Birds, as the English say.
I confess to being one of the great unwashed that doesn't "get" Wingspan, per se. I owned a copy for a couple months and played it three or four times and, despite it being a decent engine builder and a very nicely illustrated game, it failed to find a permanent place in our household. I traded it for a copy of 878 Vikings. And, yet, it's widely hailed as one of the best releases of the past few years with a legion of devoted fans. What did I miss? Why don't I think I should've counted myself lucky for actually seeing one on a store shelf when it was almost impossible to find last fall? Is it because I've played many games like it before? Is it because my expectations for "playing games with others" are different than most? Or are there actual mechanical concerns or some combination of those and the above?
First off, let's clarify that just like with movies, music, books, or any other form of entertainment, everyone has their own personal niche. There will always be variations in opinion and even someone who shares your tastes will still like some things more and some things less, even though you both appreciate them. One of my regular 2-player partners shares my taste in most games, both positive and negative. I love Wiz-War. It's one of my all-time favorites. He's lukewarm on it. It simply doesn't sing to him in the way that it does to me. Is it because I played it "back in the day" (the 80s) and still have that nostalgia? Is it because I essentially followed it up with its most notable descendant, Magic: The Gathering, and became a hardcore player, with associated nostalgia, while he never did? Who knows?
Similarly, on the macro scale, the Catan series is massively popular, especially as a "gateway drug" to more complex endeavors. I have never been a fan. Part of that may be because I was already into gaming long before the "German period" of the 90s occurred. Part of it may be because Catan games can often feel very programmed (i.e. they often turn out the same, especially with the same group of players.) But when I look at the Catan series, as with many of that design era (Knizia, et al), I recognize the innovation present for the time and the depth that most of those games still carry. There's a mechanical elegance that many of them have that has given them lasting impact and helped create a pseudo-genre of board game, known as "Euros." Wingspan didn't strike me in that fashion because there's nothing particularly transformative about it.
But, secondly, let me emphasize the point that this discourse isn't about bashing Wingspan for any presumed mechanical failings or its seeming inability to approach the level of some of the more legendary designs of modern board games. Again: it's a solid game. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with it. I hope that Elizabeth Hargrave continues to make games, not least because of the lack of female designers in the industry, who will often approach games with a much different paradigm in mind than "crush your enemies and see them driven before you", whether that's via swords and magic or a pile of money chits. And that, in fact, may be the key.
Wingspan is a frequent topic of discussion on Reddit and BGG these days, both by devoted fans of the game and those who, like me, don't quite understand the love. What stuck out most to me about the gameplay was... nothing. I've played any number of engine builders. I like the genre, in general, although it's far from my favorite main mechanic. When I played Wingspan, nothing stuck out to me as an element that was new or unusual among engine builders. In other words, it doesn't do anything that many games before it don't already do. You play cards, you try to maximize their abilities and resulting resources (almost always eggs), and you hope to build a more productive and/or efficient machine than your opponents. This is an engine builder. Ask me to play one and I'll choose 51st State every time.
But one of the consistent assertions by fans of Wingspan and one that was stated prominently in a recent discussion was that "Game play is very calm and nice, there's basically no interaction between players, nothing nasty can happen." Every Wiz-War fan in the world just heard the proverbial record scratch.
"Whuh? No interaction between players?! Calm and nice?!" Yes. That estimation was followed up by another statement that emphasized that the enjoyment of Wingspan came irrespective of winning: "It's not a game where you feel like the score you are making is the only purpose of the game." Now, I can make the same assertion about virtually any game. The joy should be in the playing, not just the winning. I'm a pretty notorious winner in my group, but I've generally passed the phase (tournament Magic player!) where sitting down to play meant winning the game. Full stop. We played a game of Rising Sun this past weekend where I came in second-to-last and didn't have a second thought about it. What was vastly more important to me was that everyone had a good time playing; at least, in part, because two of the players were not real fans of the DoaM genre and those two also happen to be women.
Remember that point where I mentioned that it would be a positive if Hargrave kept producing? It's mostly because she's obviously a solid designer who was willing to work with an unusual theme (one of the real highlights of Wingspan is the theme and accompanying art) that she knows well. But, again, it's also because the presence of women in the industry - as designers, producers, developers, artists, owners and, yes, players -isn't anywhere near what it should be. I remember in a couple interviews that Hargrave had wondered about the consistency in theme of many modern games: outer space and castles. Consequently, she put forth a game with a theme that's nothing like those dominant influences because it was something that she enjoyed. Far be it from me to suggest that a game themed on bird-watching is somehow inherently more appealing to women. There are many female fans of outer space, castles (Game of Thrones!), and Marvel's cinematic output. Similarly, there are female fans of "aggressive" games like DoaMs and Wiz-War.
But it seems irrefutable to me that those themes and that style of game are almost universally targeted toward people that identify as male, since society has often suggested that those behavior patterns are the type that resonate with males, even if only on a cardboard surface. However, it was suggested by one of our regulars at TWBG, who is also a designer, that women might respond more often to a style of game that isn't "non-interactive" and "calm and nice" if other games weren't specifically marketed (illustrated, themed, etc.) toward 14-year-old boys. Would we get more games that are as well-constructed as Wingspan if we encouraged the participation of girls and women and presented them with more options than the conquest of the nearest nebula? But how does one represent an area control game without conforming to typical DoaM thematics? Wait. You mean you've never heard of Root?
And that Root comparison might be a key element in my disaffection with the game. I wrote last week about Root's accessibility problem, in that dropping that onto a bunch of new or not experienced players doesn't create the best environment for revealing the game's magic. Wingspan, OTOH, has its magic right up front. It's easy to teach, easy to learn, and has a theme that isn't outside the realm of normal "gamerz", as it were (although, given the popularity of things like Game of Thrones, I question the separation of those spheres (That's another article.)) It's easy for me to look at the game and say: "Yeah, this doesn't work for me because of x and y." because I'm doing it from the perspective of 1) an experienced gamer; 2) a White man, with the cultural authority that comes attached with that role in much of Western society; and, 3) someone who prefers direct competition over co-op or "non-confrontational" play. That latter point is important as more than just a style preference, because most games throughout history have been largely direct, from chess to Sorry! to Funkoverse. Those three perspectives may be fueling my indifference to Wingspan because I'm not looking at the gamer sphere as one that I'm trying to gain access to. I'm firmly embedded in it and have been for decades. If you're a new player, who perhaps identifies as a woman, and so is already looking at two barriers to your being accepted in these situations, Wingspan might be the open door with the warm, tavern light streaming forth because it helps create a scenario that makes you feel more welcome; like you already fit in (which you should.)
Of course, there's also little reasonable way to suggest that Wingspan was specifically targeted at women because its game play is supposedly "calm and nice." After all, there are tons of male fans of that same approach to gaming, just as there are tons of male fans of Wingspan. And the reality is that said theme and style might be an access point for them into the gaming world, as well. Gate-keeping comes in any number of forms and doesn't have to only apply to one kind of identity. The fact that I find the attraction to that style of gaming completely mysterious, since part of the appeal to me of gaming with others is the social interaction created by... well, interacting with them, shouldn't make it the dominant atmosphere just because I have those social advantages and my personality is, uh, kind of forward. I may not want to play what I consider to be multiplayer solitaire, but that's me and, as noted above, there's certainly no one, true way to have fun. By that same token, there are some seriously competitive women out there, too, who also enjoy games that involve head-to-head confrontation. My girlfriend was one of those new players of Rising Sun this weekend and it's been a while since I've seen her eyes light up like that as she was looking over the board and plotting (as Lotus) which mandate to take that would further her plans of dominance over mythical Japan. The funny thing about that is, she's really kind of an introvert except when it comes to gaming, where she's pretty aggressive.
So, there's no reasonable blanket statement that says anything like "Wingspan-type games are aimed at women" or "Women don't like competitive games." Neither of those are true. But what may be true is that having more women involved in the process of creating and playing games may, in fact, broaden the scope of the industry to include themes and styles of games that haven't been readily available before. Clearly, it touched a nerve with a very wide audience of players, no matter what their identity, and it's worth examining whether that's because Hargrave was tuned into an audience that needed to be answered or whether she's just a good designer and people just like the game for what it is, if not both.