How to Play Better Wingspan: Tips for Beginners

Board Games
Wingspan bird art with cards in the bottom right corner

Wingspan is a modern classic engine builder that not only entertains, but is educational (and fun)

Wingspan is a medium-weight strategy game that’s all about resources and time (or turn) management. The goal of the game is to score the most points by building the most efficient engine you can build by purchasing cards, placing them in the most beneficial habitat, and chaining together combos to make the most out of the limited turns available. Wingspan is a multi-layered strategy game that can seem overwhelming to new players. We're here to help you dip your toes into this beautifully designed strategy game. Below is a primer on how to avoid basic mistakes, with tips that will help you get your game to a respectable level. 

The Opening Hand

Playing your opening hand poorly can result in several wasted turns, which can be disastrous for your tempo. The birds (and resources) you choose for your opening hand, and the order that you play them in the first round will set the tone for the rest of the game. This is not to suggest that you can't modify your strategy as you go, but it does make for a slow start if you make mistakes early on.

It goes without saying that you should stack your opening hand with cards that work together where possible. Also, I tend to ensure that I can bring a green habitat bird out early, hopefully turn 1. Drawing 1 resource at a time, in my opinion, slows you down too much early on, so it is handy to have at least one bird in the green habitat to enable you to draw 2 food (as the cost of one card in your hand). If you have birds that can provide you food early on without relying on the green habitat, then maybe you will be OK, but usually it is a good idea to have access to 2 food from the bird feeder as soon as possible. 

As a rule of thumb, I usually choose 2 food, and the rest birds for my opening hand. That's not a hard rule, but you generally want options and food to give you a jump start in the first round. I never take a full hand of birds without opening food unless I am confident that the turns I spend gaining food early on will pay off big. Obviously, the opening food you choose should provide you with what you need to play one or more of your birds (preferably a green habitat bird, or resource generator) on your first turn. Securing a way to generate food for your birds must be your first priority (how you accomplish this may change as the game progresses, however).

Habitats, Mix It Up

Raven saying "checkmate bro"

Perhaps one of the most potent Wingspan strategies I feel beginners could benefit from is what I call the "mix it up" strategy. As we know, the green habitat is known for generating food, the yellow is known for producing eggs, and the blue is known for drawing cards. I tend to gravitate toward birds that have powers that defy these designations. So if I draw a bird that generates eggs, that can go in the blue habitat, I'm playing that bird in the blue habitat unless I have a good reason not to (for example, the bird would combo with another bird in another habitat). Some may say that placing birds with these abilities in like-habitats is a better idea, and if you're looking to accelerate the production for a given habitat, it can be. But placing birds in habitats in this way enables you to work towards multiple objectives while utilizing various habitats, which slows you down less. A great example of this would be to place a bird that generates an egg into the green or blue habitat. A single egg can sometimes save you an entire turn, especially if you're wanting to bring a bird out but have no eggs (and only require one). 

Focus on 2 Habitats

Didn't I just say "mix it up"? You can mix it up, but it is ideal to focus on only 2 of the 3 habitats when playing birds. It's OK to place one or two birds in each habitat, but you want to focus on placing as many birds as you are able in habitats where their abilities work off each other. Spreading your birds out means that when you activate a habitat, you activate fewer birds within it. Focusing on placing birds in one or two habitats means that each time you activate that habitat, you maximize the bird activations, and benefits associated with that. This is especially important if you are tucking or caching food; you want to maximize the amount of times these birds activate. Spreading them out among habitats most often means fewer activations overall.

Play the Big Fatties

Just from personal experiences, especially in the core game, playing big fat birds seems to work well for nabbing the win. What do I mean by fatties? Birds that are fat in points. It is easy to get caught up in the fun of building your masterful engine that does everything imaginable, but at the end of the game, you have to have points to win. It may go against the engine-building feel of the game, but sometimes a big ole bird is just what you need. You have to be smart in how you pay for these big fatties, as they usually cost 3 food, and the longer you take to gather resources to bring the bird into play, the less effective your play is. Pull those fatties into your hand as you get the opportunity to, and work towards bringing them out while also building your engine.  

Play the Cards You're Given

Part of playing Wingspan is determining the best route to go with the cards you are given. Sometimes you get lucky and draw a hand full of cards that work together, sometimes the path to victory is not so clear. Your path can (and often does) change based on the cards that become available to you during gameplay. I feel that it is important to not set your mind on what you plan to do for the entire game based on some early cards you've drawn if you have no supporting cards to make it happen. Sometimes you have to change course, especially when the cards that become available do not support your early plan, or if you feel like your engine has stalled and you're lagging behind. The best thing to do is build a flexible foundation, like a strategy where you are generating lots of food. That way if your supporting cards don't come up, you have a plan B without starting over (like drawing and playing big fatties).

Feed the Tuck

If you're building an engine that revolves around tucking cards from your hand, be sure to have cards that enable you to bolster your hand to excess. It's easy to play birds that tuck cards from the hand, but if the idea is to feed those birds tucked cards, then consider developing a way to fill your hand quickly. Playing low-food-cost birds in the blue habitat to enable you to draw more cards is the simplest way of bolstering your hand size to feed the tuck, but some birds enable you to draw cards when activated. If you are dedicating your strategy to tucking cards, it is a good idea to have more than one bird within the same habitat that enables you to tuck cards when they become active. All of the work of drawing cards just to tuck one card when a single bird activates is most likely a waste of precious time.

Hand giving a thumbs up to the Wingspan board game box.

Find the Hidden Cost

Especially in the late game, when you are considering playing a bird, first determine what the cost will be for the points you score. An 8-point bird may seem enticing near the end of the game, but if you have to spend 1 turn gaining food instead of laying eggs, and the next turn playing the bird (costing 1 or 2 eggs), instead of laying eggs, you are actually losing points. If laying eggs two turns in a row at the end of the game nets you more points than spending one turn gaining food, and another turn playing a bird (by spending eggs), then the hidden cost to your final score is substantial. Most of the time, the final round usually involves laying eggs each turn. The only time this is not true is if you have built an engine that tucks more cards, caches more food, or somehow generates more points than you would get from laying eggs (obviously). It is important to think through each turn of the final round of the game, maximizing the point-gaining potential of each turn by remembering that birds must use eggs to come into play, and each turn has the potential for points to be generated. It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the objective for the final round too, as the points gained by it could be significant. 

screen from Xbox Wingspan gameplay

If You Want To Become Very Good

This article merely presents some tips that should help you become a decent Wingspan player. You'll win some, and lose some, but you'll have a better grasp of basic tactics and strategies to build from. But if you really want to sling some birds at a high level; if you want to destroy all foes in your wake, you'll need to play online. Playing matches online (through console, or on your gaming computer) will introduce you to players of greater skill levels. Playing them often will hopefully open your mind to tactics and strategies you haven't considered before. This is true for any game you play; the more you play it, the better you become. Be prepared to lose a lot, but it's all about learning and enjoying this amazingly deep, modern classic.

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  • Cartoon pic of the authorJay C. Shepherd
  • Content Creator
  • Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.