Wingspan is the latest modern board game hit to find itself taking flight in a digital form on Steam. We recently previewed Root, another example of this trend, but where Root is a war game directly focused on attacking and defeating your enemies, Wingspan is a far calmer experience.
In Wingspan, players take the role of ornithologists and bird experts, looking to attract different species of birds into their personal habitats. In game terms, this means drawing and playing bird cards into your tableau to earn points and benefit from their abilities. In order to do this, you’ll need to collect food resources for your birds to eat, as well as having them lay eggs that are traded in to attract even more birds.
While that might not be the sexiest explanation of a game’s mechanics – and I wouldn’t blame you for wondering what Wingspan even has to offer if you haven’t played the physical implementation – it’s a game that is more than the sum of its parts. This is particularly evident in the sights and sounds of Wingspan, which really draw you into this awe-inspiring aviary.
The art through the game has an amazing watercolour style, but there are subtle animations that really bring it to life. Whether it’s the gentle swaying of the grass or a Warbler softly twittering, these little details do a lot of heavy lifting with such minimal motion. In spite of this beauty, the user interface can get a little cluttered, especially when trying to figure out how well your opponents are doing.
This is only a small complaint, though, as the lovely artwork on display is often worth the minor inconvenience. This beauty is also accompanied by a serene soundtrack of soft piano and tranquil strings that feels more like a spa experience than anything. There are even narrated bird names and facts about each species that play when a bird is slotted into one of your habitats – what more could you ask for?
Of course, visuals alone didn’t get Wingspan’s physical game to the top 20 of BoardGameGeek’s IMDB-style ranking, nor did it land them the top spot on BGG’s Family games list; Wingspan is a great game in its own right.
Each of the three habitats that you can place birds into (Forest, Grasslands, Wetlands) is tied to one of the three main actions you can take on your turn. This creates an incredible symbiosis as every bird you collect increases the power of that habitat’s action, which makes it easier to play more birds in turn.
Pretty soon, you’ll have an explosion of cards and resources, but Wingspan also has a brilliant flow to it; you’ll have four rounds to build your birdy engine, and by the final round it will be truly singing. Each subsequent round is slightly shorter than the last, though, which leads to a wonderful power balance as you’re fighting to build the best engine you can before time runs out.
Every game will have a moment where your priorities need to shift from making your engine better to focusing on the points that will win you the game, and figuring out exactly when that moment is can become a fascinating puzzle in itself. Each round also has a bonus objective to score you additional points, with two variations of play that can increase or decrease player interaction as you see fit.
The flip side of the decreasing round length, however, is that games of Wingspan can end just as you feel like you’re hitting your stride. This seems to be prevalent in the “Euro” style of board games, possibly to keep you coming back time and time again to try and achieve that perfect game that’s always just out of reach. While this pattern of ending a game just before it feels complete does allow savvy players to capitalise on a good start, it can also mean bad starts leave you adrift from the pack.
The digital adaptation of Wingspan mitigates this with the ability to end games at will and swiftly jump straight into another one. Having multiple AI difficulties also helps, but the two multiplayer options will provide the real challenge; Real Time mode gives you a limit of five minutes per turn – far more than you’ll usually need – while Asynchronous gives everyone a leisurely 24 hours to complete their turn.
This really capitalizes on the turn-based nature of Wingspan, and while I don’t see myself playing long asynchronous games online, I think this is the perfect option for an older generation of gamer. Many of us have parents and relatives that enjoy playing Scrabble or Chess online, and if they have even a passing interest in birds or nature, then Wingspan might just be the perfect holiday gift for them.