Birdwatching used to be the domain of the socially ostracised. One of the go-to spod hobbies, along with trainspotting and, well, Warhammer. But now the tides have changed. The spods have the power. Former social pariahs are now cultural arbiters. Being into comics is cool, now. In this world gone topsy-turvy, it stands to reason that knowing things about birds is now rad. And so, we have Wingspan, the Switch digital adaptation of the thoroughly acclaimed avian card game. Does it soar majestically to the skies, or plunge into the roaring depths, flapping helplessly?
The game’s initial complexity is a little deceptive; changing turn structures? Multiple decks? It’s all a little overwhelming, but thankfully there’s a rather well-done and refreshingly short tutorial to show you the birdy ropes. It doesn’t carry you all the way through a game, trusting the player to have figured it out without needing to comprehensively repeat itself. And that’s nice; it’s a change of pace in a medium where hand-holding is very much the order of the day. Games like Wingspan are all in the playing, anyway. You can go through that tutorial and know what everything does, but how it all comes together and interacts? That’s the main meat of the game, and something – much like previous efforts Mystic Vale and Faeria – you’ll learn by doing.
So what do you do in Wingspan? It’s all very pastoral, really, but cut through with some aggressive economics – beakonomics? Each turn, you’ve got four options. Draw a bird from your hand (which are not, in defiance of the popular idiom, worth two in the bush), take some food from the birdfeeder, push out some eggs or draw a card from the deck. Eight turns in the first round, then seven, then six, then five. Four rounds in all, then scores are counted.
Scoring is, like the rest of the game, a little complex; each round has a randomly-assigned special condition of sorts – extra points for achieving certain goals. Number of birds in a certain habitat (grassland, forest or wetland), number of eggs lain, that sort of thing. Of course, setting up your deck to achieve one of these objectives could scupper you for the next one, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Decide exactly where to play your birds, and when. You’ll need certain types of randomly-rolled bird feed in order to do so, though a lack of a specific type can be made up for with large amounts of another – but you may find you need it for later in the game. It’s all rather delicate, and you’ll need to ensure you have enough food and eggs to enact your plans.
Once you’ve played a bird or two, you’ll activate their powers from right to left. Certain birds of a feather flock together, which here means that their powers compliment each other well, leading to more food, leading to more birds, leading to higher scores. Each round gets shorter, so your actions feel more crucial as the game goes on. You’ll have fewer chances to make a splash, but the snowball effect of your already-accrued birds and resources will mean each turn could see the outcome of the game change completely. With each full Wingspan session lasting just over half an hour, it’s a nice and breezy thing, too. Once you have the rules down, it can become very engrossing.
We’re not keen on how detached we felt from other players, though; Wingspan doesn’t seem particularly social of a game, and we were laser-focused on our own playfield. While it’s possible to check out opponent’s efforts, there’s little in the way of interaction. There’s nothing in the way of really going after anyone else’s deck, the game preferring instead to be all about the aforementioned balancing of resources. The sort of competition that comes with a smile and a cheeky wink as you draw all the best birds from the shared cards. Nonetheless, it can feel a touch solitary as players rarely have much cause to influence one another’s play style.
But how does it fare on Switch? After all, any good card game could come a cropper if the port’s not up to scratch. And, somewhat disappointingly, we found Wingspan on Nintendo’s console to be a bit of a mixed bag. The UI is rich with information and – to put it bluntly – very, very busy. This is necessary in order to communicate the rather complex game to players, but on handheld, we found it could be somewhat difficult to comprehend.
There are also a lot of pop-ups, so to speak – prompts to make and confirm choices (for example, hitting A to choose an item from the bird feeder, then Y to confirm said decision). It’s not exactly an intuitive system, and it’s even less helpful that the controls seem to change at times. Drawing bird cards, for example, has you use the D-pad, but it’s analogue stick only for actually navigating them. When you only have one option to make, you’ll hit Y instead of A to confirm the already-highlighted move, and we guarantee you’ll screw this up at least a couple of times per game. It’s quite a minor irritation, but can snowball into frustration and consequently a lack of desire to pick up and play a quick game.
Still, it all looks and sounds lovely, with gorgeous illustrations and, in a cute touch, a little trivia about each bird when you play their card. There’s clearly a lot of effort gone into the presentation of a relatively complicated game for the home console, but the Switch only has so many buttons and it sometimes all seems like a little much. We managed a couple of times to effectively lock the game up when a mis-tapped A button resulted in a chiding pop-up message that we didn’t have enough bird feed to perform said action – a pop-up that was impossible to close unless we quit out of the game and reloaded.
We also managed to accidentally trigger the credits to roll in the background of a game in progress after somehow selecting an invisible option in the pause menu, also requiring a quit. Thankfully, Wingspan retained our progress in both instances – indeed, it’s possible to cut out of a game at any time and jump back into it immediately.
There aren’t many modes, but they’re all the ones that count. As well as local multiplayer, you can challenge the AI or play a Solitaire-ish “Automa” variant, a special take on the game against a smarter computer. You’re also able to take a look at your birds and familiarise yourself with their powers, as well as examine the finished state of any completed game you choose to save for posterity. Naturally, you’re also able to take the game online, in either real-time (with a five-minute time-limit per turn) or asynchronous (24 hours per turn) modes. For enthusiasts, it’s possible to have up to ten games going at a time. Though we’d argue that could get somewhat confusing.