Lignum is a game of hard work work and the hard men that made it happen. It’s about lumberjacking, but turn in your flannel for some leederhosen, because we’re headed to 19th century Germany for our logging needs. Can a game about old time wood cutting stand out amidst a crowded field of games that deal with more exciting subject matter? Let’s find out.
How it Plays
In Lignum, players take the helm of competing logging companies in a contest to earn the most money. The game is played over the course of eight rounds, each of which represents an in game season. Players will be gathering supplies and hiring wood in order to chop down tress and eventually sell the wood for money.
Every round begins with a blind selection of one of the six cutting area. Each area has a number of available tress for cutting down and sometimes a bit of food. Players simultaneously reveal which area they are planning to cut in and divvy up the food evenly.
The first half of the round has players moving along a single path collecting goods needed for a successful wood chopping (technical term). In turn order, players will move to an empty spot along the patch and take the associated action. Usually it’s a simple as taking the resource at that spot, but it can vary. Many of the spots are exclusive and can only be taken by a single player. Additionally, players can move as many spots forward along the path to take the action they want, but they can never move back. Once you’ve moved passed a spot, you’ve given up the opportunity to occupy it.
Your goal along the path is to collect the right resources and hire the right amount of workers to fell the wood in the cutting area, deliver it to your sawmill and cut it down for selling. Ideally.
The second half of the round deals with operations and resolves in a strict order. First, players will send their woodcutters to the cutting are and cut down the trees. Then players have their wood bearers transport that wood to their sawmill. Then the sawyers are assigned to cut the wood in the sawmill whee it can be stored for firewood or sent to the sale pile. Then you can work on any tasks you’ve taken (more on them later). Then you sell wood in sale pile and lastly, dry any leftover wood.
The winter seasons are different in that the path is frozen over and is skipped. That means that you will not have a change to collect supplies and you will only have one worker at your disposal. Additionally, players will need to pay a certain amount of firewood and food, the amount of which is determined by a random card chosen at the beginning of the game. After the second winter, whoever has the most money is the winner.
I sometimes ponder the efficacy of putting a number score on a board game review. I firmly believe that no game can appeal to everyone. To attempt to please everyone is folly. That means any individual game will appeal to a certain gamer and put off others. If the very premise of a game is anathema to someone’s idea of fun it doesn’t really matter how high a score I give it, does it? I know for a fact that Lignum will alienate many people and there’s not a score high enough I can give it that could change that. All I can do is describe what appeals to me about Lignum and what puts me off. I’ll make it know up front, there’s more of the former than the latter.
If I had to describe the essence of Lignum it would be careful and considered planning. If the thought of plotting your actions multiple turns ahead rumples your feathers, Lignum is not the game for you. If the notion of some slight miscalculations torpedoing your chances for victory give you the willies, Lignum is not the game for you. And it doesn’t pretend to be. Lignum is unabashedly harsh and unforgiving. One poor round can dash your hopes of winning and the game doesn’t shy away from it. I can respect that. It’s sure to rub many people the wrong way, but the designer didn’t sand away the harsh edges in an effort to gain wider appeal. It has a vision and sticks to it. It proudly declares, “I am Lignum and I am not to be taken lightly.”
What makes this enjoyable? Again, this will come down to personal preference, but Lignum succeeds because, though it is harsh, it is not needlessly complex. The individual actions are easy to parse and their effects on the game state are clear. Whenever you take an action you immediately know it’s ramifications. You aren’t struggling to understand the game systems, you’re struggling to overcome the challenge it puts in front of you. Lignum doesn’t fall into the trap of challenge via obfuscation and it’s better for it.
Let’s look at an ingame example to see how clear the goal is, yet how difficult it is to achieve it. One of the spots along the path allows you to take a task. A task is basically promise to deliver specific types of wood. One task, for example, might as for 2 pieces of milled firewood and a piece of milled hardwood that’s been dried for some time. When completed, these tasks will provide more money than if those pieces of wood were sold individually. Let’s say I take that task and there just so happens to be a cutting area with some firewood and hardwood. The problem is that it also has two food in it making it a tempting target for everyone else at the table. To make matters worse, I’m not first player so if multiple people choose that area, I might not get the wood I want. Do I risk choosing it still? I do. I’m reckless like that. I reveal my choice and the wood gods are kind, I’m the only one to choose the spot and I get some food from it as well.
Now down to business. I’ve claimed my spot, but I still have to get it cut and milled in order to complete my task. I need at least two wood cutters to cut down the hardwood and firewood trees. There’s a softwood tree there as well, but having another woodcutter to fell is a luxury, not a necessity. It’s my turn to move down the path. There’s a saw that I could take, but surely everyone else will move to hire wood bearers to carry their wood right after me. I can always buy saws later along the path so I hire my workers now. As I thought, everyone gobbled up the remaining wood bearers. I breath a sigh of relief.
I look forward, I could have bought some feed and transported my wood by cart, but there’s no time to dwell on lost opportunity. I have to worry about cutting down those trees. I count up the number of wood that can be chopped in the other players’ areas and I see that if they want all their wood they’d hire all the workers before I get a chance. What do I do? Do I take my time and gather resources along the way or speed ahead to make sure I get the woodcutters I need? There’s a coin on the path and money’s low. There’s no way everyone would make the leap the hire woodcutters. Is there? I take the coin. I was right. The other’s take their time and I move ahead to hire my woodcutters. I’ll hire one less than I need because my sawmill manager can fill in and, like I said, money is tight.
All I need is two wood cutters and I’ll be golden. Sure I don’t have saws for them, but I’ll worry about that later. For now, my sights are on the food just laying there for the picking. Sure I got some food from my cutting area, but winter is coming and we’ll be hungry. But I’ve left no margin for error. I need those two sawyers and only one player can hire two each round, usually the first to get there. I need the food. I need the sawyer. I need to breathe. What to do? What to do? Winter is two seasons away. I’ll need the food, but not yet. But my task can be done anytime though I’d rather make sure it’s done sooner rather than later. What to do? What to do? I chance it. I take the food and as expected someone has pounced and hired the two sawyers I needed. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose, but there’s still work to be down. I hire one sawyer and buy a saw in the market. Better luck next season, I suppose.
The major tension in the game comes from taking what you need now or taking something you want and hoping it will be there later. Best of all, your decisions are contingent on the other players. Every decision you take must be made with the the needs of the other players in mind. Sure you can take the coin now, but will someone else take the cart you really need while you dilly dally? You constantly survey the other players’ boards and make judgement calls as to what they want and what they need. Lignum insists you pay attention and engage with your opponents in a meaningful way and it’s brilliant.
Lignum rewards thoughtful moves and good planning. It takes work to do well. Some people don’t want to work when playing a game. That’s fine. If the fact that there’s a space on the board called “planned work” gives you second thoughts, Lignum is probably not for you. But I love it. I want to be challenged, and I like putting in the effort. Sometimes things don’t work out. I was a dollar short or I was missing a saw. It feels bad. I put in all this effort and failed. Failure never feels good, but it’s what makes the flipside possible: true success. When my plans work out and my hours worth of planning all come together, I feel like the smartest person in the room. This feeling of satisfaction is only possible when the real threat of failure is looming. It’s the satisfaction that is only possible after a hard day’s work.
Review copy provided by Capstone Games.