This week, our Creative Strategist Ryan McGuire continues to champion the nerd renaissance, as board games take center stage in our hunt for stimulation. Here’s his review of Wingspan: a competitive board game where you look at and learn about birds, removing yet another reason for anyone to go outside.
This is Wingspan.
As a verifiable nerd, not going outside is my strong suit… but even I’m getting a little bored.
So I’m just going to keep playing Wingspan. Even before the pandemic, I was canceling plans to stay in and have just one more match. Friends? What are those? I only have Wingspan opponents.
In this world of social distancing, I’m even more appreciative of the incredible games and entertainment we have available to us that are helping those of us privileged enough to have them get through this thing. So here’s a review!
A few things I love about this game, before I even start talking about the game:
- Wingspan was designed by Elizabeth Hargrave. Unfortunately, in the board game space, it’s still notable when a game is designed by a woman. My hope is that Wingspan goes a long way towards changing that.
- Wingspan was illustrated by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel – all badass women, again, and all displayed proudly on the front of the box.
- Those illustrations are gorgeous. One drawing of a barn owl took 20 hours to illustrate. Bear in mind, there are over 180 different bird cards in the game, all with their own painstakingly detailed artwork. Half the fun of the game is seeing all the various cute, cool, or silly birds that you can choose from.
So, yes, the game is super nice to look at. That’s helped significantly by the quality of the components; over 180 bird cards printed on extremely high-quality paper, multiple storage solutions for all the cute eggs and food tokens, and a dice tower that looks like a bird feeder.
But is it good? The short version is that – context and cuteness aside – it’s the best board game I’ve ever played. From a game design perspective, it’s almost flawless. Players win by having the most points from a variety of sources, but mostly notably from their bird cards. You’ll spend your turns taking food, laying eggs, finding new bird cards, and ‘playing’ those bird cards on your mat. Each bird costs a certain amount of food and eggs to play, and by the end of a game, you’ll have a menagerie of avian allies, all giving you different bonuses and contributing different amounts of points to your total.
Wingspan is cute as heck, but make no mistake: every match will come down to the wire, and things can get intense. Some randomness is involved, as you can’t just pick what birds you want out of the whole deck, but skill and strategy prevail. You’ll have a little sweat on your brow, but you’ll also have learned something.
Did I mention this game was educational? It is. I’ve never learned so much about birds in my life. The powers and attributes of each bird card abstractly represents their behavior in real life: scavengers, like the Turkey Vulture, can give you the power to take a food token whenever a rival does, while chaffinches interact with your other cards to represent how they flock with multiple other species of bird. That’s actually why male chaffinches are referred to as ‘bachelor birds’, as males of the species join huge flocks and just fly around having a laugh. Did you know that? I didn’t, until I played Wingspan. Every single bird has a fact about the real-life animal on the card.
As a fun game to play with one other person, Wingspan is amazing, and will take approximately 60 minutes to get through including setup. In groups of 4, it’s a blissful balance of casual fun and heady strategy, but in a world of social distancing, that might have to wait. But guess what? You can play by yourself, thanks to a deck of ‘artificial intelligence’ cards that come with the game, each with rules for how your ‘opponent’ should behave in different scenarios. You might think playing a board game by yourself is low on your list of priorities; so did I… until Wingspan. I’ve played more than 20 games and I can’t wait for the next one. (Even if I have to play it alone.)