“Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather… It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.” – Mrs. Bundy, The Birds
Wingspan is a game that hit gaming tables like the 1963 Hitchcock movie quoted above. Incredulous comments such as “It’s a game about birds? Really?” could be heard across the hobby from more than one gamer. These skeptical views were not the uncommon greeting to enthusiastic Wingspan evangelists bringing it out on game night. But, this reviewer is very glad it has come to the hobby. The gaming scene is enriched and enlightened because of its mechanisms, theme, and tone.
But there is often a new wave of skepticism or interest when a game makes its way to an electronic medium. The ability for the digital implementation to maintain the same energy, engagement, or usability is instantly in question. This review aims to weigh out the real value of the Wingspan digital version which is now on Steam for PC.
For those who are unfamiliar with Wingspan, Board Game Quest reviewed it in the way, way back era of January 2019. In addition to the game overview section in that review, readers should know that the digital version doesn’t yet include the expansion. Overall, the rules are precisely the same and the game includes a digital library to look at the bird cards discovered in the game.
Depending on how players normally play Wingspan, the digital implementation can be infuriating or welcoming. Specifically, this revolves around whether someone’s brain works in a contextual manner, digesting content from specific focused elements or whether a player prefers to look at information in aggregate and can see the connections between different components from an overview. Wingspan uses a user interface model where the screen switches focus between the three different rows of a player’s board. Specifically, players will need to switch from looking at the Forest row to the Grassland row or the Wetland row. There’s a view to look at all at the same time, but for the primary actions in the game, players will need to use the different focused views.
One of the most engaging elements of the digital version are the mini animations and music that accompany the game. For players who prefer their Eurogames themeless and mechanical, these won’t be incredibly exciting, but the overall presentation goes a long way to enhance the tone, especially when playing solo in these stress-inducing times.
Players will also want to know there is a step by step tutorial with a virtual bird expert. She guides players through each turn and explains concepts slowly and clearly guiding the player with what they exactly need to do and why. This isn’t innovative and succeeds more for its communication effectiveness than for anything else.
Finally, as mentioned before, there is a library of cards for players to explore between games. This helps players study what combinations are possible for different bird species. The strange thing about this is that the library only shows cards that a player has actually used in a game. This makes it feel less like a library and more like an achievement hall with records of bird investigation.
Digital Game Experience:
As tableau-building games go, Wingspan is right up there with some of the best. Similar to other card-combo games like Race for the Galaxy, Through the Ages, and Bruges, Wingspan is tapping into the exact elements that make tableau engine builders great. The balance between running an engine versus building the engine is perfect. The icing is that it just so happens to take a theme as seemingly bland as birding and transforms it into an elegant recipe for an amazing experience.
To enhance this, the digital experience provides an AI (and Automa if that’s more interesting), fluid user interface, and tutorial. These are especially beneficial to elevate the solo experience for newer birders. For these players, simply being able to play using an effective UI against a decent robot opponent is the key.
Other players might be more interested in online games via a competitive format. Because most board games involve turns taken one after the other, there’s always the potential for someone to drop if they’re doing poorly or are just bored. With this version, the multiplayer system is basic and the online ranking is limited to scores vs the Automa (the physical board game’s version of AI). This causes some ire with players who have not experienced the physical game since it’s normal for the Automa to take non-standard turns.
However, as wonderful as all this is, the game is not without some user keyboard/mouse faults. Although there is a way to select cards in play with the keyboard, these commands are not obvious. These are necessary because players could have upwards of 8 cards in hand, and it’s very difficult to select those cards with just the mouse. As the pointer moves across the cards, they are raised to be selected, but with so many cards this requires very fine mouse control. As mentioned, the keyboard commands make this easier but it’s straightforward how to do this. Because this issue only comes up in certain situations, it’s not a serious problem, more a nagging frustration.
Readers who are fans of Wingspan and in pandemic times often find themselves without opponents should immediately pick up this digital version. For players new to Wingspan but looking for a good way to get good before playing others, this is also highly recommended. For those looking to play against human opponents, getting a digital game together with known players is preferable to finding random opponents online. Overall, if players can learn the keyboard commands to work around the mouse control, this is an excellent way to learn the game or hone skills in bird selection and turn management.
Final Score: 4 Stars – An exceptional digital implementation for an already great game.
• Easy to use tutorial
• Context switching player board
• Exploratory card library
• UI may not be comfortable for some players
• UI issues with a large number of cards in hand
• Automa is confusing to digital-only players