Taking flight with the Wingspan board game

I’m so out of touch with what’s hot and new in board gaming these days. I’d like to blame it on a lack of free time, and while that’s certainly a contributing culprit, it’s also a deliberate effort to not pay attention to the hobby. As mentioned in the post preceding this one, I like to keep tabs on various hobbiest communities, staying abreast of what’s exciting in each little world, but with board gaming that can have a real impact on my bank account. If I watch a video about a cool new board game, it’s hard to resist wanting to go get a copy of my own while ignoring the scolding sounds coming from my massive, tragically neglected collection.

Another board game lure I’ve had to learn to avoid (the hard way) is that niche, enthusiast-themed games are rarely very good. You would like them to be good; you fool yourself into believing that your love of that other thing will—by transitive properties—make this board game good. That’s rarely the case. For instance, there are a couple geocaching-themed board games, but I’ve yet to encounter any that truly capture the spirit of geocaching, while also having solid, fun, or unique game mechanics. There are hundreds, if not thousands of board games with pasted-on themes, but there’s something extra disappointing when the ill-applied theme is something that especially appeals to you.  

The board game Wingspan had managed to bubble its way up into my periphery despite my efforts to ignore the latest news and my aforementioned aversion to enthusiast-themed games. A board game heavily themed about birds that apparently was an actual, good game? It was designed by someone who lives in my area? Oof, that would be hard to resist.

Thankfully it was easy to ignore (for a time) because upon looking up Wingspan, I saw its hefty price tag. Now unavailable in most locally-owned board game stores, it’s being ruthlessly sold in some places for well over $100– it was around $65 that the first time I researched it. An allegedly good game it may be, but I have a hard time spending that kind of money on a game these days. 

Nevertheless, at winter holiday time my family banded together to share the costs of buying Wingspan for me. They are too kind. Suddenly, this game I had deliberately written off as out of reach was now in my home.

Wingspan board game

It’s clear from the beginning why Wingspan costs so much money: it’s packed with finely-manufactured components and board game luxuries. To start, the game includes a whole dice tower designed to look like a bird house. For the unfamiliar, a dice tower is a little device that you dump dice into ensuring a thorough and fair roll. It’s a decadent item to include, for rolling the game’s six dice by hand would be absolutely fine without the tower.

Wingspan board game's dice tower
Uh, wine glass for reference.

Wingspan includes a lot of these extravagances, another example being one of the game’s currencies: eggs. Little pleasantly-tactile eggs in multiple colors are supplied when one color or even cardboard tokens would have been totally acceptable.

Wingspan board game's eggs and food tokens

This will read as an indictment and in some ways it is, but as you spend more time with Wingspan you come to understand it’s all part of a board game designer’s dream realized. The sheer care and thought put into the game is astounding. For one, a separate packet of cards and instructions are included in the box, intended for a group of players who want to jump into Wingspan, but no one at the table has played before, and thereby can explain the rules; this packet streamlines the startup process. There’s a whole solitaire set with its own rule book and special cards. The game comes with little token, egg, and card storage trays. Wingspan was made by someone who knows what it’s like to actually *play* board games. Someone who’s had those “it would be awesome if games did X” conversations around a game table, but Elizabeth Hargrave, Wingspan’s designer, actually followed through.

Importantly, the actual game of Wingspan is solid. I’ve not played many games that hold themselves accountable for their theme as well as Wingspan does. I’ll avoid a lengthy dive into the game’s play, but in short, Wingspan is about building your game board into a points-scoring engine primarily by collecting and installing bird cards. Each card represents a unique North American species, and each species comes with a special ability that interacts with the game in some unusual way. The extent that these special abilities manage to reflect the character of their birds is awe-inspiring. Some predator birds can “kill” other cards and the vulture, for instance, gains points every time one of those kills occurs; mimicking their scavenger existence. Every card comes with a fun fact about that bird and a little world map marking their continent. These are wholly unnecessary details, but again a testament to how much care was put into the design of the game.

Wingspan board game's Loggerhead Shrike card
Check out the flavor text on the Loggerhead Shrike. I love this little monster.

I’ll gladly sing Wingspan’s praises, but for everything perfect about the game, there’s something not quite right with the game board layout. It’s hard to explain exactly, especially if you haven’t played Wingspan yet, but the way the board communicates how new bird cards are to be played, and how egg costs heighten as you play additional cards isn’t clear as it should be. 

When I was first teaching myself the game I had to reread the game’s manual a few times and ended up turning to a few tutorial videos when I still struggled to wrap my head around the game’s flow. Having now taught the game multiple times to new players, seeing their same confusion gave me a sense of relief that I wasn’t entirely being dense. The game is not actually very complicated, but the board itself doesn’t communicate a player’s available actions very well.

Wingspan board game

The game board’s “play a bird card” section needs more prominence. The scaling costs of playing those cards needs to be better represented. Bird card activation only happening when you take one of the bottom three actions needs to be better explained. In a conversation with a graphic designer friend who had the same complaints, she posited that “they received the background art from the illustrator first; the designer saw that there wasn’t enough space at the top, but had to make it work, and this was the best solution they could come up with.” I think between that and predetermined box size limitations, it sounds like a very likely scenario.

I think Wingspan is that “let your impulsive friend buy a copy, then go over to their house to play” kind of board game. It’s a fantastic game and I look forward to each time we take it out, but I can’t feel good about telling someone to pay all that money. In a fantasy world it would be lovely if a second version was printed, one with its extravagances stripped away and an affordable, good game made available to a wider audience.

Even so, clearly Elizabeth Hargrave knows what she’s doing as Wingspan is a love letter to board gaming and is sold out everywhere, so what the heck do I even know. Thanks to my generous family I have a copy and you can be darned sure I’ll be buying the Wingspan European Expansion, even though expansions are another one of those board gaming landmines I’ve supposedly sworn to avoid. My gaming shelf at home shall shake its angry fist at me once more.