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Let’s get Digital!


What’s the worst thing about playing board games? Having to learn or teach rules to a new game? Having to do copious amounts of set up before being able to play? Not having enough interested friends to play that new game you have your eye on? Or is it just that your favourite game isn’t small enough to take away on holiday with you? All of these were reasons that I started to explore digital versions of well known board games.

I started with the standard platforms - Board Game Arena, Tabletopia etc., but for whatever reason they didn’t really scratch my itch. Perhaps it was missing the tactility of the in person gameplay. Perhaps it was the feeling of playing against some faceless person online. Or maybe it was just the fiddly-ness of the gameplay systems. But either way- the itch was left unscratched. The hole, unfilled.

So I started investigating the Steam catalogue, and perusing the online sales for a bargain or two. Then one day, I hit the jackpot- one of my personal non-digital favourites, Wingspan, was in the Steam sale. I’d done my research. I’d read all the reviews. I’d watched all the play throughs. And so I pounced, and splashed out on the Wingspan base game, as well as the European expansion.

As I loaded it up, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Well, that’s not exactly true- having done my research, I knew pretty much exactly what to expect. I guess really, I wasn’t sure what it was going to feel like, how much it was going to scratch the boardgame itch. After the first couple of games, I can confirm that that itch was scratched. Red Raw. Like a stray dog with fleas. And I began to consider a dangerous, controversial thought…could this digital version of Wingspan actually be better than the physical version? And so began my foray into the world of digital board games.

Wingspan Digital


Wingspan as a game is already one which is packed with gorgeous illustrations. As a self proclaimed ‘Bird Nerd’ (quoting my wife), the beautiful artwork of over 170 birds (depending on which and how many expansions you play with) was one of the main appeals of this game in the first place. So I was pleasantly surprised when the digital version actually built on this, animating each of the birds to move within the confines of their cards when played. There are also a large variety of game board backgrounds- some seasonal or themed, some just beautifully embellished natural environments. Each of these are also animated to a degree- for example, there is a marshland background which has Dragonflies which buzz across the board from time to time. Both of these things, whilst they don’t seem like much by themselves, make an already cosy game feel much cosier.


Layered on top of these vibrant visuals, comes another soothing sensory snuggle in the form of Wingspans’ soundtrack. Now, before you get your hopes up, please don’t expect a monstrous John Williams on Hans Zimmer-esque score here. This soundtrack isn’t going to win any major awards, nor is it going to hit the charts any time soon. Although it is available on Spotify- my wife has it as her daily alarm, which makes for an interesting Spotify Wrapped. Turn by turn, this calming melody provides a pleasant backdrop to play, only punctuated by two things. First, the call of a bird as it is played. Second, a comforting voice which gives you a quick (some might call them ‘fun’) fact about the bird that you have just played. I, along with many of my other fellow ‘bird nerds’ I am sure, have always enjoyed the little fact given on the bottom of each of the physical Wingspan cards. But far too often, the pressure of taking your turn so that the next player can have theirs, means that reading out the fact on each card can be accompanied by sighs, eye rolls, tuts, and the occasional thrown projectile. In Wingspan Digital, these facts are read out by an omniscient narrator who somehow manages to avoid touching any of those particular nerves (although it can be turned off for anyone who does not wish to have their lives enriched by knowing that Turkey Vultures can projectile vomit to defend themselves).

Gameplay systems

So the visuals are great, the audio is great. But it doesn’t really mean much if the gameplay itself its less enjoyable to play. I’m pleased to say that, in my many hours of gameplay it hasn’t lost any of the enjoyment from the physical version- aside for perhaps, ever so slightly, losing the physical tactility of being able to pick up and play pieces (which clearly is something you would expect to happen from a digital board game). But even then, there are some nice touches in gameplay which try to compensate for this- a ‘swish’ noise as you turn over or pick up a card, and a satisfying ‘clunk’ as you lay an egg. But again, how does Wingspan Digital build on the gameplay of the original?

Clearly, there are limits to which you can change the gameplay without it becoming a different game altogether- so room to manoeuvre here is minimal. One thing I particularly like is that it makes the game, not easier, but just a bit more streamlined. So, for example, when I click on particular habitat, the game will highlight which birds in my hand I am able to play (i.e. which cards I have the correct food and eggs for). It will also keep an ongoing tally of how all players are progressing towards end of round targets, your personal bonus cards and overall scoring. So, you see, it doesn’t make the game simpler as such- but it does help avoid silly mistakes, and much of the analysis paralysis which can slow the physical game down. There are a few other nice touches too- such as the local pass and play mode, and being able to archive games (and who doesn’t enjoy basking in past victories once in a while).


So, where does Wingspan Digital improve on the physical board game? For me, what it essentially comes down to is having the ability to play a beautifully cosy game, in whatever environment I choose. My wife and I regularly play this in bed, as a peaceful start or end to the day; we’ve also played this on trains, planes and cruise ships. Aside from the other aforementioned pros applicable to many other online board games (e.g. no set up, a tutorial mode, and being able to play against AI opponents) there are a score of other elements which elevate this game from just being a digital reproduction of a beloved classic, to one which really embraces the benefits and opportunities that a digital board game can offer.

Is Wingspan Digital a freak of nature, or are there more?

I’m not made of money, so sadly I cannot say that I have been able to exhaustively answer this question. But my enjoyment of Wingspan Digital did spark the question - could there be other boardgames on Steam (or other major platforms) which do as Wingspan has done, and use the benefits of digital gameplay to enhance the hobby?


Root is another good example of a digitally improved board game, succeeding in a similar vein to Wingspan. Root builds upon the physical game through excellent use of audio enhancements, with a solid soundtrack layered behind the clash of sword of warring factions. Likewise, visual improvements are present in almost every aspect of the gameplay, with animated characters moving across the board and battling it out in cutscenes, as opposed to symbolic game pieces or icons. The gameplay flows well, and isn’t particularly inhabited by the digital translation in any of its game modes (of which there are a number- Online, Pass and Play, Challenge mode, just to name a few).

However, I do have one minor gripe with the gameplay of Root Digital, in the area of the digital player board. Personally, due to the asymmetric nature of the different factions, I find it quite difficult to remember all of their differences when changing from playing as one to another. That’s why I tend to stick with playing as the Eerie Dynasty, a faction of birds (I see a pattern here) who play with one specific set of gameplay rules. When I try and play with a different faction, for example the Woodland Alliance, I do struggle to remember all of the rules and scoring criteria for this new group. When playing Root in the physical realm, I don’t have this problem as much because at all times I have the player board in front of me, which I am able to consult whenever I want. In Root Digital, whilst it is available to view within a couple of clicks as a full screen reference guide, it somehow feels more inconvenient than just glancing down to check my understanding, or pondering over it in between turns. This can lead to some situations where you arrive at having to select an action (or equally, not being allowed to select a certain action) and you aren’t really sure why or how you arrived at this point. I have in the past ended up so lost as to a gameplan, that I just click an action because I can, like a child pressing all of the buttons in a lift.


Everdell is another game which really ticks the boxes of both being visually and audibly appealing. Beautiful artwork? Check! Peaceful soundtrack? Check! And as with Root, the variety of different gameplay options will really appeal to diehard Everdell fans. I have enjoyed playing the digital version of Everdell, particularly in the Pass and Play local option on long train journeys with my wife. However, I would say that the physical game of Everdell is not one which gets a huge amount of game time in our house, so the rules and different elements to play do sometimes allude me- something which I don’t think is helped by having such a big board and so many different options. And here, in my opinion, is where Everdell Digital (similarly to Root) falls down. I once spent an entire game having forgotten about the ‘Events’ section of the board- a key aspect of point scoring- just because it wasn’t on the main screen. I spent another game working towards one of the Event criteria, only to realise once I got there that it had been claimed by another player several turns before- again, because it wasn’t on the main screen and I hadn’t thought to check. Neither of these things would have happened playing the physical game, as everything is ‘laid bare’ for everyone to see.

Spirit Island

Spirit Island is an anomaly on this list, as, unlike the other three, I do not have a physical copy of the game nor have I played it in person. But it is a game that I have admired from afar, and it was on sale, so I went for it.

Big mistake. Not having played this game in person, I personally struggled to really click with it. Yes, it is great both visually and audibly, but I really struggled to really engage with the gameplay and strategy needed. I’m not sure exactly why- perhaps again it is because I have never seen the entire game (board, cards, tokens et al.) laid out in front of me, and never physically laid down a card or removed a game piece as a result of an action. Perhaps, being able to take those physical actions, and being able to see how the mechanics of a game play out, are a valuable tool for my learning and enjoyment of a game. Equally, perhaps, this is just one of my own personal quirks, as my wife is in the same boat and has played this game multiple times against the AI opponent and enjoys the game without issue.

In Conclusion

I think that this toe dip into the world of digital board game adaptions has taught me a few nuggets of wisdom that I can pass on.

1. If there is a game that you love, and know the rules inside and out, I would encourage you to explore if there is a digital adaptation of it available. Not least because it may save you set up time, increase portability, and provide a new space to explore it. If you are the sort of person who might spend extra to upgrade the components of a game, think about spending extra on going digital as well.

2. Not all games work well as digital board game adaptations. Sometimes there are factors which can hamper enjoyment, such as board size (which is obvious now I say it aloud - cramming a game which takes up an entire tabletop onto a 22inch screen is going to cause some problems).

3. Spending £15 on a digital version of a game that otherwise costs £70 can be tempting, but first think about your personal playing/learning style. If you are the sort of person who enjoys surveying the entire board, or learning the rules through understanding the different mechanisms and nuances of the game, then perhaps borrowing or buying a physical copy of the game first is still worthwhile. Once you’ve got to gripx with this, you can always pass it onto a friend or sell it on Ebay and then transition to the Digital version so that you can play the game anywhere.

Finally, a note to say that (as I have pointed out) I haven’t got a magical money tree to buy and test all of the boardgames on Steam (there are boardgames out there on other platforms too). There are many more games available though, such as: Through the ages, Scythe, Gloomhaven, Terraforming Mars, Undaunted Normandy, Brass Birmingham, Concordia, Viticulture, Dune Imperium and Ticket to Ride. So go and take a look, if any of those take your fancy!