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First Impressions: Wyrmspan

🐉 Stop Draggin' My Heart Around...

Developed by Elizabeth Hargrave; Designed by Connie Vogelman; Art by Clementine Campardou

I don't want to call this a review, because this is not a review site. This is a blog where I post weird diatribes and years-long writing projects. That said, I do frequently post about board games and I did manage to get my hands on an advanced copy of one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2024. So I might as well share my thoughts and some pictures, right? (Caveat: the gameplay pictures are of fancy upgraded components, because I am a fancy upgraded boy, but base game components will also be discussed.) So without further ado...

Wyrmspan: a Wingspan Game

It's wild to think that Wingspan only came out five years ago. There was a good stretch of time (I want to say at least a year or year-and-a-half) where it was the game that everyone wanted to play but that you couldn't actually find on shelves anywhere. It was a moderate-weight engine-builder with a very chill vibe from up-and-coming designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Attracting birds to your habitat can be deep, apparently, but not stressful. With lovely art and high-quality components--including wooden dice, pastel eggs, and a birdhouse dice tower--it had a delightful table presence. It remains one of my favorite board games of all time, probably in my Top 5, certainly in my Top 10, and definitely one I don't get to the table nearly enough. So when I heard that a new version was coming out that featured crunchier gameplay and dragons... let's just say I was excited for it.

Wyrmspan takes the same basic game engine as its predecessor and builds/refines it. Instead of attracting birds, you're enticing dragons. Instead of activating your habitats, you're exploring caves. Instead of a fixed number of turns per round, you have coins to spend (and ways to accrue them). The birdhouse is gone, but we now have cave cards and a Dragon Guild to contend with. There are a lot of new bells and whistles, but under the hood, the gameplay loop is the same, even if it's been souped up a bit. So the two questions that come to mind are: how is it in its own right, and how does it compare to Wingspan?

Neoprene player mats, note the metal dragon coins

To the former--it's really good. If you've never played either game, here's the basic idea. You are an adventurer and "dracologist" trying to build out a dragon sanctuary. The mountain where you've set up shop has three Alliterative Areas that can house dragons: the Crimson Cavern, the Golden Grotto, and the Amethyst Abyss. Each dragon has an area (or areas) that it can live in, but in order to entice it there you'll need to offer up the specific combination of meat, milk, gold, and crystals that the dragon prefers. At the start of the game, each area can only house one dragon, so in order to get more, you'll need to excavate by playing cave cards from your hand. These cards give you bonuses--usually resources or cards representing things you unearthed as you dug. When you play a dragon into your cave, it can have a number of effects. It has points on it, it can hold eggs, and it has a size (large, medium, small, hatchling) and nature (shy, playful, aggressive, helpful) that can factor into scoring. Additionally, you get some kind of bonus for playing it. Maybe it will give you an instant bonus, or maybe it will give you end-of-round or end-of-game bonuses. Or maybe--and this is where the engine-building comes in--it will give you a bonus every time you explore that area.

Exploring is the third type of action you can take, and depending on which Alliterative Area you explore, it will net you cave cards, dragon cards, or resources. The more dragons you have there, the deeper you can explore, netting you even more stuff. Exploring also advances your status with the Dragon Guild, which gets you a bonus every time you advance. At regular intervals this includes the ability to claim a more powerful first-come-first-served bonus from the inset board that is specific to that guild. There are four different guilds, so there's some variety here for replay value. Exploring costs eggs the more you do it in a round, though, and eggs aren't the easiest resource to come by, so use them judiciously. You start each round by gaining six coins and an egg, and every turn costs you one coin (sometimes more to play more powerful cards). When you run out of dragon coins--or if you simply choose to quit early--you pass for the round. Once everyone passes, the round ends, and after four rounds, the game ends.

Round-tracker board, card display, Dragon Guild board

The gameplay loop is pretty simple, then, at least in the abstract. Excavate to make room for more dragons and gain resources. Explore to gain cards and resources. Entice to gain victory points, satisfy end-of-round goals, and earn bonuses as well as making your Explore actions more profitable. Build out your habitat in order to capitalize on synergies between dragons, balancing engine-building with points. Simple, in theory, but in practice, there's a lot of nuance. As is the case with most engine-builders, your early turns will be short, but as your engine builds you'll find yourself able to do more and more by the end of the game, but still wishing you had one or two more turns. Resources are pretty scarce in this game, so you'll find that many of your decisions, especially early on, are geared towards maximizing those. A lot of dragon powers involve getting rid of cards in exchange for resources and/or future points, so there's a great deal of opportunity cost to weigh.

Ergo, a game that's simple in concept becomes... not exactly heavy but probably heavier-than-average. The learning curve isn't all that steep--I was able to play it with my nine-year-old--but it is daunting. Getting your engine to actually work properly is a lot of effort, but the result can be quite satisfying. It's light on player-interaction, so it doesn't feel very competitive, but it never gets mean and nasty. And it's pretty, with great art by Clementine Campardou and quality components. The many unique dragon cards and variable Dragon Guild mats and round-end goals make for a lot of replay value while also preventing you from just diving for the cards you want; you have to work with what's available and try to build an engine out of the pieces that come up. It's on the long side, so be prepared for that, but it's a lot of fun. The biggest points against it are the huge table footprint and that it can have a lot of downtime, especially at high player counts or with opponents who suffer from analysis paralysis. But, if you like a good-looking thinker, this is a game for you.

And I, for one, love a good-looking thinker. That's why I married her... Anyhoo...

So now for the part of the post you've actually been waiting for. How does it compare to its forebear? Let's get into the nuts and bolts.

Base game eggs and blue-green trays, upgraded gold, crystal, meat, and milk tokens

Let's start with components. They're definitely nice--this is a Stonemaier game after all--but if I were giving out grades, I think Wyrmspan would score slightly lower. I like the new eggs--all glossy and speckled and bold-colored. They look and feel more like eggs and less like after-dinner mints. The dragon cards are comparable to the bird cards of Wingspan, which is impressive considering Wyrmspan has richly-detailed paintings of creatures that don't actually exist. The player mats are a little less nice. They have lovely water-color artwork, but they don't have the lush vibrance of the ones you use in Wingspan. The resource tokens are about the same, although the dragon coin tokens have a metallic finish that really makes them pop. But the biggest downside aesthetically is the lack of the bird-feeder dice tower. The way in which you get food has been completely rethought, and that means saying goodbye to the main thing that gave Wingspan its distinct table presence. The dice are gone too, which is a shame because those wooden resource dice were very tactilely satisfying. Also gone is the display tray that doubled as card storage. Instead we have a Dragon Guild board and a larger end-of-round scoring board, and a card display board. They're all nice, but they actually make the table footprint issue worse. The lack of a card tray and bird feeder makes for less in-box storage, so instead we get lots of plastic baggies and the inside of the box becomes a bit of a jumble. So from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the victory goes to Wingspan.

Base game resource tokens and dragon coins--see how they pop!

However! Getting rid of the dice fixes one of the big gameplay issues from the original bird game. Because food availability in Wingspan was determined by rolling dice, and because dice hate you--yes, you, specifically you personally--it was not all that uncommon to get to a turn where you needed something from the bird-feeder that simply wasn't there. Yes, you could trade in food tokens at two-to-one to get what you needed, but as tight as the gameplay is in Wingspan, being set behind by a turn, or even half a turn, can have pretty far-reaching consequences. And anyway, needing something that just happens to not be there is frustrating and very much not fun. Wingspan smoothed this out with the Oceania expansion, which added nectar, a wild resource that expired at the end of the round. Wyrmspan goes in a different direction entirely. When you Explore the Crimson Cavern to get resources, you can take whatever you need, but this is a pretty inefficient way to gain them. You end up getting a fair amount from cave cards and the Dragon Guild. You know where you are on the Guild board and you know what cards are in your hand, so acquiring resource tokens becomes a lot more deterministic. It's a change for the better, and it's not the only one.

For instance--and I get that this is a minor thing, but having taught Wingspan a number times, I really appreciate this--the Explore mechanic has you going left-to-right through your habitat instead of right-to-left. Not only is this a lot more intuitive, it also ties the engine-building game element into the theme. Activating a habitat in Wingspan is a gameplay conceit that doesn't actually make much thematic sense, but exploring deeper into your habitat and interacting with the dragons that live there does. I also really like the cave cards. They feel like they would make the game drag because you now have to put down two cards on every space, but in practice they replace a lot of the habitat activation turns, which makes your choices feel more varied, even if your turn still amounts to do-a-thing-to-gain-cards-or-tokens. Since you're activating your dragons less often, they can get more powerful. I haven't actually done the math, but it feels like there's a significantly higher percentage of cards that have when-played, end-of-round, or end-of-game effects compared to Wingspan, even after the expansions.

Da cutest widdle dwaggy-kins!

On the other hand, we get hatchlings. They're not just adorable, they're great for engine-building and a lot of fun to play. Each one costs an egg and some milk. Each time you activate it, you cache something on the card and get something in return. On the third activation, you get a hefty one-time bonus. So they can be very profitable a few turns out. You can also chain them together. I had one hatchling that cached meat and gave me milk. Right next to it, I had a hatchling that cached milk and gave me eggs. So whenever I explored that habitat, I spent one meat to gain three victory points on top of the one-time bonuses. So if you go all-in on the engine-building side, by the end of the game your Explore actions can start to feel ridiculously over-powered, which is probably why they're limited and progressively more expensive. But dang, they're satisfying to pull off.

I'm also a big fan of the dragon coins which serve as turn trackers. Wingspan's fixed number of turn tokens felt somewhat limiting. No matter what, you will get exactly twenty-six turns. The coins make this more dynamic. You have a base of twenty-four turns in the game, but you have opportunities to gain more, either by advancing along the Dragon Guild track or fully excavating your mountains, or from powers granted playing cave or dragon cards. It's not unlimited, but it feels very freeing. You can also bank them. If you're feeling like this round is a wash and you don't like the cards available, but you still have a couple of coins left, you can pass early and have extra turns in the next round where the points for goals will be higher. There are also very powerful dragons who cost an extra coin to play. Is the benefit of that dragon high enough that it's worth burning a turn to get it onto your board? It very well could be.

End of game--and yes I put an egg on a hatchling by mistake, but it didn't affect anything

To facilitate the added complexity, a few things have been streamlined. I already mentioned the birdfeeder and resource dice, but there are other subtler things. There are no more game-end personal goals, which is one of those things that you don't really notice is missing until someone points it out. Your habitat can only house twelve dragons, instead of the fifteen birds you could theoretically amass in Wingspan. It does mean you're more likely to fill it--or at least to fully excavate it--so it actually feels like you're doing more instead of less.

Now, not every change feels positive. The idea of exploring a cave instead of activating a habitat feels much more thematic, but the use of eggs is decidedly less so. In Wingspan, you spent eggs to get birds. That makes sense. Here, you spend eggs to Excavate deeper and Explore more frequently. And to hatch hatchlings. It works as a gameplay conceit, but it feels just a bit off thematically. Which is not to say I have a better solution in mind, I'm just picking at nits here so this isn't a complete gush-fest. Speaking of nitpicky things that don't matter, it's kind of weird that you use coins instead of cubes as turn-trackers, but you still start the game with eight cubes that are used for tracking round-end goals and Dragon Guild unlocks. It adds the slightest bit of confusion when teaching Wingspan veterans.

And then there are the things that didn't change. Downtime is still there. Game length still scales mostly linearly with player-count, but at least the box calls it a 90 minute game. It's still a high price point. You're getting quality components, and you're paying for them. One complaint that I don't personally have but have heard from others is the lack of player interaction. The missing birdfeeder and friendlier ties make it slightly less cutthroat, but the limited number of unlocks on the Guild Board is something else to compete for, so the overall level is more or less unchanged. If you were looking for something a little more aggressive, you won't find it here.

In conclusion...

So by now you've skimmed the post and looked at the photos and come down here for the tl;dr. Do I like it better than Wingspan? Should fans of Wingspan also acquire this one?

Well, if I had to put my nickel down and pick a favorite of the two, I think I lean ever so slightly towards Wyrmspan. Part of this is the novelty, part of it is the crunchier and more refined gameplay, and part of it is theme. While I don't think it quite lives up to Wingspan's table presence, there's still a lot of great presentation here. The dragon designs are varied and clearly take some inspiration from How to Train Your Dragon which is one of my favorite movies. Shocking how easy it is to win me over, right? Also, it comes with a lore book! It's completely superfluous and littered with marginalia, and I love it.

Dragon doesn't fax, it emails

Fortunately for me, I don't have to put my nickel down and pick a favorite. And that's a good thing, because the games are different enough that it doesn't just feel like a re-skin. They scratch slightly different itches, so I'm keen to have both on my shelf. And I'm excited about what the future might hold in store for this game. Not being bound by pesky things like "biology" or "the real world" means expansions could do some really interesting things. They could introduce whole new dragon traits, sizes, or resources, as well as new Dragon Guilds and cave cards. Dark magic dragons. Dragons with riders. Elemental dragons. Asiatic dragons. Dragonflies. Dragoons, who don't really belong but got past security because no one noticed the spelling. And I'm also intrigued by what the words "A Wingspan Game" could mean. It's a solid game engine that could be adapted to any number of collectible creatures, mythical or otherwise. Cryptids. Kodama. Retiree tourists. Insects. Aliens. Insect aliens! There's a lot of potential here, so we'll see what the future brings.

But in the meantime, I'm just looking for the next opportunity to bring this one to the table.