Wyrmspan, successor to bestselling Wingspan, doesn’t stray far

A wyrm takes flight in a watercolor image from the cover of Wyrmspan. It is red and gold, against a blue background.
Image: Stonemaier Games

In spite of all those teeth, claws, and fire, the game is still pretty chill

Unless you’ve actually been stuck outside watching birds for the past five years, you’ve probably heard of Wingspan. This aviary-themed board game has sold over a million copies and ignited a new wave of nature-focused tabletop designs with unusually broad appeal. Now, birds are out and dragons are in, as Stonemaier Games’ Wyrmspan is mostly a return of the comfortable gameplay we’ve become accustomed to, albeit with a fresh cast of scaly winged beasts.

As a bit of a surprise, Apiary designer Connie Vogelmann is helming this new venture. Wingspan creator Elizabeth Hargrave returns in a supporting role as developer, creating a powerful duo to usher in this new release. Much is familiar. You are once again collecting creatures to fill out a sanctuary. These are attained from a central market that all players select from. They’re played from the hand to personal boards that depict colorful cave sanctuaries. Dragons — like Wingspan’s birds — facilitate the construction of ability combinations for cascading point scoring. They can also lay colorful eggs, which are spent alongside other resources to coax new dragons into the habitat. The pastoral illustrations remain beautiful and central to the experience. It’s still a warm game, despite the new coldblooded cast.

A player board from Wyrmspan showing eggs and dragons in equal measure. Tiny icons show where explorer-shaped meeples will go.
Photo: Charlie Theel for Polygon

The allure is the transition to a setting that has stronger pop culture pull. The overall vibe ties in to properties such as Game of Thrones, the new Netflix film Damsel, and even the surge in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons. These mythical creatures have been propped up in the media, whereas birds are often viewed as mundane and bland. This is an enormous part of Wyrmspan’s success as it commits wholeheartedly to this fantastical backdrop.

Many of the actions and activities are framed in this new environment. Instead of simply triggering each row of birds to benefit from their ongoing effect, players now utilize an explorer that trudges through caves where the dragons are nesting. Before you can do this, however, each of the three caves (rows) must be explored. New cave cards facilitate this portion of the game, affording a path of development that provides for a more nuanced resource engine.

Each collection of dragons is also preserved in deference to a guild. This is an entirely new system that allows players to pursue additional benefits and achieve multilayered rewards. These small touches add a degree of overall strategic complexity, but they more prominently exist in service to the subject matter. This notion is so central to the game that an included booklet details each of the dozens of dragon types found on the cards, offering personality and physical profiles, as well as a small blurb describing the species. It’s fascinating as a production choice, even if in practice only a small portion of players will actually read the manual. All of this commitment results in a more solidified world and an actual layer of immersion and curiosity.

The Guild Board i Wyrmspan tracks the progress for that particular guild with wooden markers shaped like shields. Guilds will change from game to game, adding variety to the experience.
Photo: Charlie Theel for Polygon

The most significant criticism of Wyrmspan is that it forms an odd relationship with the original Wingspan, resulting in one of the two games being entirely redundant. There are legitimate and thoughtful changes here — such as the guilds, caves, and a reduced emphasis on laying eggs as a dominant strategy — but both designs occupy a similar space and share such a significant portion of their DNA.

This isn’t overly problematic. Other product lines have produced sister releases with new settings and slight adjustments and the market has responded accordingly. It’s just that some may be disappointed that a more radical approach was not taken with this new release. It also presents the question of whether future -span titles will come to fruition, and whether these new games will once again cannibalize the attention of their predecessors.

Coming into Wyrmspan, my biggest concern was this game would feel halfhearted and recycled. While it does indeed share many of the same systems and processes, the attention to detail in crafting this new setting is impressive. There is clearly a strong spark of inspiration at the core of the game, and it’s a spirit that is woven throughout the design. Wyrmspan harnesses this creativity to provide an experience that is memorable and worthy of its predecessor.

Wyrmspan is currently available at retail for $65. The game was reviewed using a copy provided by Stonemaier Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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