Getting into the Wingspan Beta was as easy as providing an email address. A couple days later I was provided with a Steam code to give the app a try for 3 days. I impatiently loaded the game on a Friday afternoon, and listened to the calming, nature-infused soundtrack while finishing up my workday.
I glided into the weekend by starting a game against the Automa. In a physical copy of the game, the Automa is a set of rules and cards that allow you to mimic the essence of playing with other people, without all the detail. You can get a sense for how well the Automa is doing as it scores dynamically as the game progresses. While I think this better than a score attack solo mode, one could argue that there’s no need to include it in an app that has AI programmed to play against you. That said, I’m glad to see it was included because I genuinely enjoy the Automa version. I also felt like it would be a good way to get a feel for the app.
Instead of merely providing a digitized version of the existing game content, the individual player mats are transformed into distinct, fully illustrated habitats. My scroll wheel flew me from forest, to field, and to coastline with relevant information for each settling into view as I traveled. I thought that I would miss the top-down feel of seeing all my birds at once, but after getting familiar with the controls, I forgot that I was even using them. The gentle, storybook animations have a soothing simplicity, without neglecting detail – like the distant clouds that can be seen over the trees from the wetlands with silhouettes of birds flying by. When viewing opponent habitats, their backgrounds featured different artwork than my own.
This immersion into a vivid storybook landscape is not without significant UI effort. In each place, and with each decision, the UI neatly presented the information I needed. A single click played a bird from my hand into the appropriate habitat, with the correct food pre-selected. Birds in my hand would rise slightly when I was viewing their habitat. When I played against AI opponents, their turns didn’t distract with unnecessary animations, and provided word bubble summaries of their actions. By showing you exactly what you need, at exactly the time you need to see it, the app removes any need to manage the game, and just lets you play it.
There is one area of the app that does not shy away from showing more than I needed. When I visited my bird collection, I saw large illustration tiles ordered in a grid of all the birds I had played during my games. Clicking on a bird would cause it to chirp out its call, and showed the full information from the card. Just before returning to a new game, I noticed a small filter icon in the corner. This revealed another neatly arranged set of icons representing filter options. Lots of filter options. I could include or exclude, and sort by any metric. I recently learned that Elizabeth Hargrave, the game’s designer, manually ensures that all the percentages shown on the goal cards remain consistent as new expansions are added. These filter tools feel like the what she herself would use to classify and analyze different bird groupings.
Factual information, delightful artwork, and great game play are a rare triad. So often games only have a couple of the three, and the two can easily be separated. In Wingspan, they depend on and enrich one another. We’ve been playing tons of new games as a way to make the most of our now digital play sessions. Churning though all of these titles has made the great ones shine more; Wingspan is one of the greats.
Being a beta game, it wasn’t without some flaws. The UI strives to be clean and minimal, but that requires dynamic interfaces and tool tips hovers that can get a bit messy. A few times, the entire app crashed without warning. The shock of the forest disappearing and dropping me back into my desktop highlighted just how rich and evocative the game environment was. That’s much like how the beta ended a couple days later. It was just… gone. When the next Friday rolled around, I didn’t have that same avian zen to fly me into my weekend, and I can genuinely say that I’ve missed it. I guess I’ll just… go outside and listen to birds?