Best if played quickly
Originally published on Board Game Geek.
There is no question but the components of Wingspan are lovely. For me the dice tower (which looks and functions as a bird feeder) and the bird cards themselves (which feature several facts about the birds along with Audubon-style paintings) stand out. I especially appreciate that each bird includes an actual wingspan and that number plays into several predatory bird actions. A side panel of the box also includes a packing diagram, which speeds teardown time considerably.
The downside of all these components is the game can be on the intimidating side. It reminds me of Scythe (also from Stonemaier Games) in that it sprawls across the table. Everyone remarks that the little eggs are at risk of being eaten as they look and feel like Jordan almonds at a wedding. Most of the cards and counters are necessary for the game, so it's not a matter of over-indulgent design necessarily. Once you have the rules internalized, everything falls into a mental model that makes using the pieces intuitive to the point of instinct. (Again, like Scythe.)
My first play (with several couples working as teams and 5 playboards) gave me the idea that Wingspan is similar to Scythe in terms of complexity, but with less interaction. Some of the downtime could be chalked up to teams discussing strategy. I played on my own and felt sure I'd missed some key strategies needed to build an efficient economic engine. In the final round, I foolishly pursued an optional goal that didn't award as many points as I would have earned just laying eggs. Other teams had more efficient engines (and did better than me) or less efficient (and did worse). Very promising and I assumed my strategy would work better the second time.
Our second play (with mostly the same players but only 4 teams) did no better. The game seemed even slower since there was more strategizing. I struggled again because I committed to a strategy for which I did not get the right cards. Several times I played my turn while the previous team was deciding on their move because the game was dragging and my moves didn't bother theirs. I also noticed that playing birds rather than laying eggs is often a losing move in the final round since you usually need to give up two eggs (worth one point each) for relatively modest gains from goals and the birds themselves. Eggs are certain, if you have enough room in your nests.
I played a third time on my own after everyone else had gone to bed. Reducing the wait time to nothing greatly helped the pacing, of course. Playing the automata's turn was pretty snappy after the first round. Again the design aided the mechanics and I didn't forget to take an action as far as I know. I ended up beating the automata on normal difficulty, but it was very close: 60 to 59. I won by playing bird cards, but it was a very near thing whether just laying eggs would have been better at that point.
If I play again, I will insist on no teams (far too slow), the more competitive green side of the round goals card (award points based on rank rather than absolute number) and possibly no more than three players (to avoid downtime). Otherwise the game bogs down and becomes too random.
While I appreciate the variety of bonuses to shoot for, I found they were a bit of a sucker's bet. Getting extra points for, say, collecting 6+ birds with colors in their names had considerable charm. But the points are just too minimal to matter. A winning strategy seems to be to ignore the bonus unless it happens to work with your existing strategy. Unfortunately, the bonuses are among the first things you decide on so that lures players into concentrating on them too soon. (It doesn't help that our group has played a lot of Ticket to Ride. The bonus cards feel a lot like routes, which are the goal of those games.)
If you play with the less competitive blue end-of-round goals, the rewards are flattened. (Goals are things like collecting eggs in bowl-shaped nests or having the most birds in the forest.) Instead of getting points by rank, you get a point for each of whatever random goal comes up. Striving for 5 points is less rewarding if all the other players get roughly the same results. Playing for most [whatever] makes the decision more interesting and can make a real difference.
Maybe I haven't figured out the nuances of the game, but too many decisions seem to be inconsequential. Food selection, which could prevent you from playing the bird you need, feels too fiddly most of the time. It feels like there should be a strategy to it, but more often it doesn't matter. Often not having the right dice means doing something else first. Sometimes putting an egg in the right nest matters a great deal, but usually it's not worth thinking about. These things are especially aggravating when watching others play.
As a solo game, there just isn't enough to think about. Using the automata didn't do much to make me imagine I was in a head-to-head competition. I wonder if just having preset round goals and a point threshold would work out to be the same challenge with less fiddling. As a multiplayer game, the key seems to be encouraging quick play. It's not as exciting to watch someone plan moves when they seem to be playing a nearly separate game on their own board.
For me, I'd much rather play Azul, which has better pacing and player interaction. It feels like there is an elegant game hiding under Wingspan, but it got lost by adding elements that don't really deliver their fair share of interest.
Update (July, 2021): I recently played another round of Wingspan with 5 players. I hadn't played it since my initial review in December of 2019, so I hoped I'd have a new perspective on the game. Unfortunately, my opinion has not improved. Once again, 5 seems too many people since even this more experienced group left me plenty of time between turns to get a snack.
My review might be colored by the fact I seem to be very poor at this game which I lost once again. Still, I'm not great at other games, like Teotihuacan: City of Gods, which I rate higher than Wingspan. It's too slow and there aren't enough interactions between players.
I did notice one player interaction that I underappreciated in the past. Some brown actions allow players other than the active player to preform actions. In our game, one of the players had a hummingbird that allowed every other player to gain a food from the birdfeeder. Other birds allowed players to take specific food or lay an egg in a specific nest type. As a result, players could deprioritize some resources in hopes that they will get it between turns. Of course that depends on the right bird cards turning up and getting played. It also depends on the player who played the card doing the appropriate action in their turn. So it still seems a bit gimmicky and less interaction than one would hope.
Playing with someone who really loves this game, I can see the attraction. If I owned it, I might very well pull it out for solitaire play and to enjoy the bird cards. It just doesn't do enough for me to want to play with others, though, and that's pretty much a deal-breaker for me.