Game Design

wingspan game review: the best cards match strategy mechanics to real birds

If there’s one game that’s captured my imagination — and my time — recently, it’s Wingspan.  I’ve played dozens of rounds of the bird-themed board game, against friends and against the AI on Steam.

Wingspan is about collecting bird cards and placing them in your wildlife preserves, in order to score points over four rounds.  While the mechanics and rules are a little complicated, it follows the trend of more and more board games being translated into digital format — an advantage in an age where playing over the Internet across state and country lines has become the rule rather than the exception.

As a matter of fact, the virtual mode does a great job of simplifying tasks for players so they can learn quickly and focus on strategy.  And of course, so they can admire the artwork, listen to bird sounds and read fun facts about the birds on each card.

The cards are beautiful, of course, but they also contain a lot of gameplay information.  Actually, the well-thought out design of the strategy mechanics and traits that represent each bird is where the game really stands out.

Image from: Monster Couch via Steam

In many card games, designers have the advantage of creating their own worlds.  For example, the designers of Magic: The Gathering can define how zombies or servos work and feel within their universe, as long as they stick to their own rules.  But with Wingspan, the birds are real.  Creating cards to accurately represent bird species seems to have been important to the design, and the game benefits greatly from that.

Today, I want to share some of the best Wingspan cards in terms of translating real birds to game mechanics.

Translating Bird Traits to Wingspan Card Properties

1. Habitat and nest type — Wood Duck

The icons at the top of the card show the habitats where you can place the bird.  Wood Duck’s trivia says it all:

Wood ducks nest in tree cavities in wooded areas.

It makes sense that this bird can be played in the forest and water, and that its nest type is a tree hollow.

2. Food — Cedar Waxwing

In order to play a bird, you need to spend resources that you pick up from the birdfeeder.  For Cedar Waxwing, the trivia line states:

Cedar waxwings are one of the only birds in North America that eat exclusively fruit.

True to form, this card is the only one in the set that requires all fruit to play.

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3. Number of eggs — California Quail

Each bird has a number of available egg spots at the bottom of the card, symbolising how many eggs can be placed on that bird.  This is another little thing that was thought through, as shown by the California Quail’s card, which reads:

California quail nests have been reported with as many as 28 eggs.

Accordingly, the card has six egg spots, the highest possible number.  Its special power also reflect this:

When activated: Lay 1 egg on this bird.

Translating Bird Behaviours to Wingspan Card Strategy Mechanics

1. Flying around — Bewick’s Wren, Song Sparrow

One of my favourite mechanics of this game is how the game represents birds flying about from habitat to habitat.  These mobile birds include sparrows, bluebirds and wrens, and they have the power of moving about in the game just like they do out in nature.

When activated: If bird is to the right of all other birds in its habitat, move it to another habitat.

2. Mimics — Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird

The catbird and mockingbird, known to mimic other birds’ calls, have a fitting special ability of repeating the ability of another bird in the same habitat.

When activated: Repeat a brown power on one other bird in this habitat.

3. Caching food — American Kestrel, Blue Jay

I like how these two birds have facts that allude to their special powers, which involve storing food, but in different ways.

For American Kestrel, the trivia is:

Kestrels track rodents by their urine, and will cache surplus kills for later.

This lines up nicely with the power of rolling dice and caching mice if any appear, just like how a kestrel might hunt.

On the other hand, the Blue Jay caches food for winter:

Blue jays can carry up to 5 acorns and will store hundreds for winter.

This matches its special power of gaining food from the birdfeeder if available, which the player can choose to keep or cache on the card.

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4. Laying eggs in other nests — Brown-Headed Cowbird

One of the most useful powers is the ability to automatically lay eggs in other birds’ nests when another player takes the “lay eggs” action.  The Brown-Headed Cowbird card connects this power with the bird’s behaviour.  Another nice touch is that the card doesn’t have any egg spots, as real cowbirds don’t have their own nests.

Cowbirds do not make nests; they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.

5. Tucking bird cards — Great Horned Owl, Swainson’s Hawk

A way to gain extra points is to tuck bird cards behind a bird that has been played in a habitat.  This occurs commonly with predators, often checking the wingspan as a representation of the size of the bird’s prey.  A Great Horned Owl can tuck birds less than 100cm in wingspan, while a Swainson’s Hawk can only tuck birds less than 75cm in wingspan.

6. Playing another bird — Great Egret

The Great Egret’s mechanic has one of my favourite connections to its trivia fact:

Smaller birds will sometimes follow after great egrets as they stir up prey.

Thus, its power is allowing a second bird to be played on the same turn:

When played: Play another bird into the same habitat.  Pay its normal cost.

There are many more abilities and cards, and with a set of unique birds, I’m constantly finding new interactions and synergies as I play.

Image from: Monster Couch via Steam

Wingspan Sets a High Standard for Strategy Board Games About Science, Nature and Learning

Wingspan does a great job of taking the qualities of real birds and abstracting them into game mechanics.  This creates a game that is rooted in fact, but also has fun strategy gameplay.  It also showcases a form of game design for learning.  What the birds do in the game, what resources they need, or which habitat they can live in, reflect and reinforce the birds’ real traits.

Wingspan is a peaceful, contemplative game.  There’s enough downtime between turns as other players strategise to dive into the details on the cards, not all of which you will actually use in any given game.  In the virtual version, you can hear the birds’ call and listen to the trivia as well, backed by a calm instrumental soundtrack.

While we often think of games as make believe, Wingspan proves that they can also bring us deeper into the real world.  I hope it will be a pioneer for many more games about science and the natural world that present facts under the guise of gorgeous art and engaging gameplay mechanics.

Wingspan “European Expansion” Announced for Second Quarter 2022 on Steam

I am also greatly looking forward to the announced “European Expansion” coming to the virtual game in the second quarter of 2022, so we don’t have long to wait.  Here’s to more thoughtful and well-designed bird cards coming to the digital version soon!