The Wingspan Franchise Changes the Game

March 28, 2021

A review by Adrienne and Frank Izaguirre

Wingspan (2019), Wingspan European Expansion (2019), Wingspan Digital Edition (2020), Wingspan Oceania Expansion (2020), by Elizabeth Hargrave

Stonemaier Games

Available from Buteo Books: Original, European Expansion, and Oceania Expansion.

Reviewers’ Note: The reviewers thank Bryan Alukonis and Cristine Izaguirre for testing the game with them.

Birds are well represented in nearly all forms of media: books, music, film, even video games. It’s rare for birds to make a big debut in a realm of media in which they weren’t previously portrayed with any amount of prominence, making the stunning, global success of Elizabeth Hargrave’s now franchised boardgame Wingspan all the more exceptional.

Wingspan is a bird-based boardgame playable by up to five people. Players attempt to win by scoring the most points in a variety of ways, but most of all by adding different birds, represented in a deck of cards with 170 birds from the U. S. and Canada, to one of three habitats—forest, grassland, and water—found on each player’s mat. The game is “engine-building,” which means players create an infrastructure that produces points or other useful items as the game goes on. There is also an “automa” version of the game in which a player can play alone against an automated opponent (the computer).

Birders, perhaps more than non-birding gamers, should note that the primary goal of the game is not didactic: Birders shouldn’t really expect to learn a lot about birds as they play—although this might be less true for non-birders, as some have reported. Each bird card features a factoid about the species, but the game requires enough concentration that players might not find they have the time or mental space to peruse the fun facts on each card during a game, which are best enjoyed by flipping through the deck while not playing the game itself. Playing the game is unlikely to improve anyone’s birding skill through passive absorption of knowledge.

But it is fun. You earn as many points as possible through a variety of point-earning activities like playing bird cards, laying eggs, caching food, and so forth, over the course of four rounds, and the player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Each game takes about an hour or more if playing with several other people, although experienced players might be able to get through a match more quickly.

There is something of a learning curve, but after a few playthroughs the mechanics of Wingspan are easy to grasp—and a good tutorial is available at the Wingspan website. Winning sometimes involves an element of luck, as in any card-based game, but coherent strategies and attentiveness to the game’s nuances are usually rewarded. Replayability is high: No two games will be quite the same, and the more familiar with the deck and different strategies a player becomes, the better they’ll be.

The real fun of the game derives from the special attributes of familiar birds. Typically, those special abilities are creative renderings of their own life histories: When activated, the Pileated Woodpecker, a cavity nester, allows all players to lay an egg on a cavity-nesting bird and for the player with the Pileated to lay an additional egg on another cavity-nesting bird, a reference to how other birds sometimes nest in holes created by Pileated Woodpeckers. Birds that frequently flock together with other birds, like the Tufted Titmouse and the Red-eyed Vireo, can be played with another bird in the same turn. Black and Turkey vultures can be played without any food tokens.

One gameplay flaw is that there are few circumstances when players will be incentivized to do anything other than load up on eggs in the fourth round, so that the last few turns of each game can be somewhat predictable. Although it is a pleasure to write the following: Grassland birds are more powerful than forest or water birds. Because loading up on eggs is usually an essential endgame strategy, players who have focused on water or forest birds are sometimes at a disadvantage to grassland-heavy players who can drop four eggs or more per turn. Perhaps it’s all a grand lesson on how important grasslands and grassland birds really are.

The illustrations on the cards—by Ana María Martínez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel—are absolutely wonderful. They are vivid and accurate and do justice to the birds in every conceivable way, something birders will appreciate. The only erratum we have noticed is that the Pine Siskin’s bill looks thick and slightly downcurved like a House Finch, rather than thin and pointy as it should. In addition to the captivating illustrations, the entire game is gorgeous. The board is pretty. The birdfeeder is adorable. The food tokens are cute. The eggs are precious and also look delicious (don’t eat them, though). Like birding, playing Wingspan is a sensory delight—even the sounds of the game are pleasant, like the gentle tumble of the food dice. It’s really true that just looking at the game while set up on your table or floor is a pleasurable experience: The colors complement each other, and there is always something nice to look at. Wingspan is relaxing.

But it is also intense. Players are rewarded for really thinking through their strategies, including careful counting and keeping track of remaining turns and various other variables of the game. Some have criticized the game for having a few overpowered cards that if played early are almost unbeatable—notably the two ravens, Common and Chihuahuan, but also the Killdeer and Franklin’s Gull. These criticisms have some merit but are overstated: These cards are probably the strongest in the game, but a player has to get lucky and play them early, when they are most useful as their abilities can be utilized throughout the game; nevertheless, it’s possible to defeat that player even if they know how to maximize the strength of the card, and that is not always be the case. While the ravens, Killdeer, and Franklin’s Gull are indeed powerful, they don’t ruin the game and aren’t worth taking out of the deck as some have suggested. Anyhow, who would’ve ever guessed the humble Killdeer would elicit such fear?

Some of the bird facts are well known to beginning birders, like how shrikes impale prey to save for later, but some represent genuine learning opportunities for even seasoned birders: These reviewers did not, for instance, know that Swainson’s Hawks feed their young primarily birds and mammals but as adults eat insects almost entirely. Sometimes the way the life histories of birds are translated into cards can be amusing, for instance the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which only requires one unit of any food item to play: One feels a bit devious when playing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by using a fish, rat, or wheat, as if cheating opponents.

Another amusing aspect of the game, at least for these reviewers, is that it can sometimes be almost impossible to resist playing certain bird cards when they end up in your hand (Roseate Spoonbill for us), even when they are not strategically ideal. There’s a comforting similarity to actual birding there: The emotional appeal of certain birds can sometimes override our sense of what the best strategy would be for seeing the most or rarest species. We like what we like.

Interestingly, and as in birding, other living things are present in the game, but as background: Invertebrates, rodents, and fish appear only as food tokens, while plants are also rendered as food tokens as well as static habitats. Birds and only birds are the dynamic stars. Wingspan is like birding in another important way: It is a superb example of how the human mind can make the fascinating and wondrous existence of birds into a game that is absorbing and addictive, funneling our own interest in birds into something that provides endless enjoyment.

The Wingspan Digital Edition, which came out in September 2020, is, it should perhaps first be mentioned, a great stress reliever during pandemic times. The digital version is also about half the cost of the live game. You can play asynchronously or in real time against two other online players, or you can compete with up to four computer AI players. Players can also play an automa version of the game as in the original.

Another fun feature is that users can scroll through the entire deck of cards, allowing them to see not only the bird fact on the back of each card but also allowing them to arrange cards by abilities, food costs, habitats, etc. This is good way to become familiar with not just the deck and each bird’s powers, but also all the interesting factoids.

One particularly enjoyable aspect of the digital version is that birds vocalize whenever you click them as well as in the background once you’ve played the bird. However, the latter aspect somewhat misrepresents some birds like Black Vulture and Loggerhead Shrike, rather quiet birds people don’t often hear, as being vociferous. The game is backgrounded by a soothing soundtrack of five atmospheric songs that are a pleasant mix of acoustic guitar, soft piano melodies, and violin. The bird sounds, regardless of which bird cards you play, mesh well with the music. These tracks can be purchased separately in a “Special Edition” for five dollars more.

The birds also have an animated aspect. Mostly they just arch their heads back and move their wings and tails a bit—it’s fun to see them move as opposed to the static representations on the live game’s cards, but each bird moves basically in the same way, and it’s a little bit of an unnatural movement. The Acorn Woodpecker, however, amusingly seems to be choking on an acorn, while the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher soars magnificently, a fitting animation for the game’s iconic logo.

In the digital version, it’s slightly more difficult to keep an eye on what your opponent is up to because you have to click a few times to see their board and pieces rather than just glance over at them, but otherwise the digital version of the game is just as playable, and in some ways more playable, than the live version. The automation of keeping track of between turns moves help reduce possible distraction or worry, although one might counter that the lack of personal player accountability dulls the game. The digital version is certainly much easier to play quickly because you don't need to set up the board.

A couple of flaws of the digital version are that there is no in-game chat or voice chat, and there are limited options for customizing the games, like setting time limits for turns. Multiplayer occasionally freezes. Perhaps patches will resolve some or all of these issues. There should also be a “hard” mode for the AI computer—it’s fairly easy to beat.

In November 2019, Wingspan European Edition was published. This first expansion includes 81 new cards of European birds, a fair amount of which will also be familiar to ABA Area birders, like the Common Goldeneye and especially the Snowy Owl that graces the box cover, along with others that will feel unfamiliar and intriguing, like the European Roller and Eleonora’s Falcon. There are also exciting new bird powers and game mechanics, for instance how certain powers are activated at the ends of rounds. Another interesting innovation of Wingspan European is that some birds can be played sideways so as to take up two spaces on the board. The European birds can be shuffled into a deck with the original’s birds if desired. This version does not come with new mats, so it’s necessary to have the original game. ABA Area birders might reasonably expect to learn a fair bit about the European avifauna by just playing the game, and they’ll learn even more by flipping through the deck and reading the factoids.

The Wingspan Oceania Edition was published in December 2020, and here the franchise truly expands into new territory. Almost none of the new cards are of birds found in the ABA Area, with just a handful of exceptions like the Black Noddy and Kelp Gull, so for those who haven’t birded Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, or other countries of Oceania, the birds will be exotic and thrilling. We’re talking Australian Owlet-Nightjar, Eastern Rosella, Kākāpō, Splendid Fairywren, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Regent Bowerbird, Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia, just so many fascinating birds, all of them outfitted with new and interesting powers and accompanying factoids.

Unlike the European expansion, this expansion comes with player mats and just about every piece you need, so it can be played without the original—it doesn’t come with a birdfeeder for rolling the dice in, but that’s not an absolutely essential part of the game. The Oceania player mats are similar but slightly different from the original’s, with altered costs and gains for making certain moves. The Oceania expansion includes even more gameplay tweaks than the European expansion, including a new food resource, nectar, which functions in a novel way, adding another twist to this edition while paying homage to the many Australian birds that are nectivorous. Yet another new aspect of the game is end-of-game powers, which allow less reliance on laying eggs in the fourth round. Excess food and bird cards are a little easier to earn points from toward the end of the game, so grassland birds aren’t quite as dominant, and there are several interesting new ways to score points, including some that are more interactive with other players. The Oceania expansion is similar enough to feel familiar, but different enough to require serious study of new potential strategies to be competitive.

Birders and Wingspan afficionados will be thrilled to learn that Hargrave, Stonemaier Games, and the Wingspan franchise are just getting started: There will be a Wingspan for every continent, except presumably Antarctica. Wingspan editions populated by hornbills, tanagers, barbets, toucans, boobooks, pittas, chlorophonias, trogons, and turacos are on the way. And we can only imagine what gameplay innovations these new iterations of Wingspan will include.

The Wingspan franchise is so spectacularly successful that it has changed the global perception of birds forever. It is probably impossible to know how many gamers have become interested in birding owing to Wingspan—it might even be none—but Wingspan has made it abundantly clear to tens of thousands of people that birds are interesting and varied and compelling, more than capable subject-matter for a fun and engaging boardgame. It used to be that birds and birding were a kind of secret, an endlessly enjoyable game that a relatively small amount of people knew about and played. But more and more, as birds and birding find prominent representation in all forms of media, it seems the secret is out, and isn’t that a great thing? Birders and birding are lucky to have a connection to this brilliant and exciting franchise, which has truly changed the game.

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Adrienne Izaguirre is a Ph.D. candidate in English at West Virginia University. Her birding ambitions include doing a "Little Big Day" (seeing as many birds with diminutive names as possible in a single day) and avoiding pelagics unless absolutely necessary. She's become an avid feeder watcher lately thanks to new friend Orito, an overwintering Baltimore Oriole.

Frank Izaguirre is the Book and Media Reviews Editor at Birding magazine and a Ph.D. candidate in English at West Virginia University, where he is dissertating on how field guides have shaped environmental values.