Board Game review: Wingspan

For a very long time I didn’t really care for board games. I liked some of them as a kid, but in general I wasn’t really exposed to them and so naturally didn’t actually care much for their existence. At some point I picked up Magic: The Gathering which is amazing, but I didn’t really explore past it. Then I met Marieka. My girlfriend’s family plays a LOT of board games. Everyone in that family seems to have some level of love for tabletops and each of her 3 siblings own many many of their own favourites to play. So it was a bit surprising! But by this point I’d already been playing Magic for years so I had a pretty good understanding of the various elements as I entered into this world.

So let’s talk about ’em! I want to talk about one I played recently over Christmas

Wingspan is an “Engine building game” where your objective is to breed, feed, and obtain new birds. So already you might be thinking this game isn’t for you based purely on the concept of doing science with birds. I picked it up because the person I was buying it for is REALLY into birds (she did her masters thesis on birds) and also because the art on the box was really beautiful (Look at those watercolours!). It ran me about $70 which is pricey but also pretty normal for a board game.

What is an engine building game? Well the actual gameplay boils down to setting up your board in a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption fashion. If you’ve done it right, each action you take will cascade into another action and net you a lot of points. Thats the simplest way I can describe it. You might just have to see it happening to understand.

So is it good?

Yeah! It’s a pretty fun game! The art is really beautiful, and the board pieces are well made. The cards which have the birds on them (there’s like 500 birds y’all) are all illustrated and actually have scientifically accurate stats on them! Including wingspan (middle right, above the blue egg), number of eggs (middle left behind the pink egg), nest type, and habitat. This is really boring information to most, but if you’re a huge dork like me, or you’re playing with a literal bird scientist like me, it really elevates the game to another level.

The actual gameplay is super engaging and rewards you for careful planning in advance, but random factors keep things interesting.

One element I noticed was lacking from Wingspan was the nonexistence of “attack” type cards. Which for me is a huge plus. What I mean is there aren’t any ways for you to actively go after another player like many other board games. I don’t hate attacks in board games, but I think unless the game is centered around purposefully bringing down your opponents, effects like this are often only fun for the person doing them, and actively unfun for everyone else. There are ways for you to interact with the other players in Wingspan, such as birds of prey and other cards which care about turns outside your own, but rather than setting the opponent back, they put you forward. Good stuff!

One thing which isn’t great about Wingspan however is the complexity. Complexity in games is good, but those things also have to be intuitive and very clearly worded to avoid confusion. Like most board games, having someone in the room who has played before explain the rules is 100x more effective at learning the rules than trying to decipher the booklet. I did not have that privilege unfortunately, and also unfortunately the instruction booklet is not super well written. Once we had all played through an entire game once I felt like we finally understood the rules, but this is a somewhat long game (upwards of one hour) so that’s not a great point in it’s favour. Luckily for us we had time to play a second time, and the second go was a lot more enjoyable. Basically: This game is not for beginners to tabletops! It’s hard and the instructions aren’t always written in clear and concise language! If you are able to play it with someone who already knows how to play then 100% go for it, otherwise I recommend allotting yourself a lot of time for this one. Save it for a trip to a cabin or something.