Wingspan

Designed by: Elizabeth Hargrave
Published by: Stonemaier Games

A few weeks ago, Wingspan was everywhere. It had permeated the board game social sphere. Facebook, Reddit, Instagram–you couldn’t scroll too far without hitting yet another Wingspan post. Everyone was playing it. And anyone who doesn’t have it right now it is trying to get it. Even at my weekly game night, it’s sometimes hitting two tables a night. The designer, Elizabeth Hargrave, was even featured in a New York Times article about the game.

I have no doubt that once 2019 is over, Wingspan will have been the biggest game of the year. But will it have been the best?

When I first saw that stunning box cover, I was ready to fall in love. And then setting it up–handling those soft, pastel eggs, constructing that beautiful birdhouse, and rolling those chunky dice–only sealed the deal. It was a GORGEOUS production with flawless art and components (well, nearly flawless–that flimsy goal board feels like a last-minute addition).

All of this–the quality production, the unique theme, plus the Stonemaier brand–set the bar high. Really high.

And then, I played it. And it was . . . fine.

There were birds. Birds are cool. There was engine-building. Engine-building is cool. I really couldn’t say anything bad about it. I had a good time playing it.

But…not a great time. And in this cult-of-the-new, collector’s era, when I have hundreds of other board games sitting behind me wanting to be played, good isn’t really good enough.

So after my first few plays (once with five players and once with two), I had decided: I was going to write a negative review. This game is a load of hype, a beautiful but ultimately empty shell, an okay game.

And then, I played it again. And then a few more times. And something happened then that I wasn’t expecting. I wanted to play it. I was craving it. Something about this game beyond the pretty set dressing was calling me back. There was some depth there that I hadn’t seen in the first few plays.

I had wanted it to be as deep as a game I had heard it compared to, Terraforming Mars, and it just wasn’t. And that’s okay. The depth that is in this game is turning out to be really fun to explore. In each game, I’m searching out those perfect cards to play together, spending the first three rounds fleshing out my engine, and then running it as much as possible in that last round. It’s addictive.

And when you can set up a combo–for instance, playing a bird that gains you a food token right next to one that allows you to discard that food token to tuck two cards (that’s two points)–it’s the best feeling. And since I’ve far from mastered this game (sheepishly, I’ll admit that I’ve only won once), I feel a drive to come back to it. And there are so many cards in the base game that each time I do, it’s going to feel different and my strategy is going to have to adapt to what’s available.

A huge perk is that this game is very easy to learn and to teach. The four possible actions are clearly printed on the player mats with easy-to-understand iconography. The game also comes with a separate appendix that explains how each card works (why can’t every game do this?). It flows pretty well with very little end-of-round cleanup, and at 45-70 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

What I’ve discovered is that Wingspan sings at four players. With five it drags a little, especially if you’ve built a row of cards that you just plan on running over and over during the last round. It can get a little tiresome to wait for play to go all the way around the table just so that you can do the same thing you did the last three turns. And then with two players (as well as with solo), the card row doesn’t get taken from as much, leaving strategy limited. Four players seems to be the sweet spot. I haven’t played at three yet, but I suspect it works just as well.

It’s also worth noting that this game was created almost entirely by women: a female designer, three female illustrators, and a female graphic designer. Hopefully soon this will be something so common that it won’t be worthy of note, but for right now, this is a rare and beautiful thing to see.

Wingspan and I have had a complicated relationship. It was love-at-first-sight, followed by a couple of bad dates, some disappointment and resentment, followed by a growing respect and eventually, yes, true love. Will it last? Maybe not. But I’m living in the moment and loving it.


Cathy Bock Written by:

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