Friday, 6 September 2019


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Wingspan from Stonemaier Games recently won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. When I had the opportunity to give it a go, I grabbed it.

The first thing you notice is how pretty the game is - so many beautiful drawings of birds. This is like an encyclopedia of birds. I can easily imagine some people already wanting to buy it because it is gorgeous. The first icon at the top left of a card is the habitat icon. When you play a card onto your player board, you must play it to the correct habitat row. The icons below that is the diet - the food cost you have to pay to play the card. There are a few other icons along the left edge. The feather icon means point value. Below that is the nest type. The number of egg icons tell you how many eggs the card can hold.

This is your player board. A game is played over 4 rounds. In Round 1, you get 8 actions, represented by the 8 cubes. In subsequent rounds, you get fewer actions, but your actions will (should) become stronger. You start the game with one each of the five food types - the round tokens along the top. The 15 spaces on the board are where you may play cards. At each row you must play from left to right. In this game there are only four types of actions. The first one is simply playing a card. The other three are related to the three rows on your board. The first row action is collecting food. The second row is collecting eggs. When you collect eggs, they need to be placed on cards which still have capacity. Eggs are needed for playing cards and they are also worth 1VP each at game end. The third row action is collecting cards.

At the centre of the table there are always three face-up bird cards for you to pick from. If you don't like any of them, you can blind draw from any draw deck. The eggs come in many colours, but the colours don't mean anything. They are just pretty to look at. The dice tower is in the shape of a bird feeder. At first I thought it was unnecessary. However now I think it does help somewhat. During play, whether a die is in the tray or otherwise matters. So having a tray helps.

The die faces are various food types. Foods are resources you need to spend to play a card.

The rightmost card is a secret objective card (called a bonus card). You get one at the start of the game, and during play you may get more. You score points at game end depending on how well you fulfill the criteria specified. This particular card gives me 2VP per bird card which eats only worms and nothing else.

I have played one card to this row. When I perform the draw bird card action, I refer to the icons in the space immediately to the right of the last card played. The icons in this photo mean draw one bird card, then if you spend an egg, you may draw another one.

Cards with a brown bar give you some extra benefit whenever you perform the associated action. Using this photo above as an example, if you perform the gain food action, you first gain two food (because of the two dice icons), then you gain the brown bar benefit of the rightmost card, and you work leftwards resolving all the brown bar benefits.

The game is played over four rounds. Every round there is a round-end scoring based on a different criterion. The criteria are randomly determined at the start of the game. At this point in the game we had completed Round 1, and its round-end scoring had been completed. Our action cubes were placed here to mark how much we scored, and also to reduce our actions for the next round. The criterion for Round 1 was a specific nest type. Whoever had the most such nests (and these nests must have at least one egg in them to count) would score the first place bonus. The criterion for Round 2 was having water bird cards in play.

Some cards let you bury other cards under them. Such buried cards are worth 1VP each at game end.

The Play

Wingspan is an engine-building game. Playing cards improves your engine. Your three other actions - gaining food, gaining eggs and gaining cards - help you play more cards to further improve your engine. So there's a cycle going on. You feel progress. You get a sense of achievement. While building your engine, you plan how to most effectively score points. There are many ways to do so. Eggs are points. Birds played are worth points. Your secret objective cards give you points. Every round there are round-end points to fight for. Some cards give you extra ways to earn points.

At the start of the game you draw five cards, and they affect your strategy, at least in the early game. You also get five food, one of each type. Of you five starting cards, you need to decide which ones to discard. Every card you keep incurs the cost of one food. If you keep all, you won't have any food left. Your starting hand and your starting secret objective set a direction for you. During the game, how your opponents play will affect your strategy. The cards that come up in the common pool will also affect your decisions. You will take advantage of tactical situations. You want to grab opportunities that come up, e.g. a food you need turns up in the dice tower (well, bird feeder), or a bird you want turns up in the card pool.

There is little direct player interaction, and no direct aggression. You can grab food which you know your opponents need. You can grab birds they want. You can compete viciously for the round-end bonuses. You can minimise performing actions which trigger their birds' powers. However, generally this is a peaceful game. If you prefer games with direct attacks, you may find this one a little multiplayer solitaire-ish. After all people are building their own engines and don't get to interfere with others' engines much.

In the game we played, I spent much effort on my two secret objective cards - the starting one and one more which I drew early in the game. I almost always picked cards which helped in fulfilling these secret objectives. One thing I realised only at game end was many of my birds were high-valued. I hadn't consciously pursued such a strategy. It just happened. In the early game, Jeff played a card which could generate free eggs. This helped him tremendously throughout the game. He had an egg empire. He saved many lay egg actions. Ivan had one card which let him bury other cards under it. He used it profusely and scored many points there.

What I will remember most about Wingspan is not the pretty pictures, or the solid game mechanism. What I will remember most are the juvenile jokes we told all night long playing this game. We were a group of grossly over-aged boys that night. All these inappropriate jokes of course started because of the most important action in the game - playing a bird (card). "Are you going to play your bird?", "I'm done playing my bird, your turn now", "a bird with two eggs", "the key is not the birds, but the eggs" (Jeff won because of his huge number of eggs). That evening we were all primary school kids again laughing at the same silly jokes over and over. The joke which cracked me up the most was actually a serious question from Dennis, "Jeff, does this game have solo rules?". Immediately after this was blurted out, the other four dirty minds at the table came to the same interpretation and everyone started laughing. "Yes, of course you can play this solo" was the answer. On a more serious note, the game does actually come with solo rules. You play against an Automa and try outscore it.

When you want to gain food, you can only get what is available in the dice tray. You take the food, and remove the corresponding die from the tray. When there is only one food type remaining, you may choose to reroll all dice before picking a food.

It is good to take cards with brown bars early in the game, because you will have more opportunities to use their powers.

We did a 5-player game. I developed my board in an even manner, progressing at each row more or less evenly. Jeff on the right took a completely different approach. His bottom row was completely filled by now, but this middle row was still untouched. This was because he had a bird which gave him free eggs. So there was no urgency at all to improve his lay egg action.

This was my board at game end. There is food on some cards. When a card allows you to stockpile food, such food is worth 1VP per piece at game end. This is similar to cards being tucked beneath, and eggs. Two of the cards have pink bars. These powers are triggered on other players' turns. Someone does something specific, you get some specific benefit.

The Thoughts

Wingspan is a well-deserved winner of the KdJ. It is eye-catching. The topic is unique. Production quality and production design are top-notch. Game mechanism is decent. It is a medium-weight game. It is a pleasant experience, even without the juvenile jokes.

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