I never used to be a big fan of birds, but then after moving to my current place (the first place I’ve had in years with a backyard and garden), a small flock of cockatoos started hanging around, so I started to feed them a handful of seed or two each day. Now they chirp happily every time they see me, and often come flying in from a distance the minute they spot me step outside. Obviously, this friendship between myself and these cockatoos is transactional (i.e. predicated on me continuing to feed them seed), but the point here is I have grown to appreciate the intelligence and personality that bird species tend to have. Wingspan is a celebration of the world’s various birds, so I was immediately curious about it on that basis. As it turns out, it’s a brilliant game. Even if you’re not big on birds in the real world.
Wingspan, the board game, is a new one. First released in 2019, it has quickly become the new darling of the industry, and people are buying – and playing – it in droves. You can always tell a board game is popular because the stores stock dozens and dozens of copies of it, where in most cases there will be only the one copy in stock. It’s easy to understand why it has been such a success though, as aesthetics and elegant mechanics combine to make a game that everyone can appreciate on some level.
Like most Eurogames, Wingspan is not directly competitive. There is a winner, but players can’t really affect or disrupt the games of the other players. Rather, it’s a race to collect as many points as possible over the course of the game. What makes Wingspan special is that there are so many ways to collect points, and so many different strategies involved, without the game ever feeling overly complex and convoluted. The basic run of things are as follows: each player gets a hand of birds, and they need to collect some resources (food for the birds – worms, grain, mice, fish, etc), to summon those birds into one of three habitats. Then they need to collect eggs onto the birds, which are used to summon more birds onto those same habitats. The more birds in a habitat the greater the benefit to the player, but with three different habitats, each with different benefits back to the player, it makes sense to spread the birds around as possible.
As you do this, you also need to work towards goals, which happen at intervals after a number of turns and provide a huge number of points to whoever meets the goal the best. One goal might be to have the most number of birds in the forest habitat, for example. The next challenge after that might be to have the most eggs on birds in the water habitat. After a couple of these intervals, the game ends and the person with the most total points (points being awarded for meeting goals, having birds on the board, having eggs, having food resources, and more) wins the game. While all of the above might sound complex, it’s really not, and Wingspan on Nintendo Switch teaches the game via a tutorial in around 10 minutes. It’s not even a particularly well-written or effective tutorial. It’s just that it’s enough to understand the basic mechanics of the game. After that you can quite easily teach yourself how to play over the course of one or two games. Once you’re familiar with the basics though, the simplicity gives way to the tactical and strategic challenge of Wingspan, and here’s why it has become such a popular game; there’s a lot of both if you want to master the game. Some Eurogames, like Catan, are almost too simple to be particularly enjoyable. Others, such as the excellent Lords of Waterdeep, are unfortunately too complex so, good as the game is, it’s not one that everyone can step into to enjoy. Wingspan straddles both conflicting extremes beautifully, being the perfect game for people of all skill levels with board games, but also one that will remain indefinitely engaging and interesting to play.
The Switch port of the game is absolutely gorgeous. Wingspan features really lovely art, with each bird drawn beautifully onto a card. On the Switch, those birds are also animated and make their own unique bird calls when being played. With many of them, there’s even a commentator that offers up a tiny little bit of trivia about the bird in question. We’re hardly talking about Attenborough stuff here, but more than a few of the birds in Wingspan are quite obscure, so that little introduction is useful for context. There’s something like 170 different birds in the base game of Wingspan too, which obviously means that there are many birds that didn’t make the cut, but the cross-section is really good nonetheless. About the only thing that I find disappointing is that the expansions are not available – not even as DLC (which I would gladly pay for). That means that my pals the cockatoos are not in the game right now – they’re additions to the Oceania expansion in the physical game. Then again, that particular expansion only landed in December, so who knows, we may well get the DLC down the track.
The game plays beautifully whether you’re playing docked or in handheld mode, and has online and local multiplayer options, with an AI alternative if you can’t get a game going. The AI is robust in the decisions that it makes, and you’ll certainly find that victory isn’t a guarantee, so it’s the perfect way to practice and refine your strategies. You can even save games after completing them to study what went right (or wrong), if you’re that serious about mastering Wingspace (can you tell that I’m hanging out for a Wingspan world championship?). Thanks to the game handling all the pieces, set up, and clean away, a Wingspan game on Switch also only takes around 20 minutes to play, making it a perfect pick-up-and-play time filler.
The Nintendo Switch has plenty of excellent board games already available on it. Wingspan is one of the best, if not the best of them. Admittedly the developers were fortunate in that they had the most beautiful, well-designed base material to work with, but rather than do a pedestrian copy/paste of the game to make for a boring digital release or, worse, somehow mess it up by trying to change the game in some way, the team has shown some real respect and appreciation for what makes Wingspan a special experience. Without changing the fundamental appeal of the game, the developers here have taken advantage of the video game medium to enhance the experience in all the right ways. Wingspan, on Nintendo Switch, is nothing short of perfect.