Bringing a board game to console feels like an exercise in compromise. You’re always trimming something off. Sometimes the controls feel fiddly, or the joy of playing together is lost. Perhaps you lose the satisfaction of picking bits of the board game up.
We’ve got to be honest, that was our belief coming into Wingspan, and we’ve been proven utterly wrong. Wingspan the video game is better than the physical version. We just can’t understate how much of an achievement that is.
You might not be aware of Wingspan, as it’s only a couple of years old and it arrived like a streak of lightning in board game circles. It neatly dodges the usual themes of dragons and space marines to offer something more wholesome and unusual. Wingspan deals with the spotting, collecting and caring of birds. There’s no getting round it, it’s a bird-watching game. But come back: Wingspan is more than in its theme. It’s laden with ideas, and it left 2019 similarly laden with awards.
It’s an ‘engine-building’ game, which is a faintly silly term for a game where you build and optimise your ‘engine’, so that your turns become exponentially effective. You’re building sequences of combos so that a single action has plenty of reactions, pushing into a winning position.
You’re really only doing one of four possible actions every turn. Option one is to place a bird in one of three different terrains. The birds are cards in your hand, and they’ll have icons to show where they can be placed. Ducks are placed in the wetlands, hummingbirds in the forest, and birds of prey might range over all of them. But to play a bird, you need a stock of a couple of things, which means you might need options two or three.
Option two is to take food from the birdfeeder. The birdfeeder is a pool of dice, rolled to reveal foodstuffs like worms or mice, and you can spend your action to ransack it. This food is needed to ‘pay’ for a bird.
Option three, also needed to pay for that bird, is an egg. You will need anything from zero eggs to two eggs to place a bird, and the number is dependent on how many birds you’ve got in the biome you’re placing it in. Got four birds in the grasslands? Yeah, you’re going to need two eggs to take those four birds up to five. The more birds you have in a specific location, the more expensive it gets.
The final option is drawing cards. You choose from a suite of three face-up birds, or deal yourself one from a face-down deck. These cards are shared with other players, so the bird you want might get snaffled before you get to it.
It’s dirt simple, but the elegance of Wingspan comes from how things escalate, and how your birds chime off each other. You see, each action ‘triggers’ one of the biomes – food triggers the forest, eggs trigger the grasslands, card-drawing triggers the wetlands. When a biome is triggered, the abilities on each of the birds that are placed there also activate. Different birds might generate eggs, eat the cards in your hand, or move to a different biome, and those abilities often work in conjunction with each other. You’re eager to place as many birds in one biome as possible, as you get more bang for your duck, but it costs more eggs to do so. It’s an art of greasing the ol’ engine to ensure every turn is at peak efficiency.
As you play, you’re thinking about the endgame. Each bird has a points value. But there are also Bonus Cards, which give you points for criteria like ‘birds with colours in their name’, or ‘birds that eat worms’. Turns are clumped together into something called ‘Rounds’, and these rounds have criteria too, which also shower points onto you. Finally, the birds themselves have ways of generating points, with cracking motifs like sparrowhawks turning over birds in the deck and eating them, as long as they’re less heavy than the sparrowhawk itself. Sure, you’re always gaining points, but Wingspan is about wrangling the greatest number of points from everything you do.
In the final round, you tot up your points to get a total, and swap totals with your opponents. But it feels so much better here than in the board game. One of Wingspan’s few issues was that the totalling was fiddly, and you’re relying on your opponent to be truthful/competent. 1-0 to the digital edition, as everything is automated and easy as pie, with the ability to check your subtotals at any time. It’s so swift.
We’ve probably mangled the rules a little bit, but hopefully you can see that Wingspan is something of a solo game that happens to have other people playing. Your opponents are there, visible across the top-bar of the game, but they only really impact you by taking food from the birdfeeder and drawing cards, both of which replenish by the time it’s your turn. So they’re a nuisance at best, and more a rolling total for you to try to keep up with.
Which leads to why Wingspan is 2-0 over the board game. You’re not waiting for others to play. The turns are synchronised so you’re rarely waiting more than a second or two, and the game arbitrates on who gets what, so there’s no fussing over who stole the berries from the birdfeeder.
There’s some fantastic AI packed into Wingspan, which you don’t get in the board game (3-0) and we let out a little squeal (excuse us) when we saw the multiplayer options, as we found the ability to play in a ‘Words with Friends’ style, sending your turn over to other players, and letting each player take days to make a move, should they need it. It’s like play-by-post. It’s such a fantastic, unexpected addition, and we’d love it if other board games did the same. 4-0.
But it’s the way that Wingspan achieves a 5-0 that makes it such a recommendation. The presentation is so lavish, padded with care, that you’ll want to make it your nest for weeks. There’s a warm, serene score that will have you humming, while birds, once placed, let out a call and a voiced fact about the bird (it’s a minor shame that these are all U.S. birds, should you come from anywhere else on the globe). The birds bob in their slots on the board, so they look alive rather than taxidermied onto a stick. The interface puffs with feathers when you interact with it. Everything is so alive and authentic.
Having come from Talisman: Digital Edition, which decapitated a mobile port and chucked the head unceremoniously onto the Xbox, Wingspan oozes love. Everything is mapped well to the Xbox controls and is intuitive. Shoulder buttons swoop into the background from biome to biome, and the A button does most of the handiwork. There are a few curiosities: an overview is brought up by pressing ‘up’ on the right analogue stick, which is often triggered accidentally, and confirmations are sometimes Y, sometimes A, which feels occasionally inconsistent. But it’s all minor.
And Wingspan is so full. It’s not often that you compliment the achievements, but they act as challenges, pushing you to solely use birds of prey perhaps, or to create a sequence of birds with increasing points totals, like an avian game of Play Your Cards Right. This is how achievements should be done. Multiplayer settings are fine-grained, so you can fiddle with turn lengths and more, and the AI can be tweaked, including an option to play something called the ‘Automa’, which acts like a pace-setter. This robot pigeon doesn’t play the game or have a game board, but it accumulates points at a clip that you’ll need to match. We’d argue that, for whatever reason, the whole Automa thing is not taught particularly well (the rest of Wingspan is superbly and patiently onboarded), but it’s another fine addition that we’d love to see elsewhere.
If we’re being greedy, we could imagine more. Daily or weekly challenges of some form, with mutators or different scenarios, would have dragged us back to Wingspan every day. And while who you’re playing with might change, the rules stay the same throughout, which might get fatiguing in the long-long-term. But it’s an extremely young game in board game terms, and undoubtedly some expansions and booster packs are on their way.
For now, we’re smitten. Wingspan is an elegant, exceptional board game and it’s been delivered with real care to the Xbox. Console is a good look for it, as it automates things that are more unwieldy on a table-top, making it – dare we say it – the superior way to play. When Wingpsan was so rewarding to play in the first place, that’s an extraordinary achievement.
You can buy Wingspan for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S