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What Makes Wingspan Great?

(Or, Anatomy of a Game: Wingspan)

Obviously, Wingspan is both one of the most controversial and hottest games of 2019. I wrote about the controversy some months ago, discussing how its production decisions were pretty typical, despite the conspiracy theories that some people were spinning. But, because of the game’s scarcity, I wasn’t able to actually give it a try until this week, which now allows me to talk about its hotness.

Your birds are ready for watching.

I should say that I’m usually somewhat biased against a game when it achieves HOTNESS, because I find it increasingly likely that the emperor has no clothes. And even if the emperor has attractive lavender threads, I figure they won’t be as beautiful as what I’ve imagined in my head. Sometimes the hotness does turn out to be a terrific game like Terraforming Mars, but it’s equally possible that it’ll be a deeply flawed release like Caylus (and I’ll talk more about why I think that in a future column).

But in the case of Wingspan, I’m thrilled to say that it holds up to the hype. Here’s how I think it ended up a terrific game.

The Theming

Honestly, I was unthrilled by the bird theming of Wingspan when I first heard about it. I mean, how can playing birds in their habitats compete with venturing into dungeons, fighting killer diseases, and turning cubes into cards? And, I was wrong, because it turns out that bird theming is one of the best parts of the game.

That’s in part because the components are great. There are 170 different bird cards, and every single one of them has beautiful, unique artwork. There’s a reason that bird-watching is popular: it lets you view some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. And Wingspan translates that existing joy into the world of board games.

Oh, and Wingspan has cool pastel eggs too. (And a nice dice tower, and great quality dice, and is overall a high quality production.)

A bird-feeder dice tower; and a pretty utilitarian goal sheet.

But Wingspan’s theming also excels because of designer Elizabeth Hargrave’s superb adaptation of the theme to her game. We’re well, well past the point where it’s acceptable to release a eurogame where you push red, green, black, and blue bits around a board, but Wingspan goes even beyond the present day’s medium-level euro-theming. As part of its strong theming, WIngspan’s birds feel like they have appropriate powers. There are scavenger birds and predatory birds and migratory birds and cuckoos and many others, and they all do things that feel right.

(And I should note that the bird theme, less exciting to me than the fantasy, science fiction, and history that I tend to play, might have made the game more approachable to the masses, and thus more popular for that reason alone, when personally thought it made it less sellable.)

The Mechanics

On its face, Wingspan is a fairly typical resource-management game. You have three resources: bird cards, eggs, and food. One action generates each of the three resources, then a fourth action allows the play of bird cards, at the cost of food and (sometimes) egg cards. That’s a very simplistic formula, albeit one with a lot of variability (and thus replayability) because of the vast array of different birds. But, the game manages to be a lot more than that, through a tight design and a lot of nuances.

Generally, I find that eurogames (and especially resource-management eurogames) come in one of two sorts. In the first sort, you line yourself up with a very long strategic plan, and every turn you engage in the next small step of the plan, moving ever onward. In the second sort, you have a lot of things that you could do simultaneously, and you have to constantly decide which to do next. In many ways, it’s the question of strategy vs. tactics.

Wingspan manages to end up over on the tactical side of the equation in part because players are constantly choosing between multiple good choices and in part because some of your decisions are time-sensitive. Both of these designs are accomplished in large part through goals: players have to decide between earning points from those goals and building their bird engine, and they also have to decide if it’s worth meeting goals before their deadlines expire. So that’s the tight design: any game where you want to do everything at once and are angsting over the things you can’t do tends to be a good one.

The nuances of the game tend to focus on the action system. It’s a clever system where you place your birds onto your action tracks, and by doing so improve those action tracks in two different ways. First, the action gets stronger the more birds you have on that track (a “habitat”). Second, some of those birds also contribute their own special powers every time you take the associated action. The ability to juice an action over time is a fairly standard strategic element of action-selection games, but the ability to also add in unique abilities by linking the game’s action selection with its tableau building is much more unique. I always applaud the option for player creativity in games, and think that allowing players to creatively build out their own action sets in this way is likely another element that makes WIngspan just plain fun to play.

Constructing my second-place tableau.

Finally, this all dovetails into Wingspan’s well considered game flow. The game plays very quickly at the start, as players engage in lots of simple actions. But, over the course of the game, players pay out their action tokens to accomplish end-round goals. That means that at the end of the game they’re engaging in fewer but more complex actions. There’s many a game where turns just get longer and more convoluted over the course of the game: consider the short and simple early turns of Terraforming Mars and its long and complex late turns. The fact that Wingspan figured out an elegant and organic way to manage the balance of its turns, resulting in a game flow that leaves you wanting more at the end rather than being exhausted and done, is a crucial design accomplishment.

The Production

The production of WIngspan also deserves a bit of note, not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s at least a cut above the already strong production of most eurogames.

That starts with the cards, which do a great job of making a lot of different information easily available, using a combination of words and icons. Some nuances like the color-coding of the different types of card actions (for effects that happen immediately, on other players’ turns, or when activated) are quiet triumphs that improve the play of the game. The most unique design element is probably one found on the bonus cards: each one clearly tells the player which percentage of cards will accomplish the goal, taking guessing (and “rules mastery”) out of the goal selection process.

Another good, but quiet production element is Wingspan’s use of cubes to designate actions. They ensure that each player remembers to take their actions and can be used to later walk back and see what the did. But the use of the cubes on the action spaces is particularly powerful: a player places his cube on the leftmost empty space on his action row, then walks it from right to left along all of his birds, ensuring that he never forgets an action, even when he has a large list of them, late in the game.

Though each of these production elements is a small one, they’re also the sort of things that most developers don’t think of when releasing a game, yet they definitely make Wingspan better, by removing the frustration of things like misunderstood goals and forgotten actions.

The Luck

All that goes to say that Wingspan is a good game. A very good game, really. And Stonemaier has some great infrastructure for publishing and releasing games. But even if you’ve got a great game, there’s always some luck involved in its success too: it’s got to catch peoples’ eyes and attention and it’s got to have just the right content for the gaming gestalt at that time.

Wingspan somehow attracted that attention, which transforms a very good game into a great release. And though I’m sure that the game’s accidental scarcity hurt sales, it certainly kept it in the public eye as well.

This all goes to say that not every great game actually ends up one of the hottest releases of the year: Wingspan was not just good, but lucky too.

The Flaws

No game is perfect, and I think Wingspan has a few minor flaws.

Even with its careful attention to production details, it’s still quite possible for players to miss actions: primarily those bonus, bird-fueled actions on the habitat spaces. (But I’m not sure what else could have been done: the use of the action cubes to guide this is excellent.)

And, I feel like the game gets a little math-y in the last turn or two, when you have to calculate the precise returns of your various actions, because the longer turn proposition of building a tableau engine is now gone.

Conclusion

So in 50 words or less, what makes Wingspan a great game?

In my opinion, it’s the combination of: an approachable theme that’s tightly integrated into the gameplay; variable play that makes every game (and even every player’s game) feel different; and an innovative action structure that lets the game play quickly early on, but which ensures it doesn’t bog down as complexity increases.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples