The small card game field is a crowded one. There’s something familiar about a group of people sitting around a table with a hand of cards, slinging them around while laughs and gentle digs are tossed around. So how does one get noticed when a simple deck of standard playing cards can you keep you entertained for hours? Put a bird on it!
How it Plays
Songbirds is set up by placing a 5 random berries vertically and horizontally creating a 5 x 5 grid play area. A single card from the deck is placed at the center of the grid, and players are dealt a hand of cards depending on the number of players. On your turn, you will simply place a card from you hand in the grid adjacent to any other card already placed. Once all spaces in the grid have been filled, the game is over and that’s really all there is to it.
While the turn-to-turn action is exceedingly simple, scoring has a bit more nuance. There are 4 suits of cards in the game depicted as different colors of songbirds. The number on the card represents the bird’s volume. When a row or column is completed, it is scored. The suit with the highest cumulative volume scores the berry token.
You will have a single card left in your hand at game’s end, which will indicate the suit of songbirds you’ve chosen as your score. You’ll add the volume of the remaining card in your hand to the berries collected by that suit of songbird, and that is your final score. The player with the highest score wins.
Birds are having something of a moment in the board game world. With Wingspan burning up the charts, it’s easy to forget we’ve also seen the release of a few other bird-related games, including Piepmatz, Pikoko, and Ice Cool. And it’s not hard to see why. Just look at those adorable little birdies! More than being inoffensive, these little birds are downright adorable. The twee illustrations and scarcity of rules makes Songbirds eminently approachable, but don’t mistake it for being frivolous. There’s a surprising amount of thoughtfulness beneath the cutesy exterior.
Like many card games, Songbirds asks you to make a decision from the moment you look upon your opening hand. If you’re strong in one suit, you’ll likely use it to your advantage and try to control the board with that color and ultimately score it. But that means you’ll have less control over the other suits, and you’ll have to use your high cards carefully. In the high likelihood that your opening hand is a jumble of suits, you can afford to be more nimble in your strategy given that you can’t dominate a single suit.
Examining one row or column at a time, scoring can seem like a trivial matter. Simply place the highest volume cards in the suit to claim the berry. But there’s more to consider. Each berry has a different value so you’ll want to consider which one you want to go after. Of course the high value berries are tempting, but squander all your good cards to claim them, and you might fall short as you see other suits snatch up a multitude of small value berries that ultimately trump your single massive berry. And you can’t simply jump to your desired row or column since you have a place adjacent to an already placed card making spatial planning a small but crucial consideration.
But you aren’t playing one dimension at a time. For every card you play, you are causing a change in the vertical and horizontal scoring play state. Every spot on the grid is an intersection of two potential scorings. Where two high value berries meet, a well placed card can sway the momentum of the game. It’s these layers of considerations that make Songbirds more than just an activity to pass the time. With a single card play your attention is pulled in multiple directions in a delightfully challenge of birdistry.
The most devious song in these birds’ repertoire comes at the end when everyone’s final cards and actual intentions are revealed. Holding that one card back keeps you nimble, keeps you guessing, keeps you on your toes. Things are never set in stone. If you see that things are not going your way, you can easily shift your goal by keeping a bird from each suit in your hand. Of course, that nimbleness gets choked out as you start playing that last few cards from your hand. Every suit that you shed from your hand is a self declaration that you aren’t going after it. It’s a point of no return. That decision isn’t always easy and can come right down to the last card you play.
And the mind games that ensue! There’s a fluidity of play that keeps you guessing at your opponent’s intentions. Are they going after the green birds? How can you capitalize on it? Maybe you’re keeping track of the cards and know that you have the highest card in the suit that they are after and you can pilfer the win. But they remain nimble as well, shifting their goals as swiftly as you do. Maybe they hold back their high card to do the same. But then you both risk not having high enough cards on the grid to capture enough berries to make it worth the effort.
There are special rules for four-player games and an “Early Bird” variant that has you claiming your bird suit early for a bit of bonus points. But my preferred mode of play is one-on-one and keeping track of points with the included score tracking cards over a series of three to five games. The one-on-one nature of the game gives you a semblance of control that is diminished in the chaos of a three- or four-player game, and playing a series of matches is easily achieved since games fly by in a blink.
Even though I can highlight the different ways Songbirds leverages its simplicity for a bit of depth, I don’t want to sell it for something more that what it is. Songbirds is a light and breezy card game with just enough bite to keep your mind engaged. It hits that right middle ground between smart and casual. Songbirds is the smart casual of card games.