Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Wingspan: This Isn't Just a Game Anymore

Late in 2018, I saw a preview video for a board game. It was an absolutely gorgeous game in every aspect--artwork, components, design, just everything--and I immediately knew I wanted it, even though it wasn't going to be out for a while and I wasn't even fully sure of all the rules or even the price yet. My reaction was so immediate and so strong that it took me awhile to fully unpack it.

I didn't really understand my reaction to Wingspan until one day in the spring of 2019. It was day three of The Great Sickness. My whole family was probably the most sick any of us have been in our lives--all at the same time. I'm still not sure what it was exactly, but me, my wife, and both my kids were taking turns puking and none of us could move in any way comfortably. With everyone in pajamas and with towels all over every couch to try and protect our home from undisciplined child vomit, I watched out the window just kind of waiting to get better. As I watched, I saw a bird there that I hadn't ever noticed before. It was black with a yellow beak, but it also had streaks of almost metallic green and purple. I thought it was beautiful. It was eating the walnuts dropped from the big tree we have in our front yard. Over the course of the day, more and more individuals of this same type of bird showed up in our lawn, until there were over 20 of them mingling in our tiny front yard, all eating the walnuts. By that time, my wife and sons were watching as well, and we were all delighted. We all suddenly had energy we hadn't had in days.

I was so curious about this shiny black bird, and I had time on my hands, so I started searching around on my phone for a way I could figure out what kind of bird it was. By the end of the day, I had five apps downloaded on my phone that could help me identify birds.

That bird that I thought looked so cool and had never noticed before? Yeah, it was a European Starling, one of the most common species in North America, and literally an invasive pest that happens to be one of the few birds you can shoot without any sort of legal penalty. Just goes to show how much I was paying attention before that day.

Image source:

But even though my point of entry ended up having a bit of a tragic backstory, it didn't matter. I was hooked on birds. Again. I hadn't thought about it in years, but as a kid, I used to draw and read about birds all the time. My grandma would hand me random nature magazines when she showed up at our house because she knew I liked birds and would want to look at the pictures. I don't remember when or why that interest died out, but it did, and I hadn't really thought about birds again until that day.

So with the free time the sickness gave me, plus that experience with the starlings, plus a slow year for videogames that left me with a gap of nothing to play, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a formula for a whole new hobby. I'm a full-on birdwatcher now. I couldn't stop reading about birds and looking around outside to see if I could use the apps I found to identify the species I was seeing. The answer was yes, because the apps were amazing. I have to take the time to give a huge thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, because three of those five apps I downloaded were by them, and all three remain on my phone, parked on my home screen for easy access when I need them. I bought binoculars, I read books, I watched YouTube videos and nature documentaries. Honestly, I hadn't dived this quickly and enthusiastically into anything since I rediscovered videogames in 2012.

After a few days of this, I remembered Wingspan, the board game that I saw a video about last year. I had that strong reaction when I first saw it, but hadn't really followed up on it in any way. Suddenly, I understood why I was so excited when I first saw it, and all over again I had to have it.

Just look at it! Image source:

Except I couldn't have it. Wingspan turned out to be one of the hottest board games of 2019, and every printing was selling out extremely fast. The MSRP was $55, but copies were selling for $150+ on Amazon. I got on the wait list with the publisher and kept an eye on my email.

I finally got my copy later in the summer, and it was one of those rare experiences where a game really lived up to the hype for me. I love this game so much. Even if it wasn't about birds, I would love it. The gameplay is simple but the dynamics created by all the pieces adding up and working off each other are incredible, and it's a highly strategic, deeply complex game.

On top of all of that, because the theme is interesting, the art and components beautiful, and the gameplay fun and accessible, I got more people to play Wingspan with me than any other board game I've bought in years. Again, even if it wasn't about birds, I might already be thinking this is the last board game I need to buy for a long, long time. But adding birds to the mix--170+ of them, I should add, each with amazingly detailed drawings--has me honestly wondering if there will ever be another board game that I want to play more than this one.

On it's own, Wingspan is an amazing game. Even if you have never intentionally looked at a bird in your life, Wingspan is great. It's beautiful, it's engaging, it's immensely replayable, and it's almost impossibly intricate in how all the pieces fit together in the game design. But for me, Wingspan will always be that and more. Wingspan isn't just a game for me--it's the dead center of the Venn diagram that connects two of my most beloved hobbies: games and birds.

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