For the love of owlies, our review of Wingspan

Updated: Apr 10

Players: 1-5 Ages: 10+ Game Time: 40-70 mins


I'm normally the 'silent' partner of DoaLG, but this game has owlies, so I couldn't resist.


Wingspan won the Kennerspiel 2019 when it was first introduced in dead-tree format by Stonemaier Games, now it has been transformed into a delightful digital form by Monster Couch. Having not played the physical version, this is a review of the Steam edition.


Originally designed by nature-loving Elizabeth Hargrave, Wingspan is an engine-building game with an ornithological theme. It can be enjoyed as a single player against an AI, or up to five-player. As two-player, I found it could be played within a lunch hour, but play time will vary based on the number of players and their familiarity with the game.


Gameplay

The game is played over four rounds. To win, (and be the best birder) you will need to earn the most victory points. VP are gained in various ways: played birds, laid eggs, cached food, tucked cards, bonus cards, and end-of-round achievements.

A frustration for me is that at times the end of round achievements fall badly making them practically impossible, but I guess that is also part of the challenge.

At the start of the game you chose a bonus card from the two you have been dealt, along with a total of five unique components between one of each food resource and the initial five bird cards you have been dealt. The first round consists of eight turns, marked by an action cube, with one fewer action cube every round as these get committed to the end of round achievements. So chose your actions/strategy wisely to be victorious!


You each recruit birds into your preserve across three habitats. Each habitat has five different slots; to play birds in the more powerful slots you will also need to spend eggs. As you play more birds into habitat its action becomes more powerful:

  • Forest - gain food for your hungry birdies from the birdfeeder to be able to play them. By rolling the food dice in the birdfeeder you form the available food pool, this is refreshed by rerolling when either the birdfeeder is empty or optionally when all dice show the same face.

  • Grassland - lay eggs to play additional birds in the habitats, as well as being useful for bird abilities

  • Wetland - to draw more bird cards

When you activate a habitat slot for its ability, the action cube moves to the left and activates all birds with a 'when activated' power that are in that habitat. So as you play more birds, you build your engine making actions more powerful as the game goes on, which can lead to some cunning chains of effects.

It is great fun trying to build powerful combinations of birds, but some are borderline broken. No spoilers here though, it's up to you to discover them!

Like real birds, each has their own unique characteristics and requirements, based on a combination of different card components:

  • Habitat: Birds can only be played in a suitable habitat, which is shown in the top left of the bird card. Some are restricted to one area and can range to being able to be played anywhere.

  • Food: Each bird has its own food cost to be played. Beware, some are hungrier than others, but are often worth the food spend to gain their powerful ability. Some less fussy birds have wild food icons, for which you can meet the food cost from any food item.

  • Victory point score: Symbolised by a feather symbol and a number, is for end-of-game scoring, ranging between 0 and 9.

  • Nest type: Each bird has a nest icon from one of the five different types: cavity, platform, ground, bowl, and wild.

  • Wingspan: From tiny hummingbirds to the giant California Condor, each bird has its own wingspan, used for goals and tucking abilities.

  • Ability: Most birds have an optional ability of one of three types: when activated (most common), once between turns, and when played.

  • Egg slots: Each bird has a limited capacity for holding eggs. Each egg remaining in your preserve at the end of the game scores 1 victory point,

I also enjoy that as the game progresses you have to be more choosy about your actions

One criticism I have is that it can feel like multiple solitaire as you are limited in ways to be able to stop or interact with your opponent(s). Examples of competitive moves include taking the precious food they needed to feed their bird, or taking a bird that matches their bonus card, but it doesn't really feel like you are stopping them and you might harm your own chances of victory in the meantime.


Production

The production quality of the game is outstanding. The music by award-winning music composer Paweł Górniak is stunning. Uplifting and relaxing, I'd quite happily listen to it all day... and frequently do (when I'm not listening to Hamilton or The Greatest Showman). I love that each bird is individually animated and has bird call sounds provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is also educational as each bird card features an interesting fact.


The game runs smoothly without too much handholding or clickety click click, and is beautifully designed and illustrated throughout matching the theme of the game really well. It's lovely that you can personalise your avatar (you'll not be surprised to learn that I always choose the owlie...), as well as being able to chose between the beautifully illustrated game backgrounds.


The in-game tutorial comfortably readies you for your first playthrough and I love the undo function, which personally I wish could be an option on all games. It means that you can change your mind when you realise a better move before you commit to it.


There was one annoyance for me that the in-hand card selection can be a bit (excuse the pun) twitchy, meaning that you can spend ages just trying to look at or select a bird, but that's more a question of sensitivity than a bug. In fact so far in my many playthroughs I've yet to find a single bug, which I wish was true for all Steam games.

It's also fantastic that it's available on Mac as well as PC, as I can often find that Mac is a bit neglected by Steam since not many people game on a Mac.

Playing a local game on the same device can be challenging as unless you deliberately avert or close your eyes when your opponent is playing; you lose an element of secrecy as you can see their birds in hand and bonus card(s). This somewhat changes the gameplay compared to the dead-tree version as it takes away some of the detective element of trying to work out what bonus they are striving for, which can take away a feeling of tactical risk because you can now just overtly take something you know they want.



Conclusion

Overall this game is brilliant; it has loads of replayability with the various random elements and is easy to pick up. The production quality is outstanding with beautiful artwork and an incredible soundtrack that I would pay for by itself.

I also find it wonderfully educational with all the individual bird facts.

The one thing I feel that lets it down and means it's a 5 rather