Birds on a Wire
is a new game by Carey Grayson that's also the eighth release in the Gryphon Games bookshelf series.
Playing Time: 20-30 minutes
Unlike most of this series, Birds on a Wire is a game of tile placement, not card play.
The Boards: The game comes with six boards, each printed to the size of the box on linen-textured cardboard. Five of them are player boards, each showing a 3x4 grid between power poles. The last board is the "sky card", which is a 4x4 grid, minus two of the corners.
These boards are all pretty plain, but great quality.
The Tiles: There are 67 tiles all printed on the same linen-textured cardboard as the boards themselves. 63 of these show birds, with seven tiles in each combination of three colors (red, green, blue) and three shapes (small, medium, and large). The drawings are all simple, but it's easy to distinguish the colors and the shapes, which are what are important. The last four tiles are "zaps" which show lightning bolts.
Bag: The game also includes a plain cloth bag, which is what you draw the tiles from.
Rules: Two glossy cardstock sheets providing the rules for the two versions of the game. There are, unfortunately, several ambiguities in the printed rules, but they're all clarified online. I used these clarifications when writing up this review. (It wasn't, in all cases, how we played the game, but the differences were small enough that I don't think they changed the overall feel of the game.)
Overall the components are excellent quality, but pretty basic other than that. I've given them a high "3" out of "5" for Style: slightly above average.
The game comes with two sets of rules, one for a "family game" and another for "advanced games". Unlike most splits of this sort, I'm not convinced the family game rules are easier--just different (and perhaps a bit less strategic). I think players of all sorts might enjoy both sorts of games, so I've opted to briefly summarize them both here.
Setup: Both games are setup with four lightning bolts being placed on a diagonal on the sky board.
The Family Game: In the family game, the object is to arrange series of birds in "Set"-like collections on your board.
Drawing Birds. On your turn, you draw a bird from the bag and place it on your board or on the sky board. You then may optionally draw a second bird, but if you do you must place it on your own board.
When you place birds on your board, you're trying to arrange them so that each row and column on your board: has birds with no attributes alike (e.g., a green big bird, a red small bird, and a blue medium bird); has birds with exactly one attribute alike (e.g., all medium birds of different colors); or has birds with all attributes alike (e.g., all big blue birds).
If you place a bird on the sky board, you may start a migration.
Migrating Birds. If a row or a column on the sky board fills, then all the birds in that row or column migrate.
First, if there's a lightning bolt in the row/column, the player who started the migration takes it.
Then, the active player may choose to take any birds that are migrating. From there, they go around the table, with each player having the opportunity to take some or all birds. At the end, the active player must take all birds that weren't taken by anyone else.
Zapping Birds. You can play a zap (lightning bolt) if you have one instead of taking the rest of the your turn. To do so you choose a row on your board or on someone else's and you zap it! If there are at least two birds, one of them (chosen by the zap-ee) flips over and will be worth a bonus point at the end of the game. The rest fly away.
Flying away follows the same procedure as a migration, except any birds that make it all the way around the table are discarded.
Scoring. The game ends when someone fills their board. Now each set of 3 or 4 birds (in a row or a column) that meets one of the criteria above (all same, all different, or 1 attribute the same) is worth one point. A bird can double score in both a row and a column, but you can't have multiple sets in the same row. Each flipped-over bird is also worth +1 point.
The highest total wins.
The Advanced Game: The advanced game works similarly, except now you're trying to get sets of the exact same bird. If you get 6 birds (of the 7 possible for the type) you win immediately. Otherwise, things get trickier ...
As with the family game, you must draw one tile and then you may draw a second. The biggest change is that when a tile is placed on your own board, it has to go adjacent to other birds of the exact same type ... unless it can't.
Migrations. Migrations happen, just as is the case with the family game, if a sky row/column fills or if a zap is used. However, there's no longer a choice to take what you want. Instead you must take all birds that you can place adjacent to another bird of the same type. The others fly on.
Scoring. If someone gets a set of 6 birds, they win, though this is pretty unlikely since there are only 7 of each type.
Otherwise, each player scores by the total number of birds he has in the sets of the smallest size on his board. In other words, if a player has at least one size-2 set, he scores by adding up the total birds in all his size-2 sets. Otherwise, if he has at least one size-3 set, he sums all his size-3 sets. Etc. As with the family game, flipped-over birds are worth +1.
And, again, the highest total wins.
Relationships to Other Games
Bird on a Wire is a set-collection game. However its migration rules are pretty unique and provide set interesting ways for players to collect elements for their sets.
The Game Design
At a glance, Birds on a Wire is a pretty basic game. As already noted, it takes simple draw-and-keep set-collection (like in Rummy) and makes it a bit more interesting via tile placement: you have to make decisions about what goes where and those choices can be very meaningful for the future. As a result, I think the game either stands out (or doesn't) based on the originality of its less classifiable rules: the zaps and the migration.
Unfortunately, after three games, I just don't feel like those rules are important enough to make much of a difference in gameplay. Everyone I played with did their best to keep zaps out of other players' hands. I personally think that's a darned good idea, because zaps can be both dangerous and powerful. Because of that the zaps (clearly) didn't come out and in addition, migrations didn't really occur either. Thus, we were left with a pretty basic game.
Now, I'll grant this result is probably a result of "group think." With everyone at the table playing in that manner, everyone at the table was going to play in that manner. I could see other groups playing in dramatically different ways that could make zaps and migrations more common. But I frankly think that's subpar play, and that you're unlikely to see it in more serious games.
So, what I'm generally saying here is that what I think could be the most interesting parts of the game get hardly any attention in actual play.
With that said, let me comment on both sorts of games. I liked them both, and I don't consider either one a better game than the other.
The "family" game did allow for somewhat more casual play, because the collection of those three sets of sets is pretty easy to figure out--though there's still challenge in it.
Conversely, I think the "advanced" game does have some additional strategy, as you're trying to keep all of your flocks at the same (smallest) size. This can lead to some interesting choices about where to place blocking tiles and when to decide when to grow your sets.
Overall, I feel like the game doesn't gel (for either sort of play), because some of the mechanics just don't get much use. Nonetheless, it's a fine light, casual game that is enjoyable, and I've assigned it a "3" out of "5" Substance as a result: average.
Birds on a Wire has some innovative mechanics that could allow for some neat gameplay--but they don't seem to come up much, resulting in a fairly simple, though still enjoyable, game.