5 min read


During lockdown, this board game about birds changed my brain.

During lockdown, this board game about birds changed my brain.

I know I’m in trouble. Julia has played a Chihuahuan Raven. Now she can discard one egg from any of her other birds to gain two units of food from the supply. If Julia has a raven in her opening hand, she always wins. Game over.

Wingspan, a board game about birds, has permanently taken over our dining room table.

The concept of the game is simple; players try to attract birds into nature reserves, then collect eggs, food and yet more birds. Each bird played makes the player’s next actions more powerful. Players earn points based on the value of the birds, the number of eggs, and other bonuses. The player with the most points wins.

My wife Julia is better than me at Wingspan. We know this because she keeps a massive spreadsheet that records our scores. Every time we finish a game, she transcribes our points totals into colour-coded rows. So far Julia has won 23 games with an average score of 81.9, compared to my 10 games and an average of 77.7.

Julia looks at the spreadsheet a lot these days.

I think we are both addicted.

Something about this board game at this time, in the depths of the third wave of Covid-19, keeps bringing us back.

Wingspan attracts me with its birds. As a result of my long nature walks during lockdown, birdwatching has moved from an interest of mine to a passion. I can identify the radio static call of a Black Redstart, the mew of the Common Buzzard and the eponymous song of the Chiffchaff. I can use the word jizz (the overall impression of a bird taken from a combination of shape, size, flight and behaviour) and almost keep a straight face. Occasionally, I am even prone to twitching, a British term used to reference the pursuit of a rare bird spotted by other birdwatchers across the country.

Wingspan was inspired by designer Elizabeth Hargrave's visits to Lake Artemesia, where she created charts of the birds she observed. The size of her dataset reached almost 600 rows by 100 columns. The birds in the game have special powers that connect directly with the characteristics Hargrave meticulously documented.

I too record all the birds I see. Last year I identified 80; a new annual record. The highlight was a Golden Oriole, a flying banana of a bird, in a forest an hour from my home. When I saw it, I jumped and cheered with excitement.

Beyond the data collection though, there's still something more to our Wingspan mania.

Screenshot from https://www.elizhargrave.com/games/wingspan

Wingspan’s artwork is different. There are no zombies or wizards or soldiers. It is a non-confrontational game. Elizabeth Hargrave designed the game after asking friends: “why are there no games about things we are into?” The player mat, dice tower and card backs are made by Beth Sobel. The cards feature bird illustrations made by Ana María Martínez Jaramillo and Natalia Rojas. In an industry dominated by men, those names stand out. In interviews, Hargrave has rejected notions of gender essentialism, but has said that she has received "notes from parents about their girls noticing my name on the box. It matters."

Julia often instigates our games, she drives us to play. Maybe that is because she is a lot better than me. But maybe it is because it is designed differently.

Beyond the birds and the unique design, there is something deeper about Wingspan that keeps us coming back. It is about our brains and about how lockdown is changing them.

The pandemic has caused excessive worry. Concern for loved ones, stress from the confines of our home, nervousness about our financial and social situations. These emotions, alongside isolation and loneliness, have the potential to change our brain chemistry. Repetitive stress can cause persistent inflammation, which shrinks the hippocampus and affects our emotions.

Many are turning to meditation and mindfulness to combat depression and anxiety. Others are turning to games.

Wingspan is an engine-building game, a type of strategy game where skilful players like Julia build up a system of generating resources, money, or points. As the game progresses, Julia makes this engine more powerful or more efficient, often leveraging bonuses or combinations. She decides how to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

With every card she elects to play, Julia is exercising choice, an activity that has been restricted by a year of pandemic lockdown. It is gamified cognitive training.

The European Robin is a diversion from the nine o'clock curfew. A Red-backed Shrike allows her to cross imaginary borders. With the Griffon Vulture, she visits family. We stay indoors because we want to protect others. By playing Wingspan we soar while we do it, like an out-of-body experience.

So, when I draw a Golden Oriole from the Wingspan deck, admiring its bright yellow plumage, thinking of that time in the forest, I'm recovering. Like many others across the world, Julia and I are gaming as a way to distract and escape, to heal and fortify. That’s why we return time and again to this peaceful game world.

Julia looks at her Chihuahuan Raven, a far superior bird to my Golden Oriole, and smiles. She thinks of the spreadsheet. We both know I'll lose. I smile too.


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To my Compound Writing editors Ergest Xheblati and David Burt. And to Julia Hildebrand, for keeping score.