Reviewed by Herb Levy
WINGSPAN (Stonemaier Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 40-70 minutes; $55)
One of the glories of nature is the abundance of different species that populate our planet. In this new game designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, players focus on one of the most beautiful – birds – as they seek to attract those that will best enhance their network of wildlife preserves. This is Wingspan.
The heart of the game is the deck of 170 bird cards. Each card shows a beautiful picture of a bird and contains a ton of information: its type of nest, how many eggs it can hold, what food it eats, which habitat(s) it lives in, a Victory Point value and, often, a “power” when activated. This deck is shuffled with 3 cards placed face up (on the enclosed tray). In addition to a player board, 8 action cubes in their chosen color and 1 of each of the five food types (invertebrate/green, seed/tan, fish/blue, fruit/red and rodent/gray), all players are dealt a hand of five of these bird cards. A player may keep any or all of the bird cards dealt but must pay 1 food to supply for each card kept. Two random bonus cards are also dealt to everyone with one kept and the other discarded. Five large six-sided dice depicting the various foods (one face shows the invertebrate AND seed) are rolled into the birdfeeder dice tower (a cardboard contraption that you put together).
The game consists of four rounds and four (of the double-sided) goal tiles are randomly placed on the goal board. These tiles will reward players with Victory Points based on how well they meet these goals (number of birds in a particular habitat, eggs in a specific type of nest etc.). VPs come from other sources as well. (More on that later.) The first player is randomly chosen and the game begins.
Each person has their own player mat and these mats are divided into 3 habitats (forest, grasslands and wetlands) with five spaces for each as well as a top strip. Not only does this serve as the setting for your play but acts as a play aid reminding you of the four actions available on a turn: Play a Card. Gain Food, Lay Eggs and Draw Bird cards.
Playing a card means placing a bird on your mat in the matching habitat (row) found on the bird’s card. The card must be placed in the leftmost open spot. (Some birds can live in more than one habitat. In that case, the choice is up to you.) An action cube is placed at the very top of the column in which the bird will be placed. You have to return the necessary food requirements to supply and, depending on how far across the row the bird is placed, spend an egg or two. If the card has a power that says “When Played”, that power may be used. (Many cards have brown “powers” and pink “powers”. They do NOT get activated at this time.) The action cube then shifts to the far left of the row, ending your turn.
Food is gained by placing an action cube on the leftmost exposed space in the forest row. The space shows one or more food dice. That number of dice is removed from the birdfeeder with the appropriate food taken from supply. (With the invertebrate/seed die, you only get ONE type of food, not both!) Some spaces give the option of discarding a card from your hand for another food die but that is totally at your discretion. If you need to take food but all dice in the birdfeeder show the same icon, you may roll ALL FIVE dice before choosing.
Eggs are important as they are required to get more birds (cards) into your habitat so, by placing an action cube in the leftmost open space on the middle Lay Eggs row, players will receive 2 or more eggs. These eggs may be placed in any bird’s nest, up to each bird’s limit. (The types of nests can figure into the scoring. There are four types of nests: platform, bowl, cavity and ground. A star icon indicates a “Wild” and will match any requirement for goals, bonus cards and/or bird powers.) As in nature, bird eggs come in many colors but, for game purposes, all eggs are the same.
Finally, you can draw cards. Again, an action cube is placed in the leftmost open space and cards taken. Cards may be drawn from the open display or from the top of the bird deck. (Sometimes, you have the option of handing in an egg to draw an additional card.) There is no hand limit.
When done gathering food, laying eggs or drawing cards, then, from right to left, birds with powers highlighted in brown may be activated! (Some birds has powers highlighted in pink. These powers only come into play, once per round, when OTHER players take the specified action.) Your turn ends by moving your action cube to the leftmost area of that row.
When all action cubes have been used, that round is over. Points earned for reaching the goal of the round are noted by using one of your action cubes on the goal card. So, you end with having one fewer action to take each round. At the end of the fourth round, all of the points from your scoring in each of these rounds is totalled. But that’s not all! VPs come from other sources too!
Some of the brown powers found on bird cards give you the possibility of caching a food token on the card. (This involves rolling the food dice NOT in the birdfeeder and hoping for a match!) These food tokens may not be used to feed birds. Instead, at the end of the game, each cached food is worth 1 VP. In a similar fashion, some powers allow players to tuck a card underneath a bird card. Each tucked card is worth 1 VP at final scoring too. Now, points from meeting goals, bonus cards, VPs earned from bird cards on your mat, points for cached food and tucked cards are added. The player with the highest combined total of points wins!
The focus of Wingspan is building and sustaining an engine of birds and their associated bird “powers”. There is some luck, of course, what with rolling the food dice to get the necessary nutrients, drawing the “right” bonus card etc. but luck can be mitigated. For example, if the food dice don’t roll your way, you can always swap 2 food tokens of any type for the 1 food token you need. And the goals of all four rounds are known from the start so you can shape strategy right from the beginning.
It’s tempting to think of Wingspan as a multiplayer solitaire (a solo mode of play is provided) but that’s not quite true. Interaction here is understated in several different ways.
The pink powers of birds only come into play when ANOTHER player does a specific action. Since actions are always optional, you need to consider how much an action is worth to you versus what it is worth to someone else. Also, food is essential to filling your habitats with birds, a major source of Victory Points. Choosing when to get food from the birdfeeder (leaving multiple types available so that a player following you may have a more difficult time getting the precise type of food needed) is a question of timing that can affect the best plans of an opponent.
Graphic quality of the game is outstanding. The beauty of the birds depicted on the cards is breathtaking – and it doesn’t hurt that you can learn about these creatures while you play. (Some brown powers, for instance, display icons to show that the bird is a predator and so on.) Eggs have a flat bottom making placement easy. (No rolling around!) The birdfeeder breaks down easily to fit into the box (but it would have been nice to exchange the cardboard for a more durable plastic). Four plastic “bowls” come with the game. You can toss the eggs in them or mix up the food. We separate the food into these holders (using the cover of one to hold the fifth food type) making it easier to grab the resources when needed rather than rummaging around in a mix.
Wingspan is a juggling act between having enough eggs to hatch more birds, drawing the birds you can feed, getting the food needed to feed them and meeting the goals of each round – and it works! Elizabeth Hargrave has devised an extremely elegant design, one that challenges you every step of the way – and you might even learn something too! Wingspan soars! – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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