Education isn’t just reading, or reading and talking. As it turns out, even reading only gets you so far, just like physical exercise only gets you so far, even if truly spent in a leisurely fashion (see article on the difference between free time and leisure). A real education also includes vibrant social interaction. Obvious. Perhaps not so obvious is the fact that social interaction (much like leisure) always enlivens and enriches best in a semi-structured scenario. For example, a birthday party has a predictable structure of events: cake, presents, games, favors, etc. These can be modified, omitted, or put in any particular order, but the point is we best relax within a pattern. Think of those moments before a celebration or event has officially begun, when the people who got there too early stand around awkwardly not knowing what to do next and trying desperately to help set something up. A casual equivalent to the large party or event is the board game, which inherently requires structure and social gathering, and hopefully, generates some shared fun!
Our most recent family discovery is Wingspan: A resource collection/engine building game. Its object is to establish a personal aviary, in which your birds are well fed and breeding blissfully. Without going into all the details about habitats, egg-laying, brown vs. pink powers, and the very cool bird feeder that rolls the food dice for you, I’ll lay out the two main reasons we love this game.
The Beauty of the Game
Beauty. The art in this game is delightful. The colors are varied and peaceful at the same time. We’ve found it enticingly stress-relieving. And since no two of the 170 bird cards are the same, there is always something to drink in. It’s also a difficult game to get cutthroat with, since you don’t directly compete with the other players, but mostly assess the comparative virtues of your aviaries at the end of the game. This too relieves some stress without removing the challenge. You will end up having a favorite bird, too, which can be your downfall if you insist on having it in your aviary. My favorite is the belted kingfisher, and it is the best bird in the game (it’s not) and when I play it I never lose (I do), because it is the supreme bird above all other birds (it’s not). Hint: the best bird is ordinary.
Educational Sleight of Hand
Education. This took us by surprise. “Educational” games often come across as too contrived, designed to deceive players into acquiring knowledge against their wills. What we didn’t expect was that our eight-year-old would soon be shouting from the kitchen window, “Mom, Dad, there’s a Northern Flicker in the backyard!”. She was right. She knows the nest type, approximate egg-laying potential, and yes, the wingspan, of many of the birds in the deck. She was thrilled to receive a pair of binoculars and a bird facts book for her birthday. And the cards don’t just show fun facts. Each bird has a kind of power that can trigger when you take your turn, and these powers mimic an actual behavior of that bird. Raptors “eat” other smaller birds, the pelican “eats” a lot of fish, and the cowbird lays eggs in other bird nests.
The (Few) Downsides
I may as well tell you the cons, such as they are. It does take a few playthroughs to get comfortable with all the birds, though once through will familiarize you with the system. Once you have befriended all the birds, you’ll find that the game is a bit broken by the weighted powers of two birds in particular, if someone draws them from the large deck. Increasing the number of players can mitigate this effect, and since there are a plethora of ways to win the game, an alert player can still outpace the power birds. The European expansion game fixes this by introducing new bird powers and strategies, as well as raising the card total to 251. We haven’t played the Oceania expansion yet, but it apparently adds another 90+ birds and additional maneuvering options.
Coda: The Eight-Year-Old Perspective
I’ll close with a review composed by our now nine-year-old, sung to “Twelve Days of Christmas”, which has been bouncing off our domestic walls for the last month, to our collective amusement. I’ll give you the countdown from twelve to one:
One the twelfth day of Wingspan my true love gave to me
Twelve tufted titmice
Eleven red-tailed hawwks
Ten dark-eyed juncos
Nine Eastern bluebirds
Eight cedar waxwings
Seven red-winged blackbirds
Six spotted towhees
Five ring-billed guuuulls
Four sandhill cranes
Two mourning doves
And a Northern flicker in a pear tree
And there you have it.
Overall, Wingspan is beautiful, challenging (at first) and fun, 8+