This might seem something of a pivot considering my blog generally covers books and television far more than other forms of art. But I want to be straightforward in situating board games as an artform. From a perspective of pure design, few board games released in recent years have had Wingspan’s visual panache.
The layout of a Wingspan game is one of moving pieces. Each player has a board upon which their game progresses. There is a common supply of markers used to indicate available food and eggs. There is a scorecard for round-objectives and a caddy which holds both face-up bird cards and and the decks of face-down cards that players can draw from as required. There is also a dice tower; and here is one of the places we have to stop to admire the commitment of the game to its visual motif.
We should first note that the tower serves very little mechanical significance within a game of Wingspan. You could just as easily roll the food dice and leave the unclaimed dice in any easily accessible bit of table. This dice tower is an object of beauty. It’s shaped like a birdhouse, and creates this immersive three-dimensionality to the play area that is lacking in many games of its ilk.
The narrative of wingspan is that each player is creating a wildlife refuge for birds. This refuge is divided into three zones which are carefully colour coded: green forests, yellow grasslands and blue wetlands. Each one of these zones can hold a maximum of five species of bird. While some birds have capabilities that allow them to move between habitats, once a bird has been played it cannot be removed from the board. There are two types of card a player can hold: a bonus objective card which influences a player’s overall playstyle, and bird cards which represent the main scoring mechanic of play and the core gameplay loop. Each bird card is designed to replicate the look and feel of a page of a birdwatcher’s pocket guide. The cardstock presents a gloss white background with a hand-drawn colour image of a bird, generally viewed from profile, in the middle. The margins of the card provide a variety of information about the bird including its common name, taxonomic description, the habitats it can be played into and the food tokens that must be exchanged to play it, the point-value of the card when it is scored at the end of play, the type of nest it builds, the number of eggs it can hold, in a nest, the wingspan of the bird, the mechanics of how the presence of this bird in a habitat affects gameplay going forward, and a one-sentence note of trivia regarding the species. The cards are a master-work in efficient design. Almost every piece of information on the card might have an impact upon scoring and gameplay.
End-of-round objectives frequently require players to count number of eggs laid in specific nest types, or number of birds in specific habitats. There are sixteen potential end-of-round objectives out of which any game will use four, randomly selected. Each objective is on a tile which contains two objectives, one on each side, which means there is something in the realm of 80,640 – 2(8!) – possible configurations of end-of-round objective tiles, from which four will be selected each game. Furthermore bonus cards may require players to deliberately play cards with low point values, cards that contain references to colours or geographical features in their common names, cards that require specific feed types or that must be played in specific habitats.
The final piece that needs consideration is a set of eight colour-coded cubes which players use to indicate the actions they take upon their board. These cubes also indicate a player’s relative success in each end-of-round goal. This, of course, means that in each of the four rounds of play, each player will have successively one fewer action they may take on their board: Eight in round one. Then seven. Then six. Then, finally, five.
There are four actions a player may take with each of these tokens. They may play a bird card into a habitat. They may select dice from the bird feeder. They may lay eggs into the nests of played birds or they may draw additional bird cards. Aside from playing bird cards, which only gets progressively more expensive, each action is associated with a habitat. Woodlands produce food, grasslands produce eggs, wetlands allow you to draw cards. As you fill the spaces in a habitat with more species, these actions become progressively more efficient, allowing a player to draw more dice from the feeder, to lay more eggs, to draw more cards. And of course, many of the cards played into a habitat also have effects that are activated by a player when they take an action in the habitat of the bird. These actions are also heavily impacted by order-of-play as a player always activates the most recently played bird first, and then works backward to the oldest bird in a habitat when activating card-based effects.
This situates Wingspan in the genre of board games called, “engine building games.”
A brief aside to define ludonarrative
Having now described the basic gameplay mechanics of Wingspan, the next question would likely be, “so what?” Why does it matter that you lose actions each round, or that an action becomes more efficient as you place more bird cards into a habitat row? What does any of that mean?
And this is where it’s necessary to introduce an important concept in the design and critique of game systems: ludonarrative. To start with coming to a proper understanding of this idea, and of how ludonarrative differs from narrative, we can first turn to Marshall McLuhan. If you are a Canadian of a certain age your first encounter with him may have been a heritage minute.
For a version that isn’t a very silly 30-second drama you could also look into his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, from whence the phrase that “the medium is the message” derives.
A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time. For individualist Western man, much of his "adjustment" to society has the character of a personal surrender to the collective demands. Our games help both to teach us this kind of adjustment and also to provide a release from it. The uncertainty of the outcomes of our contests makes a rational excuse for the mechanical rigor of the rules and procedures of the game.
McLuhan saw games as an intrinsically communicative and parodic medium. People deliberately put themselves into a contrived social situation, one bounded by strict but arbitrary rules, in a kind of mimetic replication of life. But games, being bounded by their agreed rules, limit the ways a person can think about playing the game.
Poker is a game that has often been cited as the expression of all the complex attitudes and unspoken values of a competitive society. It calls for shrewdness, aggression, trickery, and unflattering appraisals of character.
So in this appraisal, we can see how a game not only creates an artificial social simulation but how its rules shape that situation. McLuhan sees Baseball as being a game of, “static positions,” and, “specialist professions,” while he sees American football as a game that supports fluid, generalist roles. He sees poker as a game that requires a person to make, “unflattering appraisals of character,” as a game that induces one to be shrewd and aggressive.
While McLuhan’s digressions into aesthetics in this book verge on what we would consider some sort of pure and unadulterated cringe there is still great value in his sense of games as establishing communication through their structure. “The form of any game is of first importance,” he says, and there is where ludonarrative lies.
A ludonarrative is the message communicated by the board and the rules of a game. It is the story that arises directly out of the game-like structure of a game. Ludonarrative is always in communication with the more conventional narrative of the game. The way we are expected to play a game is going to inform the frame within which we consider the ideas of the game’s narrative.
So what is the narrative of wingspan again?
Well, we’re building a bird sanctuary.
Engine building games and the value of more
Engine building games are usually built around the idea of profit. You get more actions as the game progresses. In Terraforming Mars, your currency (M€) production will grow over the game. As this currency is the principal limit for how many actions you can take in a round, this leads to a gameplay that grows in complexity and duration to the precise amount that your profit grows. After all, M€ is an explicit reference to income. A player in Terraforming Mars holds cards in hand which are project plans and which they pay a nominal quantity of currency to purchase; these then are like patents which the player may then expend more money to execute. These cards provide the player with sources of profit that create a positive feedback loop wherein making money gives you more money to spend executing projects to give yourself the ability to make more money.
In Orléans the narrative explicitly situates a player as a merchant. While they may fund the building of forts or the work of farmers, the principal objective of the game is to obtain goods for trade and markets in which to trade these goods. As players build up their supply chains, introducing automation, hiring guards, and sponsoring technological innovation they may call upon more employees to assist them in the execution of actions each turn. The ludonarrative treats the player as a human resources manager carefully arranging the task-assignments of various work specialists such that you can make more money.
Scythe has a more complicated relationship with production and profit but only slightly. Scythe concedes that state power can appropriate the productive capacity of other agents by positioning most of its currencies on the board. And it also imposes a minor penalty on production when a player has reached certain critical milestones in their ability to produce. But even so, this sense of increasingly being able to do more as the game progresses is built in. Deploying mechs improves your mobility immensely, allowing a player a far greater ability to navigate the board and secure strategic resources. Deploying workers allows a player to produce more and build industrial improvements and monuments that increase what they gain each turn.
While there is an element of cost-benefit analysis in Terraforming Mars and in Scythe, this is entirely absent from Orléans whose ludonarrative is entirely about the maximization of profit. And in all three of these popular engine building games, the assumption of game structure is that as the game progresses the player will have to do more.
In contrast Wingspan asks its players to successively do more with less. Each round of play in wingspan, a player has fewer actions in which to accomplish a broad variety of objectives. Depending on random factors a player will have somewhere between one and three bonus objective cards to fulfill. They will also have a round objective. They will need to consider the value of the birds they are introducing to their habitats and they will need to consider the interactions between these birds and none of these factors suggests an accumulation of profit. Wingspan is a game about expenditure.
You spend limited actions to activate the cards in a habitat, and to make use of the habitat. You spend cards from hand to gain food with which to play other cards in hand. You spend food to induce your birds to lay eggs, you spend eggs to diversify your ecosystem by drawing new bird cards and generating the potential to play cards. You are operating within a field of sharply defined limits and there are no external reinforcements coming. You don’t have an income phase like in Terraforming Mars or a harvest phase like in Agricola. You have objectives, some shared and some secret, and you have an ever-shrinking pool of resources with which to achieve those objectives. You may improve the efficiency with which you attempt to achieve those objectives but only at a cost. Playing a bird card takes an action in which you cannot activate any other cards. And each action taken in a turn represents not only a gain but also an expenditure. Everything on your board in Wingspan has end-game value. You are building a diverse ecosystem and a diverse ecosystem includes up to 15 species of bird, the fish, insects, rodents, fruit, grain and other birds that those species eat, the eggs they lay, the extent to which all these different creatures correspond to the objectives you’ve agreed to, when considering success in Wingspan you have to consider the balance of all things.
And to succeed at one thing requires, to a certain extent, sacrificing another, engaging in an act of expenditure. This is even the case at the start of play. Each player is dealt a hand of five bird cards and five food, one of each of the types available in play. This represents a set of ten play markers. A player must reduce that to five play markers by discarding some combination of bird cards and food tokens. Every player starts play on equal footing; asymmetries in starting play emerge out of an act of expenditure for which there is no synchronous gain. This presents another contrast to the arch-capitalist Terraforming Mars, where each player will have a pre-set advantage that will include the starting resources and income a player has available.
In terraforming Mars, success is measured very clearly in building a profit-generating engine. Wingspan is also centered around the building of an engine, but you know you will be entering into a position of loss with each successive turn. Instead the engine in Wingspan is about optimizing system efficiency such to counter the reduced resources available to you. This may seem like a very small tweak on the engine building model but it creates a very different economy of play and this changed economy is far less capitalist than what we see from most other engine building games.
Competition is not intrinsically capitalist
The ideology of liberal capitalism situates capitalism as a totalizing thing. Capitalism is seen as the ultimate expression of certain traits, such as competition, the generation of surplus, the development of innovation, and freedom. For somebody enmeshed within a capitalist view it’s very easy to imagine reality as a slider. On one side is capitalism and on the other is not-capitalism. Not-capitalism is always weakly defined, which is what creates idiocy like the horseshoe theory. The capitalist ideologue has positioned the political other in relation to capitalism. Anything that is against those traits that capitalism claims is the same thing by being against those traits. And anything that is explicitly against capitalism must also be against those traits, because to the capitalist ideologue, competition, surplus, innovation and freedom are capitalism.
It’s no wonder that the capitalist ideologue looks at communism and says, “they must be against freedom,” because communism is against capitalism, and capitalism is the same thing as freedom in their mind. And it’s no wonder that they, against any practical or logical reason believe nazism to be the same as socialism because nazis are against freedom, against innovation. As freedom and innovation are seen as synonyms for capitalism, nazi traditionalism and authoritarianism must be fundamentally the same as communist collectivism. The idea that there might be more than just a slider is questionable, though some capitalists might at least concede a second, less important, axis between freedom and authority. Capitalism is, of course, situated upon the freedom end of this axis; just also to the right.
There are other problems that arise from this in the creation of secondary false dichotomies, and one of these is what interests me the most about Wingspan. A capitalist mindset plots a right-left dichotomy between cooperation and competition. According to capitalist ideologues, the more cooperative an action is, the less competitive it becomes. This is because capitalism sees competition as being an act of taking all the surplus.
And yet, here we have Wingspan, a game in which there is no surplus to take, a game in which people start symmetrically and in which people lose resources at a symmetrical rate, where each player will have, in any given game, some ten to twelve contradictory objectives they must try to prioritize and spend their equally limited resources on. Success in the ludic level of the game involves a clever weighing of a sort of multi-column arithmetic in order to most efficiently achieve those goals it is possible to excel at without falling too far behind on goals that are off-meta. Success in the narrative level of the game involves producing a diverse and complicated ecosystem within your three zones of habitability. You succeed by building the most delicately complicated bird sanctuary possible.
What possible profit could this bring?
And yet there is competition.
We can imagine our players, each a manager of a bird sanctuary, as people who care deeply about birds. We want everyone to succeed at creating a bird sanctuary. This isn’t the cut-throat mercantile politics of Orléans or the techno-corporate future of delineated ownership that is Terraforming Mars. There is no central board for players to oppositionally position themselves on. There is just all these little sanctuaries full of their vast panoply of beautiful birds. The mindset that Wingspan produces is one in which the success of another player is to be encouraged. A low-scoring game involves no defense. A win with a low score reflects a mutual failure. The thing to do is to win with the highest score. And this will involve not just the creation of a functioning and diverse habitat (though this will be needed) but one with a distinctly personal flare, as defined by your bonus card(s). Perhaps your sanctuary is composed only of birds with wingspans less than 30 centimeters; or particularly colourful birds, or gives priority to birds who only eat fish. And in balancing these terribly specific objectives against the general objective of creating a diverse board game we see what success looks like in Wingspan.
Success lies in building a bird sanctuary that both functions and that reflects something special, something that could not have been if you weren’t the one who did it. There’s no sense of profit in Wingspan. Eventually you will run out of resources with which to build a sanctuary. There’s a limit to how complex an ecosystem can become. There’s a limit to how many eggs you can persuade a pelican to lay. Limits, in fact, abound. Wingspan is ultimately a game of what you cannot do, of being funneled into actions because you cannot accomplish what you desire without establishing a conducive precondition.
You compete not to end up with more of a pool of resources. You compete to do the best job. In other engine building games, it’s common to use an action to block another player. You might, in Terraforming Mars, draft a card you know fits your opponent’s meta, or place a tile on a hex that impedes the direction another player wants to grow. You might set a nuclear bomb off next to their best city, degrading its value as a result.
In Wingspan the only opportunity to attack other players that can occur is to take a face-up bird card before another player can. But most card-actions occur on multiple cards, and you aren’t necessarily going to be hurting the other player much at all by taking that card, and your actions are scarce. You had best hope you have a use for the card you took. In contrast, there are many ways to help another player with your action. Many birds have actions that don’t activate when you play into a habitat but rather when an opponent does. Other cards might give the same food resource to all players, or will allow all players to lay eggs. These cards represent a risk, but the risk isn’t one of “can I harm my enemy,” so much as it is, “will this help me more than it helps my rivals?”
Wingspan puts lie to the idea that competition and cooperation are antonyms, and it puts lie to the idea that competition is intrinsically capitalist. Instead it gives us an idea of a world in which people strive to create good works, and where competition and prestige arises not from monetizing that work but by doing the most you can with the least resources input. It presents an idea of competition where personal flare matters more than market effectiveness. It presents an idea of competition where cooperation is a part of the competitive act and where the measure of your success is improved when everyone plays their best game.
The text of Wingspan is about building a bird sanctuary. But its ludonarrative gives us a window into a world where we’ve broken the illusion of the capitalist monolith, it lets us see that we need not amputate parts of the human spirit like innovation or competition in order to do away with an economy that is destroying the world.
Wingspan, ultimately, presents us with a stark contrast to Terraforming Mars. The logic of capital tells us we must always expand outward, must build bigger, grander, more complex projects, ever profiting, ever doing more. Wingspan gives a different logic, a logic of limits, and working within them, a paradigm of competition as expression of personality, a spice to make the cooperation sweeter.