here that some of the science of the game comes in. At one point during play I described a power that belonged to a bird I was going to place. My friend instantly guessed the family of the bird, and give a small impromptu lecture on why he was able to tell just from the game mechanisms. That’s a genuinely impressive feat of design – linking the abstraction of a game system to a real-world circumstance in a way that means the link is not only clear but is also deducible. The stats that are scattered around the cards (types of nest, wing-span size, number of eggs laid and such) are all firmly in the edutainment sphere but it’s clear that in addition to these little factual nuggets the deep lore of bird law is embedded into the design of every part of the game.

But here’s also where things pivot.

There’s a certain kind of feedback you get at the end of a session when introducing a new game to a non-gamer audience. ‘I guess it’s one of those games you need to play a few times to understand’. It’s the polite way of saying ‘I didn’t really know what I was doing and I didn’t have as much fun as I’d hoped because of that’. That was the final review from my friend. He went in to the game looking happy and cheerful, pleased that he was being indulged by a game as sumptuous and well produced as Wingspan. It’s a gorgeous game, after all. It looks like a proper treat being laid on for an appreciative audience.

At the end of the game though he looked like he’d just come out of an especially difficult and stressful exam for which he hadn’t properly studied. I think he’d be willing to play it again but it was abundantly clear that he certainly hadn’t been expecting the experience to which he had been treated. It seemed at least an order of magnitude more difficult in terms of strategy and sophistication than was within his comfort zone. I’ll stress here that this is a very clever man – a man who has contributed much to the scientific literature of bioinformatics. Intelligence though doesn’t convert frictionlessly into the level of game literacy expected by Wingspan.

Wingspan board with cards

The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play when someone assumes, as a result of their own ignorance, that they’re more expert than genuine experts in a particular topic. I think there’s an inverse, where experts assume more competence of amateurs than can be fairly expected.

I’ve occasionally told the story of the first user-focused study I ever conducted as part of my PhD. I had about an hour to spend with each participant and a set of instructions I wanted them to work though. Things like ‘copy this text from a word document’, ‘paste it into Internet Explorer’. I had about twenty of these tasks and I expected it would take people maybe a quarter of the allotted time to get through. The rest of the time I’d do some structured interviewing about their familiarity with computing and the problems they faced. My target group was older users, mostly seventy and above.

Not one made it through the list of tasks, and most didn’t manage more than four or five. It was the most profoundly influential moment of my scholarly life – an epiphany that underscored just how bad someone can be at judging the reasonable skill level of others. It wasn’t that they were wrong, it was that I was wrong.

Wingspan reminds me a lot of that incident because it feels like a game making the same mistake. It assumes an awful lot of people that just love birds, and yet it doesn’t ask an awful lot of those that just love games. It falls into an awkward gap where I’m not sure it succeeds at really delivering on the promise it has demonstrated with regard to connecting two otherwise disparate groups. It has certainly generated an intense amount of admiration and attention but I find myself wondering just how much of that is converting into meaningful play. I hope I’m wrong, because I’d love to see more games follow this pattern of bursting into the mainstream as a result of creative theming. I suspect though the majority of non-gamers that buy the game are going to spend a couple of mystified hours trying to make it sing before putting it back on the shelf as a curio.

And that’s a big problem because it has the potential to do this hobby a lot of harm. There is a chance the first exposure people have is to a game like this results in sufficient discomfort as to put them off for life. I don’t want to extrapolate too far from my own experience here, but I do have concerns,

Let’s say though that people work past that quirk of its pitching and actually learn the game well enough to play it competently. Or let’s say you’re just interested in playing a neat game, not necessarily indulging your secret avian affections. In that circumstance Wingspan is – well. It’s good. Wingspan is a good game.

Eggs on cards in Wingspan

But also it’s not something I’d say was particularly good enough to really stand out. While it comes with an entire aviary of gorgeous birds, they’re not particularly varied. The set of available powers across the cards is actually quite small. Hunting birds gather prey based on the wingspan of random cards drawn from the deck, and all that changes between them is the threshold your freebies need to cross. Other birds with hunting powers will get food tokens on dice rolls, and all that changes is the target die-face for which you’re aiming. The specifics of birds with regards to nest types, egg capacities and such add another layer to what you’re doing but it’s a bit like waking up to the dawn chorus. Sure, the specifics are all unique but it’s still a very predictable experience once it’s happened a few times. It feels like the engine you construct in Wingspan is made of Lego bricks – certainly fun to build but made up of a selection of very limited parts. In a game like Terraforming Mars you’ll often come away feeling clever at the interactions you have coupled together. In Wingspan you don’t often get those opportunities to really admire the sophistication of your own inventiveness. You mostly end up building capacity rather than interactions. You might engineer the circumstances to get four bits of food in an action versus five. There’s not a lot that allows you to parlay those food elements into increasingly exciting and interesting chains of action. Instead you can just… feed more birds. The pacing of the game then feels a little flat – every round you get more, but that more never feels different.

And truthfully I wouldn’t expect anything else given the pitch of the design but it does underscore the odd dichotomy at the heart of a game like this. It’s a little too interesting for many of the people that love birds, and not quite interesting enough for many of the people that love systems. It falls into a half-way house where everyone involved has to be willing to compromise a little in the hope that they’ll find common-ground through mutual dissatisfaction. Depending on where you stand in that divide, Wingspan has a high risk of feeling either deeply unfamiliar or uncomfortably over-familiar. A lot of what makes Wingspan especially distinctive, in other words, is plumage. The bones of the game somewhat on the hollow side.

That said though, I am delighted to see Wingspan flying off the shelves in the way it is. If anything was going to shake this hobby out of the commercial complacency of identikit theming, it would be a blockbuster success like this. It shows the benefits that can come from exploring less well trodden territory from the higher vantage point provided by greater insight.