Wingspan review: a beautiful board game with substance as well as style

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Wingspan tasks you with building the world's best bird sanctuary – or, at least, better than your opponents'

Wingspan board game
(Image credit: Kim Euker, Stonemaier Games)
T3 Verdict

Wingspan wraps a lot of fun challenges and plenty of variety in an attractive, addictive package. It's quite involved, but that just makes triumph all the sweeter.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Lots of varied strategies to explore

  • +

    Wide appeal and worthy of replaying

  • +

    Lovely art and components

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Demands a bit of work to learn and set up

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    Little player interaction

Wingspan is one of those board games that challenges players by giving them lots to do and not enough to do it with. Your task is to build a nature reserve and fill it with birds. Your tools are a supply of food, beautifully illustrated bird cards and eggs. Making those resources work as hard as they can for you with as little as possible left over is the challenge. 

It’s a bigger ask than the charming theme might suggest. Wingspan is very popular among strategy gamers and has won a bunch of awards. These include the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres in Germany, the biggest award from a country where family strategy games are a huge market. But thanks to its mix of accessible yet deep play, Wingspan is a game with much wider appeal.

Wingspan board game review: Price ,and who it's for

Wingspan is a little more involved to learn and play than your average family title. The box suggests an age of 10 upwards, but that feels optimistic: 12 seems more likely to be a suitable age to really grasp everything, so this won't quite make it onto our list of the best board games for kids. Most copies come with a guide to walk you through the first few turns of a sample game, but it may still feel a bit alien at first.

That this comes from quite a hobby origin is reflected in the price, which is about £40/$45. In may not be a cheap board game can see where your money goes when you open the box, though: the cards have a fantastic showcase of bird art and there’s a clutch of lovely little resin eggs. It even includes a cardboard dice tower – a way to roll dice without them bouncing around the table – in the shape of a birdfeeder.

It plays well from one to five players (yes, it's a good solo game as well as a great two-player board game) and takes an hour or two to play – more people will mean more time. So it’s good for family game nights with older kids and also couples or perhaps after-dinner play with guests if they have a taste for strategy. There’s also a very slick digital version for PCs, if you want to practice without taking up the dining table.

Wingspan board game review: How it plays

Your own personal reserve you're trying to attract birds to has three habitats where they can live: wetland, forest and grassland. On your turn, you can either play a bird card from your hand into a habitat, or you can “use” a habitat to get resources. Wetland gets you more birds, forests provide food, and grassland offers eggs. The more birds you play in each habitat, the more resources it gives. But playing those birds costs food and eggs, in a neat simulacrum of the circle of life.

As you play, what you’re creating is a kind of bird factory. You need to look at the cards in your hand, and the foodstuffs rolled on the food dice, and decide what the best route is to filling your aviary. The more birds you play, the more eggs, food and cards you’ll be able to get. Most birds can only live in one or two habitats and they all need different foods and are worth different amounts of points at the end of the game. So the challenge is how to create an efficient factory while also getting the most points.

Birds, though, are not the only route to points. Each round has a goal, dealt from a random selection, which awards a bonus based on how the players rank against a specific goal. So one round it might be who has the most eggs on birds that build a platform nest, for example. The next could be who has the most birds in the wetlands. This means you can have little victories while playing, rather than just waiting to see if you've won at the end. It also mixes up players' strategies during the rounds, keeping things interesting.

Players also have similar secret goals to chase which are only revealed at the end of the game. Any leftover eggs you’ve collected also score a point each.

Between them, all these objectives leave you feeling like you’re juggling… well, eggs. Say you’ve got a big-point bird card such as the American Woodcock, a grassland bird that demands two insects and one seed to play. You could try and play a couple of forest birds first, to increase your ability to get food. But if you don’t have forest birds in your hand, you’ll want wetland birds to increase your card draw first. And even if you do, that Woodcock nests on the ground so won’t count against a platform nest goal. Where do you start? You might even call it a chicken and egg problem…

Solving this puzzle better than all the other players is your challenge on every single turn. And while it’s often quite the conundrum, the game pulls everyone in with the addictive nature of building that factory. You’re always looking to the next step, wanting the next upgrade, waiting to leverage that new power. You’re not just building your bird factory, every step makes you more invested in it, craving success right until the final turn. 

You’re also watching the available food and bird cards, balanced on tenterhooks to see if the items you want get grabbed by others before your turn. Aside from this, though, the focus on keeping your own reserve running smoothly means it’s not a very interactive game between players. Nor is there much to do as you wait for other players to move, other than plan your own turn, which might be frustrating for some, though we found ourselves pretty engrossed in that planning.

Having said that, many birds have some kind of special power that fits their species. A few get activated when they’re played or during other player’s turns. The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, for example, gets to lay an egg every time another player takes a Lay Eggs action. 

Most, though, activate when you use their habitat to get resources. Many of these get you extra points or resources but some give you lots of strategic flexibility. Small, opportunistic birds like Berwick’s Wren can switch habitats if they’re the rightmost card. It’s very powerful: if you can keep them as the rightmost card. Whatever birds you draw, Wingspan keeps you on your wings at every turn.

Wingspan board game review: Verdict

Luring you in with sweet components and a relaxing theme, then hitting them with a tough strategic challenge, Wingspan hits a lot of sweet spots. The addictive nature of trying to build a better bird factory each time will help sway those who find its initial learning curve difficult. But this is a game that rewards good planning and close attention. That makes it great for strategy fans, and many families, but people who want interactive or humorous party-style games aren’t going to have as much fun.

Wingspan board game review: Also consider

Factory games like this – known as “engine builders” in the board game scene – tend to be more complex than Wingspan. One of the few that’s actually more accessible is Century: Spice Road. That’s worth a look if you like the sound of this game style but are worried about the depth and scale of Wingspan.

A similarly light engine build is Splendor, which is a simple game of using gems to buy gems, which then give you more gems to buy even better gems! A snowball of gems. The game comes with poker chips to represent gems, which are even more fun to fiddle with than the eggs from Wingspan (no mean feat).

A lighter game that isn’t quite an engine builder but offers the same sense of building up to bigger and better things throughout the game is The Quacks of Quedlinberg. Here, you’re throwing ingredients into an increasingly powerful potion, hoping it doesn’t blow up. It adds a fun gambling element to a solid core of strategy and, like Wingspan, is also a Kennerspeil des Jahres winner.

If you’re not bothered by the 'engine building' side but want an easy-to-learn game that can tickle your strategic tastebuds, there are several good candidates. Azul is an abstract game of pattern matching with lovely little plastic tiles. Sagrada has some similarities but uses gem dice to make stained glass windows. Finally, Photosynthesis is a pleasing game of growing the tallest trees in the forest, and is one of only a very limited number of games that matches Wingspan for looks.