Board Game Review

Not Flocking Together (Wingspan Solo Review)

This review can also be found, fluttering its pretty wings, on Zatu’s blog here!

Solo gaming is something many Stonemaier Games can boast as a given. Never mind the beautifully designed components, stunning artwork and excellent mechanics… Solo mode is, for many, where it’s at. And what better game to look at for such a mode than Wingspan. It’s renown across the board gaming community as a guaranteed winner and sits superbly as a top favourite for many. Heck, it sits in the top 50 for a multitude of categories in many a forum. (And I love it, too.) But today, we’re not birds of a feather and we ain’t flocking together. We’re a solitary hunter taking on a mode of being unbound by others. Let’s go solo!

So What’s Changed?

Wingspan’s solo mode isn’t massively dissimilar to its main mode for the player. You still collect birds, lay eggs and strive for personal and public goals. Set up for the player for is no different to the standard game. You still need to have a mat, action cubes, private goals, a starting hand and all the usual resources to hand. There are also two reference cards available for players regarding the solo mode and an end of round goal card for the automa. The automa player however requires much, much less.

The automa player is incredibly low maintenance component wise. Unlike many other solo experiences – it has a very small footprint. It only collects birds and eggs and, even then, they’re only used for scoring! They do have the automa deck to determine actions and they need an end game goal (but this isn’t for scoring). Also, there’s a crib sheet to determine how many points they score in the end of round goals based on actions. Finally, you decide a difficulty level. You can go smooth sailing with the automa scoring 3 per facedown card, rough with 4 or you can go big and let each of their cards stack up as a massive 5 points!

The Routine of Play

In Wingspan solo, you run your turns as a standard. Play birds, collect eggs, claim food and draw cards. No real difference for you. The automa, however, has their turn determined by the automa deck. Each card dictates an action based on the current round. They also dictate whether they stick around after each round, refining their deck and reducing the randomness of their actions.

When the automa needs to play a bird, you take birds from the face up display that best match their private goal and then take the highest scoring of those, discarding the latter. If they need to gain eggs, they gain the listed number. Should they need to place a cube on the end of game goal, they add this cube to the actual goal (not the track yet!). The crib sheet will help explain how they score and values of things towards goals – remembering they don’t ever physically have these things. There are circumstances when you might have to remove cubes as well, simulating them losing progress towards a goal.

In the weird circumstance that they have to draw cards – which they can’t actually do – they add a face down card from deck to their pile and refresh the face up display. Facedown and face up cards score differently so these need placing accordingly. Finally, when they have to gain food, they take food based on a table for the card. They take every dice with the appropriate food symbol for the first result present. If there’s none of the first symbol, they check for the second (and so on). Finally, when a card says to activate all pink abilities, you do just that and gain all the benefits. Again, this is to simulate the automa player triggering your pink cards like in a multiplayer game. This routine runs with player and automa taking alternative turns and scoring for end game scores until the end of the game is triggered.

Differences to Winning?

End game scoring for Wingspan’s solo mode runs exactly the same as it normally would… for the player. The automa is not so complicated, however. They gain points for the end of round goals as normal, but then score based on the number of cards they have collected. All face up cards are worth their value in points as normal, however the facedown cards are worth your difficulty modifier, each. If they have 14 cards and you chose to go big mode, they’d score 70 points just for the face down cards. (14 x 5 = 70 points). Finally, they score one point per egg collected. After that, whomever has the most points wins.

How’s It Compare to the Whole Shabang?

Wingspan Solo is undoubtedly the easiest solo I’ve ever run, without it becoming a golfing experience. You’re not simply vying for a personal best, you have the challenge of competing with an unpredictably scoring element that’s always gaining… it’s not a chase, exactly, but it is a game of striving to do your best and to take on an automated system that can, and will, score well.

They’re Learning…

The automa, like many in Stonemaier games, is tricky to beat. It has some open face scoring with eggs, face up cards and end game scoring.. but it has that unpredictable element of how many cards it will gain and when. You can prevent it’s gains by outmanoeuvring it with the goals and taking the top tier birds from the display before it does… but realistically, it’s not going to be so simple. It doesn’t need resources or to spend anything. It’s an unrelenting terminator programmed to kill Sarah Connor earn big points in the most efficient way.

Wingspan does give some respite to the player and ensures the automa isn’t just a point gaining machine, though. It is designed cleverly to simulate human error (as ironic as that sounds). The automa will lose progress to goals and do other daft stuff that does help in some capacities, but imitates Wingspan’s to and fro between players. The core game has pretty low player interaction beyond pink bird effects but the solo ensures that’s still used, too. It’s a really clever system that’s well executed and makes for a very enjoyable solo.

Designed To Win?

So how does it stack up as a purely solo game? Well… that’s a tricky one. Despite my cold, hard, northern exterior, I quite enjoy other people’s company. As such, player interaction is a big thing for me! Wingspan as a game doesn’t necessarily have tonnes of that, I know, but it does still have that other human player. Someone to take cards, resources, claim eggs and replicate those errors you’ll take full advantage of. Does the automa fill the shoes of another player? Yes. Yes it does.

The administrative management of Wingspan Solo’s automa is simple and accessible on every level. It’s low management, high output like any good machine should be. What’s more is that those lifelike interactions make for a superb replacement to what a real person would do. It’s really impressive and makes for a top challenge! But… that’s where the lifelikeness ends. High challenge.

Even the easiest mode of the solo is hardcore. I wasn’t kidding with my Terminator analogy – the game is relentless and always striving to some level of success. If never, ever does poorly in scoring. Never. And because of that, it can’t replicate a generic player’s skill level. It’s more of a replication of a veteran to the game. Even worse, the low level of maintenance means you can never learn from how the automa works to do better. Your learning is done entirely though the refinement of your own choices and decisions. Not though learning from a more experienced player.

Final Thoughts

Wingspan’s solo mode makes for a superb experience and a superbly fun way to play the game on your own. It’s challenging, clever and does a smashing job of being a substitute competitor. However, it does not replace the real thing. If you’ve got the choice of a 1v1 or a solo game, I’d always go 1v1. But if I were going to pick game to play solo? I’d definitely be picking Wingspan as one of my choices. It’s quick fire, near identical to the core game experience and superbly easy to manage.