Lignum* is a medium-to-heavy board game from designer Alexander Huemer, publisher by Mucke Spiele. It’s very much in the German ‘euro game’ tradition and two to four players can expect a good two-hour-plus experience – or a little longer for slower or newer players.
Despite some rather strange production decisions (see ‘key observations’ below) the game’s components, graphic design and board work well.
In the box you’ll find 45 cards, nearly 200 cardboard tokens, 40 meeples, almost 200 wooden discs/cubes, four player boards and the main board – not for the faint of heart. You’ll pay upwards of £40 for a copy, but there’s plenty of value: the logging theme seems appropriate, as there seems to be the equivalent of a tree inside the box!
Lignum sees players going through the entire logging process – you’ll cut down, transport, saw and then sell the trees. The key mechanisms are worker placement and action selection, but it’s also an economic game. Cash flow and planning are the elements that make this a real brain-burner, especially when you start to add the included expansions. There’s even a bit of feeding and heating your people for the Agricola fans. Money is tight, especially early on, and it’s the player who finishes the game with most money that wins.
Lignum is a game with a large rules overhead; there’s no getting around the fact you’ll have to explain every section of the board before you get going. On the positive side it is quite linear, with how the game progresses very easy for people to see.
It’s also worth noting the game integrates its theme really well. Each part of the logging process makes sense, which really helps as you describe the processes to the players. The game is split into eight rounds, or seasons – so you’re essentially playing through two years. Six of these seasons play identically, while the two winters have a far more limited set of options. You can leave a detailed description of the first winter until after the first spring is done.
Non-winter seasons are in two halves – gathering (equipment, workers, wood etc), then manipulating (using what you’ve gathered). What makes Lignum so tricky is that you’re having to plan your future manipulation as you gather, with no concrete certainty of what you’ll end up with.
The start of each season sees the board seeded with goodies – everything from free wagons and food to hired sawyers and woodcutters. Players follow a 20-space path around the board, moving as far as they like each time – but there’s no going back. Transportation equipment such as rafts and wagons are limited, so if you don’t get to one of those spaces first you won’t have one. But you’ll often have to hire your transportation workers before you know if you’ll get one – and unused workers still need to be paid.
Getting to the end of the track first is also beneficial, as the final space determines turn order for next season – for acting first on the path, but also in choosing a logging area. This can be important as you may want certain types of wood for more profit, for firewood, or (in the advanced game) to fulfil a particular task.
Next, players follow the ‘phase track’ printed across the top of the board: chop wood in your allotted area; transport it to your saw mill; then saw it, sell it or dry it (to sell later for more profit). You can keep unused equipment, but any unused workers go back to the board for the next season.
In winter the board is not seeded. Instead, players play a limited version of the second part of a standard season. As you won’t be getting free goodies you’ll need to plan for your winters in advance, adding another layer of strategy to the mix – while winter is tough, it can also be a valuable extra way to gather some easy cash if you plan correctly. At the end of each winter you’ll also need to feed and heat your sawmill. And at the end of the second one you’ll sell what’s left in your stores; then count your cash to see who wins.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: The path through the forest in Lignum works brilliantly. You really feel the tension as players try to second-guess each other’s intentions (everything players have is visible), then adapt their tactics to fit their strategies action by action. This tension is helped by a really tight economy where you never want to waste a single coin. In the first year this is down to simple maths – you can’t afford to waste it. But in year two, once your cash flow is OK, you remember that cash is points – meaning you have to earn the most to win, which creates its own tension.
- The thinker: I was surprised by the differing strategies available in what at first seems a very limited arena. This is a game all about efficiency, but subtle differences in play can make a big difference. You cannot presume shifting a lot of wood means you’re winning, as everything you do to shift it costs money – meaning a player shifting a smaller amount of goods with very high efficiency can still win the game. For those wanting more of a challenge the ‘task’ and ‘planned work’ expansions included in the box force you into even more planning. A strong title.
- The trasher: Once you get your head round Lignum (which could take a lifetime!) you start to see how nasty it can be. Players need to get their wood bearers on space four of the path, often before they have a concrete notion of what they will do with them. Someone taking a risk (hiring only one bearer, hoping for a wagon) can be seriously screwed if the other players skip over some other tasty freebies just to grab them first – it’s simply a case of working out who will benefit most. But overall this is a thought process too far for me. I’d rather pass on this one.
- The dabbler: Don’t even ask lol. Honestly, this is one for the serious gamers. It does have a good integration of the theme, but even this creaks at times. My sawyer needs a saw – why doesn’t my woodcutter need an axe? And I’ve put my wood over there to be sawed – why can’t I change my mind later and sell it? I can buy a saw in the market – why don’t they sell wagons? Of course the answer to most of these questions is to make the game harder, which is fine by me – as long as you don’t make me play it! Especially not with the expansions…
It perhaps goes without saying, but Lignum is very unforgiving. Bad mistakes in the first season could see you get behind the curve and never really recover, making it a long two hours. Tough, but I think this is often accepted in this weight of game.
For some it will also lack excitement. While there are many important decisions to be made, most can seem to boil down to a coin here or a coin there. This position is backed by the fact all the games I’ve played have been very close – but each time I’ve still felt the player who won deserved the victory. But the game is highly balanced and largely linear, so if that’s not your thing it may be best to avoid it.
The game plays well for two, three or four players, but I think three is the sweet spot. Despite some equipment restrictions, two-player doesn’t have quite the same tension on the forest path; while four is very harsh in terms of transport options – and not really in a good way. That said, I’ll happily play with any number of players.
In terms of production quality, some very strange decisions were made. The box is an annoyingly irregular size – made even more annoying once you open it to find nothing sits squarely inside it either. I can only presume that either the manufacturer had a run on cheap boxes of this odd size; or that someone made a booboo when ordering either the boxes or the game boards. Equally oddly, each player has a very half-arsed ‘woodpile’ card that sits next to their player board. It looks like a horrible afterthought, which should really have been incorporated into either the main or player board.
The same goes for the ‘planned work’ area of the board. Only used in the most advanced expansion it looks totally pasted onto the board at the last minute, ruining the good work done elsewhere in the board’s art and graphic design. Overall these elements make the game look rushed – which is a shame, as it plays as if it was tested to within an inch of its life. And before you ask yes, the game was crowd-funded.
But in truth we’re really in the realm of train gamers and small publishers here; and players have learnt to see past the visuals to embrace the game within. And I think that the majority of medium-heavy board game fans will find a lot to like when they get their teeth into Lignum.
The most important things are tough decisions and planning – and Lignum has them both by the wagon load. Sure, the economy and decision spaces are limited – but this only focuses you into a tighter space in which to outwit your opponents. Not for everyone, but a delicious challenge for those who love this type of game.
And there’s more than I’ve mentioned here. I didn’t mention huts, which you can optionally collect to give you extra actions – particularly useful in winter. Or the expansions which force you into even more forward planning, making you collect particular types of wood in specific states of dryness – or giving you extra actions on specific seasons later so you can line up extra work to do.
For me, Lignum is going to be a guilty keeper: the kind of game that will sit alongside Brass, Caylus and the rest of my heavier games that very rarely get played but that I enjoy too much to part with. Unless I get a ridiculous offer, of course…
* I would like to thank Mücke Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.