Elizabeth Hargrave
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10 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

So, you build engines from shiny, new metal parts? That would make you a mechanic or an engineer. You build them from bits of old engine? A game show candidate, maybe? Engines from bamboo and coconuts, you say? Why, hello there, Gilligan. You build engines from birds? Then… um… I don’t know… I guess you’re about to receive an angry visit from PETA, if not the police. You’re also a peerless genius of a mad scientist. Or you might just be playing Wingspan, an engine building game by Elizabeth Hargrave and this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres winner.

Just flap your wings – How to fly play Wingspan

Like I said above, Wingspan is an engine building game. Resource management also plays an important role, but that’s it. This is not one of those games mixing many mechanisms together. Wingspan does those two things and it does them well. As is generally the fun of engine building games, creating a well-oiled engine chugging to victory is a challenge. However, the basic rules you use to get there are quite simple indeed.

You could almost say that the most complex part of Wingspan is picking your initial resources. You get one piece each of the five types of food – invertebrates, seed, fish, fruit, and rodents – five bird cards, and two bonus cards. Bonus cards are simple, you keep one of the two. Of the other two types of resource you keep a total of five. If you want to keep four birds you can only have one food token, or vice versa, or any other combination that adds up to five.

A game of Wingspan then lasts four rounds. On the first rounds, the players take turns until everyone took eight actions. On the second round it’s seven actions, then six, and finally five. There are only four basic options what you do with those actions, and three of them are basically the same.

Let’s start with the one that is different, though. For an action you can play a bird card from your hand. To do that you have to pay food tokens matching the birds preference. The bird goes to the first free space in one of its matching habitats: Forest, Grassland, or Wetlands. If this is the first card in that habitat there are no additional costs, later cards cost one or two eggs in addition to the bird’s food cost. If the bird card has an immediate effect you trigger it now.

Placing a bird card in a habitat does not trigger the other birds in that habitat or the habitat’s action. I want to point that out specifically because it was the most frequent misunderstanding in our test games. Placing a card is one action. Activating a habitat and its birds is the other three, one action per habitat.

Activating a habitat works the same for all three. You start with the first free space in that habitat and take the action printed on that space. Then you move right to left through the birds there and activate the effect of each bird, in the order you encounter them.

The habitats’ action all give you resources, a different type per habitat and more the more birds are already there. The forests lets you take one, two, or three dice from the bird feeder, the prettiest dice tower I’ve ever seen. For each dice you take a matching food token. The grasslands give you two, three or four eggs. Unlike other resources, eggs can only be kept on your bird cards, and each card has a different limit how many eggs can be in that bird’s nest. Finally, the wetlands let you draw bird cards, the only way to get more of those.

Birds, when activated, have all kinds of different effects. Many let you take additional resources, which is always nice. Other birds form flocks, meaning that every time you activate them you may tuck another card under that bird, usually from your hand. Each card in the birds flock is worth a point at game’s end. Yet other birds hunt and collect food tokens on their card, also worth a point. A healthy mix of birds that score points, birds that give you resources, and some specialists to tie things together, is the engine that produces your victory points.

A third, rarer kind of bird with a red effect text triggers outside of your own turn when one of your opponents takes the specified action. These effects can only trigger once between your turns, but they give you free stuff. Unless, of course, your opponents don’t take the triggering actions. Denying opponents their actions is even nicer than getting free stuff. Those reactive abilities are nice, but on the whole they had less impact on our games than you might think.

Getting back to those victory points, though. We all like winning games, after all. We already talked about food tokens and flocked cards as a source of points. Eggs on bird cards are worth a point a piece as well. The birds themselves have a value, too. Each bird card has a number of points printed on. And then come the interesting things.

First, there are end of round goals. For each round you draw a scoring tile at the start of the game, awarding points for having eggs in the right kind of nest, or in the right habitat. In the peaceful variant of the game you get points for each of those things that you have. The more competitive variant awards points by majorities.

Finally, remember those bonus cards? You got one at the start of the game, and some birds give you more as the game progresses. They all give you bonus points for collecting the right kind of bird. Birds with big wingspans, birds with small wingspans, birds living in the wetlands, birds with place names in their names, birds with colors in their names, and so on.

And after you add up all those sources of points you have a winner. A grand master bird collector. The birdiest man or woman alive.

I’m learning to fly – Our Verdict

Since we were talking about points, why not keep talking about points. The famous “different ways to win” works extremely well in Wingspan. You can score many points from round goals and bonus cards, but you can also ignore them completely and score your points from valuable birds and their flocks and prey. Any combination of scoring mechanisms can help you win the game if you build the right engine for it.

Building the right engine is, of course, the point of Wingspan, and it’s very, very rewarding. The bird abilities are quite simple, and there are only three types of resources in Wingspan, but building a working engine still requires a good plan, and that makes it fun to do.

What is less fun in some games is that you might not get the cards your engine needs. There are 170 bird cards in the box, and in your average game you’ll see less than half of them. Your engine might be off to a great start, you know that there are cards that would work great with it, but they just don’t come up. That is, admittedly, pretty rare because the bird abilities are pretty simple and you can usually work with what you get. But whole games without any abilities to get extra eggs have happened, and they’re annoying when you started your engine to score big points from having many, many eggs. Like I said, though, it’s rare that a lack of fitting cards leaves you stranded.

Speaking of getting the right cards, there is one little detail in Wingspan that I wish more games would adopt: The bonus cards all show the percentage of bird cards that match the bonus goal. You don’t have to play a couple of times to get a feeling for those goals. Still doesn’t mean you’ll actually see those 20% of cards you want, but you know how many there are in theory.

Talking about those cards: The bird cards in Wingspan are some of the prettiest game components I’ve ever seen. Every single card has a illustration of its bird, lovingly painted by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. Those cards are gorgeous, and as a bonus each card shows an actual North American bird in its natural beauty. Those cards alone would make Wingspan a winner in the component category. Then you add the bird feeder dice tower and all those eggs and you have a very pretty game.

Wingspan has it all. A healthy level of strategy, tempered by enough luck to make it family friendly, highest grade components, and a lot of fun to play. The one thing it doesn’t have an abundance of is interaction. There are the cards triggering outside your turn, and watching which cards and food dice your opponents are likely to need is generally helpful, but mostly you’re busy building your own engine. And that’s okay, because that’s exactly what is satisfying about Wingspan.

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