Game Pile: Wingspan

I am not going to be able to tell you anything comprehensive about Wingspan. This game was a phenomenon when it launched, it was so successful it spawned conspiracy theories and it defined the conversation about games, their distribution, kickstarter and things like ‘elasticity’. There is no reason, in particular, to want my opinion of Wingspan, per se.

I liked it a lot.

If you’re not familiar, Wingspan is a type of game we call an engine builder, where you are using resources you can generate to acquire pieces of a system that then can generate resources. These types of games are very popular and also very common, because in most game spaces that have stepped beyond Monopoly they’re very obvious to see in progress: If you want to build the statue, you need an artist, but to have the artist you need to have an artist’s house and to build the artist’s house you need some stone and some wood so you need a stonecutter and a woodcutter. There’s a lesson about howe culturally see things as being part of interdependent slots on a hierarchy (rather than a complex interconnected web) but for now, let’s just focus on how this kind of game works.

You have things that generate resources; and you can buy the things that generate resources with the resources. A gives you B, B gives you A. Wingspan is a very impressive example of the form, with a lot of different, disconnected pieces that create lots of variety of play situations. You do have things you want to do from turn to turn, and you may be the kind of player who is confused and frustrated working out your turns, which is reasonable! The game doesn’t give you lots of choices – your actions are very limited from turn to turn – but within those small number of possible actions, there are lots of outcomes, based on how you’ve designed your engine.

In Wingspan, your engine is sort of an ecosystem. You’re not cultivating it or shaping it like an ornithologist, you’re kind of playing the genius loci, drawing birds into spaces near one another, and making choices about how to encourage them to reproduce and when. It’s a pretty nice little system, too, where things are abstracted a fair bit, but not so much that you feel like you’re moving Piles Of Cubes around.

Last year, for Christmas, we bought Fox’s sister Wingspan, and a few days later, we played it together, in a rare treat of a ‘oops, we’re already exposed to one another and are in an area considered to be locked down, but we have had minimal vectors for interacting with anyone else’ pandemic board game day. We had a bunch of games we could play, but instead, we could play one big game, and learn to play Wingspan.

If I learned to play Wingspan, I would know how to play Wingspan. I would also probably never use this skill again – it would be an engagement with a game that was entirely for its own sake, in the time. It would be about learning the ways that this big, impressively lumbering ecosystem builder game worked and how I familiarised myself with its systems to make a satisfying play experience. It would also be an experience that involved including and waiting on other people learning to play – which included Fox’s mother, who is lovely and great, but isn’t where I would turn to for elaborate rules discussions.

If I learned to play Wingspan, it would be the only game I played, in the time we had allotted, instead of playing four games, at least one of which I was really excited to play.

We played Wingspan.

Let me tell you: I really liked playing Wingspan.

I have played one game of Wingspan and I don’t think I’m ever going to get to play another. If I do, that’s great and that’d be cool, but it’s excellent in this way that feels complete. I don’t find myself thinking ‘gosh, I want to play more Wingspan, ‘ or ‘I should go buy Wingspan,’ but normally when I feel that done with a game, it’s either from a game with a distinctly conclusive narrative (like many videogames) or a game I kind of hated starting it up (in the case of many card games).

I don’t find myself feeling that way with Wingspan.

This isn’t meant to be a recommendation, per se, that you buy a $90 multiplayer board game that takes several hours to play during a pandemic. I will say that it’s a digital game as well, and the actual engine building is interesting and fun, and you can do it without another player around to get in your way, if you play it on the PC or Switch. What it is, really, is sort of a strange, eerie glorying.

I have no strong memories of feeling this way about most games when I’m done with them. In this case, I feel that Wingspan is something that’s somehow perfectly satisfying even if I never get any more. It was calming and charming and enjoyable and crunchy and thoughtful. My turns were quick, I was eager for my next one, and when it all came together, what I had to show for it was this nice glade full of birds.

Gosh, I enjoyed Wingspan.

All pictures here are from Wingspan’s BoardgameGeek page.