What is this game about?
Wingspan is an engine-building game designed by Elizabeth Hargrave and published by Stonemaier Games. Your goal in the game is to build up the best possible aviary, symbolized by accumulating the most victory points. There are only four main actions to take, and you can take only one action per turn: play a bird card, collect food, lay eggs, or draw new bird cards. However, your choices intensify as the turns go by. When you place bird cards on your player board, you block off weaker action spaces and gain access to more powerful ones. You also have a chance to activate bird powers for each card placed in a given action row. To keep the game tight as your powers grow, you lose an action after each of the Wingspan's four rounds—in other words, late in the game, each individual action can accomplish more because you've built up your engine, but you can take fewer of them.
When it comes to end-of-game scoring, there are multiple ways to earn points. These include straight-up points earned through bird cards, points earned through pursuing various goals on the end-of-round scoring track, eggs accumulated, food cached on certain bird cards, and cards that are tucked under other cards during play. Each player also gets a unique scoring goal that can contribute to their point total when the game is finished. This leaves room for multiple strategies that players can try.
How does it play solo?
As we can now expect from Stonemaier games, Wingspan comes with an Automa—an automated opponent specifically designed for solo play. The Automa deck for this game is smooth and efficient, with very low upkeep. Each turn, you draw a card for the Automa that determines what action it takes—and that allows it to accumulate points. The Automa gathers steam very quickly, so whatever it does will push you to maximize your own performance. I also appreciated that the Automa does allow you to trigger the same powers that you normally would in a multiplayer game, so you don't feel like any of your card powers are wasted.
Wingspan is very enjoyable to play. I love the tension of trying to choose which actions to take and which birds to place. It's tough to decide which action rows you should prioritize. If you focus too much on card draw, you may not be able to generate the food you need to play all those cards. If you focus on egg production but don't place enough birds, you'll run out of space for the eggs! There is great satisfaction in pulling off a good combo. And the bird facts on each card taught me a lot more than I ever expected! I am even planning to bring Wingspan to game club this Friday to play with my students.
That said, Wingspan has a few pacing issues. There's something about the way the game builds that makes endgame feel anticlimactic for me, more often than not. Part of the issue is that this is a game where much depends on the luck of the draw. A lot of your options depend on what cards you pull and when, which means that you don't necessarily get the combos you want, or that if you do, you may not get them in time to maximize them. If you get the perfect card in Round 4, when you only have five actions left, you probably won't be able to play and enjoy it. Additionally, I typically feel that by the fourth and final round of the game, the actions I need to take are obvious. I just do whatever will generate the most points, without any further sense of growth or progression. That makes the last turns feel like a bit of a letdown. This is almost more of a problem in solo than in multiplayer, because the Automa will generate points fast and you have to race hard to keep up.
So, Wingspan is a decent solo experience, but it's not going to be an evergreen solo game for me. That said, it's staying in my collection, because it meets a very specific need: Wingspan is an excellent board game to teach to less-experienced gamers. It's enough of a "gamer's game" to be fun for me. But far more importantly, I would feel comfortable teaching this game to my students, my parents, or even my grandparents, because I can trust that they would easily be able to learn it. Not only is Wingspan accessible on a technical level, but it is beautiful and it has a delightful theme. Those things really do matter when you are trying to enhance a group's playing experience. My boyfriend, who likes to game with me but doesn't actively seek out board games the way I do, really enjoyed Wingspan and has actually asked to play again. As our hobby grows, and as our game groups expand to include more and more new players, we absolutely need games that strike the right balance between depth and accessibility. And I think Wingspan is one of the ones that can do it.
Do I recommend it?
If you're looking for a purely solo experience, Wingspan is fine and you'll have fun with it. If you want it for group play, especially with less-experienced gamers, then I definitely recommend it.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.