One of my favourites: Wingspan
By: Mark Leonard Kaneko
Since buying, playing and enjoying Wingspan I’ve noticed that a lot of the professional reviews don’t really love it whilst user reviews rave about it. I think I know why; you have to play this game at least twice.
The first playthrough for me was my first time playing an engine builder and was really a chance to learn. It helped that I was playing with someone who was pretty competent at it and I could see them putting together a good collection of birds. I realised too late what I wanted to do in different phases of the game and finished feeling slightly frustrated. Having seen the example of the experienced play and having learned from seeing the birds I had in my hand, my second game was far, far more satisfying and the start of a long love affair, which endures.
Getting the game home and opening the box you quickly realise how beautiful this game is and how much attention to detail has gone into the production of it. With a lot of pretty games, you find a lot of stuff which, whilst lovely and all, don’t add much to the gameplay. With Wingspan this isn’t the case. The birdfeeder tower is a neat solution to rolling and separating the dice in the food availability mechanic, the eggs are tactile and easily stored on cards and everything feels like it’s well made. The real treat though are the cards. The artwork on the individual bird cards is fantastic and occasionally distracting as you might want to add a bird to your collection just because it’s so pretty, even if its powers don’t particularly fit with your sanctuary design. One thing that became abundantly clear as I looked at these beautiful cards was that I wanted them to stay that way. Before we even played a game of it I had jumped back in the car and grabbed a couple of bags of card sleeves. Definitely worth the investment.
I won’t go into the gameplay too much other than to say it’s an engine builder based on a bird sanctuary where the birds each have a power creating the components of your points building engine. You spend a lot of time focusing on what you are building in your own personal sanctuary in this game and so competition is not super intense. That doesn’t mean communication is limited, just that you aren’t at each other’s throats the whole time. There are multiple strategies to building your bird engine and so far, after about 30 play-throughs, I have only experimented with 3 or 4. There are whole groups of cards which I have yet to work out how to get into my strategy, so the game has plenty of scope to keep you interested. Despite these varied strategies, the game is very well balanced. Players of a similar skill level will generally find themselves within 5 - 10 points of each other by the end of the game meaning that the decision you made to sacrifice a few points to take a risk on that new bird back in round two really makes a difference to the outcome.
This game plays wonderfully with any number from 2 to 5 players. Even the 1 player variant (I generally hate 1 player games) is quite playable. My only gripe was that no New Zealand birds were featured, however, I connected with the game designer online and they tell me that they will be releasing continent specific bird cards expansions and the first one, europe, will be in stores late November. They have also listened to feedback and have sought to offer even more strategies in the end game where experienced player found themselves with fewer options.
Speaking of the online community around this game, after being on their facebook page for a short while I realised how successful the game had been at gaining interest from people outside of the normal board gaming communities. One commenter (a more traditional board gamer) was rather exasperated by people not just strictly talking about gameplay and mechanics but also posting lots of photos of their favourite local/endangered/exotic birds that they like to see in the game (or that just looked cool). I found this community interaction refreshing, inclusive and generally more appealing, adding to my enjoyment of the game as a whole.
I played this game twice last night, will probably play it tonight and will continue to play it for many years to come. I can’t recommend it enough.