Review: Wingspan

29 Dec 2020

It was only after my play of Wingspan that I realized the game was actually an adaptation of an existing board game rather than a totally original concept. This is mostly just trivia, though; it changes who was really into birds originally and decided to make a game about them.

So let’s get the basics out of the way. Wingspan is a game about birds. It is ostensibly about building a wildlife sanctuary of birds, but in practice it’s just about a love of birds. It is, as mentioned, a digital board game and thus bereft of anything that would masquerade as a story. Nor does it spice things up with graphics that aren’t lovingly detailed illustrations of board game pieces or try at all to make the game more energetic or active or anything other than exactly what it purports to be: a digital board game about birds.

With some games, this might be a failing. With Wingspan, it’s an act of supreme and admirable confidence.

Wingspan releases on Nintendo Switch on December 29th and released on Steam on September 17th. The Switch version was played for this review.

Bird Seeds

One of the immediate and excellent aspects of Wingspan is that it has one of the best board game tutorials I’ve seen in recent years. It’s not perfect, but it strikes an excellent balance between giving the player plenty of information without being overwhelming and doing so in a way that feels engaging all the way through. And that’s especially relevant because in many ways, the game is dense… but less in the sense of being too complicated and more in the sense of just having a lot going on.

As mentioned, Wingspan is a game about birds. Supposedly, the goal is to build your own wildlife sanctuary filled with birds in abstracted metaphorical terms, with your opponents each trying to build a more expansive sanctuary than you do. In practice, especially played solo, it’s much more of a very chill experience about putting together elaborate networks of birds.

The game spans three habitats – forest, grasslands, and wetlands – with each habitat having its own distinct function. Wetlands let you draw new cards, forests give you food for your birds, and grasslands let you add eggs that are used to hatch new birds. All well and good. From here, though, things get more complicated. Each habitat has five slots, and as you place a bird you fill the slots from left to right. This both enhances the action you perform in that habitat, so you get more eggs at four filled grasslands slots than at zero, and it also allows you to activate the special powers of the birds located within each habitat.

Yes, every bird has special powers, and most of them are flagged as “when activated.” To use an example, suppose that you had those four grasslands slots filled. Using the grasslands to gain eggs, you would also activate each of the birds in that habitat, starting with the rightmost bird and moving to the left. This covers behavior that you would expect these birds to enact. Some birds store food away. Some are predators and draw a random bird in hopes that it will be small enough to serve as prey. Some let you draw bonus cards or convert food for eggs. There’s a lot of different abilities, in other words.

Playing new birds requires both the bird in your hand (which is worth two in the bush, as you know) and a supply of food and eggs. It’d be wrong to call the game a proper deck-builder; if anything, the closest comparison is to a roguelike, wherein you’re increasingly choosing between your available birds and habitats to make the most impressive setup possible with the time available to you.

The thing is, though… even that comparison falls short, because it implies that there’s a level of pressure which simply isn’t there.

One of the most impressive elements of Wingspan is despite the fact that you are theoretically competing, your enjoyment seems to be much more about building nice chains of birds and enjoying them working together. Some of this is helped by presentation, but much of it is simply the chill and sedate nature of the game. The game lets you simply go right into playing it as often as you want, with the biggest unlocked element being more birds in the gallery as you play them and more saved sanctuaries you can look back through – which in and of itself tells you that the setup is as appealing as anything else.

And again, it’s all explained to you via an intensely good tutorial that slowly walks through everything in a clear and comprehensible fashion. It won’t make you a master of the game, but it will let you walk away feeling like you have a clear picture of what the game wants and how to accomplish it.

Bird Pictures

The graphical presentation on the game is subtle and low-key just like everything else, but that’s part of what works so well. The little bird pictures on the cards have some light moving-picture animation, which should look a bit stiff but gives the animals a little bit of extra character. The habitats are rather lushly rendered as three separate landscapes you can move between, albeit with very light animation. Beyond that, it’s just… the board game, digitized, with plenty of icons all over.

It is immensely calming.

Playing this game post-holidays, it was striking how amazingly chill everything really was, a chance to just lean back and bask in the slow relaxation of the world constructed by the game. Each bird has a quick bit of trivia associated with it and a sound of its call as you play, soothing music plays in the background, the landscapes are saturated but softly colored so they feel calming and relaxing. It feels like nothing so much as recreating the sense of walking through a nice bird sanctuary… which, you know, is the point.

While the UI might look a bit cluttered in screenshots, it’s actually very clean and useful in play. Most of the stuff around the borders remains the same as you page between the habitats, giving you important information at a glance. Similarly, the main play area looks the same at each locale, so what shifts is smaller and easier to read.

It is, as mentioned, a notably calming game. The sort of thing where you can just casually find yourself playing round after round, only to realize it’s been a couple hours and you haven’t really done much. Which, you know, feels like its ultimate goal.

Bird Calls

None of this is to say that the game is perfect, of course. The lack of any story or narrative means that, well, to a certain extent the game is shallow. It’s got a lot going on in play, but not a lot to draw you back in or anything of the sort. Also, it’s a competitive game, and that means playing with certain other people can turn things into a cesspool because some folks just cannot handle competition even in a chill game. Your mileage will vary.

But none of that is to change the fact that this is a very supremely relaxing game.

If you have the right people around you, or are just in the mood for something relaxing? This is an excellent option. Just relax. Settle down for the game. Don’t worry about people who are going to make this into a big to-do or anything of the sort, just… let it wash over you. Sit on the couch. Close your eyes for a bit, there’s no timer.

Ooh, look, a red-tailed hawk! It’s a beautiful bird and it catches cards for more victory points. This is a fun game.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Monster Couch for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Monster Couch.