How a board game about birds turned into a sleeper hit for Steam and Switch

Wingspan launched in 2019 before being ported to digital platforms in 2020. It’s now among the top board gaming apps on iOS.

A screenshot from a trailer for the game Wingspan, showing a group of birds flying against a blue sk...
Stonemaier Games

In 2016, video game developer Krzysiek Żarczyński was working out of a spare bedroom in Poznań, Poland with two buddies on a Viking-themed action RPG called Die for Valhalla!

Less than four years later, his small startup company, Monster Couch, successfully created a digital port for an award-winning — and notably serene — board game about birds called Wingspan for Stonemaier Games, a company based in St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s hard to say which is more intriguing: Monster Couch’s shift from a slash-and-hack side-scroller to an introspective card-based board game port, or the transatlantic collaboration between these entities.

The digital version of Wingspan launched on Steam in September of 2020 and on Switch three months later. The app came to iPhone and iPad last summer, and Monster Couch is prepping for the release of the first official DLC, an expansion pack featuring European birds, which will be released simultaneously across all platforms in Q2 of this year. While platforms can be notoriously stingy with exact numbers, Żarczyński says that the digital version has garnered over half a million downloads, with Steam leading the way and the Switch version a strong runner-up. Recently, the mobile app has been bumping up against the top 10 most-downloaded board game apps for iOS, up there with names like Monopoly and Settlers of Catan.

Wingspan, the board game, debuted in 2019 and gained momentum in 2020, with so much of the world spending long hours indoors. Decidedly calming and almost entirely non-competitive, Wingspan defies some standard board game logic. As with many games, the goal is to score the most points, which players do by filling habitats with birds, laying eggs, or using birds' special abilities.

Stonemaier Games

Just a touch shy of the peacefulness of actual birdwatching, the game is as soothing as a board game can be. It makes sense that it took the top prize in half of the categories at the Golden Geek Awards in the year of its release. Artists Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo provided stunning artwork for the bird cards, and the game boasts a creative birdhouse dice tower and beautiful pastel eggs, making it incredibly tactile. Thus, creating a port that lived up to the original game presented a substantial challenge for a team of young video game developers.

Monster Couch began as a passion project by a few friends to build their own original game — Die for Valhalla! — but the trio didn’t just want to make the game; they set the ambitious goal of launching it on multiple platforms, including Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation. It went as well as can be expected for the first game from a startup developer and garnered a smattering of positive reviews, though you might not know it from Żarczyński’s somewhat bleak take: “Die for Valhalla! has done well enough not to kill the company.” But just being afloat after your first bout as a startup is a victory, and the company had developed some crucial skills in its trial by fire.

Using that newfound knowledge, Monster Couch began helping friends port their projects for multiple platforms, including aiding fellow Polish company Robot Gentleman with 60 Parsecs!, the followup to 60 Seconds! But in January of 2019, Żarczyński and his team decided it was time to turn their attention to a new proprietary project of their own. “It was very much a ‘new year, new us’ thing,” quips Żarczyński. As an avid board game player who often hosted game nights with friends, he realized a tabletop game port might be a good fit since they could develop the property and also help port it across platforms. “As a company, we have a history of doing ports, so we have this service background,” Żarczyński explains.

“It’s a unicorn in the board games world.”

He’d recently come across a thorough post on Stonemaier Games’ blog (which is prolific), about the company’s expectations and process for working with developers who create digital versions of its games. On January 8, 2019, a little after midnight in Poland, he emailed Stonemaier, introducing himself and expressing interest in working together. Seven minutes later — before Stonemaier even got the chance to respond — he emailed again with a more direct approach: “Shall we talk about Wingspan?”

Stonemaier Games

Just days after their first email exchange, Monster Couch and Stonemaier were inking a deal for the digital port of the game. At the time, the tabletop game had just concluded a successful pre-order campaign and was beginning to be mailed out to early adopters. But Wingspan would quickly become Stonemaier’s best-selling game ever. According to Stonemaier co-founder and president Jamey Stegmaier, Wingspan’s tabletop version has sold over a million copies and has been published in over 30 languages. “Wingspan is unique in the way that it was suddenly very popular — it’s a unicorn in the board games world,” Żarczyński says. “That definitely helped the success of the digital version.”

As a young company, though, one of Monster Couch’s primary hurdles was fronting the financial resources for developing the game; Stonemaier had been clear from the start about not providing financial assistance for the project. Żarczyński turned to some previous investors and friends but was shocked when people literally laughed at his pitch and insisted that there was no way to recoup costs with this project. Half a million downloads later, those would-be investors are undoubtedly regretful.

Going digital

From the beginning, Żarczyński planned to make the digital version available across platforms, so the team developed everything from a single source code and used platform-defining commands to compile slightly different versions. “When we think about how you play cards, you want to look at the card, scroll through them, read their descriptions, and then play them — this interaction is at the very core of playing Wingspan, and this needs to feel natural to the way people interact on the platform,” Żarczyński says. But the available tools for each platform differ. “You can do that with touch, dragging your finger on the screen, and mouse is different, because you can hover [over] things, and with a finger you can’t hover,” he explains.

By creating sections of code that govern primary functions — say, how one interacts with cards — and nesting platform-specific lines of code in those sections, Monster Couch made it easy for various ports to communicate with one another quickly. That design was essential to allow players to engage with one another across platforms through an online portal. Working from a single source code also makes more streamlined the process of adding expansion packs developed for the real-life game.

Little animations really do add up to make the experience.”

Monster Couch’s port introduces a handful of flourishes that bring the digital version to life. The game’s original artwork is not only rendered beautifully but also features subtle animation, as birds crane their necks, move their beaks, or flap their wings. In addition to a tranquil, acoustic guitar-driven soundtrack, the game features real-life recordings of the birds in play on the board. One of Żarczyński’s favorite details of the game is the pleasant little popping sound made when a player lays an egg. “Those little animations really do add up to make the experience,” he says.

Wingspan’s digital port provides two different views for players: one that shows the entire board and closely displays everything you could see with a bird’s-eye-view of the tabletop version, and another that shows just one of the board’s three habitats, along with necessary info like the cards in your hand and the resources you have available. Żarczyński remembers getting a little bit of pushback when he first raised the design concept to Stonemaier, but the move proved brilliant, allowing players a more immersive view of individual bird cards and the animation of the digital version.

In Wingspan, points aren't tallied up until the game’s end and are earned almost entirely independently, effectively making it a strategy game against yourself. In fact, the original board game features a solo-play version against an “Automa,” a set of rules that mimics an imaginary player pit against you. “Wingspan works very well as this solitary experience,” Żarczyński says. That becomes especially true in the digital port, which allows not only the Automa rules but also AI players to serve as traditional opponents.

Stonemaier Games

Wingspan’s digital port lowers the barrier of entry for an ornate, tactile game, creating an accessible format that users can pick up and play solo with substantially less time and effort than the full tabletop version requires. Yet it stokes a love of the game that should draw players back toward the beauty of the original board game, which is the key metric for Stegmaier.

“I’m always thinking about the onboarding process for our games,” he says. “When you’re playing a digital port, it’s essentially teaching you as you go, and I think that’s really helpful — as opposed to sitting down and reading the rulebook.” In that regard, he says he’s thrilled by Monster Couch’s digital version, which he says turned out excellently by not only representing the game’s rules but also embodying its aesthetic. “Wingspan is meant to be a very pleasant experience, and all these things I can’t do in a cardboard game — like the sound effects and the animations — are in that digital game to convey that pleasant experience,” Stonemaier says.

Both Wingspan’s tabletop version and digital counterpart have soared to impressive heights, which must be attributed in part to the game’s unique vision. Stonemaier has already delivered two expansion projects since the game first hit shelves, and the digital game’s success has allowed Monster Couch to grow from five employees at the game’s start into a team of 14.

Żarczyński looks back at Die For Valhalla! and says that they tried similar marketing techniques that just didn’t work, but with Wingspan, everything felt almost effortless. Whether it was beta signup, inviting people to a Discord group, or promoting the game at festivals, Wingspan consistently captured attention.

He compares the experience to the difference between marketing a stone or a feather. “When you have a stone, it just falls down, and it's very difficult to gain momentum and get people interested,” he explains. “But if you have a feather, there’s something intrinsic about the thing — it’s easy to pick up and it takes a lot of time to fall down again.” With its transportive quality and graceful flow, there’s not a more apt metaphor. Undoubtedly, Wingspan is a feather.