• Joshua Williams

Playing Wingspan and Remembering a Grandfather

Every gift my wife and I gave her grandpa, while we’ve been married, had to do with birds. A new birdhouse, a years supply of bird feed, different feeders for specific birds, several coffee mugs with his favorite bird illustrated on them, a few books about the birds local to Alberta or North America, etc… He always looked forward to seeing what we would bring to encourage his favorite hobby in his later years. He was a simple man, who found immense pleasure in watching the many varieties of birds that came to his porch to feed, learning the names of each, and making sure his kids and grandkids knew them as well. So, it’s no surprise that earlier this year, his casket, funeral flowers, and burial site were decorated with many artificial birds, reminding his children what he would spend his time doing in heaven, and giving my wife a slight reprieve between tears, to point out the pinned birds that looked most similar to the favorites he watched in his yard.

He was a devoted father, a loving and proud grandfather, a staple and highly respected member of the local Metis Settlement and community, and someone who recognized my love for his granddaughter, immediately accepting me into the family. I have many memories of him, with my wife holding on to even more. But, with all the memories my wife and I could reminisce about, we always find our selves returning to his love of birds.

A few months ago, my obsession and love for all things Stonemaier Games resulted in my most recent board game purchase, by the publisher. Since buying Scythe in November 2018, and it reawakening my love for board games, to picking up Viticulture on a whim and discovering its amazing take on worker placement games, I quickly decided I would buy all new Stonemaier games upon their release, blindly trusting a company that has never disappointed me. Unfortunately, this decision was made a few weeks after the pre-orders for their newest game, Wingspan, ended, so it would take several months of searching before I found it for sale at my local game shop. No second guessing was needed; I had it purchased in minutes.

I had mentioned the game several times to my wife, and she was interested in it as she also loved the two Stonemaier games we already owned. But she was still very much skeptical; she was growing tired of the constant stock of new games being introduced to a shelf that was always losing available space. But, when she saw the box, saw the included dice tower, and was reminded it was done by the same publisher as her favorite game, Scythe, she became more excited about it, and we set a date within the week to play it.

So, I began my ritual for most new games, sorting it the best I could, carefully punching out all of the cardboard pieces, and sleeving each of the few hundred cards that came in the box. Like most Stonemaier games, sorting was done quickly, as the publisher included an organization setup; this time they utilized a custom card holder, and plastic, seal-able bins for the cardboard pieces. Sleeving the cards was a different story, as I wasn’t expecting the shear number of cards included, and my go-to premium sleeves made the already substantial deck of cards, more than double in thickness, barely fitting into the included card holder. It fit, but I had to store some cards outside of the included case. I must admit, most publishers need to do a better job in accounting for the common practice of sleeving cards, and the many thicknesses available on the market.

As I sleeved the cards, I was able to see and feel for the first time, the amazing quality of card stock Stonemaier used; thick, sturdy, with a wonderful linen finish. Each card front was also decorated with a unique, and beautifully rendered picture of a different bird species, with information pertaining to each bird also present on the card. Stonemaier could have taken the easy way out and duplicated cards, with no complaints from any players, but they didn’t, showing that this game, like all their other games, is a true passion project for Alan Stone and Jamey Stegmaier, and designer Elizabeth Hargrave. They cut no corners. They put form and function over the cost of the game. They gambled on the players willingness to pay higher for higher quality games, and they beat the house.

I read the rules, taking in as much as I could by memory, but also relying on YouTube how-to-plays, and I found an amazingly simple game to teach and play, but with enough nuanced strategy for a player to get better and more challenging with each successive play. I also discovered more attention to detail that is rarely seen in games, with the inclusion of a dice tower made to look like a bird house, the linen finish of the cards carried over to the rules book, the addition of a fifth player which is usually relegated to the purchase of optional expansions, and an added diagram to show how all components fit back into the box.

It lived up to all the hype that surrounded it. It’s a fantastic game that you should add to your collection, if you can find it. It has the best production I’ve seen, outside of some palatial kickstarter projects, and easy, engaging, and deep gameplay that is echoed in all of their other games. Its another example of Stonemaier Games’ love for the hobby, the industry, their integrity, and the players that support their games.

With that being said, when my wife and I sat down for our first few games, I didn’t expect what occurred. My wife didn’t comment on the gameplay to much; she found it simply “great,” giving no more elaboration. She picked up the game quickly, but when asked about her experience with the game, she never mentions that. In all respects, it was a game she enjoyed, but didn’t gush over. And yet it is my favorite gaming experience with my wife to date, and she frequently asks to play the game again and again.

What made the game great for my wife, and what was it that I will always remember? Fifteen minutes into the game, my wife was going through her hand of cards, when she quietly said, “This was my grandpa’s favorite bird.” She showed me the card, and when I looked back at her eyes they showed the emotion associated when you’re thinking of a fond memory. Our first kiss, when I proposed, when she eats her Mom’s cooking, and this time, when she used to sit with her grandpa, watching birds. Through out the few games we played that night, she collected a stack of cards to her side with birds that she remembered him liking, talking about, or that looked similar to the ones she saw at his house. She would look at these cards, that no longer had a purpose in the game we were playing, and asked if I remembered a specific one, or say how one looked similar to a frequent one on her grandpas porch, but with different colouring. She wasn’t really playing the game anymore, she was back at her grandpas house, and happy.

When I tell people about this game, I mention the production quality. I talk about how easy the game is to learn and play. I tell them how the fantastically implemented engine building mechanism makes for a more challenging game as you get more comfortable with it, but new players never feel out of place or lost. But, when my wife mentions the game to friends, she only talks about the beautiful bird illustrations, and her memories of the time she spent with her grandpa watching birds. She doesn’t see the game, or the mechanics, or cares about the production quality; when she plays Wingspan, she is only reminded of what it was like to sit across from her grandpa and ask, “What bird is that?”

If you asked me whether you should buy this game, I would say buy it, because it’s an amazing game, and I love it. But, if you asked my wife, she would also say to buy it, but only because she would hope to have the opportunity to talk to you a bit about her grandpa, show you the cards of the birds he loved, and hope she could impart, if only for a second, the happiness she experiences when playing the game, and remembering her grandpa and his favorite hobby.

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