The great thing about being a board game geek in this day and age is that anything can be a board game.
Now we have bird watching.
Players take on the role of bird enthusiasts of all kinds, be they researchers, ornithologists, watchers or collectors. In Wingspan, you’re seeking to discover, attract and breed the best birds in your network of wildlife preserves.
Wingspan is similar in weight to Viticulture, and like Viticulture it is largely driven by cards, as opposed to actions on a shared board. Like Scythe before it, Wingspan is an engine-building game.
Players take it in turns taking actions on their player mat. These actions can allow you to draw more bird cards, acquire different kinds of bird feed, and lay eggs. All with the purpose of generating a sub-economy for you to make future actions more efficient and profitable.
As you add bird cards to your player mat, the birds themselves grant additional abilities and resources to the action they’re associated with. What makes this portion of the game especially interesting is that due to the order in which actions are resolved, you’re required to think far ahead in order to set up the most efficient engine.
In terms of strategy, Wingspan is different to Stonemaier’s other games due to the sheer volume of unique bird cards, the order in which you play them, and where you play them on your player mat.
With several hundred unique bird cards, all with their own lavish illustrations and unique abilities, Wingspan presents a competitive euro-style game with a very peaceful theme. As huge fan of Scythe, I’m a sucker for an engine-building game, and the gameplay in Wingspan looks like some of the most satisfying engine-building I’ve seen.
I spoke with Jamey Stegmaier, co-founder of Stonemaier, about the development of Wingspan.
‘The designer, Elizabeth Hargrave, started working on Wingspan back in 2016.’ Stegmaier said. ‘I first saw it at GenCon that summer. At the time, she had a lot of unique bird cards, and the main goal of the game was the race to play a certain number of birds and then have the most points at the end.’
Game development is an interesting beast, and one that most consumers of games are often only peripherally aware of. Most people assume that the end-product that you enjoy on your gaming table was always there, and perhaps at most a group of people did a bit of playtesting to balance. But with all games, Wingspan included, ideas evolve and change throughout the process.
‘There was no progression,’ Stegmaier went on. ‘No engine-building, and no player mats. So over the next two years, we worked to add those elements through trial and error.’
Stonemaier games trend toward a more euro-style gameplay, but they have at times had western influences. As the developer on Wingspan, Stegmaier’s job was to make sure the game was fun, intuitive, and as balanced as possible. This included the overall feel and interactivity between players.
‘While there are elements of chance in Wingspan, like when birds hunt for food -or hunt other birds-, there were certain “western” influences that I actually tried to pull out of the game, like attacking other players’ birds or stealing their stuff.’
What Wingspan became was a very smooth and satisfying engine-building game. It employs familiar card-buying and tableau-building mechanics, and couples them with progression that both reduces your total number of actions and increases the complexity of your turns as the game goes on.
‘There are a few things we try to do in all of our games,’ Stegmaier said, ‘and these are reflected in Wingspan. We try to focus on smooth flow, (turns flow seamlessly from one to the next without phases, or upkeep). We try to give players a strong sense of progression- you should feel much more powerful at the end of one of our games than at the beginning.’
Wingspan may sound like a lot on the surface, but the mechanics and overall gameplay is startlingly intuitive. Like most good games, Wingspan requires you only understand a few basic principles, and the core mechanics expand with your knowledge of the game as it progresses.
‘Sometimes games are really difficult to teach- they end up feeling like a learning game for players, and the teacher can’t really play because they’re so focused on keeping everyone on track.’ Stegmaier said. ‘Wingspan isn’t like that. There’s very little you need to explain before diving into the game, and most players fully grasp the rules after the first round.’
The replayability of a game like Wingspan is through the roof. Even still, while the game hasn’t yet released, the team at Stonemaier have plenty of plans for its future.
‘The current plan for Wingspan is to release expansions focussing on different regions of the world.’ Stegmaier said of the game’s future. ‘The core game focuses on North American birds, so we hope to venture into Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and Europe in the future.’
‘As for other Stonemaier titles,’ he said, ‘the Euphoria expansion has been announced, the Scythe modular board is in production, and we’re working on a number of other projects that we haven’t revealed yet.’
I personally cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Wingspan to kick-start my delayed obsession with birds.
The initial print run of this game is limited, so be sure to run down to your local Good Games store and reserve your copy!