Friday 8 January 2021

Switch Review - Wingspan

Birds and video games aren't the most obvious of coupling, but can this adaption of one of the most popular board games in recent years change that opinion?

Developed by Monster Couch Games

Released in 2020

Digital versions of board games are as old as computer gaming itself. One of the games that came packaged with my first computer, the ZX Spectrum, was a digital version of ‘Chess’. Sitting alongside it was a bizarre little board game-esque game called ‘Survival’. It was an educational ‘Horizons’ title in which the player takes on the role of a hawk, a robin or a butterfly.​ Gameplay consisted of moving across a grid a square at a time, as you attempt to find food to survive while avoiding predators. The box was striking; a resplendent hawk swooping into grass land presumably catching an innocent little field mouse. Despite having monotonous game play with limited interaction it was a favourite game of mine at the time. Today, while I continue to play videogames, a new passion in my life are games that are played on tables using dice, cards and meeples. I have discovered the joy of board gaming and in the last year it has once again been a bird based title that I have fallen in love with.

Anyone who dabbles in table-top gaming, will know of ‘Wingspan’. Elizabeth Hargrave’s cerebral game has received almost universally favourable reviews and huge commercial success.​ Not only did ‘Wingspan’ sell out immediately when released in March 2019, within a month it was entering its sixth print run with nearly 50,000 copies sold. Board game critic Matt Thrower called ‘Wingspan’ "the year's hottest game” and Said Al-Azzawi of the L.A. Times called it "one of the board game industry’s most acclaimed games".​ ‘Wingspan’ earned a clutch of industry honours, including the prestigious 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. The game is currently ranked as the 21st best board game of all time according to the table-top Gospel that is Board Game Geek. It would be appropriate to call ‘Wingspan’ a board game phenomenon and understandably there was a desire to create a digital version to cash in on the success.

While it may have now had a digital release on the Switch, this is not the first computerised interpretation. ‘Wingspan’ has been playable on the PC for some time, it can also be enjoyed on Steam through the Board Game Simulator program and on various mobile devices using the ‘Tabletopia’ app.​ ​However, this latest incarnation is the most ambitious yet. Its additional visual and aural flourishes aim to bring an already excellent board game to life and it allows solo   players a way to challenge digital opponents.

At a time when board gaming is still dominated by fantasy epics, property manipulation and hulking great space marines carving up aliens, ‘Wingspan’ felt like a breath of calming fresh air. “I had been playing hobby board games since about 2005 and a lot of the most popular board games in the modern market have themes like European historical trading, or farming. Things that weren’t particularly exciting to me“ says 'Wingspan' designer Elizabeth Hargrave. “I decided to try and make a game about something I was more interested in”. Although judged as “medium weight” complexity, ‘Wingspan’ is the type of game you use to introduce your Mum to the hobby.​A serene and tranquil game, where success depends on your clever use of the cards you have been given to create point scoring “engines”.​ While there are dice, they aren’t used to force something random on you.​ The food dice in ‘Wingspan’ are an example of input randomness; the unpredictability happens first, and then you make a choice. Crucially external randomness doesn’t make choices for you. Consequently, the majority of times, the best player around the table will win and to be truly successful you​ have to be able to adapt your long term game plan. You’ll need to read other player’s placed cards and predict what they are attempting to do. You must judge the odds of what you need coming up, and then re-evaluate when it inevitably doesn’t.

With its beautiful hand drawn birds on fabric woven cards and a dice tower shaped like a bird feeder, the ‘Wingspan’ board game looks beautiful on the table; but don’t let that deceive you. This isn’t something light and fluffy, it’s an incredibly nuanced​ and thoughtful game. A tranquil yet demanding experience, that somehow relaxes while testing your nerve and brain power.​

When playing ‘Wingspan’ you adopt the roll of a bird enthusiasts seeking to discover and attract the best birds to your wildlife reserve. “It’s a card based game with 170 bird based cards and in front of you, you have a player mat that has three different habitats on it” explains Hargrave. ”On your turn you take an action associated with each different habitat, so you might go to your forest to get food, you go to your wetlands to get cards and go to grasslands to get eggs.” When you have enough eggs and the appropriate food you can play a bird card from your hand onto your player mat, in so doing increasing the strength of your wildlife reserve. For example, playing the Blue Jay will earn you three points if you place it in its native woodlands habitat. In future turns the Blue Jay can lay two point-generating eggs, but​ settling the bird down comes at a cost; one seed and another resource of your choosing.

On the plus side though, on every subsequent turn when its activated you will get to add one seed to your food resources. This is why ‘Wingspan’ is described as a card-driven, engine-building board game.​Players start with limited strength and slowly place cards that work together to offer greater rewards.​ A classic example is 'Monopoly' although modern board games like ‘Terraforming Mars’ or ‘Century Spice Road’ are far more enjoyable. “At the beginning of the game your actions are super simple, you might just be drawing one card, by the end of the game you might be drawing three cards and then activating the power of each laid bird in a habitat”​ says Hargrave. After four rounds and many turns, a winner is decided based on how many points they have. Points are awarded according to how many birds you’ve managed to deploy into your habitat, how many eggs you have, how much spare food and crucially how successful you were at completing shared round and individual hidden objectives.​

“If you’ve never played a modern hobby board game, you might find learning this tough” admits Elizabeth Hargrave. “It would be better if you found someone to teach you, it’ll be easier than learning it from scratch”. Fortunately this potentially intimidating game is made less scary on the Switch by the inclusion of a tutorial. You’d be well advised to go through it before playing against a computer opponent.​ Robin, the peppy ornithologist guides you, taking you step by step through a few turns of a game. Its detailed and somewhat drawn out, taking around an hour to complete. But even during this tutorial some of the problems associated with this Switch version of ‘Wingspan’ start to rear their ugly head. The game is fiddly to play and at times it seems you must press a string of different buttons just to get the game to do a simple thing. If you’re playing ‘Wingspan’ well, you should be laying a lot of birds into your habitats but even this process seems convoluted. First you must cycle to the correct habitat using the shoulder buttons. Then you have to press the up arrow button to call up the cards in your hands, from which you select a specific one by pressing the left and right direction buttons. To select a card you press the A button, then confirm your choice by pressing the Y button. Then you have to select the food you wish to use with combination of arrow presses and A, before confirming with Y. Next, you pick which eggs by flicking the analogue stick then A and a final Y will get the elaborate job done. Placing a bird could involve up to 15 button presses, it’s like a ​ “real-time event” in an action game every single time. Touch screen controls seem very hit and miss, which is odd considering the Switch game was based, in part, on the mouse driven PC version. Dragging and dropping cards seems imprecise and many of the icons on screen are so small it’s hard to accurately tap them with a big fat finger. You do get used to the controls, but ‘Wingspan’ simply doesn’t feel accessible​ to a new player. For your first few games, you’ll likely know what you want to do but struggle to do it elegantly. The complexity of the game may baffle new players,​ but the complexity of the controls will likely annoy them. Perhaps just navigating with one input device like an analogue stick, and using just one button to select and confirm would have made things more accessible.​ 

After a dozen or so games, I found 'Wingspan' much more intuitive but by pushing the right analogue stick up you get access to a streamlined player mat. Maybe because I’d played the board game so much, this just felt more functional to me. I could see all my habitats without having to continually tap the Trigger buttons to cycle between them. Consequently, planning my point building engine and monitoring progress on round and individual goals was just easier. Similarly spying on the opponents habitat was quicker and being mindful of what your opponent is doing is somewhat crucial to winning in a ‘Wingspan’ game. In this view, possible places to lay cards are highlighted so they’re more obvious and you can see what resources are available at a glance. The problem is this simplified way of playing looks somewhat dull – its functional rather than pretty. The screen is predominantly taken up by a big brown sheet and this is a travesty when ‘Wingspan’, both the original board game and this digital adaptation, are so attractive.

Much of the look and mood of this Switch adaptation is lifted directly from the original board game, including all its celebrated illustrations. “The art is beautiful, the publisher found some amazing artists” recalls Hargrave. Each card in the Switch game features an animated version of the board game’s original birds, hand-drawn by two artists, Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo. “The key for me [was] the satisfying feeling of collecting beautiful things,” says Jamey Stegmaier, president of the board games publisher Stonemaier Games. In the digital version, the three habitats are made up of several 2D plains given an illusion of depth through parallax scrolling layers. It takes a few seconds to swap between the three though, reinforcing the idea that aesthetics have taken priority over function.​ But, it’s tricky to find a balance in a game as relaxing as this; quick rapid habitat movement would feel at odds with the overall chilled ambience. The only real let down in the Switch version’s graphics are when Monster Couch Games have had to implement their own art work. The tutorial character looks bizarrely cartoony, very much at odds with the realistic pencil drawings of the birds. Something like the art seen in ‘Hotel Dusk: Room 215’ or ‘Gunman Clive’ would have been more in keeping. Considering Elizabeth Hargrave was consulted on this Switch version it seems an odd aesthetic choice to make. ‘Wingspan’ is certainly a game you want to play with the Switch docked and not just because it’ll make some of the tiny writing and icons more legible. Like the board game, its best to gather friends on the sofa and play as a group.

Multiplayer against real people is obviously the ideal way to enjoy any game, but digital opponents are included in ‘Wingspan’ to make solo play possible. The easy AI is easily beaten, with your opponent very rarely stringing card combinations together to get a big score. The harder mode plays much like a human player though and poses a significant challenge for anyone accustomed to ‘Wingspan’. The digital adaptation also includes the board game’s automa, but this does seem a little pointless considering AI opponents are available.​ A much more welcome addition is online play, where up to three wannabe ornithologists can do bird battle, either in real time or asynchronously. The latter means you can play a turn, then check back on your Switch within the next 24 hours to see what your opponent had done in the interval. It would be better if you got an alert when it was your turn, but at the time of playing this doesn’t seem to be available. Of course you have to ask if you would actually play a digital version of any board game with friends in the same room, when it would be much more social to actually play the physical original. When I’m in the same room as people, I would always favour real world games over video games, and when playing alone I would much rather play a video game that’s been designed from the ground up for solo play. So ultimately that leads us to wonder who would actually want to play ‘Wingspan’ alone on the Switch?

“In the gaming world, playing with birds is very unusual” admits Elizabeth Hargrave. “During the hundreds of ‘Wingspan’ play tests, some gamers scratched their heads and said, “Birds? Really!?”” adds​ Jamey Stegmaier. “They expressed concern that our feathered friends might not resonate with a community usually drawn to zombies, dragons, spaceships, farming, civilizations and (of course) trains.” Tellingly these same genres are also popular with Video Gamers. The incredible success of the boardgame was certainly the driving force behind this digital adaptation, rather than seeing a potential audience and making a game that would appeal to them. After all, The most popular Digital adaptations of board games on the Switch’s eshop seem to always be ‘Monopoly’, ‘Uno’, ‘Chess’ and Nintendo’s own board game compilation ’51 Worldwide Games’. More complex adaptations of ‘Pandemic’, ‘Chaterstone’ and ‘The Warlockof Firetop Mountain’ rarely seem to feature in the best-selling games lists, even when heavily reduced. However, people also believed that the original board game of 'Wingspan' wouldn’t be popular and look how that turned out! This Switch version of 'Wingspan' is very good and works as both a board game adaptation and as a game in it’s own right. Yes there are niggling frustrations, but there's no denying there is a lot to appreciate here. From the individual bird calls you hear when you select a card, to the tranquil beautiful guitar music that pleasantly hums in the background. While Wannabe Ornithologists will no doubt love the trivia that’s read to you when you first lay a bird, the biggest draw for me  is the flexibility that this Switch interpretation offers me. I can now play a  favourite board game on a train,  against a friend on the other side of the world and with a loved one in bed - without having to balance cards on pillows. "When I first talked about the game with friends they said no one is going to play a game about birds"" says Hargrave. "But I think we are proving them wrong".

I really hope that 'Wingspan' on the Switch enjoys similar success, and proves that video game players are as open minded as board game players. This beautiful and thoughtful game about birds, really deserve to take off.


A copy of this game was provided for free to review. Neither the publisher or developer have seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication. 

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