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One Good Thing: A soothing tabletop game about birds

Wingspan is ultimately about biodiversity, but I can’t help but see it fitting into a broader cultural reckoning.

Playing cards for the board game Wingspan, each with a bird on it.
Birds in a hand.
Tim Chuon

There I was — down to my last turn, sitting on a cache of rodents, and holding the pair of eggs needed to activate a bird of prey that I’d been hoping to slot into my forest habitat. “I will play my great horned owl, and I’ll pay for it with my army of rats,” I announced. Proudly, I drew the owl and set it on its spot on the board.

Lex, my partner, laughed. “Okay, weirdo,” she said, grabbing a pencil and scorecard.

I’ve always struggled with board games. If the gameplay is even remotely involved, I’ll quickly lose interest. Headier “hobby” titles like Settlers of Catan, or even a mass-audience legacy game like Monopoly, require levels of time and commitment that I find overwhelming, and I’ve seen how they can feed stressed-out competitive tendencies and otherwise kill a vibe. I’d rather listen to a record.

But I’ve found myself delighted by Wingspan, the hit board game that has turned a multimillion-dollar industry on its head since its release in 2019. We’d been hearing about it from birding-adjacent friends for a minute and decided, during the recent peak of the omicron wave, to drop the $60 for the indie breakout from Missouri-based Stonemaier Games. Now I’m wondering what took us so long.

In Wingspan, up to five players can be building their preserves at once, but two-player works just as well. There’s even a solo mode, almost like solitaire, as well as an online version.

The rules of play work like this: You’re basically the steward of an ecosystem that comprises forest, grassland, and wetland habitats. The idea is to attract birds to your preserve, which you do by making moves using certain combinations of food tokens, candy-size pastel eggs, and opportunities to draw fresh birds into your hand from the game’s 170-card deck. (The classic edition is all North American birds, though game expansion packs branch out to other continents.)

Certain birds have powers — gain a food token when activated, for example — and if you’re smart about how you distribute them throughout your ecosystem, you quickly build up something bigger than any one bird.

“You’re not just attracting birds to get points,” reads a 2019 review of the game in Nature. “You are also effectively building a biodiversity engine.” Wingspan is, after all, what’s known among serious gamers as an “engine building” game. As the game progresses, “the combination of birds you play becomes more and more efficient at generating points each turn, like an engine running faster and faster,” as Dan Kois wrote in Slate.

In Wingspan, up to five players can be building their preserves at once, but two-player works just as well. There’s even a solo mode, almost like solitaire, as well as an online version.
Tim Chuon

Physically, the game is beautiful, featuring field guide-caliber illustrations by artists Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo. There is an almost ASMR-like quality to the eggs, food tabs, miniature dice-rolling birdhouse (assembly required), and other avian flourishes that compose the inner workings of Wingspan. “I really like the tactile aspects,” Cara Giaimo, a science writer who has been playing Wingspan on and off since the beginning of the pandemic, told me.

The game is also committed to scientific integrity in a way that resonates with my work as the editor of Down to Earth, Vox’s biodiversity reporting project. Elizabeth Hargrave, the Maryland-based creator of Wingspan, pulled from sources like Audubon field guides and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database as she molded the game’s mechanics and the way it is scored. And she did this true to real life when it came to bird behavior, what they eat, where they prefer to spend their time, what nest type they’re known for, and other quirks. As an amateur birder, I learn something new every time I play.

The more I’ve played, the more I’ve come to appreciate the ambient aspects of the game. Namely, that it is not hyper-competitive and is not rooted in taking over or seizing land, establishing settlements, and relentlessly extracting finite natural resources. At the same time, on a purely functional level, it doesn’t take hours or days to complete — perfect if you’ve got an hour of downtime and want to avoid looking at your phone.

Hargrave says she wanted to create something with enough “substance” for people who enjoy playing hobby board games — and expect a “think-y” experience — to find interesting. The goal, she added, was to “have the birders and the gamers meet in the middle.” The result is an experience characterized by niceness: “I really enjoy games where you’re building something up and no one can really tear that thing down,” Hargrave said.

It’s this kind of “gentle” and “soothing” gameplay that most people I talk to about Wingspan say they’re drawn to. “It often feels a little more like a puzzle than a traditional competitive game, which I really like,” my colleague Rachel Miller, who first played Wingspan last fall, told me.

Though Wingspan is ultimately a game about birds, I can’t help but see it fitting into the broader cultural reckoning we’re living through — that includes rethinking conservation and biodiversity to focus on abundance, equity, and the idea that we’re all a part of a web of life. Wingspan feels like a part of that.

“It’s a reckoning that’s happening in board games, too,” Hargrave said. “A lot of games are very historically based and show colonization as a thing that’s interesting to do.” Take Settlers of Catan — a game Hargrave plays — where the resources are things that normally involve some degree of environmental destruction, only without consequences. “You’re mining ore and cutting down trees in this falsely infinite way,” she said. She thought it would be interesting to think about what a game would look like that used some of those structures, “but where the resources were not things that you’re taking out of the environment.”

Hargrave has a few other games cooking at the moment: one on the relationship between trees and mushrooms — the so-called Wood Wide Web — where you’re trading resources, and another about a real-life experiment in Russia that bred foxes into domesticated dogs. She is also currently play-testing the next expansion pack for Wingspan. “We’re not saying which continent this one is,” she said.

Back in our living room, it was time to tally up the points we’d each accumulated building up our sanctuaries. I ended up losing, despite my owl — Lex usually beats me. But more than winners and losers, here were two people who historically have not been “into board games” genuinely having a good time.

Wingspan is available for purchase through Stonemaier Games. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.