Obligatory post about Wingspan and it’s theme

As if it couldn't receive any more awards, I asked my SO what game she felt was the most thematic."#Wingspan of course!" Then it got me thinking, is there a game more thematic?

Every card in the game features a different bird with an ability that is directly correlated to how it behaves in real life.

Not to mention, it gained wild popularity on the back of its theming. It could have easily been just another game about space exploration, farming, or trading wood for wheat in the Mediterranean.

What are your thoughts about Wingspan and themes in general? Does a game have to have a novel theme to be a success or do game mechanics play a larger role?

Like| 19 comments | report | subscribe

Please log in or make an account to post a comment.

Supporter2 months ago

I really like what they did with Wingspan but I personally don't see it as one of the more thematic games in the board game industry. Mostly because for me, a thematic game is one where there's a strong connection between the theme and the mechanics. In its best form, it makes the players completely immersed in their roles and much of the gameplay fits like a glove and feel very natural and in theme, and less so about playing for points. And based on that criteria, I think Wingspan has great aesthetical touches around the bird theme (namely the art and interesting flavor text) and has a few mechanics around individual bird properties (e.g. predators preying on birds with smaller wingspan), but it also has mechanics that aren't quite in theme (e.g. how laying eggs works, bird powers that are random benefits, etc). And with how the gameplay works, you never get away from thinking about everything in the perspective of "points".

In comparison, I think that another game from Stonemaier Games, #Viticulture: Essential Edition, is actually more thematic than Wingspan. From managing your workers to care for your vineyard, to growing grapes and producing wine, and fulfilling orders and wishes of your visitors, it has more going for it in terms of thematic consistency (even if it doesn't completely reflect reality).

2 months ago

I'd also say Wingspan isn't very thematic to me.  There is one card that I've played that has given me the thematic feel in Wingspan. It was a card from the expansion that allows you to cache any resource on a bird if once between turns some one else does something.  The choice of what resource to feed that bird made me feel like I was taking care of birds in an aviary.  It didn't have any strategic element, but choosing what to feed something felt thematic.  90% of that game is plugging in three strings of christmas lights shaped like birds.  I still enjoy the game, but thematically it's pretty thin.

I think the theme of a game should really affect how you think and play the game.  If it doesn't, then usually I find themes pretty interchangeable.  At that point, I'm not sure I'd even call it a theme; it's just artwork.  I think you could change Wingspan to have other art with the same mechanics, and it would feel and make just as much sense and play the same.  

Take a game like #Lisboa where you're rebuilding downtown Lisbon after it was hit by devasting earthquakes, floods, and fires.  In order to be able to do so you have to "trade with" (bribe) nobels to be able to get some power and leverage to clear city rubble and rebuild the downtown area.  The whole time you're trying to eek by economically and watching as the value of goods crash quickly when trying to utilize the few buildings and businesses you've helped start back up.  You feel the power of the church and the monarchy pulling you away from doing the one thing you want to be focusing on, working with the master builder to get the city back up.  You're forced to play the power games of the time, and also feeling your shelfishness in forcing through decrees and watching that take time away from further building up of the city.  If you think thematically, it helps you understand the game and its game play while also enabling you to feel some narrative dynamics the designer built into the game.  It enhances your decision making in the game, and it tells the story of rebuilding Lisbon and what was difficult about it; you feel that in the game play.  I think that's what theme should do.  It should do more than what the mechanics and artwork can do alone.

I've heard some people say that the theme is too integrated in Lisboa, as if it was too dense of a simulation, and I've heard others say that Wingspan is really thematic for them, so I think it's just another case of different games hitting different people in different ways.  I like when I can tell the narrative of my game arc at the end of a game session and it tells a good story.  Probably why #Xia: Legends of a Drift System, #Comanauts, #Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, and #Anachrony are some of my favorite games.

Supporter2 months ago

Darn, you're making me think about putting #Lisboa back into my wishlist again. I took it off since it was too far in reach. And you also mentioned 2 of the games I've been going back and forth on recently - #Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island and #Anachrony

Supporter2 months ago

I support you putting #Lisboa back on your list. LOL

Supporter2 months ago

Oh I'm sure you do lol

2 months ago

You mean I can't make a bird lay an egg in real life by walking a cube over it?! ;P

I actually agree with you about your point and I think it holds true for most games. It's difficult to really make a game feel like you're actually doing whatever it is you're supposed to be doing thematically. I personally don't pay attention too much to theme which I why I think the added touches of Wingspan stuck out to me (and my SO for that matter). However, you're absolutely right that we just try to get as many points as we can and aren't worried so much about the birds in our sanctuary.

All that being said, I've never tried#Viticulture: Essential Edition but we do like wine, so maybe we should give it a try.

Supporter2 months ago

To be clear, I like Wingspan! I think it's brilliantly produced and I loved the bird art, the random bird facts, the choice of components, playing with the chunky dice, and triggering a ladder of combos. I think it's similar to #PARKS where these games aren't the most thematic in terms of delivering on the theme that it's suppoesd to have (Wingspan - attracting birds to your aviary and PARKS - hiking through the national parks), but they're just so great at setting the right mood and feeling. Also why they make great games to introduce to non-gamers.

#Viticulture: Essential Edition was my wife and I's first worker placement game and it worked so well for us. #Tuscany: Essential Edition (the expansion) was indded essential though, to me at least.

2 months ago

What does the expansion add that makes it essential?

Supporter2 months ago

Tuscany comes with 3 different modules that you can choose to include or not in your gameplay, which drastically increases the replay value:

  • New board - Changes up the wake-up/retire mechanic in a way that adds even more tactical considerations in your play. Adds new types of action spaces such as a spot where you can trade between money/grapes/VP's/cards, which helps mitigate horrible luck with card draws. 
  • Different workers - You can hire special workers by paying more. There are I believe 11 different types of special workers and you'll have two of the types in play for a game. They have different powers such as allowing you to take an action from a season that has already passed.
  • Structure cards/extended board - You can build additional structures to improve your engine

Supporter2 months ago

While does a great job laying out the three additions in #Tuscany: Essential Edition I think it's important to say that, at least in my opinion, the new board is the thing that completely changes the game and makes it such an important expansion. I skeptically read a lot of the commentary on it and held off getting it, but once I pulled the trigger it truly does make a big difference. I played a game without it not too long ago and it was a great reminder just how much better it makes the game. The workers with powers are good as are the structures but I don't think they make it an essential expansion the way the new board does. 

Supporter2 months ago

I agree! I actually haven't even played with the other modules very much because the board itself makes such a big change.

2 months ago

This is so last week of me ;) but I'm adding this one to my wishlist!

2 months ago

#Viticulture: Essential Edition is an excellent game.  Wine making aside.(although I love wine)

As far as Wingspan goes, it's theme doesn't always gel with it's mechanics.  That's not an ideal thing, but it's not a bad thing either.  I gues I rarely knock a game because someone slapped a theme on top, especially if I like that theme.  I also don't feel the theme gets in the way of it's mechanics, so for me it's ok.  I agree its more educational than roleplay.  I don't feel I'm playing an Eagle, instead I have learned about Eagles, and so from that standpoint I think Wingspan does a nice job.  Combine it with beautiful components and easy to lean mechanincs and you have a hit.  

Supporter2 months ago

DISCLAIMER: I haven't played #Wingspan

That being said it feels like it is a nice game with a nice theme. But, from what I here, it feels like it might be more educational than thematic.

As hinted, feelings are important in thematic games. Does it feel like you are building a sanctuary? Or does it feel like something different? How many thematice disconnects are there?

This does make it complicated. Some games will feel incredibly thematic to some people, while feeling like dry mechanistic excersises for me. For instance, I find #Star Trek: Frontiers to be a very thematice game. But, I know many people who look at it as a just a big intriguing mess of mechanisms with a totally pasted on theme.

So, is Wingspan thematic??? The answer is that it depends. How effectively does it evoke the theme for you?


2 months ago

I know it's hard to convey over text, but my "is there a more thematic game" question was meant to be a little tongue in cheek. I guess it did cause the intented discussion though!

As I just replied to's post, I find it difficult to find a thematic connection to what I'm doing in most games.

In a game like Wingspan, I'm far more worried about how I lay out the cards on my player board to have them most optimally work together to generate the most resources for me. With each round granting you fewer and fewer turns, it becomes pretty important. I rarely, if ever, read the flavor text to make the connection between what my bird's actions are allowing me to do and their real life behavioral counterparts. I just think the added touch of that information is pretty cool and not seen in a lot of games. Well..at least in the games that I play because I bet someone could list off 100 more :D

Supporter2 months ago

Fair enough. 

Supporter2 months ago

I'm more and more convinced that because board game quality keeps going up, new ones that want to break out can't do it with one axis anymore. It's got to have a great theme, great mechanics, and great production quality to really stand out.

I see a lot of Stonemaier Games doing this and it makes me so happy to play their games.

2 months ago

I'm gonna have to agree with this. The bar is rising, and while there is still room for lackluster themes, it's gotta do it better than before if it wants to succeed. 

Not including abstract games, of course, because those are all about the mechanic (although #Santorini does a good job making the theme appealing to the game's abstractness).

Supporter2 months ago

I agree with most of the commentary below about Wingspan. It's a game I enjoy and really admire it but when I personally think of highly thematic games I don't think it's as good as others. I think the most spot on point is that while some of the mechanics are thematic (predator birds, birds that migrate habitats) plenty are not and it always feels like an engine builder for points rather than running a bird sanctuary. With that said, I think it does a great job setting a fantastic mood for the type of game it is, and the eggs, the wooden dice, the dicetower, the unique bird cards, the art on the player boards etc do a fantastic job of that. I do think it's important to remember what a great place Wingspan exists in in terms of being an inviting gateway game and I believe that how thematic it is is going to depend greatly on what your experience in gaming is up to that point.


I think Wingspan exists in an area of strategy games where the components themselves do a great job keeping it from being a dry game and giving it a mood and then the more the mechanics match the more thematic it feels. I think of #Viticulture: Essential Edition and #Agricola (Revised Edition) as games that do a great job of this with both mechanisims and components. I think #Root #Everdell #Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and #Teotihuacan: City of Gods all do a great job setting the scene with their art and then matching it in varying degrees with mechanics. 


I can think of countless "Ameritrash" games that are highly thematic but skill checks often ruin that dynamic for me personally. Even a game like #Forgotten Waters which drips with story and theme after awhile didn't feel like much of a game to me and lost its immersiveness. While still not in my wheelhouse I found #Gloomhaven and #Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion to be much more immersive because the card play makes you feel like you are really dictating what happens and controlling your character. Conversely #Scythe was a game where the theme was almost non-existent to me until I played #Scythe: The Rise of Fenris and from then on the game was far more thematic in my mind than it had been previously. The most thematic game I've ever played would have to be #Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 and much like with Rise of Fenris, that experience has made other #Pandemic games feel more thematic just because I have seen how immersive it can be. 


A game that hasn't gotten any mentions yet that I've seen that's both a strategy game and highly thematic, in my opinion, is #Brass: Birmingham the historic accuracy that went into that game is remarkable and it really comes through in the most unique aspect to the game- the sudden switch from canals to rails. The included history of the characters in the rulebook is also a nice touch. I would contrast that with a game that I also love but don't find thematic which is #A Feast For Odin which, in true Uwe fashion, comes with what is essentially an entire book explaining the history that exists in the game but if you never read the book you would never really know and it's dry enough that you really don't need to and it becomes vikings playing tetris. 

Linked Topic