Recently, Leyla and I finally got a chance to try out Wingspan. It’s clearly a great game, and I expect to bring it to the table many times over the years ahead. I have a few thoughts on it, especially taking into consideration that the game is a huge hit, having sold well over a million copies.
The Setting Matters and also Doesn’t Matter
Making the game about birds goes a long way to explain the breakout success of the game. It’s not so much that most people don’t want to play games about orcs, aliens, or tanks; it’s more that the people who do want to play a game about orcs, aliens, or tanks have way, way, WAY too many options already. The natural law of supply-and-demand is mostly ignored by game developers and publishers. For players who would find a game about birds appealing, well, how many options do they have for a well-designed game? I’m struggling to think of another one. Further, the setting is lovingly employed; Wingspan is not the sort of Eurogame that got its setting pasted on shortly before printing. Instead, it’s clear that the game was always about birds, and that the designer and artists took their time to research the topic and consider how aspects of the setting could be turned into mechanics (it’s a pleasure see how owls, buzzards, turkeys, and so on are each turned into a single rule). The cards have beautiful and accurate bird illustrations as one might find in a great birding book. Of course, the birdhouse dice tower and little colored wooden eggs help a lot too.
However, it’s important to note that the setting doesn’t matter all that much for making the game actually work. It’s not exactly clear what role the player is in while playing the game. Are we birders who are trying to identify birds? That wouldn’t make sense as players spend food to hatch new birds. Are we trying to build the best army (fleet? armada?) of birds better than the other players? What would that even mean? Why do we place eggs on one species of birds and then use those eggs to hatch a different species of bird? Most importantly, though, none of this really matters because the game just works. It’s really a game about (surprise) managing three different resources – food, eggs, and cards – with the monkey wrench that the cards have unusual, often orthogonal, powers to keep each game fresh. A game’s setting is useful to give players a schema to understand the rules, but designers should not overthink things and worry about the parts of their games that don’t make sense. Games have their own internal logic that makes sense on its own, and Wingspan smartly knows which parts of its setting to care about and which parts to ignore.
I’m not sure if designer Elizabeth Hargrove is familiar with Donald Norman’s classic book The Design of Everyday Things and its emphasis on affordances – how simple choices that designers make determine how easy it will be for people to use their products correctly. (The classic example is using a flat metal panel to suggest – or rather, to give the affordance – that a door should be pushed to open and NOT to use a handle, which instead suggests that a door should be pulled open.) A game with good affordances is difficult to play incorrectly. Wingspan’s design is full of these types of affordances.
Consider the eight action cubes with which each player starts the game. At the end of each of the four rounds, one of these cubes goes onto the goal track, recording which player got first, second, third, etc. Then, each round the players have one less action to take, which is easy to remember because the extra action cubes are now sitting on the goal track, so players are never at risk of accidentally playing too many actions in a round. It’s a perfect way for players to understand that they get less actions per round as the game progresses. What I’m curious about is which came first, the exact pattern of 8-7-6-5 actions or the graphic design of leaving the cubes on the track? It seems unlikely that these numbers were picked independently, or that they just happen to be the perfect set of numbers for the game itself. I’d like to think that the designer decided it was more important to have the game rules match the physical design with the best affordance. (What if the game plays slightly better with four or six actions in the final round? It’s not worth breaking the affordance of one action cube being removed each round.)
Furthermore, consider the player mat, which provides a visual guide to the four player actions, the escalating powers and costs for each of the actions, a shorthand history of moves per round, and a path for processing each action (moving the action cube from right-to-left, from bird-to-bird). The game is much easier to teach and follow because this mat is designed to guide the player through each action and round. They could have shipped the game without the mat itself; I’ve played plenty of games of similar or greater complexity that leave all of the rules covered by the mat on small player info cards or just in the rulebook itself. One could play Wingspan without the player mat, but I believe it never would have achieved the success it has had – even with the exact same rules and components – without this tool to keep the player grounded.
Is it too Heavy?
Finally, it’s hard to talk about Wingspan without discussing how surprising it is that a game of this complexity has had this much success. If I had played it before release, I would have felt the same way designer Eric Lang did:
It is surprising and delightful that a complex engine-building Eurogame has had this level of success, but it’s useful to look at just where the complexity lies in the game. The rulebook itself is fairly slim as each of the possible actions is not that complicated. There are a couple tricky rules – when it is ok to re-roll the dice and when to draw new bird cards – but Wingspan is definitely less complicated than, say, Catan or Pandemic (although more complicated than Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, to cover the few other modern board games that have sold at that level). The strength of the setting and the enticing components help get new players over the still fairly short time it takes to teach the game.
However, Wingspan is not a simple game because it takes a trick from the design of card-based wargames, which have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. Starting with Mark Herman’s We the People, and reaching the most popularity with Twilight Struggle, wargame designers have simplified their core ruleset by putting the extra complexity on the cards themselves. These games tend to have fairly slim rulebooks (at least relative to other wargames) because the real rules are written on the cards themselves, which players can digest each time they draw a new one. Players don’t have to learn the whole game upfront; they learn it simply card-by-card. Indeed, not all cards get drawn every game, so players don’t even have to learn the entire possible game space. Wingspan works the exact same way – a modest number of core rules and a bountiful quantity of extra rules that are written on the bird cards, most of which will not even be drawn every game.
Thus, new players are brought into the game slowly, one card at a time. If they follow the well-designed mat and take the time to understand the three visible bird cards, they know all they need to know to make their next decision. Having said that, there is one set of birds which I believe does hurt this otherwise elegant experience – the birds which give bonuses on other players’ turns. For example, the Belted Kingfisher gives the owning player a free fish each time another player places a bird on the wetland habitat. These birds break the flow of the game so that players have to stay at full attention during other players’ turns or risk losing a valuable boost. This demand for attention is a small but very real tax on players that slows the game down and can lead to bad feelings if one player missed their bonus (or just thinks they missed their bonus). Also, this type of card has a very different value for the player depending on if it is a two-player game or a five-player one. Furthermore, it’s a very small part of the game – only 11 of 170 birds work this way – so the game would function almost the same without them. Obviously, this one small part of the game didn’t impact the sales, and the cards are easy to remove if players prefer, but they probably should have been introduced in one of the expansions, which are naturally aimed at more dedicated players.
At any rate, Wingspan is well worth playing and a watershed game in many ways, for showing the value of non-traditional themes, modeling how graphic design affordances can make games easier to learn, and bringing the innovations of card-driven rulesets to a new audience.
(I made a point to use the term “setting” instead of “theme” in this article. Game design discussion has heavily misused the term “theme” – I am guilty myself – as the word should be reserved for the MEANING of a game, not a description of the location, time period, visual style, and so on. I would encourage other designers and critics to use the word “setting” the same way everyone else in the world uses it to describe books, movies, plays, and other works of art. Misusing “theme” makes it more difficult to talk about what games actually mean, which subconsciously puts our work in a lower cultural category.)