Engine-Building Board Game for Bird Enthusiasts Takes Flight at Your Table
Wingspan is a competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game. This innovative, ornithological-themed game is published by Stonemaier Games, designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, with art by Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel.
You are bird enthusiasts—researchers, bird watchers, ornithologists, and collectors—seeking to discover and attract the best birds to your network of wildlife preserves. Each bird extends a chain of powerful combinations in one of your habitats (actions). These habitats focus on several key aspects of growth:
- Gain food tokens via custom dice in a birdfeeder dice tower
- Lay eggs using egg miniatures in a variety of colors
- Draw from hundreds of unique bird cards and play them
The winner is the player with the most points accumulated from birds, bonus cards, end-of-round goals, eggs, cached food, and tucked birds.
Wingspan is played over 4 rounds. During each round, players take turns placing their action cubes until each player has used all of their available supply. Then players will tally points to determine the winner.
Each player receives a player mat with 8 action cubes, 5 random bird cards, and 5 food tokens (1 of each type). Players will decide which of the bird cards to keep. Keep in mind these cards are not free. For each bird card they keep, they must discard 1 food token.
Players also receive 2 random bonus cards. They will choose 1 bonus card to keep, and discard the other. It is recommended to look at the combinations of the bonus cards, bird cards in hand, and the 3 bird cards face up in the tray when selecting which ones to keep. (The game footprint will have a tray with 3 face-up cards alongside the draw deck. Players always have the option to choose one of the face-up cards or one from the deck when they are drawing new cards.)
Players also have the option to keep their hand of cards, including their bonus card(s), private or public throughout the game.
The Anatomy of the Bird Card
The symbols in the upper left corner indicate the habitat in which the bird can live, and their food requirements. Some birds may live in one or more habitat, and the player can decide in which habitat to play the bird. The food requirements are the cost to play a bird—invertebrate, seed, fish, fruit, or rodent. If a bird has a wild icon, the player can use any of the 5 types of food for it. Additionally, players may spend any 2 food tokens as if they are any 1 food token.
The point value is the number next to the feather icon printed under the card. Under that are the nest type and egg capacity. The nest icons are important for end-of-round goals and bonus cards. Star nests are wild and can match any other nest type for goals and bonus cards. Each nest also has an egg capacity. A bird card can never hold more than this number of eggs. Any excess of eggs beyond this limit is lost. Eggs are part of the cost of playing bird cards. Additionally, each egg on a bird’s card at the end of the game is worth 1 point.
On the right side of the card, under the bird, is the wingspan measurement. The wingspan of each bird is used for comparison for some bird abilities and bonuses.
Birds may also have a power, which falls into one of three categories:
- When Activated – These powers may be activated from right to left whenever you use the corresponding habitat. These powers include caching (storing a food token on a bird), tucking cards (which represent the creation of a flock), and predation (catching smaller birds and tucking their cards).
- When Played – These powers may be activated only when a bird is played, and will not trigger again at any time after playing the bird.
- Once Between Turns – These powers may be triggered on opponents’ turns. Players can only use a pink power once between each of their own turns (if an opponent triggers it).
Wingspan is a card-driven, engine-building board game, where players build up a system for generating points, resources, money, etc. Engines typically become more efficient as the game progresses.
On their turn, each player will take 1 of 4 actions:
- Play a bird from their hand
- Gain food and activate forest bird powers
- Lay eggs and activate grassland bird powers
- Draw bird cards and activate wetland bird powers. Players always have the option to choose one of the face-up cards or one from the deck when they are drawing new cards.
A player may play a bird card from their hard only, placing the bird card on their player mat on the leftmost exposed slot in one of its matching habitats. They will discard the number of eggs from bird cards equal to the number of eggs shown in the column that they are placing the bird. They pay the food cost, when applicable, returning the food tokens to the supply. Also, if the bird has a “when played” power, activate it.
The Gain Food, Lay Eggs, and Draw Bird Cards actions follow the same 3-step process. The player will gain food tokens, gain eggs, or draw cards equal to the corresponding number of icons in the leftmost exposed slot if that habitat. In some columns, each habitat has the option to discard extra resources for additional food, eggs, or cards. Next, the player moves from right to left across the habitat, triggering any of the “When Activated” bird powers they want to.
As players increase the capacity of each of their habitats, the engine builds more powerful actions. More resources are available, and more activation powers are triggered.
When all players have placed all of their action cubes, the round is over. Collect all action cubes from the player mats, and score the end-of-round goals. Players will use 1 of their action cubes to mark their score on the end-of-round goal. As a result, they will have 1 fewer action cube to use each consecutive round. This makes the engine-building even more significant, as there will be fewer opportunities each round to take actions.
End of Game Scoring
At the end of 4 rounds, points are tallied. From their player mat, each player will receive the point value of each bird card played, 1 point per egg, 1 point per cached food, and 1 point per tucked card. In addition, end of round bonus points and points from the individual bonus cards are added to the scores. The bird enthusiast with the most points wins!
Wingspan contains an Automa variant for solo play. The Automa is designed by David J. Studley, with Morten Monrad Pedersen, Lines J. Hutter, Jan Schröder & Nick Shaw. (The Automa is Stonemaier Games’ artificial opponent, first introduced in the game Viticulture.) When playing against the Automa, players will always follow the multiplayer rules. The Automa’s actions and scoring will have some variance.
The Automa does not work off of a player mat, collecting food tokens, placing birds in habitats, or benefiting from bird powers. Instead, the Automa will collect bird cards face up (scoring the point value of the card) or face down (representing tucked cards). They also collect eggs, worth one point each. They also receive one Bonus Card, which will be used for end-of-round goal scoring.
The Automa’s actions are dictated by the Automa deck. On the Automa’s turn, draw a card from the Automa deck. Use the icon on the card that lines up with the current round, ignoring the actions in the other three sections. Actions include: draw cards, play a bird, lay eggs, gain food, place end-of-round cube, remove end-of-round cube, and activate pink powers.
When the Automa draws cards, all face-up bird cards in the tray are discarded and placed in the Automa’s supply. These cards are worth 3, 4 or 5 points each for the Automa at the end of the game (based on the level of difficulty that you select). Playing a bird will remove any of the face-up cards in the tray that match the icon on the Automa’s bonus card (if any). The Automa keeps the one with the highest point value, earning them the card’s printed point value. Laying eggs earns the Automa the indicated number of egg tokens, worth 1 point each. Gaining food removes all of the dice from the birdfeeder with the indicated face icon. Adding and removing end-of-round cubes will count towards calculating the end-of-round bonus. Activating pink powers is activating the “Once Between Turns” action on the birds on your playmat.
At the end of 4 rounds, tally points for yourself and the Automa, and see who wins!
I have to admit, this Automa variant is tough! Even with the lower value for the “tucked” cards, I often lose against the Automa. Badly.
In a pinch, the Automa is a fun way to play when it’s just me. The Automa cards do a good job of cycling out the cards and resources, much like playing against a real player. Stonemaier Games does a fantastic job with the Automa variants of all of their games. But I definitely prefer the player interaction that comes with playing with actual people.
My Overall Impression
The ornithological theme integrates well with the game mechanics, which I find fascinating. I am a “backyard birder” myself, so I am very familiar with birds and their behaviors. It’s very interesting to see a bird come out that I see in my yard all the time. And I’m the bird nerd that has to tell everyone about it.
The actions that some of the birds take correspond with their natural behaviors. When you play a Barred Owl, reveal the top card of the bird deck. If the wingspan of the bird on the card is less than 75cm, tuck it under the card. This represents a predation action. Another bird, the Brown-Headed Cowbird, will lay eggs on other birds’ nests. In nature, Cowbirds lay eggs in other birds’ nests, often breaking or pushing out the host birds’ eggs.
The player interaction is minimal. Most of the action takes place on the individuals’ player mats. There are times that another player’s actions will trigger an event on your player mat, like a predation action leaving scraps for a scavenger bird. Other times, a player may take a bird that you have been eyeing from the face-up cards before you can get to it. But other than that, there isn’t much interaction between the players.
The game is not overly complex. When it is all out on the table, it might look somewhat intimidating to a novice gamer (unless they are too busy playing with the eggs). But once the game starts, and a few actions are under their belt, it is rather intuitive.
Let’s talk about these components! This game is gorgeous. Not only are the components attractive, they are very well made. The attention to detail in the production is impeccable.
There are 170 bird cards; each is unique. That is 170 birds! The bird information comes from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, and books from The Sibley Guides series by David Allen Sibley. The accuracy of the data makes this an educational, yet still very fun, game.
The cards are average weight. It might be best to sleeve them for frequent play, because you are going to want to keep this game nice and pristine for its lifetime.
Wingspan also includes a 2-piece Game Trayz custom tray. This card tray is also themed appropriately for the game, and is very functional. Not only does it display the cards during gameplay, but it is perfect for storage. All of the 170 bird cards fit, along with the bonus cards, Automa cards, and even a few other tidbits like the first-player token and the goal tiles.
Player Mat and Action Cubes
Each player receives a player mat that resembles a folio. It folds in half with printing on both sides. The gorgeous, colorful artwork carries from the bird cards to the player mat. Even the sets of player action cubes are pleasant colors, not the typical bold primary colors of most games.
Dice and Dice Tower
The dice are natural wood, and the corresponding food tokens are cardboard punch-outs, but there are already adorable character meeples available at MeepleSource.com.
The egg miniatures are plastic, and attractive pastel colors. They will hold up to multiple plays, as long as no one tries to eat them… they totally resemble Cadbury mini eggs.
And let’s face it, the birdhouse dice tower is the centerpiece of the game. It’s easy to put together (though it also comes apart a little too easy), fun to use, and downright adorable. Rolling those nice wooden dice down the dice tower is a highlight of the game.
End of Round Goal Mat and First Player Marker
So, these two components are probably my least favorite items in the game. (And, to be honest, they really aren’t that bad.) The end of round goal mat is a simple piece of cardstock, printed on both sides. One side has the basic goals with spaces for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The other side tracks points for quantity of the targeted item, scoring 1 point per item. As previously mentioned, at the end of each round, one player marker is removed from play to track the end-of-round bonus. This gives players one less action in the following round. That part is cool. I just find the quality of the component to be a little flimsy. I can see this piece of cardstock getting dropped, or stuck between two of the rule books, only to fall out and get damaged accidentally.
And for a game that is so beautiful in every other aspect, I find this first player token to be kind of boring. It is just a round piece of cardboard with the bird from the cover art. I am sure that we will see several aftermarket options popping up that are way more exciting.
Y’all, even the rulebooks for this game are fancy. Yes, I said “rulebooks”… plural. There are 3 of them! And these rulebooks are nice. Aside from being visually appealing, as the artwork from the game carries through to their pages, they are informative. And with 3 books to choose from, there is a rulebook that is fitting for everyone’s needs.
One rulebook covers solo play with the rules for playing the Automa. The main rulebook covers the in-depth gameplay. The Appendix has a Quick Reference that summarizes the gameplay in one page, followed by in-depth descriptions of the end-of-round goals, bonus cards, and bird powers. It is an excellent reference to have on hand during gameplay.
Finally, I must recognize the quality of the physical rulebooks. They are printed on a nice linen paper stock, which Jamey Stegmaier has said that is to eliminate glare from overhead lighting when reading the rules. How thoughtful!
Other Miscellaneous Components
The thoughtful creators of Wingspan also included a handy scorepad for tallying scores at the end of the game. These will eventually run out, so I am hoping that it will eventually be replaced with a scoring app (whether it be official or fan-made).
The game also comes with 4 clear plastic resource containers from Stonemaier. These bins fit perfectly when set up on their side. There is even a diagram on the box that shows the perfect configuration of the contents in the box for optimal storage.
Not a leaf unturned. They thought of everything!
Wingspan is one of the hottest games of 2019, and there is no doubt why. In fact, it recently took over the #1 spot on the Top 10 hottest board games of February 2019. (According to Chaz Marler’s YouTube video, which tracks the titles that are generating the most traffic & discussion on the Board Game Geek website over the last 30 days.) And that is saying a lot for a game that doesn’t have an official release until March.
So far, I don’t have any issue with the replayability value. By the time I do, I’m fairly confident that an expansion will come along to freshen it up. There has already been discussion about new bird cards. The majority of the birds in the base game are North American species. There is a great opportunity to include many more bird species from other continents, much to the delight of the international audience.
I’ve played this game with different groups of gamers of varying experience levels. Everyone loves this game. Pretty much every gaming session there was someone looking up information on how to order it, before we even finish the game. And I think that says a lot.
Definitely give Wingspan a try. I think there will be a select group that will insist on trying it. And another group that may not initially have an attraction towards it, but will try it because everyone else does. But I do think that everyone will at least enjoy their play, if not downright love it.
- Release Date: March 8, 2019
- MSRP: $55.00
- Playing Time: 40-70 minutes
- Age Range: 10+
- Player Count: 1-5