Wingspan is the hottest new board game of 2019, already getting mainstream media attention right at its release to retail, which is just about unprecedented in tabletop. It’s thoroughly deserved by the game’s merits, though. It has a great back story, but that doesn’t get you very far once the game hits the table and people have to play it. Wingspan more than delivers from start to finish, with simple, easy-to-learn mechanics, a scoring setup that offers multiple paths to victory without devolving into point-salad nonsense, gorgeous components, and, most importantly, it’s fun
Created by Elizabeth Hargrave, a public policy analyst by training who enjoys birdwatching as a hobby, Wingspan is a game of ornithological set collection with a truly elegant engine-building mechanic that even younger or newbie players can appreciate. Over the course of four rounds and 26 total actions, players will try to play bird cards to their personal boards, then using actions to gather food and lay eggs, while also meeting various criteria on bird sizes, feeding habits, habitats, or even names to score more points. It’s a great game of options where you will have too many things you want to accomplish and not enough turns to get everything done.
The core mechanic in Wingspan is playing birds, although we quickly started referring to it as “building” birds because that’s just our habit. Each bird has a specific cost in food tokens; there are five types, and birds may require one to three tokens, possibly specific types. A bird card may also restrict to which of the three habitats on your board you may play it. Your board has 15 spaces across those three rows; playing a card to the first column requires no extra cost, but the second and third columns require you to also discard one egg from any bird on your board, and the fourth and fifth require you to discard two eggs. (You can’t make an omelet without… you know the rest.) Some bird cards give you an immediate, one-time bonus when played; some have a pink stripe that give you some benefit when another player does something (e.g., chooses the lay eggs action) between your turns.
Playing a bird costs one action, but you have three other choices for your actions, each tied to one of the habitat rows. The top row allows you to gather one to four food tokens; the middle to lay two to four eggs, and the bottom to draw one to three new bird cards. Those actions become more powerful as you play more bird cards, however, because you place an action cube on the leftmost empty space in that row, and then ‘activate’ any bird card with a brown stripe and action printed on it that sits in the row, moving right to left. Thus selecting and playing bird cards early in the game can bring recurring benefits as the game progresses, and further inform what cards you try to select and play later.
There are six different ways to score points, but they’re all well integrated so it doesn’t feel like you’re constantly chasing chimeras to win. Each bird card has a point value from zero to nine on its face, and you add up all of those figures for birds you’ve played to your board at game-end. Each round has a specific objective that is scored at round’s end; there are two ways to score this but the ‘advanced’ way gives the most points to the player who ranks first in that category and additional points to the players who rank second and third. At the beginning of the game, each player gets two bonus cards—private objectives—that they’ll reveal at game-end, all of which apply to collecting birds that meet certain categories; some fun ones include birds with geographical designations in their names, or birds named after people, while there are also more mundane categories like birds that eat berries or that can only roost in wetlands. Players then add up all food and eggs stored on bird cards and any cards ‘tucked’ under birds (an activation benefit on certain predatory bird cards), scoring one point for each. Add up those six figures and you’ll get the winner, with winning scores for us usually in the 85-95 range.
Wingspan was designed by a woman, and the illustrations—which are immaculate—are also all by women, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel, a very uncommon trait in the male-dominated world of tabletop gaming. Every card in the deck is unique, with a delicate rendering of the bird the card describes, and Hargrave strove to remain scientifically accurate to each species in the details, including those that affect game play like habitat and diet. The rules and appendix also detail some of the ways the game’s details vary from reality, such as the number of eggs a bird might lay.
Stonemaier Games published Wingspan and, as with their previous games Scythe and Charterstone, they’ve included a solo mode using an Automa opponent, a smart dummy player that takes limited turns using a deck of instruction cards and that will rack up a high enough point total to give you a competitive game. The Automa rules are easy to follow and give you a few ways to tweak the difficulty level, although I found I could beat the Automa on max difficulty on my first try (by all of two points).
Setup is mostly quick, although shuffling the 170-card bird deck will take some time unless you have Johnny Bench hands; you don’t have to bother separating the different food types or eggs by color, which saves a ton of time before and after games. The game comes with a fun (if not really that functional) cardboard birdhouse that you use to roll the dice that determine what food is available to players, and with multiple plastic trays for storage and to keep the cards, food tokens, and eggs—which look like tiny Jordan almonds—from getting all over the place. Even the rulebook is well-written and thoughtful, with sidebars that address a lot of obvious questions. There’s enough complexity in Wingspan strategy to satisfy serious gamers, but it’s also approachable and fun enough for rookies; I even played with a few 12-year-olds who seemed to grasp the basics right away. Stonemaier is having trouble keeping this game in stock, and I can see why. It’s a marvel.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.