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When birding meets board games, everyone wins


Elizabeth Hargrave
Stonemaier Games
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For many, the thought of board games may evoke memories of family game nights centered on childhood classics such as Monopoly. However, a relatively recent boom in adult board game enthusiasts has led game designers to explore more diverse themes, including those that model scientific concepts (1, 2). Perhaps, then, it was only inevitable that a tour de force such as Wingspan would appear, at once seducing biologists, nature enthusiasts, and board gamers with its beautiful aesthetics, simple but strategic game play, and seemingly limitless bird factoids.

There are many reasons to ooh and aah at Wingspan. The most eye-catching item is the bird house–shaped dice tower, which prevents dice from being lost with each roll. Five colorful types of tokens represent the different food resources you can collect: invertebrates, rodents, fruits, seeds, and fish. Miniature eggs further brighten the game table with their inviting pastel hues.

However, it is the playing cards themselves that are the true pièce de résistance. Flipping through the 170 different bird cards will feel a lot like paging through a field guide of North American birds. Not only are the birds accurately illustrated, their habitat preferences, diets, nest types, egg clutch sizes, and, yes, wingspans are also neatly depicted. A global distribution map and a small fact at the bottom of each card are bonus details that will delight bird nerds. We found that game play was often punctuated by laughter because players couldn’t resist reading out these tidbits. Did you know, for example, that double-crested cormorants form such dense colonies that the resulting guano can kill trees?

Kim Euker

Although the combination of a personal player board, numerous bird cards, dice, and tokens may indicate a complicated game, Wingspan is fairly simple to learn. The premise is that you are a bird enthusiast trying to attract birds into your “aviary,” a wildlife preserve that contains forest, grassland, and wetland habitats. To attract a bird, you must play a bird card in its desired habitat by spending food tokens matching its diet.

Players receive private goals (for example, an extra point for each bird that has laid four eggs) and compete over small contests (for example, most grassland birds played) in each of the game’s four rounds. These goals change every time you play, allowing each game to unfold differently.

But what makes Wingspan so compelling is its engine-building mechanism. Each bird card endows the player who possesses it with a special ability that can be activated repeatedly by performing certain actions such as drawing bird cards, collecting food tokens, or laying eggs. This means that birds played early in the game can be activated more times, and players can form strategies that harness the emerging synergies.

Activating the special abilities of each bird often showcases their distinct behavioral ecologies. For instance, an activated yellow-billed cuckoo lays an egg on another bowl-nesting bird. This mimics their reproductive strategy of laying eggs in the nests of other species. Some activated birds of prey allow players to draw a bird card from the deck—birds that are smaller in wingspan are placed under the activated raptor, representing successful kills that add to the final score.

Kim Euker

Satisfyingly, the game even hints at aspects of community ecology. The engine-building mechanism mimics the concept of facilitative priority effects in community assemblage: Species that arrive first in your aviary facilitate certain types of birds that might arrive later on. For example, if you gain an extra fish token every time a certain bird is activated, you may be more likely to play birds with fish in their diet in the future. The bonuses conferred by earlier birds thus shape other facets of an aviary’s overall composition, including the relative abundance of organisms at other trophic levels. Last, each bird added to the same habitat is subject to increased egg costs, which can be interpreted as competition reducing the fecundity of prior settlers.

Wingspan is a game that naturally encourages bird anecdotes as well as attempted bird calls and whistles. Laughter will abound when, for example, a red-tailed hawk fails to hunt down an unlikely prey species, such as a turkey. It may even inspire players to look and listen more carefully to the birds they encounter daily. As such, it is difficult to walk away from this game without a renewed appreciation for our feathered friends.


  1. 1. S. West, Nature 528, 199 (2015)

  2. 2. A. Chuang, Science 362, 1005 (2018)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.